Zoë Boccabella’s beautiful new memoir Joe’s Fruit Shop & Milk Bar recalls the lives of her Italian grandparents, Annibale & Francesca through their individual journeys to a new land, their trials & tribulations, and their own proud achievements.
Joe’s Fruit Shop & Milk Bar traces the migration of their respective fathers to Australia prompted by adverse economic conditions in Abruzzo and Calabria and the impact of the same Great Depression on their adopted country. We also read of the challenges their mothers faced alone, bringing up their children in Fascist Italy, and their move to join up with the husbands/fathers in Australia; in the case of Zoe’s maternal great-grandmother, this was some 20 years after she had last seen her husband.
Through the chapters we get to admire and adore Annibale & Francesca – their flair for change and entrepreneurship, their endless reserves of charisma, and the human kindness & compassion that helped unite a community which wasn’t always tolerant of its new Italian residents.
The book presents a powerful account of migration and just how counterproductive policy and lives can be when ruled by stereotyping and prejudice. Internment is explored though Annibale’s own experience during the Second World War in a ‘secret camp’, the existence of which is only officially verified in one document but testified to by the shared memory of all those interned and the local residents. Thirty nationalities in Australia faced similar internment, and this, combined with their experiences directly upon release, made me gasp and re-evaluate my own nation and its immigration policies today.
Zoë is a natural storyteller who emotionally engages the reader through her empathy and familiarity with her characters and her ability to breathe vivid life and warmth into a family’s history which in this case stretches from pre-World War I to the present day. Joe’s Fruit Shop & Milk Bar is a book to treasure, a treat not only for those with Italian ancestry or fans of her wonderful first book Mezza Italiana, but also for those who simply believe that humility and practicing right from wrong should be our common bond and aspiration.
Q&A with Zoë Boccabella
In your book you mention the dangers of “anecdotes that can fuse and kink over time both in the retelling and the interpreting” – what would you recommend to would-be writers to counter this?
Talk to as many people as you can who would have been there when the story happened. If this is not possible, perhaps talk to those who may have lived in similar circumstances around the same time and gauge their ideas. Research and cross-check the topic objectively to make sure dates and happenings match up, as understandably, recall, even with the best intentions, can be fluid, particularly after many decades have passed. Also, be upfront and disclose that you have concerns a story may have changed over time and there might be different versions.
You describe addressing the elements of the book that were most difficult to write about, and which would have been easier to gloss over in fiction – what proved the most challenging and why?
Writing about deeply personal happenings and sorrows that affected both myself and different members of my family. I knew it was the harder path to take and to do so I needed to make myself vulnerable also. Ultimately, it was about doing so with respect for those I was writing about and to portray just how hard circumstances could be at times, knowing there would be others who could perhaps relate too, even if such events often aren’t talked about.
Which of the three accounts you wrote of your grandparents’ lives proved the easiest to write? Which do you think they would have enjoyed reading the most, the fiction or non-fiction versions?
In different ways, each version held their various challenges. Fiction allows the freedom to create different characters, timelines or storylines. And yet, while non-fiction is bound by true events and dates, these can provide a solid structure. In the end, I decided ‘Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar’ was best told as the true story that it is, especially since some of the events were more incredible in their real form. I cannot say which version my grandparents would have preferred but I hope they may have been content with this book as my intention was to preserve their spoken histories with respect.
The descriptions about the conditions of the internment camps and the treatment of individuals during the Second World War are likely to come as quite a shock to most Australians – what should be learnt from these experiences and perhaps the immigrant processing centre on Manus Island?
While these occurrences during the Second World War may come as a surprise to some Australians, there are also those who are aware of and sympathetic to what happened to many Italians in Australia during this time. In some cases, Australians who stuck up for the Italian migrants at the time were then also ostracised. I can only comment from my own perspective, but I believe in approaching a situation by acquiring veritable knowledge and addressing it from a place of understanding on all sides with compassion for humanity. Whether it was back during the Second World War or in present time, I think many of those living in democratic societies around the world can relate that some views expressed by a government or in the media don’t always reflect the entire citizenship of a country.
There’s a new generation of ‘Joes’ currently leaving Italy who will encounter very similar issues that your grandfather countered – what advice do you think Annibale would pass on today?
I am reticent to speak on his behalf, not having gone through some of the challenges he experienced however I can say that he did appear to be very good at adapting to different situations and trying to make the most of opportunities. He was open to new ideas while at the same time combining these with being true to his values and traditions.
“Perhaps it’s true that, in a humble way, people live on when others cook the dishes they cooked.”
What comfort dish do you cook that acts as a memory binder?
