Friday, August 27, 2010

Mamma Rita's advice

Mamma Rita thinks that instead of trying to publish my memoir in the U.S. or New Zealand, I should publish it in Naples.

This idea may at first seem unreasonable. Not only is my book written in English, but it’s about Naples. I imagine Neapolitan readers would much prefer to read about rainforests filled with the pitter-patter of flightless birds than their own city in all its grimy, gory details. And if anyone deserves literary escapism, it’s the Neapolitans, who have endured centuries of corruption, earthquakes, plagues, volcanic eruptions, Camorra shootings and famine. Is it really fair to add to their sufferings with my own 450-page book?

But I have implicit trust in Mamma Rita’s advice. Let me give you a few reasons why.

Her intuition. Rewind to 1989. There were no security checks at airports (remember, we used to just walk on to the plane?). The Berlin wall was still intact. Maradona was still thin and playing for Napoli. And in a small town outside Naples, a 40-year-old sinner (Catholic for “divorcée”) named Rita had just agreed to help out her friend Santina, an exchange program coordinator desperate to find one last host family for a 16-year-old from Washington, D.C. Santina showed her a photo-booth shot of a girl named Heddi (“Eddie” in Italian), which for some reason made Rita crack into that childlike laugh of hers that scrunched her eyes into temporary blindness.

The next day, Santina informed her of a slight change of plans. She needed to swap her exchange student with another girl, named Tania.

“No, I don’t want Tania. I want Eddie,” said Rita.

“What’s the difference? You haven’t met either one of the girls.”

“I want Eddie and that’s the end of that.”

Intuition, that stingy slap in the face of reason. And Mamma Rita knew exactly when to deal it. Now, because of it, twenty-three years later her son Massimo owns an Italian restaurant in Chicago, my son calls her “Nonna” (Grandma), and she still starts all our phone conversations with, “I’m going to come over there and beat you up for not calling me sooner!” before splitting into that succulent laugh.

Her broken heart. Literally the day after Mamma Rita picked me up from the train station in the rain, looking as irresistible as – in her own words – a wet stray, her long-term boyfriend announced that, despite his medically-confirmed sterility, he’d gotten a girl pregnant. Dinner plates went flying. Framed photos shattered. Several times the telephone eclipsed the chandelier on its trajectory towards the wall, where its impact was camouflaged by the cracks already left by the 1980 earthquake. The German shepherd whimpered in the corner. As for the new exchange student? Well, talk about an introduction to the Italian language! Let’s put it this way: I learned the most important words first.

How does all this make me trust Mamma Rita’s literary advice? I don’t know but I just have this feeling that broken-hearted people are more worldly and that people with perpetually happy love lives just don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

Her cooking. Do you want to know how to make any Italian immigrant shed a tear for mamma? Well, Mamma Rita told me how: add a garden-fresh tomato to his pasta e fasul. Want a zestier minestrone? Just before serving, add extra garlic browned in oil. A sweeter bolognese? Add a diced carrot. The best meatballs? Use stale bread. Salt? By the fistful. Feeling ill today? Eat pasta with lemon and oil.

Not only can Mamma Rita cook her socks off, she is also a custodian of the most foolproof gems of traditional Italian cuisine. I think you’ll agree with me that a person with such unassailable culinary advice is bound to give sound literary advice.

Her legs. I realize this is not a typical reason for trusting someone, but Mamma Rita has legs that no 63-year-old should be allowed to have. Slender, taut, hairless and eternally tanned, those legs have caused envy in many women and distress in many hopelessly married men. To have legs like that, she must know something the rest of us don’t.

Her connections. If you have spent any time in Southern Italy, or Brooklyn, you will know that it’s all about who you know. Being unconnected in Naples is the practical equivalent of being either one-legged, half-deaf or a tourist; it’s a handicap which makes everyday tasks – such as sending a package or finding an authentic restaurant – colossally complicated. But when you know people, the right people (though you’d be wrong to interpret my ever-so-subtle wink here as an allusion to the Mafia), you can stride hurdles that most of us in the ‘civilized’ world would not even dream of overcoming.

