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The American Writer in Parma
by Constance John

Parma sits on a flat agricultural plain east of the Appennine mountains in northern Italy. The Via Emilia, built in four years by the Romans, follows the ancient trade route beside the river Po through the town to the sea. Today, Parma is famed for its parmigiano cheese and prosciutto, as well as for being the place where the Bodoni script was first created, Correggio painted, and Stendhal took his rest.

In 1981, American poet and essayist Wallis Wilde-Menozzi followed her Italian husband, a university professor, to Parma where they reside to this day. While the move proved traumatic for the writer initially, casting her into "an undefined isolation", that state of indefiniteness served finally as a crucible towards the creation of a rich and unusual portrait of the place, and of the American woman writer's place in it.

The chapter headings-among them "Landing", "Alba", "Basement", "Palatina Library", "The Scream"-identify the author's explorations into art and architecture, into the world of books, language, libraries, and print, into food and family, and into the memory of growing up in a Norwegian-Lutheran family in Minnesota.

In clear, beautiful prose, for example, she meditates on paper's simultaneous fragility and ability to fix for all time, and on her own indebtedness to it as a writer. This meditation arises from her being situated in Parma, where paper-making was one of the town's animating industries during the Renaissance: "Paper's durable existence is memory's unsung chapter. Without it, so much less of the world we know would be retrievable for third parties, or have ever even been possible. No wonder in its sturdiness, its esoteric beauty, its itinerant capacities, its inconsequential thinness, its susceptibility to fire and worms, paper is moving. I, for one, am an indentured servant...".

It is in the confrontation of the cultures, and in that restless questioning about how one should live one's life, that Mother Tongue shows its strength. The author weighs the meaning of her mother-in-law's life and death; accompanies her husband as he tries to deal with his loss by whitewashing the walls of their bedroom; tries to convince Italians, now in the midst of stunning revelations of political corruption, of the freedom and goodness embodied in Thoreau's idea of democracy.

There are many poignant moments that capture the larger reality of an immigrant dealing with a relatively closed society. The author comments, to an inquiring neighbour, that her dying mother-in-law is "slipping away". In a culture that refuses to speak of death, she is corrected and told that surely Alba is getting better. In a riveting exchange, Wilde-Menozzi tries to discuss public service with a bureaucrat at the Palatina library (which does not lend books). She asks if libraries should "nurture hope". Eyes glazing over, he responds, "America, quite frankly, terrifies me."

Mother Tongue tackles the formidable subject of the Italian mother and her role in the family. Wishing to make her family comfortable in Parma, the author feels a need to come to terms with this place. Yet her upbringing, which fostered the life of the mind, runs headlong into the infamous Italian passion. Surprised to see her husband abandoning his work to care for his mother, she asks herself about the distance between cultures and why it would seem unnatural to give unmeasured time to someone who is dying.

In a small rebellion, the author hangs her grandmother's quilt on the wall of her living room. Her mother-in-law never misses a chance to remind Clare, the author's daughter, that a blanket on the wall is not becoming in a professor's home. But the blanket has many colours and an intricate construction. Sewn by hand, it reminds these Americans in Parma of a life beyond the strictures of Italian society, a life that is freer, more spontaneous, and, yes, a bit unruly. And this is what her book is like-a textile assembled from pieces found along the way and artfully woven into a warm and complex statement about life in a foreign land. 

Constance Dilley John is an Educational Programming Officer at TVOntario and co-author of Creating a Space for Children.


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