Today's chat is with Eufemia Fantetti, author of the brand new memoir My Father, Fortune-tellers, & Me, out now with Mother Tongue Publishing. It shares the story of the author’s experience growing up with a mother with severe mental health issues, and charts her lifelong relationship with her mother and father, both first generation Italian-Canadians.
Eufemia Fantetti, a graduate of SFU’s Writer’s Studio and the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing master’s program, is a three-time winner of Accenti Magazine’s annual writing competition. Her work appears in Event Magazine, The New Quarterly and the Globe and Mail and is listed as notable by the Best American Essays Series. Fantetti is also an award-winning playwright and former stand-up comic. She teaches writing at Humber College and edits for the Humber Literary Review. Her debut book, A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love, runner-up for the 2013 Danuta Gleed Literary Award and winner of the 2014 F.G. Bressani Literary Prize for short fiction, is also available from Mother Tongue Publishing.
Trevor Corkum: My Father, Fortune-tellers, & Me is a powerful, devastating memoir. In part, it charts your experience growing up in a family of extreme mental illness. How would you describe the process of writing the book?
Eufemia Fantetti: Working on the memoir was a prolonged meandering journey through the dark woods with various worrisome stages, a bunch of vexing spells and several gratifying steps. I’d been working with the story and situation for a long time—on my own, in writing groups, through grad school. Making order from chaos is challenging. I was extremely fortunate to have the exceptional help of writing friends and wonderful guides: Pearl Luke as an editor and Mona Fertig as a publisher.
TC: Your father looms as a powerful figure in your childhood, and it’s clear how close you are. The book navigates the many twists and turns of your relationship over the years. How has he responded to the book and how did he feel knowing you were writing it?
EF: He’s been incredibly supportive of the book even when the process of being interviewed (or interrogated) made him uncomfortable. There are so many levels of possible confusion and potential complication when speaking a combination of Molisan (our Italian dialect), Italiese (Italianized English words common among first generation immigrants), and heavily-accented English.
Some days he’d suggest we shouldn’t talk about the past anymore because the memories would stir up arguments, cause heartache, or lead to restless sleeps and nightmares. Now he’s handing out copies—for free. When I teased him about denting the profit margin he said twenty bucks wasn’t going to make a difference in my life. He carries a copy in the glove compartment of his car and insists on sharing so often that I’ve replaced his copy three times.
Last November, he was at a police station to get a restraining order against my mom, and showed the memoir to the officer taking the statement. He told the cop, “Everything was so bad. My daughter wrote a book about our ordeal. This book proves I was one hundred percent right.” He hasn’t finished reading it yet.
TC: While the memoir explores some extremely difficult terrain, there are also moments of levity and humour. I understand you’ve also done work as a stand-up comic and performer. In what ways have comedy and humour been healing modalities for you?
EF: Comedy has been a saving grace. I still remember the first time I saw a comedian on television. The Unknown Comic performed a slapstick bit on The Gong Show, and I laughed so hard I fell off the couch. I was years old, and the next day at school I imitated his routine and kids laughed. Mirth is heady stuff for a child wedged between two miserably unhappy adults.
In the years before I had decent medical coverage, I collected stand-up comedy DVDs to watch when I was battling with despair. I had several good doctors and kind therapists, but simply couldn’t find a medication that made a significant and lasting positive impact. Humour wasn’t a cure-all but it remains an incredible heart balm and soul salve. I love funny people, the whimsy of wisecrackers and brilliant storytellers like Eddie Izzard, Chris Rock, and Hannah Gadsby. My father happens to be hilarious—his impersonations, his timing, his observational comments—and that helped us both survive difficult times.
TC: You also explore some of the difficulties of how we understand trauma cross-culturally. The reactions of some of your extended family in Italy to your mother’s illness are quite different than your friends in Toronto, for example. What have you learned about how mental health is understood and experienced in various cultural communities, and what barriers still exist within certain communities to accessing appropriate care?
