My love of family stories is nothing new. I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a child and eternally curious about the lives of the people involved. Sometimes the stories are rich in detail but most often they’re snippets of what life was like in another time and place, almost like photos capturing a moment in time.
The inspiration for my next book ‘Echoes of War’ comes, this time, from my father’s side of the family who hails from Calabria in Southern Italy. Only a few years ago, I learnt that my grandfather fought in the war with Ethiopia, then called Abyssinia in 1935 and also fought in Albania before World War Two. It sparked my imagination and I wanted to learn more about a little known part of the world and how the people of southern Italy might have experienced the tumultuous times of Mussolini’s fascist Italy and World War Two.
My story begins in 1936 with fascist Italy already at war with Abyssinia or modern day Ethiopia, as Mussolini drives forward with his dream of colonial expansion and creation of a second Roman Empire. The story is told through the eyes of Giulia, a spirited young woman who lives in a remote farming village right on the tip of the toe of Italy, in the province of Calabria. She and her family live through Mussolini’s fascist regime, Italy’s involvement in WW2 and alliance with Germany, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 and the ensuing civil war between the puppet fascist state in the north and Allied occupation in the south.
I’m so glad I decided to follow my father’s heritage. I’ve learnt so much researching this fascinating period of Italian history and I had no idea how many wars Italy had been involved in and the upheaval that resulted, in such a short period of time. Delving into the Italian experience and perspective of war was what I was most intrigued by, especially of southern Italians in remote villages who were far from the fighting of the war, just like my grandparents and their families.
I never imagined how complex Italy’s war really was and how the country was torn in two as a result, but I knew even less about Calabria’s role in this war. I was fascinated to learn how the isolation geographically and politically from Rome and the wealthy, industrial north, affected southern attitudes to war and to oppression and exploitation, with a number of peasant revolts and the formation of shortly lived independent southern Italian and Sicilian communities. The south had resisted the idea of unification and never truly felt part of the Kingdom of Italy ever since its declaration in 1861.
I’ve loved researching and exploring the connection between family, religion, medicine/healing and the ancient Greek and Byzantine roots of this part of the world that have been preserved for centuries. This land was once called Magna Graecia and settled in the 8th Century BC. I have the strong and feisty Giulia, spending time at an ancient Byzantine monastery in the rugged mountains of Calabria, learning herbal medicine and taking part in the annual festival dedicated to the Madonna.
But the most wonderful part has been reconnecting with family and friends, hearing their stories about Calabria, sampling gorgeous Italian cooking and food and even getting my hands dirty and learning how to make Italian salami! It’s been fascinating to explore the rich and ancient cultural influences of the region, and even though my trip to Southern Italy last year was cancelled, I still feel the connection to the mountains and coast of the very tip of Italy where my story is set. I was lucky to spend a few weeks there as a teenager, in a village that hasn’t changed too much since the war years, or probably for hundreds of years in some respects.
In the process of revisiting this part of my heritage, I’ve been reminded how my love of family and family stories have come from my own background. I can’t wait to share this story of family, war and the intriguing and passionate people of Calabria when ‘Echoes of War’ hits the shelves on October 6 this year.