Interview with Donatella Di Pietrantonio

Interview with Donatella Di Pietrantonio

Donatella Di Pietrantonio‘s new novel, Bella Mia, has recently been published in translation by Calisi Press.  Our reviewer Becky Danks posed some questions to Donatalla, whose answers have been translated by Calisi’s editor Franca Scurti Simpson.

CSP: What inspired you to write about the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009?

DDP: I was motivated by the need to write a novel about pain, about loss, but also about the human ability to transform pain, reshape it without removing it, and use it as an opportunity for growth.

How did you approach the task of researching the subject? How long did it take and how did you go about it?

I did my research by visiting the historic centre of the town, always with friends who live in L’Aquila. They were also the most valuable source of information, particularly about the emotional experience of the people affected by the earthquake. In any case, I know the town well, I went to university there and I have maintained strong links with people and places after I left. The research into the book took about 18 months.

This is a book about recent events. Did you find it difficult to write about this subject as it is still so raw in people’s minds and residents are still displaced?

In a way, yes. I wrote carefully, fearful that my fiction would intrude and upset the sensitivities of those who have lived through the traumatic experience of the earthquake, those who had lost a loved one, those who had lost their home, their neighbourhood and their job.

In light of recent events, with further earthquakes occurring in Central Italy, what advice would you give to those people newly affected based on what you have learnt?

It is very difficult to give advice about this sort of thing, there is always the risk of being intrusive or simply banal, but it is important to encourage those who have been affected by tragedies of this type not to lose hope, to invest in their future, rebuild their lives around what is left, rather than focus on the past, on what has been lost.

Are any of the characters in the book based on real people? If so then how much is based on truth and how much is fiction? For example the central family and also the writer who is the only official resident of the Red Zone and the elderly man in the camp who telephones his dead wife every day.

The only real person in the novel is the old writer, a historian, to be correct, who the day after the earthquake refused to leave his home, which had been only minimally damaged, and continued to live, alone, in the deserted city centre. The other characters are all fictional but I believe they are consistent with their background, made so peculiar by the earthquake.


Your previous novel was about dementia and its impact on a mother-daughter relationship. What makes you choose to tackle such sensitive subjects?

I believe that pain is an inevitable part of our existence. It is also what allows us to give shape and highlight our human “essence”. For this reason it needs to be explored, talked about, so that we can get to know it and accept it. When we experience joy and happiness, we can simply be, but we have to learn to work on our pain.


How have you found the process of having your writing translated and what advice would you give to aspiring female Italian writers?

Holding in your hands your book translated into another language is very exciting, even when you don’t understand that language. It is an amazing feeling to realise that what you have written can leave you behind and travel much further than you can. My advice to young Italian female writers is to believe in themselves and to nurture themselves and their writing, by reading and experiencing life as much as they can.

Can you describe your writing routine?

I don’t write methodically and I don’t write at fixed times. I steal the time to write when the story forming inside me urges me to do so. I often write in bed, on my laptop, in positions that are uncomfortable and hurt my back. I am curious about and open to the world, to other people. With the earthquake in L’Aquila, I felt immediately involved, because the experience of pain and loss is universal, it affects us all. And I know and love the town, so I felt its wounds and those of its people, in particular.

How did you combine your job as a paediatric dentist with writing your books? Would you consider writing full time?

Dentist by day, writer by night! Actually, the best time for me to write is at dawn, when the house is immersed in silence and my rested thoughts are eager to find their way onto the page. There are times I think I would love to be able to write full time but I don’t think I could bear to be separated from my little patients.


Are you planning on writing a new book and if so, what will it be about?

Yes, I am finishing a new novel which will be published in Italy by Einaudi next February. It is again a novel about fundamental relationships, about mothering experiences, broken and then renewed and partially mended, and the traumatic effect of these on the children involved.

Bella Mia is available now from Calisi Press.


Rebuilding Shattered Lives After Seismic Loss

Rebuilding Shattered Lives After Seismic Loss

Bella Mia by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson): Calisi Press, November 2016

I voluntarily return to the place that killed my sister

Lips tremor with grief, hands tremor with age, voices tremor with anger. Italy has been wracked by earthquakes in recent years causing widespread devastation and loss of life.  Bella Mia explores the aftermath of one such true event in the historic city of L’Aquila in the early hours of the 6th of April 2009.

