Entitled The Fireflies of Autumn, the book was launched the following Wednesday at Co.As.It. by its author and Dr Antoni Jach.
Also attending the launch was Dann Cass, representing the Deborah Cass Prize, which Giovannoni won in 2016 for ‘Buona Fortuna!’, one of the passages in the novel.
The book contains stories of Giovannoni’s birthplace, the Tuscan town of San Ginese, which interweave with the stories of migrants who left the small village and began new lives in the US, Canada, Argentina and Australia.
“I wanted to tell stories from when I was young,” the author and translator said.
“When I was 12 years old, I convinced my father to buy me a typewriter. We were in Melbourne to sell the tobacco that my father grew in Buffalo River and then sold at the Footscray Market. One day he took me into the city and bought me a small typewriter. I used to write all the time, even when everyone was in bed.”
Then he explained that he grew up, got married, had children.
With bills and a mortgage to pay, he didn't feel he could make an adequate living from writing, so he set his passion aside until around a decade ago, when his children grew older and he had fewer expenses.
Giovannoni enrolled in a master’s degree in creative writing and began attending writers’ groups and festivals.
Through these, he learnt the technical aspects of writing, and also the importance of others’ help.
Published by Black Inc., the novel alternates between humorous moments and more serious and evocative ones, many of which are relatable to anyone who has experienced migration.
It also explores the concept of nostalgia, the sense of being uprooted and not feeling at home in your new country, or in your old one.
“I grew up in an Italian family. My mother suffered from homesickness for many years,” Giovannoni recalled.
“As a young boy I didn’t notice; she always spoke of Italy, of my grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts… in the end she stopped but only after decades. In his final years, my father began to doubt himself and he asked me and my brother if he had done the right thing coming to Australia.
“It made me think: ‘Damn! They came here, they worked, they raised a family, but in the end did they do ok or not?’”
The Fireflies of Autumn explores emotions that migrants often bottle up inside without admitting that, despite having lived a happy life in Australia, there was also some suffering.
“In the 1950s, Italians weren't escaping the war,” said Giovannoni, who migrated to Australia in 1958, when he was two years old.
“They wanted to better themselves, they were seeking a better life. Therefore, to know whether you have succeeded becomes very important.”
Giovannoni not only experienced migration through the eyes of his parents, but also firsthand.
Along with his family, he returned twice to live in San Ginese - the first time during high school and the second time when he studied at the University of Pisa.
“I settled in quickly, it was as though I was returning to where people knew me,” he recalled.
“In Italy you’re part of a community, but here you’re always an outsider even if your first language is English and you grew up here.
“I was disappointed when we returned to Australia. It was a whole other life in Italy. Here we lived in the country and we had little contact with people. In Italy I had lots of friends, and we’d jump on Vespas and go to Lucca. We’d go to Piazza delle Catene and we’d sit and watch the people, the girls…”
In his novel, Giovannoni recounts many stories that his parents passed on to him – stories which were penned in letters and sent to them from Italy, which he would collect from the letterbox at his mother’s request.
From a linguistic perspective, the pages are peppered with regional words and expressions.
Giovannoni explained that this was an intentional choice in an aim to preserve these phrases and sayings.
He also intentionally wrote in an English which isn’t too refined, to highlight that the stories within were memories thought of in Italian and entrusted to a translator.
Scattered throughout the pages are also visual elements, including a map of San Ginese and its surroundings and family photos.
Despite the long research phase that came before the writing of The Fireflies of Autumn, there’s no desire to verify its historical accuracy.
The book’s historical elements, such as references to the fascist era and World War II, are depicted through the lens of the general public.
These significant events are marked by the likes of a cellar wall which was destroyed by an American army tank, rather than episodes similar to those in academic texts.
The characters (Bucchione, Sucker, Vitale, Tommaso the Killer) are based on Giovannoni’s ancestors and the San Ginese which he knows but which no longer exists.
“When I returned with my wife and children in 1997, after 20 years, I realised that everyone I knew had passed away,” the author said.
“Now I go to the cemetery to see them.”
A recurring theme throughout the novel is a sense of community and the convivial atmosphere in the village, where various joys and misfortunes are shared by all members.
“I witnessed the end of the agrarian society in the ’60s and ’70s,” Giovannoni explained.
“My grandfather still had a stable with cows and there was always a pile of waste; how it stunk!
“Summer evenings in the yard, chatting with people – I’ve never had this lifestyle in Australia. There was always company there.”
Today in San Ginese – and many other small villages – hardly any people fill the streets and squares.
But at the end of the book, we see that the circle of life (and migration) continues: an Albanian family building a new house in the town and a Moroccan child on a bike.
“Slowly but surely, the town is reborn,” Giovannoni said.
“They will be the new people of San Ginese, the new Italians.”