But Mamma Rita does not boast a list of mediocre connections: she is über-connected. Let me give you an example. To prod her devious employer into allowing her her due retirement, she enlisted the help of a friend, the head of one of the largest hospitals in the area. Naturally, this doctor falls into the category of married men with a hopeless crush on Rita who contents himself with downing the occasional espresso in her presence, especially in the summer when her legs are at their most saturated, and her eyes and wit at their most sparkling. It is also natural that he would write and sign a document on letterhead stating that Rita suffered from an ailment (which, by employment law, need not be named) requiring urgent treatment of a duration of no less than three months, and that this specialist treatment was offered only in America, more specifically Chicago, where (by the most astounding luck) her son resided. Did her colleagues believe her? Probably not. But did it matter?

Mamma Rita spent those months laundering Massimo’s socks or simmering ragù in his central city apartment, dining out with all his friends and practicing the sixteen or seventeen words of English that she has carefully amassed over the years to acquire a host of cosmopolitan friends and devastate a throng of suitors. And because every day she went religiously to the gym, she also lost a good deal of weight. To match her new relaxed and healthy self, at the end of her stay she decided to pop into the hairdresser’s for a snazzier, shorter look. When she flew back to Naples and returned to work, jaws dropped. She stood before her co-workers, gaunt and with hair that had only just started to 'grow back' after her ‘treatment’ in the U.S.

“Have you seen Rita? The poor thing.” Their whispers fell into respectful silence, and they haven’t questioned her since.

Indeed, I trust the advice of a woman who can instil fear and reverence in her colleagues for taking three months off to do aqua aerobics in Chicago.

So, another one of Mamma Rita’s connections is a publisher in Naples. Need I say more?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dear diary

Dear diary,

Sorry it’s been so long since I last wrote. Years! Please don’t take offence that I recently started a journal: it means nothing to me and I only share with it things like how many prunes I gave my toddler at snacktime and how dearly I paid for it later. Things you might share with a stranger on the bus. Yes, there were those travelogues in Samoa and Vietnam, but they were short-lived and relatively superficial and I’ve hardly looked back on them since. But you and I, we’re so much more than that.

I like to remember when we first met, in seventh grade. We were both such '80s fashion victims back then, you trying to look professional and wise with your old-fashioned rose-print cover, and me trying to blend in with the crowd with those yellow florescent socks. In those days I confided so much in you, especially after Jennifer and Crystal snubbed me. To this day I can still replicate Jennifer’s trendsetting walk, which I had down to a tee in my own pair of pink All Stars, proof that you don’t have to take ballet to waddle like a duck. I vividly remember Crystal Francis’ birthmark on her scalp that naturally gave her that Wham! splash of blonde in the midst of her dark feathered hair, a genetic gift that instils me even today with a wild desire to crack open a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. In my mind’s eye, those two girls are still almost as unattainably beautiful, cool and mysterious as Wonder Woman, despite the fact that they retracted their friendship just as soon as I delivered them the last instalment of my Depression-era saga. Oh, how they used me! (You’ll remember, dear diary, that first novel of mine, hand-written, hole-punched and lovingly bound with red yarn? I can’t for the life of me understand why I never tried to publish that masterpiece!)

But that was ages ago. Where should I pick up now? I’ll start with the mundane.

Do you know what I did today? I cleaned the vestibule. Yes, the vestibule. The area where you enter the house, wipe your feet, hang your coat and pour yourself a glass of milk from the fridge. (However, it is my understanding that most people keep their refrigerator in the kitchen.) You may think it’s of no consequence that I cleaned the vestibule of its cobwebs, rearranged the coats, wiped the fridge door and scoured the microwave above it. But I have such an aversion to certain types of chores that I almost had it written into my marriage vows: “I love you and will always love you, in sickness and in health; I will do the cooking, the dishes and straightening to a reasonable standard but I do not and will not iron clothes or clean windows, toilet bowls or vestibules.”

