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The microphone smells faintly of cologne. Whose? The writer whose story used the word puttana?
I’m one of several authors tonight presenting my memoir to the Italian community for the first time. As I look out at the audience, my courage begins to ebb. Each nose, cheekbone and mannerism is an unnerving visual echo of my parents’. It suddenly feels like coming out to 12 of my mom and dad – which I never did.
Now, Monica, I tell myself, don’t be prejudiced. Being Italian doesn’t automatically make someone a bigot.
I tilt the mic down. “Bonsoir,” I say, then, “buona sera,” then “hello.” In that order because I’m in Montreal, at an Italian event, reading in English from my first-generation Italian-Canadian memoir, What the Mouth Wants: A Memoir of Food, Love and Belonging.
The derogatory Italian words for “gay” scroll through my mind. Finocchio, orecchione, culatino. I learned these words in childhood, complete with derogatory gesture. But what are the slurs that apply to me? I don’t know if there even are any. Maybe my ilk do not merit even an insult.
We queer children of immigrants have gained more than the privilege of living in a place where some of our rights are protected. We also have the dubious honour of coming out in multiple cultures. If we must weather slurs in more than one language, we also reclaim more slurs than everyone else. We even get to reclaim gestures. I suppose that’s something.
Okay, Monica, focus! Connect. Keep your heart and mind open. One of the faces out there is a gay face, I remind myself. It helps me breathe a little deeper. I begin to read an anecdote about Parmesan cheese.
“Once there’s enough cheese in the tray, I hold the parmiggiano like an apple and bite off a hunk of cheese. When Mom sees the teeth marks, she cuffs the back of my head. I learn to wait for her back to be turned before I steal a bite. I interrupt my grating ever so briefly to avoid telegraphing my crime. I scrape my teeth shallowly against the cheese, then quickly grate away the evidence.”
Afterward, two attendees approach me. They seem joined at the hip, making me wonder if they’re a couple. Drying their eyes, they share how my piece had profoundly moved them. Each buys a book and asks me to personalize their copy.
The way I slurp up this positive reaction is shocking. It’s as though I have a special stomach dedicated to the nourishment of affirmation and approval. As they speak their Italian version of praise for my writing, my belly fills with what I never got from my Dad. I leave the reading in a kind of postprandial stupor.
But then a psychic form of indigestion sets in. It’s that word, puttana. It won’t go down, even though the sesame bagel from St-Viateur is still warm and I’m dunking it in cream cheese. What was it about, the reading before mine that used that word? In my fog of anxiety, the plot barely registered. Only that one word sticks with me. Whore. Slut.
The next day, I receive a joint e-mail from the same two people who lauded me the night before. As I start reading words like “touched” and “impressed,” I can feel my spirits mounting like egg whites being whipped into meringue. But then their words begin whipping in the opposite direction – something my mom cautioned me against, lest it undo your work. They want their money back. I misrepresented the book, they claim. The subject is disturbing, they say.
The subject is my life. My identity and sexuality. Ergo, I myself am disturbing. Or was it disturbing to have connected with someone like me?
At the book reading, I'd read a passage about family memories associated with Italian food. From this, they assumed the book was about a good Italian Catholic straight girl. But how does my choosing to read that particular piece instead of choosing a more overtly queer one mean that I wanted them to make that assumption? The blurb on the back cover makes my identity and the subject of my book plain.
I am not responsible for what people assume. Such as that a person who mentions a partner is presumed monogamous. A person who cherishes the values and foods of their culture must be traditional.
It’s possible to be both a good Italian and an alternative rebel, a lover of men as well as women (and everyone in between), a deeply committed and faithful partner while in multiple relationships with full mutual knowledge and consent. It’s possible, because I exist as proof. As do many others.
Next, I read in Ottawa with largely the same line-up of authors. This time, I go first, so I can pay more attention to the other writers’ readings. There’s that word again, puttana. The plot reminds me of an attitude from my Catholic high school days: Premarital sex was okay so long as you were in love. Yet what if you were in love with more than one person at a time? Would that make having sex okay with all of them? What if you loved someone with no intention of marriage at all? What if you loved someone of the same gender or of a fluid gender?
Back then, we wouldn’t have asked anyone those questions. We knew the answer anyway. Doing any of those things would make you a puttana.
Some books affirm the reader’s own identity. Others challenge it.
“Your writing makes us strong,” I was told in Montreal. They said my biting into the Parmesan makes space for others to live more authentically.
A memoir invites us to turn over our beliefs along with the pages, exposing them to the illumination of another person’s experience. To read, you must crack the spine. Open the mind, not just the book.
Monica Meneghetti lives in Vancouver.