A place I’ve never been
In 1969, my paternal grandmother and grandfather emmigrated from Calabria, Italy, to British Columbia, Canada with their kids in tow — my father included. They were part of the second Italian diaspora; a wave of post-WWII migrants primarily from the war-torn South who left seeking a better life. My family joined the British Colonial project, tending the CN railway that penetrated the West. It was enough to secure a firmly middle-class life for us.
I have tried to visit Italy a few times over the years. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was in the middle of preparing a project grant to undertake a self-plotted pilgrimage from my grandmother’s hometown to Montevergine; a shrine in the hills to the east of Napoli where a very queer gathering occured each year. I wanted to explore this space of friction between my family, faith, and queerness
For many of my friends from immigrant families, diaspora often seems to be synonymous with a feeling of alienation. My friend Y Vy Truong once shared a line from Franco Nguyen’s Good Morning Viet Mom: to be diasporic is to be “dropped from heaven, without roots”. Like Nguyen, I bear a history disjointed across space and time, secularized and assimilated. I am plagued by both desperate need and inability to resonate with the land I inhabit. I’m a soul divorced from soil.
And yet this, of course, is nonsense.
How arrogant to assume that I would feel any more resonance in Calabria than I do here. How foolish to believe that I belong to a place I don’t know. How ignorant to forget the lands I descend from on my maternal side. How ungrateful to ignore the work and the colonial harm that lead me to this place. How naive to think that diaspora is a disruption and not a part of my history.
In my best estimates, my “return” to Italy will be little more than an opportunity to shatter the mythology that has crystallized in my head. I will leave more alienated than before.
Myth and Memory
- When my grandmother stepped off the plane in Canada, it was cold, wet, and muddy. She told my grandfather that she wanted to go back.
- My grandmother had a complicated relationship with her donkey, what she calls her “ciuco,” which also sounds a little bit like “choo-choo”. He was a necessary part of life in Calabria, and doubly so when she was pregnant. His sturdy back bore the weight of her as my father gestated, carrying her through forests and hills, to town and back again. She fell off him once, though, and I don’t know that she ever trusted him the same way.
- As a teenager, whenever my room was a mess, my father would say “What, were you born in a barn?” The irony being that back in Calabria he literally was.
- I like to say that I inherited my anxiety from my grandmother. Her everpresent fear of her loved ones being killed is, however, partly rooted in her past. While my family doesn’t seem to have connections to organized crime, I might be distantly related to a killer who knocked on my grandparents’ door one night and tried to convince my grandfather to help him hide the neighbours’ bodies.
- My grandmother is afraid of snakes. I am not sure why.
- I grew up in a village in the interior of British Columbia, which meant we regularly spent two hours on the road to and from the nearest city. The frigid cold and icy roads also meant that we would regularly pass a crashed vehicle or roadside cross. Every time, my grandmother would do the sign of the cross and say a prayer. She has always done this. She also never goes to church — she would always fall asleep in the pews.
- I participated in a basket weaving workshop hosted by my friend (and fellow queer, nonbinary Italian) Estraven Lupino-Smith. I showed my basket, formed from local invasive plants, to my father. He says his grandfather used to weave baskets. My grandmother says he did not.
- Food is an expression of love, as it is with so many immigrant families. My father learned how to make cured sausages. Every time I return to my hometown, he gives me an half a dozen vacuum-sealed with 4-6 links in each. Instead of learning how to cure meat, I learned how to bake bread from my grandmother in the way that her mother taught her so long ago. My favourite part is the blessing.
- My family has no queer stories.
- When my grandmother tells stories about life in italy, my little brother will often say “that’s so cool”. She is always quick to remind him that it was “not cool”. Even though she still has siblings in Italy, she would be happy if she never had to go back. “Life was hard.”
I am maybe six in the summer and I clasp my hands around a small, white moth perched on a leaf in the grass. They are furtive things that easily slip between my fingers, but this time I have captured it. My hands are a small envelope to deliver to my little brother.
It flutters inside the folds, wings kissing my skin. I cannot peek at it or it will escape. I shift my fingers just so to enclose the space around it so that I can pinch its wings. Only then, beside my brother, can I open my palms. Our eyes wide and wonder.
My grandmother and one of my aunties watch me in the front yard of their house — a home built by my father with white vinyl siding, yellowed and warped. My grandmother grunts, concerned, and tells me to stop what I’m doing. I ask why but I don’t understand her answer. She was among the last of my relatives to immigrate and can’t speak English as well as the others. My auntie bridges the gap.
Moths are spirits, she tells me, so I shouldn’t bother them. “It’s just an old wives’ tale.”
In my hand, this small creature panics, one wing pressed between my thumb and index finger. It tries to wrench its body away from me. I let it go and it flies away.
Again, I look at my hand, where my fingers held its wing. It’s left a fine, white powder. I rub it between my fingers. This, too, must be sacred.
Header image: “white moth shoulder upright” by John Tann is licensed via CC by 2.0