So, you must be asking yourself, dear diary, why on earth did I clean the vestibule? It’s all because I hired a virtual cleaner. Let me try and explain. My friend Michelle, a working mom, has decided to treat herself by getting in a house cleaner once a week, at the bargain price of thirty dollars. Not just thirty dollars, but thirty New Zealand dollars. Practically worthless. I could spend thirty dollars at the supermarket today and walk out with literally nothing more than a small package of diapers and a wedge of parmesan.

So I started to think how easy it would be to renounce parmesan and hire Michelle’s cleaner. No more scrubbing sinks, dusting the mantelpiece or watching my husband clean the toilet! I was thinking this powerful and liberating thought as I was reaching for the fridge door, situated in the aforementioned vestibule, when I noticed that there was an unsightly layer of black mould across its white surface, festering around the verb conjugations spelled in Italian Magnetic Poetry. I attacked it with a baby wipe, thinking, “I can’t possibly let the cleaner see that our fridge door hosts a breeding ground for E.coli between mangiare and dormire!” I imagined her self-satisfied smirk as she mumbled to herself, “These slobs really do need a cleaner,” and then her appalled look when she realized there are children in the household! It was humiliating.

But I couldn’t stop there. The fridge door was connected to the leaking fridge, which was connected to the spattered microwave, which grazed the filthy curtain, which came to rest on the blackened windowsill…There was no end to my embarrassment. Or to the amount of baby wipes I was willing to sacrifice. And before I even knew what I was doing, the vestibule was clean. No, not just clean. It sparkled. I could just see the cleaner nod approvingly as she entered the house. “Why, there’s nothing in this vestibule for me to clean!” she’d no doubt be thinking.

This, I believe, is proof of the fact that I actually do not need a cleaner to have a clean house. But I do very much need a virtual cleaner. She is the one who is about to come over with her hair tied back in a kerchief, wielding her magical bucket of cleaning products with awe-inspiring names like Powerzest and Bam!3. The one who is about to witness my true standard of sanitation and, therefore, the truth about me. She can see straight inside me, through me, in fact. So I get on my hands and knees and clean for her. I clean to seek her approval. I fear her. I admire her. I need her.

This leads me, dear diary, to the next logical question. Please don’t take this personally, but who are you anyway? Who am I writing to when no one but myself is probably ever going to read this? The most commonplace answer would be that I am writing to myself, to my consciousness, or to my future eighty-two-year-old self rereading these musty pages through an endearing pair of spectacles. Or perhaps a more environmentally-friendly version would have me writing to the next race of humans to give them a glimpse of our level of sophistication before we killed all the trees for paper and brought on our own extinction.

But, dear diary, I choose not to believe any of these explanations. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you clearly are not me. I’ve never written a diary entry to myself any more than I wrote that first epic novel for myself. I wrote it, chapter by chapter, for Jennifer and Crystal and though they may have been a small audience, they were the only audience in Wingate Junior High worth winning over. For a few implausible months, the most popular girls in the school were begging me to put them out of their misery by handing over the next chapter. The discerning, picky, beautiful people that I could otherwise never reach.

So now, my dearest beloved diary, because you know me so well you’ll be able to understand me when I say that, whoever you are, wherever you are, you are my virtual cleaner. I’ve never met you but I write for you. I look up to you. I trust your judgement. I write only to be read by you, to impress you, to move you. I need you. Without you, I’m a mess!

But if I am mistaken and no human being at all is actually going to set eyes on these lines until the year 6010, I just hope they have the technology to be able to analyze the fatty stains dotting this diary entry and confirm that, even if I did write myself to extinction, at least I was eating parmesan while I did it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A shrine to Michael Harriot

Since writing my memoir three years ago, what have I done to promote my book and get myself out there as a writer?

Have I joined a writing competition or slipped my manuscript (with a Ferrero Rocher attached) into the pigeonhole of my colleague whose sister is a published writer? Did I attend that writers’ conference which Eat Pray Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert was meant to speak at (and which we both pulled out of for personal reasons)? Have I started a sensational new “Vote my novel” website for aspiring authors or condensed my 450-page book into a five-minute musical for YouTube?

