Friday, 14 October 2011

Genni Gunn on writing Solitaria

First of all, thank you for inviting me to write a post for your readers. How wonderful that you’re all reading books with Italy in them. My novel, Solitaria, is set in Italy, and features both an Italian protagonist, Piera, and a Canadian one, David. It moves between the present (2002) and the past (1930s to 1950s). Here’s my try at a quick summary:

When Vito Santoro’s body is inadvertently unearthed by a demolition crew in Fregene, Italy, his siblings are thrown into turmoil, having been told by their sister Piera that Vito had fled to Argentina fifty years earlier after abandoning his wife and son. Now scattered over three continents, Vito’s siblings regroup in Italy to try to discover the truth. Piera locks herself in her room, refusing to speak to anyone but her Canadian nephew David. As the stories emerge, weaving past and present, so do versions and perspectives, memories and secrets.

I am Italian by birth, and arrived in Canada when I was eleven. Other than my immediate family – mother, sister, brother – everyone else in my family lives in Italy, so I have been going back and forth to visit them all. While there a few years ago, I became fascinated by an old aunt of mine who, despite much attention and care, felt she had been emotionally abandoned by everyone in the family, even though she had been generous throughout her life, and had looked after, and educated many of her siblings. Most importantly, like Piera in Solitaria, she kept evoking the word LOVE. “Everything I did, I did for love,” she’d say.

You know this person; there is one in most families: smart and wise and generous, she gives only what she can control, assumes she is the authority on everyone, and criticizes all who do not agree with her with a cruel sharp tongue that alienates those she professes to love so much.

Intrigued by these character ambiguities, I set about interviewing people in Italy, not only my relatives, but my aunt’s contemporaries, to better understand her motivations. And so began the five years I took to research and write Solitaria.

I read many books to research the times. Some of my favourites were novels and memoirs written by Italians during the Mussolini regime, because unlike history books with their 20/20 version of events, literature shows us what people were thinking during those events. A lovely example is Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli), a lyrical memoir by Carlo Levi who was interned by the Fascists during the war in a remote mountain village in the province of Lucania. It is a seminal work about that era, and available in English for those of you interested. I highly recommend it.

Turning all this research into a story was the difficult part. I created a protagonist, Piera, who is a composite of many people I met. Then, I had to invent a story that would explore the issues I was interested in: the relationship between love and duty; the place of family within one’s life; the repercussions of war; the alternate memories people create of the same event.

I was also interested in using the Mussolini era backdrop as a means of illuminating some of what is going on in our lives today. By this, I mean that Fascism in Italy didn’t occur overnight. The loss of personal freedoms happened a bit at a time, in the name of restoring and keeping order, to a populous that was largely (at first) complacent. By the time people found themselves under a totalitarian regime, it was too late to do anything. Consider what has happened in North America since 9/11: we have been giving up our personal freedoms, a little bit at a time, in the name of national security for quite a while now, with little apparent alarm or outcry.

Solitaria is the result of these explorations, and as often happens with research, I experienced unexpected new perspectives, an example of which occurred to me the last time I was in Italy. My old aunt, who had always been a formidable woman, had had a stroke which rendered her docile. It was disconcerting to be sitting at her bedside, while she lay, silent, unless I spoke to her.

On my last night there, because I had an early train to catch, I slept in her living room, on a cot arranged by her housekeeper. I turned out the lights and lay in bed, eyes closed, thinking about how different this time was from all the others before, now that my aunt could not effectively communicate. After a while, I opened my eyes, and to my surprise, I saw an eerie oblong light shining in the corner of the room. At first, I thought it must be a reflection from the window, perhaps a mirage. I recalled how in childhood, I used to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling where I could see reflected the movements on the street below. So I looked at the window, but I could see no source for the light.

I closed my eyes, thinking it was my imagination, and I should not indulge it. But I also had an uneasy feeling. In this room my ancestors had lived and died; their faces stared out of portraits on the walls. I am not superstitious by nature, yet now I thought, who can say what is or isn’t? I waited a while, then opened my eyes. The oblong light was still there.

I thought, perhaps my aunt has died in the other room, and this is her spirit come to see me, to talk to me. I stared at it, trying to discern something, but it was indiscernible. Finally, I whispered, “Ma chi se tu?” “But who are you?” However, there was no response.

I closed my eyes again, on the verge of believing in ghosts and spirits, in this lonely old house, in southern Italy, where everything was possible. I got up, and slowly walked toward the light, hypnotised by the possibilities of all the unknown. Directly below that eerie glow, I bowed my head. My cell phone lay face-up on the floor, its screen on, projecting onto the ceiling.

I hope you will enter with me into the old and new worlds of Solitaria, and that you will experience southern Italy from a new perspective.

2 comments:

Patricia said...

What a wonderful review of your book. I am fascinated by the experience of Italians during WWII. I think it is unique from the rest of Europe. You have enticed me to hunt for your book!

Genni Gunn said...

I hope you will find it, and enjoy it.