Eufemia Fantetti is an award-winning writer and stand up comic. Her debut collection of short stories, A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love, is sharp, funny and fast-paced. The stories push the limits of cultural stereotype, gender roles and above all are not boring. Her stories are witty but still manage to leave the reader with much to mull over. Just like a finely made espresso or a perfect plate of nonna’s gnocchi, Eufemia’s work leaves you satisfied.
Who are your major inspirations or influences while writing your latest collection of short stories?
The stories in A Recipe for Disaster were written over a lengthy period of time so the inspirations came from many sources. For years I wrote plays and kept putting on productions through the Fringe Festival – such a fantastic venue for an emerging writer. In between, I’d start a story or sign up for a fiction class. An abbreviated list of writers I admire and re-read would contain Amy Hempel, Aimee Bender, Daniel MacIvor, David Rakoff, David Sedaris, Gina Barreca, Gianna Patriarca, Junot Diaz, Rita Ciresi, Sherman Alexie and Sarah Vowell.
You have done stand-up comedy and your stories often use humour. How hard is it to be funny? Does it come naturally or do you have to craft it?
Nothing comes naturally to me except acting awkward in new social settings, eating when I’m hungry and falling asleep when I’m tired. I definitely have to work at it: comedy requires craft. I’ve used humour as shield and a salve; it often saves me from spiraling into despair. Sometimes I meet people who don’t bond over humour – they don’t appreciate jokes as ice-breakers or tension-busters – everything is compartmentalized into serious or silly. It’s almost as though there’s this unspoken agreement that tragedy is top-notch and comedy means second class. I inherited my sense of humour from my dad, (who refers to it as a “sense a human” in his lovely Italian-accented English). He’s an intensely reflective type, one of his teachers referred to him as a natural born philosopher. He loves to laugh and that’s something I’m incredibly blessed to have witnessed and experienced early on, particularly since so many of my older relatives have that Doomsday is Now at Hand approach to life, the classic “I’m old, I’ve endured too much, I pray for God to release me from my suffering” school of philosophy. My dad’s got an excellent sense of timing and he’s brilliant at observing people and mimicking them. You should hear his “old Italian lady voices her complaints” routine; it’s a knee-slapper.
Where did these stories come from? Are they based on personal experiences or observation and research?
The stories are a combination of experience and observation, a blend of imagination and speculation which seems an apt description for any act of creation. Akira Kurasawa said, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s gaze.” I find that I figure out what I’m looking at or interested in only after I write something down. Writing is the discipline that connects me to the rest of the cosmos, it’s a communion that bridges the canyons where I’ve failed to communicate compassion and develop kindness in the rest of my life. It’s my meditation practice and the path out of a personal purgatory.
Cooking and recipes play a large role in your collection. So, if you were stuck on an island and could only bring one recipe with you what would it be and why?
After I stopped screaming about being stuck on an island with no decent survival skills like starting a fire or building a lean-to from the available foliage, I’d cry because I wouldn’t have access to my dad’s prosciutto. (My father’s a master butcher, his work is so mouth-wateringly good that vegetarians have tried it and drooled.) Then I would stop my tears with a nice bowl of pasta fazool, because it just doesn’t get any better than that for a hearty meal.
How do you think your Italian background influences your writing? Does it?
I feel fortunate to have this insider window into two cultures, being born and raised in one and having the heritage of the other. It’s living the best of both worlds: I have my Tiramisu and I eat it too. Having another language influences the way I think without my even noticing it, to be honest. It’s in my speech patterns and malapropisms, my mispronounced words, and the way I read. It ultimately shows up when I write a sentence, the syntax is somehow structured around the rhythms of words and phrases that get caught in a language loop in my mind. I don’t speak Italian but a village vernacular, a Southern lingo that is fated to disappear. I suspect it will be gone in a few more generations with the widespread availability and usage of televisions.
In her TEDTalk, English teacher Patricia Ryan says, “Languages are dying at an unprecedented rate. A language dies every 14 days.” I think this is an astonishing and heartbreaking fact. Once those languages are lost, entire libraries and worlds of human knowledge crumble and perish – a mode of expression, a way of thinking becomes extinct – and this impoverishes us all.
I used to feel ashamed of my rural accent, tried hard to speak only the proper words I knew and took classes in Italian so that I could converse with the entire population of the country rather than just my family. For a brief time, I sounded more articulate and educated but I also felt pompous and pretentious, like I was putting on airs. I didn’t realize the source of my frustration until much later – it felt like I was splintering off a part of myself when my brain started wiping out the spoken language in favour of the written one. I was wandering away from the earliest words I’d ever learned, the first words I’d spoken and understood, the words that helped me make sense of the world. I quit studying Italian, though one day I hope to go back to it without sacrificing my mother tongue from Molise.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a memoir called Homesick about growing up with an immigrant mother struggling with severe schizophrenia. My mother’s illness has destroyed her life, and dictated the quality of the life of those closest to her, those most affected by her treatment-resistant, unrelenting psychotic episodes. It’s also about my search for a home in the world – a safe space – a place that will be an oasis from the stress and strife of circumstances compounded by chronic illness. The memoir deals with trying to build a home that will last as a safe haven, (an abode that abides) a dwelling that is a comfort instead of a cage.