At the heart of the story is a fictional family surviving in temporary shelter. Caterina, the central character, has lost her twin sister Olivia in the disaster, who was mother to a teenaged boy. A single woman and artist in her 30s, Caterina struggles to come to terms with her loss, making sacrifices to look after her newly bereaved nephew, Marco, while comforting her mother in her grief at the death of a child. They live in the ‘C.A.S.E.’, provisional accommodation in an artificial suburb lacking in essential services.

The nephew makes forbidden visits to the ‘Red Zone’, the historic town centre that now stands empty and deserted. Eerie details reveal a place frozen in time as dusty posters outside the cinema promote films showing the day before the earthquake. One building has lost its façade entirely, its contents exposed to the world including clothes hanging in an open wardrobe and pasta on the kitchen shelves. Marco sneaks in regularly to his cordoned-off house, a trespasser in his own home desperate to feel close to his late mother whose favourite snack, a jar of anchovies, still sits half eaten on the worktop.


This is a beautifully detailed account of the minutiae of daily life in extraordinary circumstances providing an unsentimental and realistic insight into the nature of sudden bereavement. At the cemetery, a friendship develops between two grieving mothers, one of whom has lost her six-year-old daughter and worries for all the children at rest there as the weather grows cold. Memories of two birthday cakes filling the fridge and the twins’ annual midnight toast in their shared childhood bedroom contrast with heartbreakingly intimate moments such as the cleansing of Olivia’s body by her sister and mother in preparation for the funeral.

Bella Mia is a prizewinning book with an important message about the real-life response to the disaster. Di Pietrantonio reveals how experts had reassured worried residents prior to the earthquake.  After months of warning tremors, the Orwellian sounding ‘Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks’ had declared it safe to stay in their homes when in reality, laws regarding construction of earthquake-proof buildings had not been properly enforced. Poorly built houses in an area prone to earthquakes were subsequently unable to withstand the impact.

The build-up to the fatal event is brought vividly to life as the family plans to hide under the kitchen table before fleeing the building. The earthquake is described in harrowing detail as birds fall silent and dogs start barking frantically in the early hours of the morning. A desperate search in the rubble for survivors ensues. The main tremor only lasted twenty seconds but its consequences persist to this day. Over three hundred people were killed including children and young students. One thousand five hundred were injured and around sixty five thousand made homeless from the town and nearby villages.

Caterina’s family endures a state funeral with rows of coffins lined up on a red carpet in the glare of photographers and television crews, followed by weeks living in shared tents.

We were privileged refugees at the camp. Famous chefs would come and cook for our meagre appetites

After recent events in Italy, this story powerfully resonates. Caterina’s reassurance that they only get one earthquake ‘every 300 years’ has already been sadly disproved. This year alone, earthquakes have affected the regions of Umbria, Le Marche, Lazio and Abruzzo, killing over two hundred people and highlighting the continuing state of limbo experienced by the survivors of 2009.

Today, L’Aquila’s centre remains unfinished amidst allegations that corruption has hindered progress. Part building site, part ghost town, many of its former residents are still languishing in temporary accommodation, their lives suspended as they wait, forced to come to terms with the likelihood that their old homes may have to be demolished and rebuilt.

The bureaucracy is mind-blowing, it slows the process down, every time we’re nearly there something else comes up

But Bella Mia is ultimately a story of human resilience.  As time goes on, hearts that were already fractured before the earthquake and almost destroyed by it gradually begin to heal. The nephew tentatively restores his shattered relationship with his father, Caterina opens herself up to love, and a stray dog joins the family. The key message is one of fragile hope as lives are re-built and the Italian sense of community and tradition survives in adversity.

L’Aquila bella mia, my beloved, I want to see you again

Click here to buy Bella Mia direct from Calisi Press.

About the publisher:

Calisi Press is an independent publisher committed to promoting unique and high-quality work by Italian women writers in translation. It was originally set up to publish Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s other great novel, My Mother is a River.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet, and reviewer of books. Based in London, she has lived in Rome and is a frequent visitor to Italy.  Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123



My Mother Is A River – Review

My Mother Is A River – Review

A moving exploration of the complex relationship between a daughter and her mother in the shadow of dementia.

My Mother Is A River by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated by Franca Scurti Simpson: Calisi Press, November 2015.

