#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews YOUR LITTLE MATTER by Maria Grazia Calandrone

Maria Grazia Calandrone is a well-known Italian poet and broadcaster. Before writing this memoir, Your Little Matter, which was on the Italian bestseller list for most of 2022, she’d published several poetry collections and a book based on the life of her adoptive mother, Consolazione. It was while promoting that book in 2021 that Maria Grazia’s origins, dormant for over half a century, were reactivated: childhood friends of her biological mother saw Maria Grazia on television and contacted her; the local mayor invited her to visit her mother’s birthplace. What followed is extraordinary. A furious search, manic research, a meticulous investigation that led ultimately to this powerful and profound prose poem honouring the life of her birth mother, Lucia: ‘I am writing this book so that my mother might become real.’

Maria Grazia had always known she was adopted. She’d also known that she had been abandoned as a baby in 1965 in front of the Villa Borghese in Rome, and that her mother, Lucia, was found floating in the River Tiber three days later. Before this, Lucia had written a letter to the national newspaper L’Unità, giving her name, the baby’s name and an explanation of sorts: ‘Finding myself in a desperate situation, I have no other choice than to leave my daughter to the compassion of all.’ Lucia had committed suicide. The story had made front-page news in Italy in 1965, but baby Maria Grazia grew up with new parents and new challenges, going on to have her own family and successful career. Then, in 2021, she was presented with an opportunity to answer the painful questions surrounding her origins and the truth of her mother’s life: why did her mother abandon her and then take her own life? What forced a mother to do that?

‘I must plunge my hands into the blindness of time’, writes Lucia’s daughter as she starts on her journey, back to Lucia’s birthplace in the village of Palata in far south-eastern Italy, a region so poor in the 1960s that many of its young people, including Maria Grazia’s parents, joined the migration north to cities like Milan and Rome, underlining the infamous North-South divide. So, this memoir is the story of twentieth-century Italy too, the hardship and desperation of poverty, violence, starvation, abuse and the oppression of women. There are countless tragedies of lost children and the plight of women, but rarely one as lyrical, compassionate and achingly beautiful and sorrowful as this memoir. Slowly but surely, Lucia emerges fully-formed through the reconstruction of her short life and through the words of her daughter, who by writing this book, it seems, is attempting to rescue her: ‘I am coming for you, Lucia, take my hand.’

When you fear, as I did occasionally, that the author’s prose might teeter on the overblown or sentimental, she moves seamlessly to robust factual descriptions of Italy in the Second World War, the growth of its great cities and the economic miracle of the industrial north. She writes with clarity on Italy’s legal system and forensically about suicide and physical decomposition. 

As an Italian speaker myself, as I read this book, I thought often of the translator, Antonella Lettieri, and how she had coped not just with the constantly changing registers of language and emotion but with the demanding vocabulary. Interestingly, the UK publisher Foundry Editions – a new independent imprint of literature from the Mediterranean region – chose to place the Translator’s Note at the start of the book. It offers a perfect introduction as the translator is herself of Italian origin, remembering the lives of her own mother and grandmother as she translates, and a worthy champion of ‘the miracle of this book’. She knows too that as translator of a memoir she has an additional responsibility to the text: ‘In order to become the author’s voice … the translator must take on a very special form of “I”.’

Maria Grazia Calandrone elevates the life of her birth mother to the heights of great poetry. By writing about Lucia, she restores her to life: ‘You will be reborn, Lucia, even if just in words. This is all I can do.’ Writers often ask themselves, what can poetry or prose possibly achieve when confronted with suffering or conflict? Can it help overcome pain and loss? Maria Grazia’s answer is absolutely ‘yes’: ‘I trust poetry’, she writes. And there’s love. After all her months of obsessional research and her frenzied burst of writing this memoir in early 2022, Maria Grazia is at peace. She has proven for herself that her mother’s suicide and desertion were not a personal rejection: ‘Lucia’s love for me … lies in the fact that she did not take me with her in death, it lies in where she did not take me and in the fact that she redelivered me to life.’ The original Italian title is in fact ‘Dove non mi hai portata’, in other words, ‘Where you did not take me’. At last, as a reader, I understood that title. This is Foundry Edition’s launch publication and if we are to judge the quality of its literary discoveries by this memoir, we have much to look forward to.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

YOUR LITTLE MATTER

Written by Maria Grazia Calandrone

Translated from the Italian by Antonella Lettieri

Published by Foundry Editions (2024)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is Director and Founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018–2020.

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