Tag Archives: Southerly

Moreno Giovannoni’s Fireflies of Autumn and November verse 3

Moreno Giovannoni, The Fireflies of Autumn and other tales of San Ginese (Black Inc 2018)

fireflies.jpgThe Fireflies of Autumn begins with a bang. To be more precise, one of its first stories is a tall tale involving a vast explosion and enormous quantities of excrement – the kind of story that you feel you ought to have heard a thousand times, but which is actually completely new to you. or at least to me.

The book announces itself as a collection of tales told by Ugo Giovannoni, who migrated to Australia in 1957 – stories about the tiny Tuscan village of San Ginese that he left behind. These tales include folk versions of the distant past (as in the explosive one already mentioned), lore about Ugo’s forebears and relatives (much of it scurrilous), tales of the village during the Fascist era and World War Two (including the marvellous title story, in which the whole village decamps to a forest glade to avoid being caught in the crossfire between the Americans and the retreating Germans), and a little historical documentation.

I was reminded often of Fellini’s masterpiece of nostalgia, Amacord. The celebration of community, the occasional bawdiness (see my versification below), the indignation at the repressive role of the Church, all feel a little Felliniesque. But these tellings differ from Fellini’s in being told, not just from a different time, but also from a different place, in the diaspora.

Migration to America, Australia and occasionally Argentina is a dominant theme. Over the decades, those who leave often return once they have earned enough money to buy some land, or perhaps when the longing for home becomes too much to bear. As well as the wonderful, possibly romanticised evocation of village life, there is some fine writing about the effects of dislocation from migration:

And they would go to America and become lost over there, and when they returned to San Ginese they would still be lost, as if they could not find the place they had left, but kept looking for it, anywhere, somewhere, but it was always elsewhere – on top of a hill, along the walking paths between the villages, in a field, inside a stable or a pig-sty, inside a woman, a wife, a neighbour’s wife. You could see the men wandering about in the courtyards and between the houses, aimlessly at first, and then slowly they would give the appearance of settling into their lives again, but remained as sad as trees that have had half their roots hacked off. Such trees can barely feed and water themselves and are in danger of toppling over in the gentlest breezes.

In a way this collection of stories is itself a symbolic return, as a telling and reclaiming of the stories that had to be left behind. Ugo’s introduction tells us that he wrote the tales in Italian and sought out ‘a translator expert in the writing of immigrants’ to render it into English. That translator is of course the actual author, Ugo’s son Moreno, who came to Australia as a child in 1957. Some of the later stories in particular make it clear that, though Ugo may be the source of many of the tales, Moreno has drained many other tongues and done his own wandering about. The painful melancholy that is never far beneath the surface of these tales is his as much as Ugo’s.

After reading excerpts in Southerly a couple of years back (blog entries here), I was looking forward to the book’s publication. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s never boring, I smiled constantly and laughed often. Then in the final chapters, possibly affected by Altitude Adjusted Lacrimosity Syndrome as I read them on a plane, I wept copiously.

I recommend Lisa Hill’s review for a beautiful account of the book.

Because it’s November, and my blog has to include 14 14-line poems in the month, here’s a versification of a tiny story in the brilliant long chapter about the villagers in wartime:

November verse 3: The widow Pasquina
No one noticed when Bucchione
vanished as the sun went down,
gone to visit la Pasquina,
wealthy widow of that town.
She’d come out, no need for knocking,
ask you in (now is this shocking?),
offer you a bowl of wine
and several more till, feeling fine,
you told your troubles, like confession,
she’d strip you, take you to her bed,
then later make sure you were fed
and bathed beside the fire, refreshing
limbs and mind. In those hard days
she did this service for no pay.

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored?

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing 2018)

oysters.jpgDo Oysters Get Bored? is in two parts, a series of essay-memoirs followed by a selection of poems, both dealing with the same two main themes, the author’s life as a girl and young woman as the daughter of Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, and her life now as the mother of Oscar, who is high functioning autistic. It’s a bit like a big haibun – the Japanese poetic form that’s made up of a piece of prose and haiku, usually a single haiku coming after the prose as a kind of distillation of its meaning or a related epiphany.

