The Story of Me

Laura Valeri

 

I was born in Italy, in a small town in Tuscany, a beautiful promontory that stakes its claim to history for being a major port for the city of Livorno.


Piombino has the dubious distinction of having bid farewell to Napoleon Bonaparte when the French dictator (who stole Italy’s Mona Lisa) was first exiled to the Island of Elba, only reachable by boat through its port.

My family moved from Italy to the United States on the day of my 12th birthday because my father hoped it would bring us luck.  The evening of my first touching foot on US land, I celebrated my birthday dinner at a chain Italian restaurant named Pronto, with a lasagna that tasted like it had been boiled in ketchup, a meal that, for better or for worse, forged its way into my permanent memory and colored my mixed impressions, excitement, love, and ambivalence for the country I have adopted as my own.

My father was a successful consultant for the pharmaceutical industry and was hired by a division of Pfizer in New York in International Sales.  Needless to say, mine was not a typical immigrant experience. Pfizer sponsored my father’s green card and our transatlantic move, and my father’s commissions ensured solid middle-class stability for us. However,  I soon learned that a comfortable social status and a rich cultural past is no protection from xenophobia. To the bigots, social status, education, and even money mean little to nothing if you speak with an accent and you cannot verbally defend yourself.  That is, of course, the central and most obvious lesson to learn about bigotry: that it is not a cause/effect proposition. A marked cultural or physical difference or lack of education or social status does not provoke prejudice any more than one’s dress provokes rape. Hate does not require provocation; it only requires an easy target.

The xenophobia incidents lessened in frequency as my English improved, emphasizing again for me the importance of fluency.  Nevertheless, I was already 21 when my best friend at NYU, daughter of a prominent New York lawyer, affirmed with unwavering confidence that surely my family had to be in the Mafia. No Italian could ever make a respectable living unless they were connected with organized crime. Her father had assured her of this fact, and nothing I could say would persuade her otherwise. The only thing that shocks me to this day is how I actually tried to plead reason with her as if her assumptions merited the dignity of logical discourse.

This and other similar incidents were valuable if painful lessons that turned me sensitive to issues of equality and justice of all kinds.  It especially opened up my eyes to the social and psychological realities of the life of an immigrant that, to this day, influence the matter of my fiction and nonfiction, even when the subject is not about Italy or about immigrants at all.  


I also understood, viscerally, at the body level, the importance of fluency in a language.  In retrospect, I am certain that if I became a writer, it is because I saw it as the only sure means of survival.  I took that pen and clutched it with both my hands and brandished it as my weapon against that mighty sword of bigotry.


I had a good setting for my mission. I spent my early teenage years in New York City, a memorable experience that influenced me in more ways than I can say and opened up my mind in lasting and significant ways. As an undergraduate, I attended New York University.  Living in New York City was and has always been, for writers, for artists of all kinds, a cultural immersion.  My education came not just from the talented professors (which were many) and the multi-cultural events that sprouted all over the city virtually every day, but also from being immersed in a place that attracted so many people, so many points of view, so many ways of expressions in music and art.

I began writing when I was twelve, and I did major in English at NYU, but I didn’t take my writing seriously until I moved to Miami and my first short story titled “A Rafter in Miami Beach” was published in Gulfstream Magazine.  I had already graduated NYU by then, and I was working in international sales, by all appearances, following in my father’s footsteps.  Miami lured me to its shores and seduced me with its glimmering blue waters and its perpetual springtime weather, but it was also the culture that won me over, the passionate, explosive mix of South and Central American influxes crashing against the sedate Anglo world, and spicing up the old European world, too.

I used to frequent a Cuban santera in Hialeah who predicted the profession of my future husband for a small donation to Chango.  She and her PTSD-suffering husband, who once refused to open the door to me because he claimed that his Cuban compatriots were out to shoot him,  benevolently adopted me as “la Italiana que habla el Espanol tan raro.” I used to eat my breakfast in Jewish cafes where I was an interloper, where I was expected to hold an educated conversation about Zionism and the Torah because the other regulars, from the temple, from the Jewish high school around the corner, would never believe, let alone imagine, that a goy, a shiksah, would deliberately frequent, with almost apostolic devotion, such an obviously Jewish haven. And of course, I ate my dinners at Italian restaurants and begged the chef to relinquish his grandmother’s Ricotta Cheesecake recipe, and hung out in Spanish tavernas for that tabla’o flamenco that inspired so much fire in me, a gypsy ghost flowing in my Old World blue blood.

When I lived in Miami, it never felt to me like I was living in the US, so much as I was living in the city of the future, where race, ethnic, religious and cultural barriers collapse onto one another but also maintain, in some baffling Santeria kind of magic, their own distinctive qualities, and traditions. Miami is also where I dropped my Christianity (really, laid it gently aside), and picked up Buddhism first, then yoga.

Then something happened. I wrote a novel. It was terrible, but all the same, it seduced me, hypnotized me, made me feel in love with the written word.  I had no choice, then, but to abandon my office job and pursue the writer’s life, becoming first a student again, and completing my first MFA with Florida International University (creative writing, 2000), where I had such amazing mentors as John Dufresne, Lynne Barrett, and Dan Wakefield, and later adding another Masters with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (fiction, 2002) where I was blessed to work with Lan Samantha Chang, Chris Offutt, and James McPherson.  Then I began teaching writing, as an Adjunct professor in Iowa, Florida, and Georgia, climbing through the ranks from adjunct level until I finally became an Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor at Georgia Southern University.


I was lucky to see my first collection of short stories titled The Kind of Things Saints Do get picked up by the University of Iowa Press and win two awards, the Iowa/John Simmons Award and the Binghamton University John Gardner Award. My second collection of short stories titled Safe in Your Head came out from Stephen F. Austin University Press and was also an award winner from the 2011 Stephen F. Austin Literary Prize in Fiction.

My profession took me to Savannah, where I have married my soul mate, a gourmet cook just like the santera predicted, and where I have learned about yet another aspect of American culture: the Southern identity. It is fascinating, full of angles and shadings and lyricism and history (some of it, not always pretty), and the eye here rests so pleasantly on these salt marshes, on these draping oaks laden with Spanish moss, on these antebellum beauties sunning themselves around manicured parks while horse-drawn carriages clop on by.

I’ve been writing short stories, short memoirs, essays, poems, audio poems, book reviews, screenplays,…anything and everything. I like to experiment with genre, form, and media.  It’s an exciting time to be creative in this era of booming new technologies.

Through it all, however, if I had to say what it is that I write about, I would say that I write about love, about the connections that people try to make with each other in order to lessen their loneliness and to feel like they belong.  I write about what it means to flee the crush of hate which takes its form in war and terrorism and to seek for connections that have the power to heal and renew, because those are the polar forces that have buffeted my life, that have shaped it, for better or for worse, into what it is today.  And whether I am writing about ancient Sumer or about Ezra Pound’s love affair with Venice, there is always a focus on the mysteries of language, on the magic and charge that emanates from words that root their power in the culture and setting in which they are born.

I’m still not sure if I can take myself seriously, though…Thanks for checking out my blog, and for reading me.

 

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