Negotiating the Liminal Divide: Some Italian-Australian Diasporic Poets

By | 1 September 2013

Enoe Raffaelli Di Stefano was born in Rovereto in 1921. After obtaining a primary-teaching diploma, she emigrated to Sydney in 1949. She became a well-known personality in the Italian-Australian community through her work with the Italian-language newspaper La Fiamma, as a broadcaster for community radio programs, and as a driving force in the promotion of Italian-language classes for second-generation Italian-Australian children. Her artistic aspirations found expression in painting as well as in the production of poetry and prose, gaining her recognition as one of the leading first-generation Italian-Australian writers.

While Di Stefano’s narrative presents an investigation of the diaspora experience based on sociocultural parameters and with generally positive outcomes, her poetry is a detailed, sensitively expressed lyric diary that presents a complex and not always positive comparison of the ambience, the traditions, the temporal and natural spaces of her native land and those of her adopted country. From nostalgia for Italy to appraisal of the new country, her first two volumes, Terra australis (Di Stefano 1970) and Voci di lontananza [Voices Far Away] (Di Stefano 1978), express feelings and reflections triggered by the experiences of the migrant: the temporal dislocation of the physical and metaphysical journey that marks the transition from Italy to Australia; the strange and different material and spiritual facets of the new country; the memory of pre-migration places and experiences.

La favilla

Non sapevo che sarei andata
lontana dalla terra mia,
tra gente straniera,
discordante di suoni e di maniera.
Priva d’ogni goder, d’ogni passione,
m’assecondai alla patria
che competevo senza convinzione.
E dopo m’adattai. Capii che
vivere è una lotta in uno
o in un altro posto e fui più forte,
più in pace con la vita.
(Rando 1986, 44)

The Spark I did not know that I would have gone far from my native land, among foreign people, discordant in sounds and in manner. Deprived of all pleasure, of all passion, I complied with the new land that I contemplated without conviction. And later I adapted. I understood that life is a struggle in one place or the other and I became stronger, more at peace with life.

In her next two volumes, Mio e non mio [Mine and Not Mine] (Di Stefano 1985) and Se rimarrà qualcosa [If Something Will Remain] (Di Stefano 1988), Di Stefano explored the concept that although she no longer felt that she entirely belonged to Italy, she realised that she had not achieved acceptance of her new country. While the time spent in Australia had weakened ties with her native land, the new country, despite its positive aspects, had not fully satisfied all of the migrant’s spiritual aspirations. She had, however, come to appreciate the material security Australia had to offer, and its natural beauty – even though there are instances of doubt. The silence that descends with sunset in the Australian eucalyptus forest creates an environment of doubtful happiness. Limited joy is found in the celebration of an Australian Easter – through the uneasiness provoked by the inversion of the seasons and the different practices that mark the celebration, which, to some extent, are a mixture of old and new traditions. These emotions are intermingled with memories of her native Trentino and her periodic visits back to Italy.

Pasqua australiana

Inutile cercare nei ricordi
la Pasqua primaverile, 
questa è Pasqua d’autunno,
ricca di fiori, non di promesse.
E allora? 
Arrostiremo bistecche all’aperto
all’ombra dei canfori odorosi 
e berremo un bicchiere,
ci diremo “Buona Pasqua”
e taglieremo al dolce una colomba,
di mandorle e canditi, 
per mantenere quel poco
che è ancora possible della vecchia tradizione.
(Cincotta 1989, 64)

Australian Easter No use looking for the memory of a spring-time Easter, this is an autumn Easter, rich in flowers, not in promises. And so? We’ll barbecue our steaks in the open air in the shadow of fragrant camphora trees and we’ll drink a glass of wine and say “Happy Easter” to each other and we’ll cut a dove-shaped cake, of almonds and dried fruit, to maintain what little is possible of our old traditions

In her final volume L’itinerario [The Itinerary] (Di Stefano 1997), Di Stefano reflected on the outcomes of a life spent between two worlds. The memory of her Italian past was now distant in time, and it was no longer possible for her to contemplate alternatives that might have been, despite lingering reservations in her relationship with Australia. Compared to Strano’s poetry, themes that relate to the collective aspects of the diaspora are less evident in Di Stefano’s work. The poem ‘Lucia’ (Rando 1986, 49), however, can be read as emblematic of the situation of aged Italian-Australians forced to end their lives in a nursing home in a foreign land, while ‘Discorso vuoto’ [‘Speech without Meaning’] (Cincotta 1989, 63) subtly criticises the panegyric speech inevitably delivered whenever an Italian politician is sent on a lavishly funded trip to Australia to visit the Italian-Australian community.

Discorso vuoto

Ma Senatore,
le sue parole vuote,
adatte su misura
ad un pubblico ingenuo
e domani già scordate,
permetta che le chieda a cosa servono?
Ha mai capito
per un breve istante
cosa significa
essere emigrante?

Speech without Meaning But Senator, may I ask what is the use of your empty words, made to measure for a naive audience and tomorrow already forgotten? Have you ever understood even for a brief instant what it means to be a migrant?

Enoe Di Stefano’s poetic journey was ultimately an optimistic one, doubts and nostalgia notwithstanding, and her integrated contemplation of life and the migration experience indicated a large measure of acceptance of her adopted land, as well as the achievement of an equilibrium between past and present. It is a journey that ‘even if it is always autobiographically based … is the same migratory path followed by millions of Italians who have left their country’ (O’Connor 2003, 9).

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