Location, Authenticity, Purpose
On Writing ‘The Ukrainian Girl’
‘The Ukrainian Girl’ was written as the third or fourth story in a series that has now become a collection. In this collection my aims have included the investigation of cultural displacement and adaptation, but my main and endless interest is the telling of stories. For me the telling of a story involves a trigger, then some sort of arresting descent into the spaces between people and the regions of their minds, their prejudices, lies and exaltation. There is often sexual discord or attraction. Location. Weather. Music.
I am an Australian living in northern Italy after many years in West Africa, and like many authors I find it easier to set a story in some ‘other’ world where I no longer reside. For a good while I have been warily producing stories set in Ghana where I lived for ten years – wary of being labelled ‘expat’ or providing an exotic rendering of that world. Though I felt at home and lived a very local life, there was an obvious limit to my authenticity, and a reluctance to utilise what might have been perceived as not belonging to me. However, this experience proved useful in that it led me to extract and clarify the story, rather than lean upon the many other elements caught up in its creation.
When I moved to Italy over ten years ago I struggled to set work here. Write a story set in Venice? Mi scusi? How to run alongside Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice? Or attempt to enter the glossy expat canon and rub shoulders with Somerset Maugham (Up at the Villa) or Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mister Ripley)? Or even attempt to write anything with an ounce of validity in a country that looks after its own literary affairs in a vast and luminous way – Cesare Pavese (Il Diavolo sulle Colline) and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Il Gattopardo). Like West Africa, Italy is sumptuous, gorgeous: laden with clichés. How would it be possible to avoid the tumbledown Palladian villas crying out for characters, the mournful statues and bewitching gardens, and produce work that went beyond the colour-saturated postcard and tourist gondola?
Slowly, I began to try. In my first collection Pelt and Other Stories, many of the stories still danced around my years in Ghana, but I also tried to explore the over-familiar world I had before my eyes. It was easier to set stories in the nearby Dolomites, or on the Mediterranean islands I had visited, as I know I cling to nature as a sturdy character in my work. I wrote one story with an active volcano. Another where a guy died of hypothermia in a mountain lake. (I’ve now written quite few stories set in the mountains and upon islands, so perhaps it’s time to move on.) Recently, I have looked to messy, contemporary Italy and have written several stories involving migrants, probably because I have an interest in racial tales and injustice, but also because I’ve always been an outsider adapting to language and culture.
‘The Ukrainian Girl’ starts with a summer party held outside of Verona. The type of party where people dance all night and some sleep together and nobody really remembers much the next day. The story follows the fallout from an act of betrayal that takes place. The characters are Western, Southern and Northern European – there is friction and attraction between these people. It could be said that I wanted to look at prejudice, explore marriage from within, and look at deception and allegiance, but what really swept me along was the unfolding of the story.
Although set in north-eastern Italy there are no Palladian villas or graceful facades, or too many markers that anchor this story in Il Bel Paese. Louise wants her summer party to go well. Yulia might be looking for a man to protect her. Diego wants to be allowed to live no matter what the cost. Daniele wants to love his wife and not see. Francesca – forgotten and fretful – wants to have her baby.
However it is true that everybody drinks pinot grigio – although this should probably be soave or lugana!
You can read ‘The Ukrainian Girl’ in our spring issue which may be purchased here.
Catherine McNamara is an Australian author living in Italy after many years in Ghana. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2014. A semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize 2011, Catherine has been shortlisted in the Hilary Mantel Short Story Competition and the Short Fiction International Short Story Competition. Her story ‘Magaly Park’, published in the Labello Press Anthology Gem Street, received a Pushcart nomination.
© Catherine McNamara, 2016. Banner image Jo Mazelis, 2016.