Viviana MacKade asked me to write a guest post for her blog. Please tell me how old Italian novellas inspired you to become a writer?
Nancy Drew mysteries, American comics, and Italian fotoromanzi sparked my interest in writing. The Italian fumetti, introduced in the late 1940s, fed the gaping hole of escapism post-war. The comics which included romance, crime, pulp fiction, were written with tons of melodrama, endless plot twists, and trite happy endings.
When I turned sixteen, I accompanied my mother, Francesca, to Italy where I would meet my aunts and cousins.
My mother grew up in the late 1950s in a nation still devastated by war. Her parents, six siblings, and grandmother slept in a one-room home. Flooring on the rafters provided additional sleeping space. Food was scarce, and people got sick from malnutrition.
When the Allies invaded, they brought food and medical supplies. American soldiers charged with Italy’s recovery, mingled with villagers. They answered questions about America, cars, supermarkets, and schools. They stoked the villagers’ hope for a better future.
But for single Italian women, their hope for the future was marriage. Reality slapped them in the face, because most of the men drafted to fight for Mussolini died, disappeared, or went AWOL.
The soldiers’ discards were prized. Some items were used as currency. Among the spoils were dog-eared copies of the fotonovelas which drew enthusiastic fans.
A magazine made its way into the sisters’ hands. Though the siblings couldn’t read, they deciphered the stories spending hours discussing the plotlines that included mistaken identities, illegitimate children, murder motivated by jealousy, and forbidden love.
One hot, dry afternoon, we visited her sister, Sofia. We sipped iced expresso in her rustic courtyard. The laundry drying on the line kept us shaded.
I listened to their recollections while watching a toddler chasing after a soccer ball.
The topic turned to fumetti, the romance serials. My aunt lifted the toddler’s sleeping pallet and retrieved a tattered comic.
The illustrations were pornographic and had bubble clouds of dialogue. My mother wasn’t a prude, nor ashamed to be looking at them. It was a nostalgic moment for her. The magazines had stoked their imaginations and dreams of romance. My aunt gifted me with the booklet. That’s how I learned to read Italian.
When I returned home, I showed my friends the magazine, translating the dialogue for them. My mother, hearing laments that I had only one comic, asked her friends if I could have their magazines when they finished reading them. When I moved away from home, I left them in a box at her house.
The next time I saw the novellas, mom had passed away. Going through boxes in her attic, hoping to find something she saved for me, I found an old suitcase that held her trousseau. At the bottom, under layers of white tissue, were the remains of a vintage magazine. I recognized the black and white images. They were the rite of passage shared by my mother and her sisters, the serials that sparked my addiction to romance stories.