Michelle Alfano is one of the most vibrant and honest voices in the Toronto literary community. He first novella, Made up of Arias, won the Bressani Award for Short Fiction and she was an amazing Associate Editor-in-Chief for the literary quarterly Descant. Alfano also writes an engaging literary blog (www.alitchick.blogspot.ca), and is the co-founder of the long-running reading series, The (Not So) Nice Italian Girls and Friends. Her latest work is a powerful and intimate memoir about being the mother of a transgendered child.
Why did you write this memoir?
Initially, The Unfinished Dollhouse began as a daily blog under an anonymous name and I was just cataloguing what I was feeling and what was happening when my son River came out as transgender at the age of sixteen – a particularly challenging time for the whole family. I stopped for a while and my son urged me to continue. Then it evolved into something I wanted to have for the parents of transgender children that might honestly present our feelings as parents – the need to protect your child, confusion, fear, anger, discomfort, intense love… that it was legitimate to have all of these feelings. Sometimes simultaneously.
What was your writing process like?
When I start something new I commit to writing a minimum of 500 words a day (roughly two typewritten pages), no matter what the quality of the work is. Just to get the creative flow going. Usually, when I start a new project I must envision the end and work my way towards it. This might be an eccentric way of visualizing it, but I think of the new work as if it was an incomplete alphabet – I start with “Z” – the ending – and then add the letters as I go along. It might be “Q” or “B” or “L”. I fill in the narrative blanks.
What is the meaning of the title?
The meaning of The Unfinished Dollhouse… When our child River was four (before there was any consciousness of gender and he presented as female) we bought a dollhouse. River had no interest whatsoever in the dollhouse or other traditionally feminine things. Rob, my husband, and I argued about how it should be constructed and decorated. I was very rigid about how I thought it should be designed. It became a metaphor for my thoughts about gender and what kind of person (specifically the type of girl) that River should be. That it was never finished is an apt metaphor for our relationship – River never conformed to my stereotyped image of what a girl should be because he was not a girl. The dollhouse was never completed due to lack his lack of interest in this traditionally feminine toy.
What was the hardest part of writing this memoir?
It was difficult to write about, and re-live, River’s health issues from the ages of 12 to 16. He fell into a severe depression at the age of 12 and he also experienced a series of undiagnosed physical ailments – stomach problems, chest pains, headaches, mysterious aches in other parts of his body, lethargy, extreme exhaustion, intense social anxiety. He suffered largely in silence for four years until he could express what was truly troubling him – that he was not living the life that he felt he should be living – as a boy. We were frightened and bewildered as there did not appear any physical causes for his illness. This was difficult to re-live as a writer.
What kind of reaction do you think it will get?
The revelation that River is trans usually engenders several different responses in the people we know: by far the foremost one is kindness and an attempt to understand, then there are those who are kind but bewildered and don’t know how to react so they are cautious when they speak of it. There is also those who simply act as if River has disappeared from the planet and never mention him; and, lastly, there is the group of people who act as if we have all perished and never have contact with us anymore. I imagine the media reaction (if any) will be similar: mostly kindness and support, sometimes bewilderment, feigned ignorance or, sadly, a complete disavowal of the existence of trans people.
Which is harder to write, fiction or non-fiction?
Non-fiction, as in the creation of a personal memoir, is definitely more emotional and therefore more difficult!
You have run the reading series Not So Nice Italian Girls and Friends for years, what’s the main focus of this series and when is the next one?
The reading series was created in 2009 and was formed to promote the work of Italo-Canadian writers as well as to create a dialogue with writers of all backgrounds, orientations and ethnicities. The plan is to have our third annual “Amazons of the Mediterranean” reading – an all female line-up – during the month of June – Italian Heritage Month.
Does your Italian background play any role in what you write?
It did initially with my first book Made Up of Arias – the plot explicitly deals with a young Italian-born, working class mother obsessed with opera who imagines herself to be an operatic heroine or in my second (unpublished) novel about the life of the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano. But my current fiction project does not touch upon my ethnicity at all.
What advice do you have for people trying to write a memoir?
Take risks, even if it means including embarrassing revelations. Persist. Keep writing. If it moves you, it will likely move others.
What are you working on now?
I have two projects that I am working on: completing a piece of historical fiction about the life of Salvatore Giuliano in a novel entitled We Were Like You. I have a second project entitled Destiny, think of me while you sleep – a modern drama about a love triangle set in Toronto.