THE HOMECOMING OF MELINA MARCHETTA
It’s been 28 years since Melina Marchetta released her debut novel, “Looking for Alibrandi” to critical and commercial acclaim. The novel about an Italo-Australian teenager, Josie Alibrandi navigating her way through her final year of high school in Sydney’s Western Suburbs was a revelation. Never before had an Australian author accurately depicted an Italo-Australian’s adolescence. (Photo KIREN)
Since then Marchetta went on to pen her acclaimed follow-up, “Saving Francesca”, before distancing herself from migrant stories. Now the author has returned to her roots with another moving Italo-Australian story, “The Place on Dalhousie”.
‘I always wanted to return to that world,’ says Marchetta. ‘But when your first two novels are about either migrants or children or grandchildren of migrants, you know you’re going to be stereotyped for the rest of your life if you keep on writing about them.’
Home is a central theme in “The Place on Dalhousie” which follows Rosie Gennaro and her estranged stepmother Martha, who are fighting for their right to the family home that Rosie’s late father and Martha’s husband Seb had built. The story explores the importance of home for children of migrants. Rosie, like Marchetta, is the daughter of Italian migrants while Martha is the daughter of German migrants. Marchetta tapped into her own family experiences while writing the book.
‘I thought about the big houses (that Italian migrants built). My parents built one themselves and I was always a bit resentful that people mocked that,’ explains Marchetta.
‘I made the conscious decision that Seb Gennaro didn’t come out in the 1950s or 1960s. He was a relatively new migrant and it didn’t have to be about the size of the house it had to be about the place. He would have owned nothing in Sicily so it was this sense of (building something) and leaving something behind for the family.’
The novel not only marks a return to Marchetta’s relatable Italo-Australian stories, but also revisits some of her beloved characters from “Saving Francesca”, mainly Jimmy Hailler, who in this story becomes romantically involved with the central character Rosie. While the novel is a spin-off to “Saving Francesca”, it is stand-alone story in its own right.
‘I’m not saying I don’t believe in sequels, I just feel that I have finished the story,’ explains Marchetta. ‘I just loved this idea of putting people inside a house and seeing how they operate whether they are a blood family or are not related but connected. I just felt that as soon as I discovered Rosie, I knew that somehow she was connected to Jimmy.’
While the AFI-winner has revisited “Saving Francesca” she is sceptical about writing a follow up to “Looking for Alibrandi”.
‘I don’t think I would…I just know that I want everything to be tied up neatly and I want them all to be happy and I’ll probably lose credibility.’
This year marks 20 years since the award-winning film adaptation of “Looking for Alibrandi” was released. The film, like the book, was a breakthrough for the Italo-Australian community, but since then few Italian stories have made it to the big screen.
‘I don’t believe there’s a great representation in film and literature on the migrant experience,’ says Marchetta. ‘I want to see more of that. There are a lot of things that have to be done but it starts by encouraging our stories to be told. Alibrandi came out all of those years ago, and it’s been said, that Italian girl story has already been done. Well there are a million other Italian girl stories!’
Marchetta is once again looking within her own home for inspiration for her next project - a series of children’s books inspired by her daughter, Bianca. The Zola book series follows Zola who lives with her single mother and Nonna in a multicultural suburb.
‘I don’t think there is a lot out there for six year olds that have any cultural diversity… As a parent, I am constantly trying to normalise the fact that my child doesn’t have a father living with her. In the same way as I’ll speak to friends who come from Arabic backgrounds and their children have never read mainstream books with characters called Omar and I’ve met same sex couples whose children have never seen books where it’s normal that someone has two Mums. It’s not about ticking boxes. It’s about normalising these kids so that they feel as though they belong somewhere in the pages of books.’
‘The Place on Dalhousie’ is available now.