Intellectuals, too, take vacations, and they generally don’t look askance to venues off the beaten track. This is what Margherita Ganeri and Vito Teti, two professors at the University of Calabria, must have thought when they began considering the idea of organizing an itinerant retreat in one of the lesser trodden areas of the region in which they teach. And so it was that in mid-May 2019 a group of about twenty authors, artists, academics, mostly women, from the USA, Canada, Australia, Ghana and Italy, gathered in the small village of Morano for a two-week-long stretch of study, discussion and writing.
Besides Morano, a long stay in Albidona, another village away from the coastline, had also been scheduled, as were two one-day trips in the near-by region of Basilicata: to Aliano, where Carlo Levi, the well-known author of Christ Stopped at Eboli, had been interned by the Fascist government during the 1930s; and to Matera, which in 2019 was the European Capital of Culture. The result is Celebrating Calabria: Writing Heritage and Memory, a 176-page anthology co-edited by the Italian American poet Maria Mazziotti-Gillian and Ganeri.
Published in late 2020 by the calabrese press Rubbettino, the book is, first of all, elegant. Unlike the collections resulting from academic, symposium- or conference-type meetings, which usually come in the staple format (i.e. paper of normal size and of typically nondescript quality), the texts it brings together appear on larger, pleasingly glossy pages. And the overall graphic effect is further enhanced by beautiful colour photographs of people, monuments, buildings and landscapes taken by one of the members of the group as it proceeded from Morano to Albidona, and then to Aliano and Matera.
Content-wise, Celebrating Calabria includes two introductory essays (a brief one by Ganeri, and a longer one by Bella Hicks of the University of Cardiff), a suite of poems by Maria Mazzotti-Gillian, who directed one of the seminars, and sections entitled “Heritage and Memory,” “The Places and the People,” and “Carlo Levi Literary Tour,” which assemble the poems, stories or essays by the other participants. That is, now by writers with a fully established reputation, now by writers at the beginning of their career, a few even by artists or professionals who though not unacquainted, you surmise, with literature, don’t view themselves as practitioners (“I’m no poet,” reads a verse by one of the participants, “I don’t recall ever having written a poem before”).
Some unevenness was therefore inevitable, especially since – aside from the two introductory pieces and two other contributions (one excerpted from an autobiography already in print, the other from a work in progress) – the first draft of the items anthologized was written on the spot, as the seminars unfolded. If anything, this, too, vouches for the attractiveness of the collection and of the initiative that has led to it. Compelling questions do arise.
As you read the texts, you get the impression that one of the things the stay in Morano, Albidona and the visits to Aliano and Matera were meant to do is test the scope of the notion of diaspora. Firstly and notably, its relevance for artistic, and more specifically, literary activity. After all, what better way to induce and foster expression than to coax yourself into physical “elsewhereness,” to put yourself into some sort of deliberate unfamiliarity, into the frame of mind that lets what you left behind – or had forgotten or repressed – surface as not there, as more easily or more cogently within the range of introspection?
Clearly, too, the term “diaspora” acquires quite a different weight if you are from Ghana, or if you are of Jewish-Italian background, as is one of the participants, who, as she explains, has had to contend both with the kind of exodus forced upon her ethnic group and with the current predicaments of the state of Israel, where she lives. Equally particular and different are the associations the term evokes for the Italian-American, Italian-Canadian or Italian-Australian members of the group, whose contact with Calabria often triggers uneasy memories of their own emigration or the emigration of their parents and grandparents.
Nor is the notion of diaspora unrelated to the other contents of the anthology, such as those that filter through in the sections entitled “The Places and the People” and “The Carlo Levi Literary Tour.” In Christ Stopped at Eboli, some of the inhabitants of Aliano famously complain that the state had forsaken them. And indeed, the fact that during the Mussolini dictatorship opponents of the regime were punished by banishment to Italy’s deep south confirms their views. But today’s Morano and Albidona, like all the villages in the interior of Calabria, experience their own – altogether special – historical loneliness. Being away from the sea, they haven’t, throughout the centuries, had to bear the burden of being among the first foothold of marauders and invaders. Or, more recently, of being the landing sites for the faltering rafts of bereft, incoming migrants. By the same token, they also don’t reap the economic and social benefits that now, thanks to tourism, beachside locations enjoy. The photos in the anthology show only images of empty streets and elderly men and women, while one of the lengthier essays on the villages as lived spaces dwells poignantly on the cats that lazily roam their streets.
Thus, the clusters of houses, buildings and churches that cling to the mountainous backbone of Calabria reveal themselves to be among the unsung testimonials of the dispersal of peoples that have characterized – and still characterize – modernity. The young men and women who go away from the various Moranos and Albidonas to make a better future for themselves end up in many different destinations, each of which (Germany, Switzerland, France, Northern Italy, besides Argentina, the USA, Canada and Australia) will colour their lives differently. Yet, if the periodical to-and-fro swings between those destinations turn out to be part and parcel of the contemporary circuits of mobility, they do so tragically, simultaneously highlighting the resilience and the desolation of the places left behind.
Will there be sequels to the program Ganeri and Teti put together in 2019? Hopefully, yes. Hopefully in the post-pandemic future, institutions and private individuals will renew their support. For Celebrating Calabria shows that there are still many things about the period we live in that should be told, and that, whether we’re calabresi or not, thinking about Calabria can help us to do so.
Francesco Loriggio is Professor Emeritus at Carleton University (Ottawa). An essayist-critic, he has published extensively on modern Italian literature and Italian-Canadian literature. He has also translated Italian authors into English and Italian-Canadian authors into Italian.