Tales of two countries – an Irish-Italian cultural exchange

Catherine Dunne and Federica Sgaggio explore a new collection of work by Irish and Italian writers, two traditions marked by themes of emigration, struggle and family

Catherine Dunne and the Italo-Irish anthology, Lost Between: “All writing is an act of translation – of experience into words, image and metaphor”

Catherine Dunne and the Italo-Irish anthology, Lost Between: “All writing is an act of translation – of experience into words, image and metaphor”


When the two of us first met, back in 2010 at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, it became clear very quickly that our initial friendship was about to expand and develop into a collaboration. We spent hours discussing the many cultural and traditional values shared by Ireland and Italy, including the love of storytelling.

Those early exchanges continued and, in 2011, the board of the Irish Writers’ Centre hosted a “Cultural Conversation” between dozens of Italian and Irish readers and writers. The event was a resounding success and showed us that there was an appetite for closer literary ties between our two countries. There was also an opportunity to showcase the talents both of established and emerging writers in each of our countries; something that went to the very core of our philosophy. We were fortunate, too, to have the support and enthusiasm of the Italian Cultural Institute, in the form of the then director, Angela Tangianu, and of Sinéad Mac Aodha of the Ireland Literature Exchange.

And so, in 2012, seven established and emerging Irish writers travelled, with the financial assistance of Culture Ireland, to Nogarole Rocca/Verona. We were hosted there by the Italian writers’ group, ònoma, who had organised well-attended public events in a variety of locations. As in Dublin, audiences were keen to attend and to listen to writers reading their work in their mother tongue – and then to enjoy the experience of hearing that work translated into their own.

In 2013, it was the turn of the Italian writers – both emerging and established – to visit Dublin. For this second edition of the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange, we were honoured to have among us the internationally-renowned Dacia Maraini. The public theatre of the Botanic Gardens was filled to capacity on that occasion and set the tone for yet another group of writers to meet and share their work with each other and with new audiences, this time in 2014 and, once again, in Italy.

Seven Irish writers met with their Italian counterparts in the mediaeval village of Sant’Agata de’ Goti, close to Naples, and the cultural and writerly exchanges continued, with all concerned forming new links at both personal and institutional levels.

All writing is an act of translation – the translation of experience into words, into image and metaphor. The 15 writers whose work forms this anthology take displacement as their theme. Their writing is a rich mix of poetry and prose, their approaches as diverse as the writers themselves. Their stories and poems are moving, insightful, and sometimes startling. The observations we find there are frequently offbeat, slyly humorous, and the joy of playing with language is everywhere evident.

Displacement is something familiar to both the Irish and Italians: emigration is a leitmotif of both of our histories. Both countries are recent democracies whose struggles for independence have had a profound effect on the shaping of their identities. Both nations have also traditionally emphasised the importance of family. Indeed, the sense of displacement within the family permeates many of these pieces, where family members are connected by their disconnectedness.

We see meditations on mortality – and writing – including William Wall’s Grace’s Day, where the enormous grief caused by the death of a child is experienced “as a piece of fiction, less credible in fact because it had no internal order, no structuring principle”. In Giulio Mozzi’s The Ship, the narrator reflects on how caring for his dying mother taught him that “nothing disgusts me. I didn’t know that before”.

Everywhere in this anthology we hear the authenticity of the writers’ voices, voices that both give life to, and are given life by, the power of the imagination. Afric McGlinchey in Ghost of the Fisher Cat speaks of the “topography of our imaginations” that requires “attention, a certain leap of your own/ to jump out of one world and into another”. Such a leap – where the boundaries between universes blur and shift, and the writer’s use of language is our means of transport – is the focus of Fabio Viola’s Amanita, where the narrator travels a road “built of milk and marble” and where a village rests on an outcrop of rock, clinging there “like the membrane between the toes of a webbed foot”.

The experience of alienation is also explored in these pieces – the sense human beings have of being disconnected from themselves and from others. The main character in Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s slyly humorous Donor is incapable of anything other than fleeting, sentimental attachments, and yet he reflects that a woman he meets has “an ozone-sized hole in her psyche”. He may have a similar problem himself – but, as ever, lack of self-awareness can often go hand-in-hand with feelings of alienation. Similarly, in Gaja Cenciarelli’s Bounded in a Nutshell, a doctor feels completely detached from her surroundings and from herself. She cannot even bear to touch her own body. A colleague observes that “a woman like her would be out of place anywhere”. And in Calamities by Ivano Porpora, the main character is rootless, aimless, stumbling from one self-induced crisis to the next. A stone shatters his window and he realises that, unlike him, the stone is “perfect … for the task assigned to it, after billions of years of being sanded down by water and the abrasions of wind”.

