Rebecca Huntley, The Italian Girl (UQP 2012)
It was a comment by Lisa Hill on one of my earlier blog posts that led me to The Italian Girl. Lisa thought I might like it. She was right.
Rebecca Huntley is probably best known as a social researcher and broadcaster. Her 2019 Quarterly Essay, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (the link is to my blog post), demonstrated among other things that the predictions of social researchers can be wildly inaccurate. When she humbly acknowledged her wrongness with defiant optimism in the following issue, I became a bit of a fan.
As a young adult, Huntley pondered shedding her Anglo-Celtic family name and adopting her mother’s birth name, Ballini. Her mother, fearing that an Italian surname would invite discrimination in her daughter’s chosen field, emphatically discouraged the move. Rebecca abandoned the idea and picked ‘Huntley’ at random from the phone book. In The Italian Girl, written 20 years later, she reverses that emblematic abandonment. The book is the story of her investigating her Italian–Australian family’s history, mainly in Innisfail and surrounding sugarcane country, focusing mainly on her grandmother, her much-loved nonna, Teresa Ballini, and the internment of Italian-heritage men during the second world war.
On a visit to Innisfail after her nonna‘s death, Rebecca tells her uncle Frank that she’s sorry to have disappointed her nonna by not having married while she was still alive:
‘She never got to see me in a wedding dress,’ I tell him. Frank laughs in his gentle way and shakes his head ever so slightly.(Page 23–24)
‘You didn’t really know your nonna, did you? She was a feminist before we knew what feminism was. When the men were interned during the war, it was your nonna who ran the farms. She kept everything going until they came back. She wasn’t waiting for you to get married. The proudest day of her life was when you graduated university.’
… My nonna, a feminist trail-blazer? It didn’t fit with my image of her who had no greater ambition in life than to cook, clean and care for others.
That was the spark that led to the publication of this book twelve years later. Who doesn’t resonate with that impulse to find out more about the people you saw so one-dimensionally in childhood?
The author makes several more trips to Innisfail – a north Queensland town where she has never lived, but where her great-grandfather Luigi settled when he came out from the Italian island of Elba; where he worked as a cane cutter before acquiring and running a number of sugar farms; where her nonna Teresa was born and married, lived most of her life and eventually died. On her research trips, she interviews elderly relatives, quizzing them about her great-grandparents, nonna and nonno, about the family fortunes, and (most interestingly to this reader) about the wartime internment of Italians in north Queensland as enemy aliens.
She supplements these conversations by enlisting the help of a research assistant, and reading extensively, including Jean Devanney’s novel Sugar Heaven and roughly 50 other works listed at the back of the book. She creates a vivid sense of Innisfail itself – its location, its tropical climate, its history, its difference from the stereotype of an Australian country town. Each time she visits, she gives some detail of the journey – the first time by train, a journey of several days from Canberra, and subsequently simpler plane trips from Sydney. She strolls the streets, visiting the Taoist Temple, the marble canecutter statue, the Good Counsel Church, the preserved art nouveau buildings, the local history museum. This is my childhood home, and I was fascinated to have places familiar from my childhood described by someone who has an emotional investment but who is all the same not a native. (I responded with a kind of benign tolerance rather than my usual copy-editing irritation to tiny errors, such as misnaming East Innisfail as South Innisfail, or referring to Goondi as a small town between Cairns and Innisfail, whereas it’s really an outlying part of Innisfail – or it was when I lived a couple of miles further west, at what is now Shaw’s Corner.)
The history the book uncovers is interesting and important in many ways. For a start, the story of Innisfail puts the lie to the version of Australia as drearily monocultural until the 1970s. The Italians in this story may have been largely intent on assimilating, but they were always distinctly Italian, and they were only one of many non-Anglo groups.
I’m writing this a couple of days after Anzac Day, so I can’t help but reflect on this book in that context. In public discussions of past wars at this time of year, there’s very little mention of the Australian citizens who were interned because of their Italian, German or Japanese origins. Yet these internments are part of this nation’s long history of incarceration. Huntley doesn’t tell the story of the internment of her grandfather and great-grandfather, so much as the story of trying to find out about it from conversations and documents. It does seem that there was an arbitrary quality to it: men (and some women) who had done nothing wrong were detained, in some cases, for more than three years. Sound familiar? Some, including Huntley’s father, Oreste, almost certainly belonged to Fascist organisations; others were detained despite plenty of evidence that they had turned their backs on their Italian heritage and identified as British subjects. It seems that the ethos of least said soonest mended prevailed once the war was over, and none of Huntley’s elderly informants remembered the returning internees carrying a grudge or saying very much about the experience. Unlike people seeking refuge who have been detained by current and recent Australian governments, they seem at least to have been fed well.
For me (of course) the book feels personal. I’m probably about the same age as Huntley’s mother. I was a 12-year-old spectator at the unveiling of the canecutter statue in 1959. The inscription on the statue reads, ‘To the pioneers of the sugar industry donated by the Italian community of Innisfail district on the first centenary of the State of Queensland 1859–1959.’ What it doesn’t say, and what I remember from the speeches of the day, was that the statue, created by an Italian sculptor in Italian marble, was a grand gesture of reconciliation from the Italian community, and an assertion of the role Italians’ back-breaking work of cutting cane had played in building the industry. The Latin motto, UBI BENI IBI PATRIA, translated for us on the day as WHERE YOUR GOODS ARE, THERE IS YOUR HOMELAND, surely refers indirectly to the internments that happened less than two decades earlier. Certainly, I got the impression that the statue was somehow rectifying a great wrong.
Rebecca Huntley writes about her unsettling discovery that she has Fascists in her family tree. The Italian Girl adds heft to a piece of my own family lore that is at least as unsettling. My mother’s father, Arthur Aitken, served as Police Magistrate in Innisfail in the 1920s. My poem about his role in an earlier episode in Australian–Italian relations is in my book Take Five. My mother told us that, because he had learned the language, he was recalled from Brisbane during the war to oversee the internment of Italians. He isn’t mentioned in The Italian Girl, and we haven’t been able to find any documents to verify Mum’s throwaway line, but I’ve got no reason to doubt her, and I’m grateful for the work Rebecca Huntley has done in unearthing so much of the experience on the other side of that coin.