I am often asked how I choose the books I publish. Starting Calisi Press with no publishing experience, while foolhardy in many ways, also meant that I had no restricting framework in terms of what was expected of me. Not having any footsteps to follow, any “should” to obey, has been very liberating and I have chosen my own path. I chose my first book, My Mother Is a River, by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, not only because it was beautifully written, but also because I could relate to it at a very visceral level: like the narrator, my own mother had suffered from dementia and my relationship with her had always been quite difficult. Although Donatella’s protagonist and I had dealt with our experiences in very different ways, I could understand, identify and be comforted by recognising the sense of guilt and the frustration. I could see that it was the sort of story that could elicit strong responses from readers but in the end I chose it because I felt I could, genuinely, and from the heart, promote the book to a wider public: sharing a passion is not a bad way to go if you are not a natural salesperson.
With the second book, it was a little different. I had read Bella Mia, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s own second book, and had loved it. I felt that those readers who had enjoyed My Mother would similarly like it, and the idea of supporting a writer through her writing career was very appealing. Discovering a new author to love is one of the pleasures of reading books, and I find it so very frustrating when I discover an author in translation and realise that only one or two titles from a whole body of work is available to me. I also felt that I needed to diversify – even for a press as small as mine, which nevertheless hopes to promote the work of Italian women writers at large, publishing only one author felt a little limiting. But in the end publishing Bella Mia seemed the right thing to do. While I do take hard commercial facts into account, over the last few decades I have learned that following my instinct is best: while it doesn’t always make for the best decisions, it certainly makes for decisions I am happiest living with.
Bella Mia reminded me of a conversation I had with my tutor while studying creative writing. Having always considered myself a very positive and essentially happy person, I was dismayed to find that all my stories focused on the themes of loss and grief. What did that say about me, and my own perception of myself, I asked my tutor. Didn’t the need to explore the dark corners of my soul deny that perception? Had I been lying to myself? My tutor suggested that perhaps it was because I was comfortable in my skin that I felt I could indulge such soul searching, the exploring of deep emotions without feeling overwhelmed by what my search would reveal. I came to agree with him when I realised that I used my writing, and indeed my reading, to explore scenarios that scared me, that it was essentially a way of exorcising my fears. This is one of the reasons Bella Mia appealed to me. The family in the story is dealing with an experience that is both extraordinary and ordinary, public and yet intensely individual and private – the loss of one of their own. Extraordinary and public, because the loss occurs in an earthquake that devastates an entire community. And yet ordinary and private, because the loss of a loved one is something that everyone experiences in their lives, and always at a deep, personal, emotional level, no matter how many others perish at the same time.
Donatella’s clean, even terse, prose allows us to explore how Caterina, her family and, by extension, her whole community, deal with their loss, and does so without a hint of sentimentality or mawkishness. Like Caterina with her ceramics, a few strokes of Donatella’s pen render three-dimensional characters that, in their everyday ordinariness. Nevertheless, because of their everyday familiarity, they are the epitome of the fragility of human life and its profound beauty. They are your neighbours, parents at the school gate, the people in the queue at the supermarket. They are me, and they are you. We watch them come to terms with their grief, their anger, and find within themselves the hope and courage to move on and reaffirm their willingness of embracing life. And by doing so, they show us that we too, if called upon, can overcome grief and loss.
Rereading Bella Mia one more time before it goes to print, looking for any typos that might have escaped my perusal on numerous previous readings, is like visiting an old friend: intensely familiar and yet delightful, and I find immense pleasure in little details. Even though I have read some passages 20, 30 times or more, it still enchants me. A knot forms unbidden in my throat at the same points in the story, a smile breaks easily in others. Occasionally I wish I could put my arm around Caterina’s shoulders to comfort her although I fully expect her to brush me off and utter one of the dry and sharp comments that make her such an unlikely hero. Some books I have loved because they have challenged me, they have inspired me and have shown me a different path. This one, I love because it makes me feel like my best friends do: comforted and hopeful. I hope you’ll let it become your friend too.
By Franca Simpson
Publisher Calisi Press Ltd
‘Celebrating Italian women writers’
You may also be interested in an article Franca wrote for the Foyles blog on Calisi’s first published novel, My Mother is a River.
Franca Scurti Simpson is Italian by birth and English by choice. She worked for a couple of decades in advertising, local government and finance management before becoming a freelance translator. She has been working with words ever since. In 2012, following a long held dream of working with books, she went back to university to study for an MA in Professional Writing at London Metropolitan University. It was to be the first step on a self-discovery journey which eventually led her to launch Calisi Press, a small independent publishing company focussing on Italian women writers in English translation. My Mother Is a River by Donatella Di Pietrantonio is Calisi Press’ first book. For Franca’s contact details, please visit www.calisipress.com.