The relentless wash of history is also present in many of these pieces – either directly alluded to, or as a kind of bedrock that underlies our constant experience of change. In Statue Park, Noel Monahan looks on the statues of Lenin and the Communist Party, statues that were “rounded up”, uprooted from their important location on the streets, and are now gazed upon by “tourists in Gucci sunglasses”. The statues are no more than symbols of a bygone era while around them the future gathers: “New houses/Breathe” and “night spills down the Danube”.

In Seán Hardie’s The Count, which is an extract from a novel-in-progress, the eponymous hero is exiled to Ireland in 1972. He knows nothing about events in Ireland – but then he knows nothing about events in the rest of the world either. Not Bloody Sunday, not Watergate, not the Munich Olympics. Buried in his own privilege and sense of entitlement, the Count reflects that “History comes, history goes, things change, nothing changes”.

The seventies also form the backdrop of Mia Gallagher’s work-in-progress. It is 1976, and conflict in the North of Ireland is at its height. Violence is everywhere, coiled, ready to strike. The novel’s male characters take refuge in the easy rhetoric of hatred, the bravado of political utterances after Guinness and whiskey: they taunt one of their number to “… show the Brits … the fat cats … the mohair suits in Kildare Street, show it as it is”.

Francesca Melandri’s story Hong Kong Fishbowl is rooted in that melting-pot of a city, in a bar where American soldiers lament the fact that they arrived too late to the war, the one “they won but didn’t fight in”. A character reminds them that “some one hundred thousand people seem to have died…”

“Oh,” a young man replies, “those don’t count… They were just soldiers.”

To write is also to be an outsider. The theme of displacement allows all of the 15 writers, in their own unique way, to crawl into the skin of those who do not belong. In Liverpool/Lampedusa, Liz McManus explores the reality of enforced emigration, and the title reminds us of how ever-present the reality of that geographical displacement is today. The narrator speaks of Ireland post-Famine as that “ill-fated country … scourged by hunger and desolation”. There is a haunting resonance in the nineteenth-century emigrant overhearing tales of “lives lost out on the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea: of boats wrecked in storms off the island of Lampedusa”. Things change, nothing changes.

Fabio Bussotti looks at the ways in which social identities are rapidly shifting. In Francesco a teacher observes: “I’ve got a class of twenty-two pupils. Six of them are of Chinese origin. Then I’ve got a Brazilian, a Vietnamese girl, four Moroccans and two Pakistanis. The rest are Italian… But really […]Really, when you think about it, they’re all Italians. They’re all born here, in Rome.”

In Mother Tongue, Federica Sgaggio explores what it is to feel alienated from one’s own language and culture. Even though the character is an outsider, she feels more at home in Ireland – a sanctuary after the end of a love affair and a pregnancy – than she does in her native Italy. “Self-satisfied shits,” she thinks, observing some of her countrymen abroad. “Ever since leaving Italy she could not abide their arrogant perfectionism.”

The antithesis of displacement, disconnectedness and alienation is, of course, love. It is through love that we find ourselves, and the other. In Gianpaolo Trevisi’s fast-paced narrative, My Man and Me, love is redolent of homecoming, of belonging, a place where stars come to “light up a thought, sliding on the silence”. A place where one is safe and feels whole. The lover here “completes the other half of my own smile”.

Each story or poem is complete in itself, but together these pieces form a kaleidoscope of contemporary society; they look at how we navigate the spaces between the imagination and the mundane realities of our daily lives; they look at the contours of geographical displacement and the pain of emotional and physical loss. They confront suffering and grief, denial and death – the ultimate displacement – and they do so with energy, with passion, and with empathy.

We feel privileged to have been part of an initiative which has resulted in an anthology such as this – a unique venture, we believe, and we celebrate the fact that the collection will be published in both Ireland and Italy in 2015.

Thank you to all our contributors, and to our translator, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Lost Between is published by New Island, priced €11.99

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