Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Always Elsewhere: On Longing and Palermo

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Always Elsewhere: On Longing and Palermo

Article excerpt

In July of 2013, mother, father, brother, and I were on the traghetto which crosses regularly from Reggio Calabria on Italy's peninsula to Messina, a Sicilian port city situated where (as my father used to say) the tip of the soccer ball almost meets the boot. Over the past couple of days we'd driven down the Reggio Calabria autostrada from Rome, swerved our rented Fiat 500 around sharp ridges along the thin ribbon of highway, which overlooked stomach-dropping heights to the coastline that runs along southern Italy's edge.

Born in 1947, my father migrated to Australia from a Sicilian village in 1965 in search of better opportunities. My mother was born in 1957, the third in a line of well-travelled, university-educated women in privileged Sicilian and Piedmontese families. She came to Australia at the age of 28 seeking only a two-month adventure and escape from a European winter. Instead, she met my father and decided to settle in Australia. I make this point to emphasise that while my mother is often assumed to be a migrant, her experience and perception was more aligned with that of the mobile expatriate. She would become an Australian citizen in 1997, with my younger brother and me in attendance at the citizenship ceremony. My parents lived in Sydney until they moved to the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales in 1993 when I was aged three. My mother enlisted my brother and me as Italian citizens at birth. The ever-present background of Italy in my life, facilitated by travel and the fact that the majority of my extended family still resided there, perhaps exacerbated the duality of my cultural experience. Perhaps only now, at 25, am I reconciling my concept of past homes to delineate a potential future.

As the traghetto inched closer to Messina my brother and I peeled our noses off the floor-to-ceiling glass of the passenger area and bounded down to the base of the boat. We clung onto the rusty railing as we inched closer and closer to the island where our parents were born. Our car was docked down here, along with 50 other passenger's vehicles and the air stank of fish and petrol. From here it would be a two-and-a-half hour drive along Sicily's coastline to my mother's home city of Palermo.

Weeks before on the train to Italy, I'd relished the vision of my visit. Nobody would stumble over my name or comment that I looked exotic. I would order wine with every meal, smoking cigarettes in cafes without the worry of upsetting fellow diners. I'd float on my back over the gentle ripples of the Tyrrhenian sea. I'd finally speak my mother tongue to people who were not my mother and I would walk down cobblestone streets with history at my heels and in my veins, humbling reminders of the thousands of years of my ancestors before me, stalwart barricades to any notions that I might be out of place here. I'd be home.

But what exactly did I mean by home? In one sense I knew what I was looking for, and in another I had no idea, but I'd know when I found it. This preoccupation with the imagined home is not unique in literary nonfiction. In Sidewalks, a collection of psychogeographical lyric essays by South African-born, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli, she states that despite her childhood in South Africa, she never questioned her identity as Mexican. So much so that, in her essay 'Manifesto a Velo', in which Luiselli expounds upon the melancholia that pervaded her youth, she recounts a period in her childhood in which she dug a deep hole in her backyard, convinced that it might lead her to Mexico City.1 In 'Parallax', an essay in which Andre Aciman meditates on the way in which a city embodies the self, he recalls his childhood conviction that he would one day 'return' to Paris. While 'not a single ounce of [him] is French', he describes as his lifelong 'soul home, [his] imaginary home.'2 In 'That's You: An Interview - Of Sorts - With Thomas Wild', German-American writer Brittani Sonnenberg returns to her birthplace of Hamburg hoping for a feeling of uncanny belonging and a unified sense of self, stating that: 'it's what I crave more than anything: to finally be some decided nationality. …

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