If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Gela as you feel/see it?
My Gela has many moods—ancient, modern, retrograde, rebellious, stuck, free, passionate, indolent, resigned, resilient, inventive, oppressive, beautiful, ugly, comforting, neglectful. What gives me access to the many moods of the city where I was born, and where my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and other ancestors before them were born (not my children, born on another continent), is a concoction of dread and desire that accompanies every return. I am one of Gela’s prodigal children and carry inside me a gnawing mea culpa about leaving, but also resentment and sorrow because something about Gela led me to leave.
As an emigrant, I experience departure, arrival, and return as one muddled state of being and not being in and of the city that made me: Gela, my odd Gela, a provincial soul in an overgrown urban body, a clash of ancient and modern. We drive to Gela from the airport in Catania. I scan the road in search of familiar landmarks that might elicit the mood of a yearned-for homecoming. I stare out the window and ponder the Italian word for commuter, pendolare—from pendulum. I remain detached, eager to arrive and anxious for the journey to last longer, enough for me to find the feeling of home that I lost on my journey away from and back to Gela, back and forth—a lifelong pendolare.
Halfway to Gela, I am comforted by the familiar sight of a necropolis on the rock wall. Closer to Gela, u Castedduzzu, the ruins of an abandoned castle that my father pointed out to us when we left or returned to the city. Finally, the oil refinery, a horrifying modern-day chthonic divinity. I stiffen. It is impossible to bypass this sight when one enters the city. Every return is contaminated, every sweet memory choked by the ever-present smokestacks.
What is your most heartbreaking memory of this city?
The environmental devastation caused by the oil refinery and its many consequences for the place and the people. The industry invaded Gela around the time I was born. From my childhood, I remember the still-pure expanse of the sandy beach, the untainted Mediterranean—and then came the bubbles in the sea, the peaches that turned black, the plastic bags, poisoned gifts of the refinery.
This past summer, I asked my husband to take a photo of me outside the temporarily closed Archaeological Museum. Behind me on one side is the single surviving column of the Temple of Athena Lindia, a symbol of the city’s strength, resilience, beauty. On the other, in the same line of vision, a tower of the refinery, a monstrous modern temple where the body of Gela, its fertile land, its sea, its people have been sacrificed. I am bound to both, whether I like it or not. My father, a fervent environmentalist, fed me an aversion for the oil industry that I still feel in my bones thirteen years after his death and so many years after leaving Gela.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
Nocturnal encounters. On the moonlit beach, the skeleton of the old Lido La Conchiglia stares at you, stunned by its present condition as a modern archaeological ruin. You hold its hollow gaze. When you walk through the dimly illuminated Via Cairoli, you expect a few ghosts to lean over the balconies, wave, and lower a basket with stale biscotti to offer you. In the deserted piazza, you climb the steps and place your hands on one of the columns of the Cathedral of the Madonna of Alemanna, once the site of the temple of Demeter. Your daughter and your niece place their hands on that column too. Close your eyes. The stone vibrates under your fingers, becomes soft like warm ricotta, and you feel pulled into an ancient reconnection.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
There are many Gela writers on my bookshelf, like local historian Nuccio Mulè, who has done an extraordinary work of recovery of the history and stories of the city. There’s also Salvatore Parlagreco, in whose novel Il cavaliere e monsignore my father appears as the Professor. Among the contemporary writers, a special place is occupied by Silvana Grasso, a stalwart Gela writer, though she was not born there.
I feel a special kinship with Maria Rosa Cutrufelli, who is also not from Gela but lived there in the early 1970s and founded the feminist group Lotta Femminista. In those years, Cutrufelli inspired my own budding feminism. In 2023, Soho Press published her novel Canto al deserto: Storia di Tina, soldato di mafia, translated into English by Robin Pickering-Iazzi with the title Tina, Mafia Soldier. I love that book, not only for its uniquely feminist take on the mafia, but because Gela is as much a character as the young mafia soldier at the center of the narrator’s search.
Is there a place here you return to often?
When I revisit Gela in my memory, I return to my adolescence, with its initiation rituals, especially the passeggiata on the Corso. As children, we were accustomed to the slow-paced walk on the main street with our mothers. The mothers would stop at a store or to chat with their women friends. It was tedious. We only looked forward to ice cream at Gelateria Gagliano. But adolescence delivered a brand new passeggiata. We spent hours preparing for the promenading on the Corso, this time with girlfriends. We hoped to spot or even stop to talk with the boys we liked. We had to be mindful of the town watching us, and so there was secrecy and excitement. Leaving the Corso for a dance party we attended without our parents’ permission, or for an equally forbidden motorcycle ride, was sinful and delicious. Decades later, I remember that time so well, the hopefulness, the violation of rules, the anxiety, the vitality, and the intimacy of friendship between girls. When I return to Gela and go on the Corso for an errand or a rare nocturnal passeggiata, especially with my brother and sister, or a girlfriend from that time, the young Gela I left behind surprises me: “Hey, I am still here.”