My Mother Is a River is a story of love, relationships and identity lost and found. It explores an only-daughter’s response to her mother’s descent into the grip of a cruel disease which causes the gradual loss of someone who continues to remain physically present.

The unnamed daughter takes on the role of narrator and pieces together the life story of her mother, Esperina, who was born in a remote village in Italy during the Second World War into a relatively poor family whose traditions had lasted for centuries. The story provides a glimpse of a nation at a key point in its history as it develops into a modern, united country. We discover how events of the past shaped Esperina’s identity and by telling her story, the daughter gives her a voice and reveals her to be a strong, robust woman who worked hard and provided for her family against the odds.

This book is unique in the memoir genre because it is up to the daughter to tell us about the mother’s life as Esperina is no longer able to do so directly. The daughter’s re-telling of her mother’s story, intertwined with her own, reveals her shifting role from a fiercely independent woman into a fragile shadow of her former self. The challenges faced by a working mother resonate in the modern world. Guilt and misplaced priorities are revealed as the daughter recalls how Esperina would toil in the fields by day and be busy with housework in the evening, her own resentment emerging as she states that her mother was ‘too accustomed to sacrifice to allow herself the pleasure of spending time with her baby’. The daughter herself is forced to adapt to a shifting role as she becomes the parent figure, escorting her mother to appointments and reassuring her.

My Mother is a River

As the story unfolds, time is depicted as a precious and precarious commodity with both nurturing and destructive powers. We learn the cruel way in which dementia prevents any sense of resolution to conflict. With age, the daughter herself has a clearer understanding of her mother’s choices and wishes she could resolve her anger by addressing her childhood feelings of neglect. Her early experiences shaped her character and deep down she still feels like a neglected child longing for her mother’s time: ‘I was still planning to settle my score with her when she escaped from me into her illness’.

The daughter states directly that she does not care, but her love is obvious in the kind way she speaks to her as she attempts to help her manage the chaos of her mind, placing labels on drawers and buying her a dishwasher. These little tokens provide a poignant insight into her desire to help her mother maintain her routine for as long as possible. The truth of her love is expressed not in words but through actions and in the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. She chooses her words carefully and uses them to help her mother make sense of her actions.

Old routines of rural village life which have died out mirror Esperina’s disappearing memories. There are rich descriptions of food and festivities and beautiful details paint a vivid picture of Italy in the past. Italian culture and tradition are richly depicted and the importance of food permeates almost every page. Esperina continues to cook but mistakes caused by memory loss and confusion become increasingly serious, resulting in a meal ‘even the pigs won’t eat’. She eventually leaves a pan in the fridge containing nothing but broken glass.

My Mother Is a River is a challenging read which truly showcases the innovation and risk-taking that characterises the contemporary small press scene. It is a searingly honest account of the complex range of feelings experienced when caring for a loved one with dementia. Guilt, grief, frustration and anger; protectiveness, love, nostalgia and regret. The reader is invited into the chaos which the narrator is attempting to put into order through words as she goes along. The narrator shifts frequently between past and present, recounting shared experiences directly with her mother and making private observations about her current state. Harrowing topics such as sexual abuse and childhood disfigurement are described in an almost fairy-tale-like way with references to ogres and young farm maidens in distress. The novel subtly depicts the therapeutic power of storytelling to help make sense of the world as the daughter observes: ‘I dispense my own story to her, and a…tablet every twelve hours, in the mild hope that it will slow down the degeneration of her neurons’.

‘Her memory is now a manuscript traced with invisible ink; I leaf through it page by page and hold it to the flame to reveal its secret’.

This is Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s first novel and it has won two prestigious literary prizes. The author’s second book, Bella Mia, was published in Italy in 2014 by Elliot Edizioni, a publishing house promoting up and coming writers with a unique voice.

My Mother Is a River is published by Calisi Press, an independent publisher committed to promoting Italian women writers in the English speaking world. Calisi Press was founded specifically to publish this novel, such was the enthusiasm of the founder, Franca Simpson, for its unique quality and message.

Buy My Mother Is a River direct from Calisi Press here.  Calisi Press will donate 50p from the sale of every copy of My Mother Is a River to the Alzheimer’s Society.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is an avid reader and creative writer. She has a keen interest in Italian culture and lived in Rome for two years. Her own mother was recently diagnosed with early onset dementia. Follow Becky on Twitter: @BeckyD123