Definitely a tomato passata or ‘pasta gravy’, as my Italian grandmother called it. I remember her sauce simmering for hours on her kitchen stove and occasionally she’d ask me to go in and give it a stir with the wooden spoon. A deep-red tide would gradually be going down around the inside of the pot and the pasta gravy emanated an enticing scent. (It was made from the homemade passata we bottled on ‘tomato day’.) I cook this at least once a week and the aroma of it cooking takes me straight back to my Nonna’s kitchen every time.
I laughed at Maddalena’s response in the book to knowing that she was a successful witch in Fossa. Did she take her tin charms to ward off the evil eye with her to Australia?
I actually have one of my great-grandmother’s amulets to ward off the evil eye – a ‘cornicello’ or ‘corno’, which I treasure. This actual piece features on the front cover of Mezza Italiana.
“On serene nocturne chords, our forebears weave into our dreams. Invoking, entwining yarns and threads, of their lives, of our lives part of us, we part of them. And we awaken knowing they made us, wanting to know more of what we are made of.”
What advice would you give those of Italian descent in managing expectations when returning to their grandparents’ birthplaces?
This is such an individual experience. It really depends on the background of the person and if they are approaching such an encounter with open arms or with some trepidation, or both. For me, I first went to Italy lugging years of grappling an Italian-Australian identity and I don’t feel there can be a neatly packaged outcome because people and places are in a state of continuous change. That said, I would definitely recommend to anyone contemplating going to make the trip. And I think in most cases, it is easier to let such an experience have its way with you. Over the years I have spoken with many who have Italian heritage (not just those from Australia but places like America and Great Britain too) about their experiences in returning to the place of their ancestors. In describing this, overwhelmingly they use similar words such as ‘an unexpected feeling of coming home’ and ‘recognition’.
I loved this description of village life in Abruzzo…
“Pecorino, pears, artichokes, fragrant roast chicken. Wildflowers in a glass jar. Lively village sounds invited in by open windows — conversations, televisions turned up, a Fiat coughing as it resisted being started, birds tittering across terracotta roofs. I can almost sense the paisley fabric of the tablecloth beneath my fingertips; smell pasta sauce cooking, the frying pork and fennel sausages handmade”
What would you write for life in Brisbane for those that haven’t visited?
“Watermelon, hot chips wrapped in paper, the scent of melanzane grilling on the barbecue. Frangipanis floating in a glass bowl. Vivid blue sky. Sounds of summer invited in by open windows — cicadas, splashing in a backyard swimming pool, a fresh breeze with a hint of tropical sweetness to it, a noisy bike going by, colourful birds chirping stridently in the trees…”
From Helen Free – Hangontothevine
Many transplanted Italians have pieces of family history they may want to share. What advice can you give to would be writers?
Write what feels natural to you and write from the heart, even if this form may not be conventional or what you might think a book should be. In first drafts especially, let your creativity and instinct guide putting down the story and then in later drafts you can bring it all together into a tighter, cohesive form.
From Francesca Still –Terra Adopt
At a push, do you prefer Abruzzo’s coastal or mountain cooking?
My main experiences have been of Abruzzo’s mountain cooking, with my ancestors being from the area of the Apennines. That said, to me all Abruzzese cooking is delicious and their cooks are renowned – whether they be restaurant chefs or Nonni in their own kitchens!
What is your first memory of Abruzzo?
The first time I came to the Abruzzo I felt a perceptible change in ambiance as I crossed the border into the region, and then particularly as I arrived in the province of L’Aquila, from where my ancestors originated. I saw the towering snow-capped mountains and rocky outcrops, the lush valley, and a castle surrendering to the elements, and it was like the Italian blood in me surged with recognition.
I am interested to know the state of Fossa, your grandfather’s ancestral village following the earthquake in 2009. I have tried to find information about the state of repair, whether parts of the town are still in the red zone, etc. However, there is not much news on the web. Do you have any intel?
With regards to Fossa, most of the villagers remain in the ‘temporary’ housing down in the valley, almost six years on from the earthquake. Parts of the town, including my family’s house remains in the ‘red zone’ and uninhabitable. Repairs in Fossa are progressing, though at a measured steady pace. Apparently, it will be many years yet for the rebuilding process to be carried out. I was upset to learn there has been looting occurring in some of the empty houses of the village and that most copper drainpipes have been stolen. At the same time, I was recently heartened to hear of some villagers (like my relative Placido, who I wrote about in Mezza Italiana), still return regularly to feed the village cats who continue to inhabit Fossa.
Get your Copy of Joe’s Fruit Shop & Milk Bar
We have 3 copies of this extraordinary memoir to give away in either print or a kindle version depending on your reading preferences. Simply add your name and email address to to take part. Only 1 entry per person is allowed, the 3 winners will be drawn midday (UCT) 23rd February 2015.