In 2020, 34.8% of children born in England and Wales had at least one parent from outside the UK, and this figure is rising. A mixed heritage brings riches. There’s more of everything: recipes, languages, festivals and the handy ability to code-switch. But it also comes with a sense of dislocation that complicates the notion of home. Amaryllis Gacioppo’s remarkable literary debut, Motherlands, follows this yearning to its source. A writer and translator born in Australia to Italian parents, Gacioppo traces her ancestral footsteps through four cities: Turin, Benghazi, Rome and Palermo. Using boxes of sepia-tinted photographs, archival documents, and the oral history she has gathered all her life, she pieces together her family history from her great-grandparents’ generation to the present. Part memoir, part travelogue, Motherlands is ultimately an investigation of how we come to understand the past at all. It is also, perhaps, a love letter to her Italian grandmother Annalisa, the source of her stories, whose death was preceded by a stroke that silenced her.
The book’s five chapters reflect Gacioppo’s own and her ancestors’ journeys. Her great-grandmother Rita moved from Turin to Benghazi, in Libya, where she married Salvatore; her grandmother Annalisa, born in Benghazi, was sent to Turin at the outbreak of the second world war; the family were reunited in Rome and moved to Palermo; Gacioppo’s mother, born in Palermo, moved to Australia, and Nonna Annalisa followed.
Gacioppo begins by deconstructing the very concept of the homeland. Ultimately, it is a fantasy, a psychic vessel to hold the diaspora’s sense of displacement, a lost Eden. Ironically, it is this very idealisation that makes a homeland impossible to return to. The passage of time and social change mean the frozen tableaux in the minds of those who have left bear little resemblance to reality. From the beginning, Gacioppo is aware that what she seeks is a mirage, but one that she is nonetheless driven to try to reach. As memories of loved ones begin to fade, the quest acquires a new emotional resonance and sense of urgency. “To lose a mother tongue or an inherited culture is to become a stranger to something innate within us. We lose the ability not only to articulate, but to speak to, a part of ourselves.”
For each city, Gacioppo uses a different means of navigation. Her account of Turin is punctuated by Google Maps directions. In Benghazi, photographs structure her investigation. In Palermo, she uses antique street plans. In doing so, she shows how our experience of place is always multilayered. Sights and smells, memories, artistic interpretations and maps all jostle to create a composite in the mind. She is struck while in Turin by the relative cultural coolness and formality of northern Italy, and how its Roman and fascist history seems to contribute to its vast, grey, imperial presence. On the steps of her grandmother’s former home, she notes the collision of fantasy with reality. “I had expected to feel something, standing at the entrance to the apartment building – a sense of profundity, or an awakening of some kind … a memory of my grandmother’s passed down to me through DNA.”
Items in Annalisa’s old trunks back in Australia nevertheless bring aspects of her past to life. There are art deco martini glasses, 1920s bloomers, antique cameras, cigarette cases and silk fans, endless tea sets and a few precious photo albums and scrapbooks. Two of these are devoted to her great-grandparents’ time in Libya, where Rita migrated in 1917. As she tries to piece together what it was like for them there, Gacioppo reaches the limits of what she will ever be able to know. The photographs obscure more than they reveal.
Libyans seem notably absent from the romantic stories Annalisa told about life in her birthplace of Benghazi. Instead, they gave the impression of an exotic colonial playground, much like the propaganda prospective Italian settlers were fed by the government. And in among the cache of photographs there are some deeply uncomfortable intimations – children performing fascist salutes, a man hanging from a noose in the desert. Gacioppo confronts these difficult moments honestly, acknowledging that family histories are often, like history more broadly, whitewashed. When she tries to “read” a black and white photograph from Salvatore’s scrapbook, the very idea of historical truth as something that can be grasped falls to pieces. “I don’t know what to think of whatever association he may have had with fascism, but there is no concrete reason to think that moral scruples held him back,” she writes. “And what if he did? How to think of him? What does it mean that there is no way of knowing? Who are these strangers who made us possible?”
Sometimes, when Gacioppo hits a wall in her efforts to reach back in time, her solution is to enter a reverie in which she imagines what happened. These passages are deliciously written, rich and evocative. They sparkle even amid the crystalline prose of Motherlands as a whole. But there is no intention to deceive: she is always scrupulous about differentiating between source material, be it archived letters, a tale an aunt once told, or her own creative invention. This is what lends Motherlands its integrity and clarity.
In the chapter on Rome, Gacioppo turns to the present to explore questions of citizenship, belonging, blood and birthright. She meets people who have spent their lives in the city, who are passionate about politics, but who cannot vote because their parents were born elsewhere. The question of how someone is made to prove they fit into a society descends into farce in Italy just as it has with the UK citizenship test, which most Britons would fail.As the journey of Motherlands draws to a close in Palermo, Gacioppo watches children of Senegalese and Moroccan heritage speak fluent Palermitano while they play football. “A real Palermitan speaks Palermitano,” she observes, admitting that it is a language she cannot speak, although she was able to obtain an Italian passport with ease. In a city haunted by past incarnations of itself, “the ghostly absent-presence of that which was razed … and the fetid roots of torn-up citrus groves, whose dust I imagine rests under the paved ground like decomposing bodies – is a testament to the irrevocability of time. With each step forward into the future, something is lost, and this loss, the void created by it, travels with us. It is there to remind us that there is no such thing as returning.”
• Motherlands is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.