When my father and I traveled to his Calabrian village a few years back, we didn't know what to expect. I had never been, and the last time he visited was back in the ‘60s. As a writer, I came for a story but had no idea what it might be.
I started jotting down notes as our car winded its way up the hairpin turns to my father's hilltown. A few words about stopping to get a drink of water from a natural spring, a woman walking with a basket of laundry on her head, the silvery green of olive trees. Once we arrived, my dad and I found out that we had more cugini than we thought. They had us jump right in by picking lemons on the family farm and later marching in a candlelight procession to honor the village patron saint.
Then there was the feast they served us. After we finished dessert and shared some pictures, I began asking questions through a cousin who is bilingual. We unearthed a secret about how my great grandparents were killed. In the States, my grandfather told the family they died in a train wreck. The truth, we learned, was that they were accidentally killed during a call for revolution after World War I.
I wondered why my grandfather had kept this a secret. Was it because he was ashamed that they were shot by their own countrymen and the less said the better? That even though he became an American citizen, he didn't want to hear someone say that Italy's greatest enemy is itself, its factions, its chaos?
The details of this family tragedy along with historical research became the seed of the opening story in my novel in stories, Catina's Haircut, which follows four generations of an Italian peasant family from their Calabrian hilltown to Pittsburgh. Though I usually pursue publication when I think my work is ready, I sat on this collection for years because I assumed the publisher of my first book of fiction wouldn't be interested. It didn't publish many short story collections anymore, especially those out of its regional focus such as mine. I didn't think twice until a wise editor/writer friend prodded me to try the press again, so I did.
The acquisitions editor at The University of Wisconsin Press got back to me the same day and confirmed what I thought. No, they don't do many story collections anymore, especially those outside the region. What I overlooked was that they were quite pleased with the success of my first book of fiction, Giovanna's 86 Circles, and they were glad for an opportunity to work with me again.
The manuscript was sent out for peer review. One author recommended publication as-is and the other suggested that the collection would be more cohesive if I created characters that reappear in multiple stories to strengthen the thematic thread and reader identification. I discussed these suggestions with my editor, and we agreed on a revision plan. I set the stories in two locations. I used some of the same characters. I gave them a family history. The family history told to me by my Calabrian relatives. A third peer reviewer gave the revised manuscript her blessing. Catina's Haircut was fast-tracked for publication. It seemed that the strength of my collection hinged on a secret that was never meant to be told.
Of course, now I ask myself why I had waited so long to send it out. While I was certainly aware that story collections are more than ever a hard sell these days, I couldn't help but wonder if another part of me unconsciously wanted to honor the family secret. Maybe I unknowingly thought that the story of my great grandparents could be seen as a negative portrayal of Italians that reinforces prevalent ethnic stereotypes. Though there's an element of truth to every stereotype, I've come to realize that rather than hide it, I should confront it, complicate the simplicity, offer a distinct perspective and details that make it my own, a story that only I can and must tell before it's told for me. I now see that failing to send the collection out for either reason was the equivalent of rejecting myself as a writer.
If there's one word that quickly comes to mind about the publishing industry and the writing life, it's rejection. At a recent agents-and-editors panel discussion at Western Connecticut State University MFA Program and Creative and Professional Writing where I am a writer-in-residence, a host of reasons were given for why a quality manuscript is rejected, from the topic of a book not meeting current needs, to not being able to sell or market a particular book no matter how well it is written, to poor timing if a similar work was recently accepted.
No matter the reason, a thumbs down can stop writers in their tracks. Rejection from without and from within. Either way, it shouldn't be accepted as a way to silence writers and, more importantly, to silence ourselves. Good stories need to be told and told well. Write them or be written.