A writer finds her voice in Italy

 

by Adele Annesi

It seems I have always written, but as a writer with an Italian-American background I have not always had a voice. It was formed only as I wrote of returning to my mother’s village in central Italy some years ago, my first trip there alone. This spring marked another solitary first, to northern Italy.

Last June I was rewriting a novel set in Italy’s central Marche region when the image came to mind of an alpine city with frescoes on ancient walls and a little flat whose windows overlooked a central square. I had never been to this place but somehow knew it existed. Trento is an elegant fortress of a city set in a glacial valley abutting the Dolomites, and my discovery of it this spring was heightened by a visit to the Mediterranean days before.

A great exhilaration in visiting Italy is the proximity of the country’s plains, sea and mountains. In few regions is this varied and competing landscape more visible than in Liguria and Trentino-Alto Adige.

A narrow passage in the ancient town of Finale Ligure. — Photo by Adele Annesi

A narrow passage in the ancient town of Finale Ligure. — Photo by Adele Annesi

Visitors to the rugged Ligurian coast often begin with the villages of Cinque Terre, east of the port city of Genoa. While the terraced vineyards and varicolored houses stacked one atop the other like matchbooks capture the imagination and the tourist trade, the writer-journeyer who seeks the less-traveled experience might opt instead for the town of Finale Ligure.

This tourmaline gem is set in the province of Savonna, roughly an hour west of Genoa by car. The road to Finale, whether coastal or inland, offers breathtaking vistas of a shimmering Mediterranean. The inland highway runs through tunnel after tunnel cut into the cliffs that bound this segment of il bel paese from the sea. The coastal drive offers a panorama of port towns and cities glimmering under billowing clouds that cast the shoreline in chiaroscuro relief.

There is a soothing effect in passing from the dizzying heights of these switchback roadways down through Finale Ligure’s marina and center into its walled medieval borgo, where the bustle falls away and the calm of this ancient borough enfolds the traveler in hospitable charm. Verdant mounts frame the village center, open only to foot traffic on stone alleyways past shops that feature goods and produce from local artisans. Add a feast of aromatic pesto over Ligurian trofie pasta to a glass of wine, a lemony Torta Caprese Bianca and cozy conversation among friends, and a Sunday afternoon passes into unforgettable.

Every change of place in the land of sunflowers means leaving one alluring landscape for another. This sensation is heightened for the writer whose dual heritage constantly evokes the feel of being caught between two worlds. The mood intensifies when going from maritime to massif.

A chill rain pelts the carriage windows as the Trenitalia railway winds through a broad glacial valley along the Adige River. The peaks of the lower Dolomites are cloaked in mist; the highest, snowcapped even in spring, appear lit from within. As the rain abates, the temperature dips. The wind scuttles the clouds, and the center of Trento appears, with its glistening historic piazza and Neptune Fountain, duomo and 12th-Century Cathedral of Saint Vigilius.

The next day dawns bright under an enameled sky that domes the University of Trento, the Biblioteca Comunale, or public library, and the smattering of bookshops that all serve to give the capital of Trentino its academic feel. There on the Renaissance buildings are the frescoes that give Trento its sobriquet of the painted city. For the visiting writer-teacher, these are the fulfillment of a dream punctured only by the threat of an impending rail strike.

Writers with a dual ancestry, especially those who are first or second generation, often find a sense of place the key to finding their voice and their vision for story. Among the Ridgefielders whose families came over from Italy, several went on to become teachers and writers. Aldo Biagiotti wrote The Historical Account of the Italian Immigrants of Ridgefield, Connecticut, and Silvio Bedini, Historian Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, authored The Pope’s Elephant. I spoke with Mr. Biagiotti when I realized writing was more than a pastime and Mr. Bedini when I was a correspondent. I wondered how they found something worth saying and a singular way of saying it.

Early on I also met Kathryn Morgan Ryan, a novelist whose husband, Irish-born journalist and author Cornelius Ryan, wrote the World War II historical trilogy, The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far. When Ms. Ryan left her study to speak with her assistant, I was left momentarily alone, surrounded by candid photographs in silver frames of people I had only heard of and until then, among them Ernest Hemingway. I recall thinking, someday I will remember this.

When I was about to leave, Ms. Ryan asked if I had any other questions. I asked what all nascent writers ask: “What advice do you have?”

She answered as nearly all writers do. “Write what you know.”

For the writer who hails from more than one place, it is often the pressure of knowing and living both that produces voice. Those who take the time and effort to excavate their native soil will find it rich in tales of the past and in inspiration, whether the topic is displacement or duality, fear or family, whatever is worth writing is there in the earth of ancestry.

Adele Annesi of Ridgefield is an author, editor and teacher, and co-founder of the Ridgefield Writers Conference. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, and she has just completed a novel set in Italy.

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