In Celibate: A Memoir (Apprentice House Press, 2019) Maria Giura recounts the deep crisis and sense of displacement she experienced for many years, and her hard-won journey to inner peace. In the memoir, Giura struggles to understand and, at the same time, free herself from her attraction to and complex relationship with a Catholic priest, Father Infanzi. Becoming a nun appears to be the only option, the only way she thinks she can feel at home. She gradually discovers that her crisis has its roots in her childhood. Eventually, she succeeds in finding peace through writing. Maria Giura discusses her memoir in this interview for Accenti.
How did you choose the title for your book?
In a way, the title chose me. It appeared in my mind at least a year before I found my publisher. I tried pushing it away and using another, but it was persistent. And the publisher loved it, which was further confirmation. It took me a while to accept that it was exactly the right title for my memoir.
Fact and fiction often dance inside and outside the blurry edges of a memoir. What liberties did you take in writing Celibate?
The main liberty was in the way I framed and wrote about my family’s dynamic and the scenes from my childhood. Judith Barrington, the author of Writing the Memoir, explains, “Autobiography is the story of a life; memoir is the story from a life” (my emphasis). I didn’t tell the story of my whole childhood. I focused on the shadowy side, because it connected thematically to the rest of the story. What I wrote was/is the truth, but it’s half of it. I didn’t write as much about the levity and intimacy I experienced growing up within my family.
The father figure is central in the memoir and is represented by God, your father, your step-father, your grandfather and Father Infanzi. Each of them seems to abandon you. Why did you make the theme of abandonment so important in Celibate?
It was the emotional abandonment I felt that had me trapped for so many years and that I needed to be healed of. I was looking for a father figure and for God-the-Father in the priest, Father Infanzi, who was a mere man and who was just as needy and immature as I was. In many ways, he and I were the “perfect storm.” I had never met a man before who was as attentive to me and who listened to me the way he did. My father’s emotional absence, in part, fuelled my attraction to Father Infanzi; it also fuelled my need to believe in a loving God and not the idea and understanding of God that I had been walking around with for years: God as a distant and relentless taskmaster. This image of God was not unconnected to the characteristics I saw in my natural father, who worked himself to the bone and had a complicated relationship with my mother. So, the book is ultimately about this trifecta of fathers—my father, priest-father, and God-the-Father – and my struggle and drama with all three, as well as my shifting relationships and understanding of each of them. I didn’t/don’t see my stepfather and grandfather, who were important and loving influences in my life, as abandoning me, though I did “lose” them. My stepfather passed away prematurely. And, as I write in my memoir, I “couldn’t talk or walk with my grandfather” because of the language difference (he spoke a Sicilian dialect, and I speak some textbook Italian), and because when I was a year old, he lost his leg when a drunk driver ran into him.
How does your Southern-Italian background influence your work?
My parents and their families immigrated from southern Italy, and both parents, especially my mother, believe that what happens in a family should stay in a family. She is a very private person, and, ironically I am too, but I had to depart from this Italian ideology in order to write Celibate and, to a lesser degree, my first book, What My Father Taught Me. I carry my family’s voices in my head, but I put them aside in order to write my story and tell my truth. Yet, I am deeply grateful for that same sense of privacy and modesty that my mother has always lived by and has always taught my sisters and me to live by. For one, it influenced how I wrote the revealing parts of Celibate, and it also affected my motivations and intentions for writing it. My purpose for writing it was to show to the best of my ability the story that would not have left me alone if I had not figured it out on the page. It was also really important for me to show my own and my characters’ “Italianness” on the page. Being Italian (American) is such a big part of my identity and that of many of my characters. It’s almost as close to my skin as my being a woman. My memoir was hard to write in many ways, but one way in which it was not hard was infusing the food, music, and language I grew up with into the scenes. It was fun, and, I think, it truly enriches the story.
You write: “Fifty percent of discernment is figuring out what God wants us to do; the other fifty is a combination of our dreams and what our closest family and friends think.” How much does being perfect in the eyes of others influence your view of life? How have you dealt with this?
I don’t think I’m interested in being perfect in anyone’s eyes, but I do think I still struggle with wanting to be liked. I’m trying to work on this because I realize it’s not only impossible, it’s also the wrong goal. If we live our lives the way we’re supposed to, doing what we and God (or Higher Power) want us to do, we’re invariably going to be misunderstood at times and even perhaps disliked. In publishing Celibate and writing it the way I did, I have followed, to the best of my ability, the still small voice inside me and not my desire to be liked. In fact, my memoir has caused some people to misunderstand and/or be suspicious. The excerpt in question, though, is not about doing what will please others; it’s about seeing yourself from the perspective of those whom you trust, those who have your back. It’s about realizing that sometimes people who love us know us better than we know ourselves.