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The beach of Gela, where, according to legend, Aeschylus was killed by a turtle dropped by an eagle that mistook the playwright’s bald head for a rock. In “A un poeta nemico,” Salvatore Quasimodo wrote: “Là Eschilo esule misurò versi e passi sconsolati, / In quel golfo arso l’aquila lo vide e fu l’ultimo giorno.” To this day, Aeschylus is part of the iconography, topography, and memory of Gela.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
I have always felt drawn to ancient Greek Gela, especially the Gela of Demeter, Kore, and the Gorgon. Gela is a palimpsest of cities. Consider the city’s names. The Greek polis was originally called Lindos, after the patron of ancient Gela, Athena Lindia—the same from the solitary Doric column that faces off with the refinery. Then it became Gela. Across the centuries, Gela was called the City of Columns, Heraclea, every name containing another story, another city. My father was born in our town when it was called Terranova di Sicilia. In 1927, it was renamed Gela by a fascist podestà in that frenzy to claim a past of military glory. Everywhere, there is a hidden layer. For example, Macchitella, the residential area created by the oil refinery for its workers in the 1960s, was another city, so unlike old Gela in architecture and customs. For most of my life, I did not consider what that area might have looked like prior to the construction of the residential village. Then, when I was a grown woman with children of my own, my father told me that he and my mother had spent their honeymoon on a day trip in the countryside that later became Macchitella. My father’s story reshaped my map.
Where does passion live here?
Pane panelle, soft bread buns with deep-fried chickpea fritters, salt, and pepper, eaten hot. Conversations with the old man who sits on a chair across from the Greek walls and sells baskets of freshly picked mulberries and figs from his orchard. Pistachio granita at la Torrefazione, with or without brioche. Caffè freddo, iced coffee made the old way, with finely crushed ice, almost liquefied, to drink from small glasses with my American husband at a bar on the Lungomare. The music of my father’s voice, rising and lowering as he tells me the story of Gela. My son speaking tentative and yet confident Sicilian dialect. My mother and my daughter together, hands deep in pizza dough. The palm tree my mother transplanted from a pot that now towers in the garden. Gathering shells on the shore of Manfria with my two-year-old great-nephew, having walked on that same beach with his mother when she was pregnant with him, and when she was a child. Kneeling with my brother as he shows me an abandoned church, no longer accessible, but visible through a grate at the entrance of the old cemetery. Encounters with ghosts—their passions are the emotional DNA of my Gela.
What is the title of one of your works about Gela and what inspired it exactly?
I often catapult myself back into those moments of childhood and adolescence whose power I could not realize or express at the time. “Don’t Be Afraid” (Pithead Chapel) is a short memoir that focuses on the tension between the newfound freedom of adolescence and the danger that the streets of Gela posed for girls by describing what happened when a boy slapped me on the ass on the Corso when I was fourteen.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Gela does an outside exist?”
Often historical traces are hidden in plain sight, their origin camouflaged in a city’s topography, toponomastics, architecture. Levi’s words—“The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it”—make me think of how I grew up in a country that was processing the historical trauma of fascism and trying to rid itself of its legacy. I remember fascism being berated or ridiculed as something that belonged to a distant, preposterous time. I heard again and again stories of the night between July 9 and 10, 1943, when the Americans landed in Gela—and the liberation of Italy from fascism started. I knew that, at age nineteen, my father had joined the Allied Forces as a volunteer to fight fascism. I understood that fascism had once been inside Italy. Yet, it never dawned on me that the Nazis could have been in Gela.
As an adult, while writing about my great-grandfather, who died in 1937, I learned that Mussolini had visited Gela during the summer of that year. I also learned that not only were the Nazis stationed in Gela, but their headquarters were in the complex behind the Convitto Pignatelli, the building where my old Liceo was housed. During my sophomore year in high school, my own classroom had been there, the same place where presumably the Nazis had been (I say presumably because I have not been able to locate official sources). I did not know how to process this piece of history that forced me to reconfigure my memory, including my innocent high school days: the cluster of friends at recess, the first crush, volleyball games, a research paper I wrote on Vasco Pratolini, my love for geography: suddenly it was all changed. The walls of time collapsed. Through the peripheral vision of memory, I saw a fourteen-year-old girl run during track—and Nazi soldiers near the gym, watching her. My youth had been invaded. And yet, this history had always been there, inside my city.
Edvige Giunta was born and raised in Gela, Sicily. After graduating from the University of Catania, in 1984 she moved to the United States to study literature at the University of Miami. She is the author of Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Authors (Palgrave, 2002). She has coedited six anthologies, including The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture (The Feminist Press, 2003), with Louise DeSalvo, and Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (New Village Press, 2022), with Mary Anne Trasciatti. Talking to the Girls will be published in Italian translation by Iacobelli. Her writing appears in many anthologies, journals, and magazines and has also been published in Italian translation. Although she is a native speaker of Italian, she writes almost exclusively in English, and appreciates the creative potential of porous linguistic borders. Collaboration, community building, and supporting the work of other writers has been central to her work as a scholar, writer, editor, and educator, whether promoting the publication and visibility of Italian American writers, especially women; training students in the art of memoir at New Jersey City University, where she is professor of English; or teaching memoir workshops for writers at all stages of their work. She is married and has two children. She lives with her husband in New Jersey. www.edvigegiunta.com
Copyright © 2023 by Edvige Giunta. All rights reserved.