This weekend I wrapped up a month-long writing residency at Dento La Terra, an artist residence located in Abruzzo, in the small village of Arielli. Every year the program – run by Montreal’s Espace de la Diversité – offers two Quebec writers from marginalized communities (BIPOC, LGBTQ+) the opportunity to travel to Italy and work on their next creative project.
I was there with playwright and actor Maryline Chery. She was writing a new play, while I was writing my next novel.
The book I’m working on is an ambitious project for me. It’s a family drama, told from the point of view of its four main characters. Set mainly in 1989/90, it also jumps back in time to the Montreal of the 50s and 60s. As such, the book has required a lot of research to get the details right, and it can be a bit confusing given that I am juggling multiple storylines and timelines.
Having uninterrupted time to work on a second draft of the book was invaluable to me. I have been able to get done in one month what might normally take me 4-5 months back home. In this time, I’ve been able to dust off the draft I finished earlier this year and fully immerse myself in the world of the novel. I’ve written new chapters, cut characters, added others, worked through problems, and made pages and pages of notes for the next draft (a good book is like lasagna—lots of layers). In all, it’s been incredibly productive.
My days/nights were mostly spent at the window in my apartment’s living room. I pulled up the dining room table to a window that looks out towards Arielli’s town square and the 4 Volte Caffe, a bar/coffee shop that kept me company these past four weeks. Open morning to night, the bar always had music playing (Thegiornalisti, Donna Summer, Miley Cyrus) with people coming and going and old men playing cards. Sometimes, when I needed a break, I would head down for a drink. I found I would miss the action when the bar was closed on Mondays.
Arielli is a very small town of about 1,100, but I would be surprised if I saw more than 100 people in all during my stay. Like many villages in Italy, it too is suffering from low population as younger people tend to want to live in larger metropolitan cities. While I can understand that, it’s hard to get over the beauty of this place. From the town square, you can see the imposing Mount Amaro in the distance, and you are surrounded by trees and vineyards and valleys. The buildings have so much character and history, too (Arielli was on the Gustav Line during WWII – like my own family’s village – and you can still see the bullet holes pockmarking some of the old stone homes).
Unlike the previous two times I have been to Italy, I feel like I am leaving with a better understanding of what it might be like to live here. I would go out several times a week for groceries, or to the butcher or the fruit and vegetable stand. The cheesemonger’s son would make deliveries to the town square on Tuesdays. I made sure I was at the pasticceria early on Sundays to get the most delicious bomboloni. Sometimes I’d walk to where I had to go, other times I took one of the bikes provided to us. There are no nearby restaurants, and the closest major city is about a 30-minute car ride away, so we were very much reliant on what is available in the town.
The people of Arielli have been incredibly welcoming. Everyone says hi to one another, which is a very different experience from Montreal. Maryline and I integrated ourselves into the daily life of the village as best we could. We met townsfolk on our frequent trips to the 4 Volte Caffe. One evening, we walked to the park to watch children play theatre sports. We even went to Sunday mass and then out to dinner with the town priest, Augustine, who took us to one of his favourite seafood places in St. Vito. I’ve been touched by everyone’s generosity.
Our hosts have been the most kind. Dentro La Terra is run by Nicola Dell’Arciprete, who works for UNICEF and oversees Italy’s response to the refugee crisis. He is a passionate man who works hard for change and believes in the importance of art. Getting to know him and his family has been one of the highlights of this trip. His parents, Anastasia and Tonino, also became surrogate parents for us—leaving baskets of tomatoes and figs at our door, or passing by to see if we need rainwear (it was raining a lot last week). Anastasia even taught us how to make pasta. The family lives in a wonderful old building that, too, has the markings of WWII (at one time, Tonino’s family had to vacate it and turn it over to the Allies). Today it is a B&B with rows of olive trees and grapevines in the back that run towards the valley. We were to help with this year’s harvest, but unfortunately there was none as a pesky fungus has ruined the town crop.
Through my almost daily interactions with townsfolk, I was able to practice my rudimentary Italian. I’m pleased to say that not only has my comprehension improved, but I am also able to (somewhat) communicate my needs. This is something I would not have been able to easily do in Montreal. I also feel that my understanding of what it means to be “Italian” has changed. As a queer Italian-Canadian, I’ve been wrestling with questions of identity, origins, and inheritance, particularly in my work, these past few years. To be in Arielli, at this time in my writing career, has been extremely beneficial to my current and future projects. This experience has “filled the well” and I don’t think I am completely aware of all the ways it will impact my future work.
As I get ready to head back home, I know that I will be leaving with more than an improved version of my manuscript. I am also leaving with a greater understanding of Italian people and culture, and gratitude to the folks of Arielli for welcoming me into their community and giving me the terrain to cultivate my craft. I am also extremely grateful to Espace de la Diversité for believing in my project and allowing me to represent their organization, and Quebec, on an international level.
This is my first writing residency, I should say. I’ve applied to others over the years, but never succeeded in landing one until now. I encourage those of you who write to apply to this one next year and to others. There’s nothing quite like being uprooted from the day-to-day and thrown into a strange world where all you have to do is write. Yes, it was lonely sometimes (thank God Maryline was there) but I have never felt more like a writer than I did here.
Sometimes I feel guilty about my ambition. That maybe people think there is something untoward or inappropriate about being so invested in one’s writing career and wanting to share your imagination with the world. I know that’s just the imposter syndrome talking. But still, even if it were true, I am learning not to care. There is really nothing in the material world that makes me happier than what I am doing now: losing myself in a world I’m creating, only to surface hours later in another one wondering where all the time went.
So, again, much thanks to Dentro La Terra and Espace de la Diversité. Can’t wait for this book to be out there (give me a couple more years).