You quote Theodore Roethke at the beginning, “… I am naked to the bone with nakedness my shield…,” which describes your “nakedness” in writing this memoir. How did you feel when Celibate was published?
There were glimmers when I felt deeply satisfied that I had completed what I had set out to do more than thirteen years earlier, and there has been some promotion for the book that feels rewarding and fulfilling. But I also felt disappointed. There seems to be quiet around my memoir (maybe my expectations are too high). Maybe it’s too religious for some people, and too shocking/not religious enough for others. I also felt ambivalent. I wanted it to get attention, but I was also afraid for that to happen. Now that a year plus has gone by since its publication, though, I am growing more at peace about all of it.
What was your family’s reaction to the book?
A few close family members were very upset with me. They thought I was too detailed about my past relationship with the priest but also about my family’s life when I was growing up. Most of my extended family who have read it have said very little, if anything. By living and writing my past, I had already processed it, but my extended family, and some acquaintances who were not aware of my story, were startled and uncomfortable by the degree of my candour and struggle. I understand that it must have been difficult for them to read on a couple of different levels; their relative silence has been painful since, as authors, our books are our metaphorical “kids” who we pour our love into, who we’d like to be celebrated. This said, there have been several family members and friends, mostly of my generation, who have been wholeheartedly supportive. And a great number of fellow writers, readers, and authors of all ages and backgrounds have as well. They’ve been a godsend.
You were first published as a poet. You published What My Father Taught Me in 2018. When did you decide to write a memoir?
Over two decades ago when I was studying for my Masters, and I chose an autobiographical writing course over a Victorian Literature course. It wasn’t so much a decision to write a memoir as it was a sense that there was a memoir in me, and it would eventually need to come out.
Who has influenced your writing as a memoirist?
The poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan. When I found Maria, I found a poet and a teacher who expertly and unapologetically writes about the deeply personal. When I first heard her read her work and took her workshops, I was stunned. She writes about the joy and shame of being alive, of being a human being. She shows the truth richly. Her poetry is imaginative and accessible, which really drew me in and, to some degree, gave me a model to follow. Mostly, though, she gave me permission. So did Ed Hack, retired Professor of English at the City University of New York. If it weren’t for him, I might still be writing from my head up and not also from my heart and gut. Without him, I don’t know that I would’ve been able to start or finish Celibate.
What would you recommend to someone interested in writing a memoir?
Keep a journal in which you write and reflect on your current life but also on your past. When you think you have lived a scene that can and should go in your memoir, come home and write it down immediately with as much sensory detail as possible. Or when you have a memory or dream about the past that you think is pivotal, do the same. The scene in Celibate when I go to my father’s caffè to tell him some important news was “lifted” directly from my journal. That day when I got home, I sat at my desk and wrote every word my father and I said to each other as well as all the details, such as the smell of cappuccino and cigarettes, the hiss of the espresso machine, and the angle of the afternoon sun coming through the floor-to-ceiling glass. I wrote for hours and hours until I had nothing left to write. It was so satisfying! When I wrote this scene for Celibate, I didn’t include everything from my journal, but I had a lot of to pull from. It was easier than if I had to go back in time and recreate all of it. I also recommend reading as many good books and stories as possible, fiction as well as memoir. One way someone becomes a better writer is to read lots of good writing.
You describe writing “as a companion, a faithful friend, a vocation.” Have you ever had writer’s block? How did you deal with that?
Yes. I created a routine for myself. Every day, before I began working on the memoir, I did three things. I prayed/meditated, I read a short passage about writing from writers like Ann Lamott, Julia Cameron, Gail Sher, or Natalie Goldberg (who dismantle the mystique around writing), and I free wrote for twenty minutes straight about anything or everything that came to mind. Poet and author Peter Murphy describes free writing as “letting the faucet run to get the murk out.” It’s like a musician playing scales as a warm up. I think that when we can’t write, it’s not always a block. Sometimes it’s just not the right time to write a particular scene or poem or article, etc. There was a poem that I was working on a few weeks back, and to no avail, I couldn’t get it to “work.” I still can’t. I think I’m not at a juncture to be able to write that particular poem, so for now I have peacefully left it aside. Unless you’re writing for pay or writing for a deadline, sometimes you will just have to wait. It doesn’t mean you don’t show up to your writing desk or that you don’t try.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m preparing for some writing workshops that I will be giving, and I’m also building up another collection of poems. I’d like to grow more as a poet before I put another book of poetry out, and I’d possibly like to experiment with style and some different subject matter than I have in the past, including stories I have not yet told.
Thank you very much for your original and provocative questions.
Maria Pia Spadafora is a freelance writer living in Milan.
You can learn more about Maria Giura by clicking here.