When I read one of the essays, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, in a 2014 Southerly, I wrote this:

[Rozanna Lilley’s essay] would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley … it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.

In the context of the whole book, ‘magnificent’ is quite wrong. The essay is still funny and bitter-sweet, but it’s also chilling. The dark side of Merv’s erratic behaviour, and of Dorothy’s sexual libertarianism are brought to the fore when seen through the lens of their impact on their daughter. Two chapters, ‘Fear of Flying’ and ‘A Bitter Pill’, tell of young Rose’s early exposure to sexually explicit conversation, her participation in the ‘mildly pornographic’ movie Journey Among Women, and her experience of sexual abuse. These are the chapters that have received a lot of attention in the press, especially from right-wing culture warriors (Jeff Sparrow’s excellent commentary here), and I think they bear significant witness to aspects of our cultural life. The book names no perpetrators (though Lilley has named names in press interviews), gives no salacious details, indulges no ‘Mommy Dearest’ self-pity or outrage, but it pulls no punches. Her mother, she says, did not intentionally hurt her by – at best – turning a blind eye to sexual assault, but in effect she was ‘propping up a predatory patriarchal sexual economy’, a judgment that would certainly have shocked Dorothy to her core, but which, I hope, she would find impossible to reject if she were alive to read it.

The other main subject of the essays is Lilley’s experience as the mother of Oscar, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder at age three. There are no high profile cultural figures here, but a loving, joy filled, often hilarious portrayal of a young boy that shatters negative stereotypes of autism on every page. Lilley is described on the back cover as an ‘autism researcher’ and mentions occasionally that she works in universities: she wears her academic garb very lightly here.

One of the most appealing qualities of these parts of the book is the way they highlight people who behave well around Oscar, while making it very clear that his behaviour can be testing. There’s a wonderful account of the family of three attending an anxiety clinic – at the end of which one of the clinicians confides in Rozanna that they all think Oscar is hilarious (as do we readers). And there’s a searing account of a prolonged hospital experience. But my favourite episode is Oscar’s tenth birthday party, where his autism is clearly not a social disadvantage:

The afternoon passes in a blur of play and pizza and ice-cream brain freezes. Oscar sometimes turns the TV on, momentarily disengaging from the festivities. His friends simply join him on the sofa, chuckling away at the same Tom and Jerry gags we used to laugh about at primary school. As I’m baking the chocolate cake, kids take it in turns to come out to the kitchen and tell me their favourite story about what Oscar said or did at school. It seems that his oddities and social incomprehension have landed him a starring role. ‘Last year Miss Malady said, “If you’ve finished, just read a book and don’t call out.” Then Oscar put up his hand, and called out, “Finished.”‘ Or ‘We were looking at machines on the computer. And Oscar yelled out, “Boring!”‘ The stories pour out, each one punctuated by laughter and followed by headshaking at his wondrous behaviour. Indeed, these small acts of classroom indiscretion appear to have made my son a local hero.

As the party continues, Oscar’s non-neurotypicality meets with a lot of delighted squealing. It’s Rozanna’s parental attempt to join in the merriment that produces the only awkward silence.

The book touches my own life in two ways. First, in my mid 20s I worked for Currency Press in an office just down Jersey Road from the Hewett–Lilley household, and met them regularly, though I knew very little of their domestic or social lives. I was in awe of Dorothy, mildly terrified of Merv, and intimidated by the poise and sophistication of Kate and Rosie.

Second, a young friend of mine, whom I’ve known all his life, is on the autism spectrum. I know at least a little of the difficulties that he and his mother have had in navigating the sometimes hostile neurotypical society.

These real-life connections give me some inkling of the extraordinary courage and intelligence that has gone into the writing of this book, both the remembered daughter story, and the current mother story – the courage, intelligence, and pervasive good humour. I haven’t said anything about the poems. Let me end with the final lines of ‘Dream Mother’, in which the poet’s mother comes to her each night in dreams:

It turns out none of it was true__she was
never heartsick__crippled__cancered__she never betrayed her daughters__and

when I finally tell the despairing-all___she is my comfort

Do Oysters Get Bored? is the thirteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.