EF: There are so many barriers to accessing care even for folks without cultural complexities to consider. The stigma is an enormous hindrance. People have trouble asking for help, there are cognitive impairments that can occur with a serious brain disorder, and there simply aren’t enough hospital beds, treatment centres, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, therapists or social workers with appropriate training about the symptoms of mental illness, let alone the barriers and elements that can contribute to poor mental health.
Certainly, more awareness and empathy is also needed to ensure people who are ill (or their family members) are comfortable revealing their belief systems. Perhaps they believe in ancestral hauntings, or demonic possession, or wicked witchery as the source of the trouble. A surefire way to guarantee the individual won’t seek treatment is to mock them.
This is delicate and exceedingly difficult because I’m not patient. Two years ago, a documentary was released titled Deliver Us (Libera Nos in Italian). I left the movie theatre infuriated. Essentially, the film followed several tormented souls who were attempting to recover from drug addiction, mental illness, or in one case childhood sexual abuse. Watching them all be put through a medieval system of care was beyond distressing. The film ends with a note that exorcisms are on the rise in Italy, France, and Spain and the church cannot keep up. If the rituals helped, I wouldn’t be such a harsh critic, but people (mainly women) were in a perpetual state of needing a priest, and there was a disturbing power dynamic at play.
TC: Finally, one of the central through lines of the book is your use of Tarot cards as a support and insight into your experiences. Are you still a Tarot aficionado? What is the Tarot telling you these days?
At the launch, I hired a Tarot reader, Lori Lytle of Inner Goddess Tarot, to read. In her reading for me, The Hermit and The Fool came up. Stillness and striking out on a new path. Exciting. The latter has shown up three more times since: the card of fresh beginnings, of adventure, of heading out into the unknown. The cliff is a concern, sure, but I love this card. He’s the court jester, and that is a role I can appreciate.
Excerpt from My Father, Fortune-tellers, & Me
My father likes to say he was lucky, that God held both his hands and stopped him from killing my mother. Even Job, he notes, would have lost his infamous patience.
“Imagine if you had one parent in the jail, and another one under the ground.” Whenever he muses on this, his Italian-accented English elongates every vowel in the first word to sound like he’s pronouncing the name Imogene. He made the case for Divine Intervention again over the phone while I sorted through piles of clothes to pack.
I cradled the receiver against my shoulder and sighed. “Papa, please, that’s a terrible example of good luck.”
There is magical thinking involved here. He believes Jesus stepped in and worked behind the scenes as consummate theatre stage manager, ensuring we all played our parts, shielded from critics in the audience. This is the type of luck that led to rabbits having their feet amputated and used as accessories for keychains in the 1980s of my youth. The “Step right up and try your luck” of the carnival barker with guaranteed entertainment but no discernible winner. Everyone-quit-complaining-about-inequities-and-grab-a-bootstrap luck. Stop-looking-at-the-stars-while-lying-in-the-gutter and get-back-in-the-game luck. The luck of the draw, not the luck one could count on—which I once overheard aptly described at a billiard bar: If not for bad luck, there’d be no luck at all.
“Luck,” from the late Middle English lucke, absorbed from the German. People bounce back faster from disappointment, roll with life’s sucker punches better when they think they are favoured by chance. Lady Luck—the Roman goddess of fate and opportunity known as Fortuna—rarely smiled on my folks. She grimaced during their fast courtship (two weeks) and winced through their thirty-six-year acrimonious arranged marriage. Maybe she wiped her hands of them at the wedding, threw her hands up in the air in that classic southern Italian gesture: “What do you want from me?”
I’d venture to guess the only way she acted as benefactor for my parents’ union at all was through their theme song: “O Fortuna,” the opening and closing movement from Carl Orff’s composition. Every time I hear the dramatic score in a film, from the first warning plea of the choir through to the steady whispering beat that builds to a frightening crescendo of cymbals and drums, I suspect that this song reverberated through my paternal grandmother Femia’s heart as my future parents made their way through the village with a procession and got hitched.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.