Elise ValmorbidaElise Valmorbida introduces her course Migration Stories

FWA: You have written that the “the migrant brain is prone to metaphor – the perpetual balancing of here and there, different worlds in simultaneous play”. What are the special challenges this presents for migrants wanting to write their stories?

EV: It’s no accident that many writers are displaced persons travelling restlessly between different worlds in their minds. This is not just a matter of geography. The ‘places’ can be cultural, emotional, sometimes utterly notional.

For writers, outsiderness is a gift. Many situations which in everyday life may be seen as disadvantageous—being different, being alone, being in-between—can be surprisingly advantageous. As a writer, that difference is a source of strength. And perspective.

FWA: You grew up in Australia in an Italian family. Your latest book The Madonna of the Mountains is set in Italy. It won the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Fiction in 2019 and was published by Faber & Faber in the UK – that’s quite a global story on its own. Tell us how that all came about.

EV: The seed of The Madonna of the Mountains was planted long ago and far away. Growing up Italian in Australia meant growing up with migrant stories. My head was full of people and places that seemed foreign and yet were utterly familiar, part of me, like my Italian face and my Italian surname. In recent decades, I’ve been gathering notes about Italy: random personal observations on anything from language to landscape. Sometimes I’d sit with my aunt in her kitchen, scribbling into a notebook as she recounted wartime experiences. At a certain moment, she’d wipe her hands on her apron, and go off to find me an old photo, perhaps a memento. There were other storytellers, not just family and extended family. Old friends. Neighbours. Strangers. People liked telling me things, knowing that someone was genuinely interested and that they would not be forgotten. It was like a haphazard oral history project. Once my novel was underway, I became more disciplined about research.

From first words to last edits, The Madonna of the Mountains took me seven years (in between the day-jobs). My literary agent submitted the manuscript and Faber made an offer within two days. I couldn’t believe it. My dream publisher. It was too good to be true. But it was true. Next thing you know, the book was being taken up elsewhere, and it’s now published in several languages and editions. Faber entered it for various awards. It made the shortlist for the Edward Stanford Award, and the Walter Scott Academy ‘recommended’ list, but it actually won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, again, I couldn’t believe it. Somehow this feels like coming home.

FWA: You have been teaching classes on migration stories for some time now. What are some of the memorable stories/projects you’ve come across in that time?

EV: It’s been a joy for me to help people write their migration stories, and I’m really glad that people have different ways of interpreting the idea. Many student-writers are exploring their own migration from one country or culture to another, often as a kind of memoir. Others are keen to capture the tales of their parents or grandparents, and they want to tell those stories as well as possible, to do them justice. One woman saw herself as having migrated from one life to another: she’d been married for decades, a conventional family life—when in late middle age her husband left her and she found herself with a new identity in a new emotional world. Another person ‘migrated’ from one sexuality to another. Recently, a student-writer used non-fiction to explore historical journeys, migrations of artefacts as well as people, connecting her hometown and its distinctive local craft with the legacy of colonialism. Interestingly, the students come from far and wide — they make big journeys to get to the workshops.

FWA: What are some examples of migrant writing you’ve been impressed by lately?

EV: There’s an inspiring upsurge in voices that used to be considered ‘marginal’. My all-time favourites: Jung Chang’s non-fiction, Daljit Nagra’s poetry, fiction by Andrea Levy, Julie Otsuka, Arundhati Roy, Michael Ondaatje. I savoured Moreno Giovannoni’s short-story collection The Fireflies of Autumn.

FWA: What is the main thing you hope students will have achieved at the end of your course?

EV: Whether they come to the workshop with raw ideas or a work in progress, students will gain confidence and inspiration from this day of deep immersion, the time and space to focus on their storytelling. They’ll have a greater sense of their narrative journey, they’ll know more about whose stories they’re telling, and they’ll have a better idea of where to take their writing next. They’ll have explored structure, language, memory and place. It’s always inspiring to hear how others resolve creative and craft issues. It’s also illuminating to hear how others respond to our writing. I encourage the course participants to stay in touch as a kind of editorial group. This is a great way to have ongoing feedback from other practitioners, which is especially helpful when you’re feeling uncertain. So the workshop, in a good way, will last longer than a day.

FWA: I know you have recently delivered a manuscript to a publisher – are you able to say anything about this new project?

EV: It’s a motivational creative writing guide that draws on my 20+ years of teaching creative writing. I work with universities, literary festivals, community-building and writing organisations, businesses and individuals. I started writing this book about fifteen years ago, and I’ve been adding to it ever since, in between novels and day-jobs. It’s very accessible, with lots of useful insights, exercises and prompts. And it’s eclectic — essentially it’s how I teach. Right now, we’re at the editing stage. The actual book will be launched early 2021. I can’t wait!

Thanks to Elise Valmorbida

Melbourne course details here.