1st December 2015 - Franca Scurti Simpson
One of the joys of being a translator is bringing books to whole new audiences that wouldn't previously have been able to read them. But for Franca Scurti Simpson, giving English readers the chance to try Italian author Donatella Di Pietrantonio's My Mother is a River required more than just her skills with language.
When people really like a book, they will often recommend it to their friends. With My Mother Is a River I went a little further: I decided to translate it from the Italian and start a publishing company, Calisi Press, so that I could recommend it to the entire English-speaking world.
So, what was it about this book that made me do that? A commercial translator with literary translation ambitions but no publishing experience behind me, I had considered the 'do-it-yourself' route to publishing before but it was only when I came across Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s first novel about the conflicted relationship between a middle-aged woman and her mother that the idea really took hold. I could identify with the narrator and her ambivalent feelings about her mother, her desire to pull away and rebuff, and the guilt for wanting to do so. Like the narrator’s mother, my mother too had suffered from dementia. Her day to day care, in her final years, fell on my father and my sister so I was spared the daily living with her disappearing self but the distance and inability to contribute to her care only added to my guilt.
I found the book very moving and totally engrossing. Some stories grab your attention in the first few lines, and some, like Donatella’s story, draw you in slowly but no less powerfully, they grow around you and inside you, until you find yourself mesmerised without quite knowing how it all happened.
'She was the beginning of all my longings, the mother of every loneliness', we hear the narrator say. She isn’t talking to us. Reading My Mother Is a River is like eavesdropping on a very private conversation. We listen to our narrator, whose name we never learn, talking to herself or to her mother, whose voice we never hear. She is not aware of us listening, and therefore feels no need to introduce herself, her setting or her purpose. It is a slightly disconcerting experience at times, until we have attuned ourselves to her voices, and we learn to differentiate the patient and considerate tone she uses with her mother from the brutally honest, sometime scared and anguished, sometime detached way she talks to herself. It makes for an extremely intimate experience, to the point of occasionally feeling intrusive, even illicit.
It is a story that deals with universal themes. The beautiful region of Abruzzi, its rural past, its culinary traditions, its breathtaking scenery and rich history, they all provide a slightly exotic backdrop but the themes, those of conflicted mother and daughter relationships and of caring for aging parents while facing one’s own mortality and limitations, are universal. It is a story that deserves to be known and loved, and I am proud and honoured to have played a part in that.
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