No, I have not employed any of these excellent tactics! I have, however, queried a lot of literary agents and changed a lot of diapers. It’s hard to say which is more pleasant.

Pitching yourself to an agent is a bit like writing a love note in your biology class to the most popular boy in the school. Against all good reason and with a hammering heart and trembling pencil, you somehow psyche yourself up enough to write: “I’m Heddi, the girl in the corner by the petri dishes. (Please don’t throw this note in the garbage before you get to the end.) You’ve probably never noticed me or heard of me before, but I am the co-editor of the school literary journal. I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re a really special person. I almost feel like we’ve met before. Like in a previous life. Maybe we could talk sometime after class and find out if we really do have the cool connection I think we might be fortunate enough to have. Thank you for reading this. I hope you have an awesome day.” And then you fold it up, write “Jeremy” on top, whisper a little prayer and entrust it to the chain of hands that passes it up to the front row, inwardly pleading it won’t get intercepted by Ms. Hoffman.

Afterwards, of course, you kick yourself for being so impulsive and over-the-top and signing off with “have an awesome day”. Then you become convinced you misspelled Jeremy. Or maybe even your own name. And then, during the long and dark wait for a reply, you do what any respectable writer would do to keep up their spirits: you build him a shrine.

Of course, the shrine is purely mental: I’m not organized enough to put together a real one complete with a photo, offering bowls with water and rice, incense, flowers and candles. Besides, shrines aren’t child-friendly.

My latest shrine is to a certain Mr. Michael Harriot, who I sent a query email to seventeen and a half days ago. He’s a literary agent from a big New York agency and from his online profile photo I can see he wears a suit and tie and has an office on an upper floor. Clearly, he’s out of my league. But I can’t help but feel that somehow we are kindred spirits. First of all, we both like to read. Secondly, we are both suckers for memoirs. Never mind that it appears, upon closer inspection, that his list mainly comprises memoirs by famous baseball players. These are unimportant details.

I carry this imaginary shrine to Michael Harriot around with me all day, in the hopes that, through my uncanny powers of telepathy, I can keep our connection alive despite the physical distance that separates us. I visualize the photo of him wearing that slightly self-conscious smile of his. Before class, basking in the glow of the photocopier, I think kind thoughts for him over there in postmeridian New York, hoping he’s not too tired after a long day at the office. And in the evening while I’m frying up some cumin-carrot hamburgers for my boys, I wish him a good night’s sleep so in the morning he can look through all those query letters with an open mind.

Often I find myself using his name. For example, I’ll be writing a particularly good turn of phrase and I’ll think, “Michael Harriot would like that!” (It’s never “Michael”, that would be overly familiar. It’s always “Michael Harriot”, partly because I like how his last name reminds me of the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets at the Marriott Hotel.)

Sometimes I even address him directly (still an internal dialogue, mind you). “Michael Harriot, just wait till you get to the end of my book; you’re going to be blown away!” At times I invoke him for advice: “Michael Harriot, do you think I should cut this chapter? You know I trust your professional expertise.”

Lately I’ve been asking him a lot more questions. “Michael Harriot, didn’t you say that your response time was from one minute to six weeks? Is the fact that you haven’t replied yet a sign that you are still mulling over whether you want to take the risk on an unknown writer, or a sign that you were so unmoved by my query letter that you couldn’t even be bothered answering?"

I admit that several times over the past few days I’ve caught myself imploring him. “Please, Michael Harriot, you just have to give me a shot! I can’t handle another rejection, especially not from you!”

What I won’t do, however, is pray. I’m not a Christian and I’m not desperate.

My sincere hope is that I don’t get to the point with Michael Harriot that I reached with all the others. I don’t like cursing, in any language, especially in front of my son. Yet if I have truly misjudged him and overestimated his ability to discern a bestseller, and thus receive a standard rejection email – or worse yet, one from his assistant – then I will just have to do what’s necessary to move on: burn down his shrine and find another god.