Last Easter I was back in Italy

I’m thinking about whether everything I like about Italy is an infrastructure built on exclusion.

I so love that my life isn’t here and I have a whole life completely removed from this, then the second I come to Italy I have homes everywhere and a hundred people who say they would gladly host me as guest. I get subsumed in the logic of Italy. Taking coffee with sugar, setting tables just so, helping with the dishes and knowing it’s impolite to say thank you because ‘Thank you” formalises a kinship relationship and makes it seem like you’re doing favours for each other. You don’t say thank you for acts that are naturalised outputs of duty, devotion, family.

I like the way every day of eating is like Christmas and you go to sleep absolutely stuffed. There’s a structure to meals that might seem authoritarian and unnecessary outside of the country but here it makes sense. To concentrate first on a simple salumeria, cured meat and bread, nothing else. Next the pasta, which deserves to be eaten hot and alone on the plate. Somehow, a secondo. Imagine eating a leg of chicken or rabbit with potatoes after this. Italy is pretty poor and until recently peasant country where I’m from. It feels like every family is making up for former scarcity and laying it all out on the table like we’re kings.

They’ll buy you everything, constantly worry about your bodily needs. I feel like a baby, well-watered and fed. Pressed 50 euro notes between palms. Then, the rhythm and the rhyme punctured. Wandering around a market with my great aunty and Zia looking for clothes, I start flicking through a rack of patterned trousers. My aunties spot the vendor, a woman who looks like she has East Asian origins, and they hurry me on to the next stall muttering “We don’t want to buy that rubbish.” “These clothes are well-made” they say at a stand with prominent Italian flags on the signage. They’ll be depressed when they learn about the production process of most goods in the world.

I’m watching Ballando con le Stelle, Italy’s Dancing with the Stars. Performing a salsa with a glittering eye patch is Gessica Notaro, whose ex-boyfriend threw acid over her as she exited her car last year. I’m watching this then I tune in to a conversation between my Zio and great aunt. Something about a terrorist attack somewhere. “An ugly people.” “We have two Moroccans living upstairs”, Zia says. “The woman is 23, she never leaves the house. I never see her. Can’t go to the cinema, can’t go to the café’s”. “It’s their culture” my Uncle agrees. I think about the Italian woman we’re all watching right now, I think about all of the women in my family who never worked outside the home, about my Zia who was beaten while pregnant, about my cousin’s wife who gave him an ultimatum when he pushed her down the stairs. I think of this but I don’t know how to say it in Italian so I say nothing. I am a coward.

I only realised yesterday that Italian women do not usually take their husband’s name when they marry. Here Daddy reigns supreme !


I, too, overflow…. I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst.[1]

At 17, I was full of liquid gold, fit to burst and wanting to overflow everywhere. I have spent years not knowing what to do with this gold.

At 22, I’m fucking this boy who talks all the time about hanging himself, is obsessed with the Blade Runner soundtrack, and writes grim, evocative poetry. He wants me to choke him during sex but I don’t because he has suicidal tendencies and I’m worried that hands around the throat might be a stand-in. One night I cut myself in his bathroom. He takes my arm, turns it over, and says, “Poor attempt, D”, while patting it dry with the single, dank towel he owns. Later, he reads my journal and reports back that he found it “disappointing, banal”. I regretted not choking him then.

My father, who has lived in New Zealand since the 80s but is Italian by birth, blood, and spirit, always protests when my brother, mother, and I tell him to not shout at us. He yells, “I’m not yelling! You Kiwis don’t understand—we Italians, we talk loudly.”

I grew up padded by his shouting. I remember the calibre of his voice before a rage, made thick with wine and husky, quiet, menacing at the start. I would lock myself in our single toilet cubicle to get away from the sound, and trace the chipped paint with my fingers, examining the splitting wood beneath. When I was younger, he would lock himself in the bathroom with my mother, grab her chin between his thumb and forefinger and slap her, while I did the yelling from outside, banging on the door.

How much are we supposed to reveal about ourselves? I feel pressed by the demands of some magical liminal space, a fine line to hold, in which we’re supposed to exhibit openness, candour, and some amount of self-knowledge while understanding what to rein in, when to be chill, and what’s “too much”. I hate this fucking space.

I was sleeping with someone—for six weeks, technically, “just a month,” he said, eight weeks really, “a month,” he said when he let me know it was over. When I talk about this experience now with friends they seem to think I approached it all a little too earnestly. In my head later, I retort: I have the right to claim an experience no matter how brief. I am done with the idea that the amount of feeling I possess should be regulated and parsed out like wartime rations. I cast off the tyranny of “chill”—I’m a Scorpio, I’m a millennial, I have a lot of feelings.

Maybe it’s because of the curse.

Before Italy’s regions joined into a republic, there was a Count who owned acres and acres of undulating Basilicata land. He was charming and cruel, with a mercurial temper. One day, one of his sons tried to poison him and when the Count discovered his plan, he tied the boy, beat him nearly to death, and cursed his children and the children of his children—my grandfather among them—promising to send disharmony tearing down the generations like bushfire.

I’m into scientific rationalism but there is something appealing about the idea of lingering trouble in the bloodline, a way of explaining my red moods and short but bracing bad spells. A way of understanding feelings that land in me like so many hot stones.

Of course, I don’t believe in curses. My Zia Greta does, though, and burned all of my father’s things one night in an attempt to clean her house of evil energy. Each night after dinner still she stares into the fireplace and smokes cigarettes in a trance. Zia Elisabetta does too, so she ran away and won’t tell anyone where she lives. I’m not sure if Zio Nino believes in the Count’s curse, but he crosses himself while driving long distances and abstains from food two days a week. He also drives drunk and without a seatbelt, not always on the right side of the road. In God’s hands. My eldest Zia, I have no idea what she thinks. Since the eighties she has lived in an asylum called “The Smile”, which is kind of a joke, no-rain-in-a-thousand-years dry. She does smile frequently, baring the three teeth she still has. My nonna didn’t have any teeth either; nonno punched them all out of her mouth for her. Zia Marianna talks to ghosts at the dinner table.

I don’t believe in curses, but I can see that a hundred years of poverty, alcoholism and abuse might be a kind of haunting.

When I feel like I’m too much I want to explain that where I’m from counts, and sometimes I feel palimpsestic, I’m a collection of all these parts. This feels important. There’s madness in our histories, and I feel lucky to wear my emotions comfortably. I’ve seen what it is to hold back, and the damage that is done when emotions are improperly diverted. I don’t know what calm the rest of my family has found, nor what right I have to mine these stories for my own benefit. I’m trying to move away from the need to manage, justify, and excuse every spilling-over. In this world that tells us to be small, shrink ourselves and be chill, I will always text first, text twice, cry when I want, and be as needy as I can. I am going to explode, spread myself everywhere, and let my emotions fly—little presents into the universe.

[1] Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa (1976), 876