The entire goal for me with writing, it’s like that moment, when you read a sentence that is so true, that it hits you in your heart and you think it’s like the writer’s just whispered into your ear and you feel seen by something that someone has written even in another country in another time. And I say, this is what the value of this is, is you are connecting to the universal experience of being a human being. And the more that we can do that for each other, the more we’re building bridges instead of burning them.
You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name is Eufemia Fantetti. I’m a writer, editor, and instructor. I teach the fundamentals of composition at Humber College and Intro to Creative Writing for the University of Guelph Humber.
I could never have imagined myself in this role when I was young and just wanting to be a writer, partly because of my cultural background and my family’s background and being working class and the expectations that were placed on me. I just could not even fantasize about a future like this. And when I went to school, I had the experience and it wasn’t just in university, but all the way through, from elementary school to middle school, to high school, I had those experiences of teachers that would call on you and single you out and make an example out of you.
And I just think back to that time, and I think like what kind of a person who’s in their thirties or forties feels good about taking out their frustrations on a 12 year old or a 14 year old, or say an eight year old?
And recently I was talking to a friend and I realized, I don’t know a single person who hasn’t been shamed or embarrassed by a teacher. That should not be happening. That is a failure in the education system.
I make sure during the first class that I set an example and I tell them: I will never call on you if you’re not asking to be called on; I will never make you feel bad because you didn’t do the homework; I will always give you an extension. You have as much time as you need, and as much support as you need.
With the creative writing students, I find it’s really helpful to focus on specifics. So we do writing tips every class like removing or eliminating vague pronouns, breaking clichés. Because when you’re young and you use a cliché, you think that you’re tapping into some incredible wisdom and you don’t realize that what you’re doing is really like poor writing and that it’s just weak on the page.
So I’m, um, really grateful for the opportunity to empower them with skills and really practical elements of the craft that I don’t remember learning when I went to school.
Excerpt from A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love
When the police arrive, Mamma is calm, her forehead smooth like the Buddha on Mr. Steinberger’s desk in the school detention room.
She tells them, “This must be some kind of mistake.” That word has turned out to be one of Mamma’s favorites. She uses it in a sentence like this: “You were a mistake, Con. Your brother Johnny was an accident.”
The officers left the lights on their squad car flashing a blue-and-red pinball pattern across our porch, so some of the neighbours come out onto their lawns and strain their necks to see what all the fuss is about. Our house, the one with a broken flagpole out front, provides a distraction from prime time television.
Mamma’s boyfriend, Randy, must have slipped out through the back door as soon as he heard the sirens. If John is an accident and I’m a mistake, then Randy is both a blunder and a calamity. Randy doesn’t have a job, unless you count the money Mamma gives him for babysitting us, so he spends a lot of time in his bathrobe, listening to a CB radio. He likes to monitor what’s happening in the outside world more than he cares to participate. Randy wanted to be a long-haul truck driver, but his right eye is glass from something that happened when he was my age and he won’t tell us anything about the accident. Mamma said it was him and his best pal joking around, and that’s why he doesn’t have so many friends now. He says he only needs six to carry his coffin, and that he can’t afford to part with any other vital organs.
When Mamma is mad, she says it’s not like Randy has a heart to lose.
A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love is a collection of six short stories. They were written over a long period of time and they all deal with my obsession with food and relationships and how they influence us. People assume that because my family is Italian, that my mother must have been a tremendous cook and that I, myself, am a fantastic cook and nothing could be further from the truth. Those stories really came out of my awareness that these things were so connected that so many times people had said things to me like food is love. I really would get stuck on that and think about it and be like, no food is food. Love is love. Yes, both provide nourishment, but only one is being processed by my gut.
So the other is being processed through my heart and through my mind. So the stories really sort of delve into like the difficulties in relationships that people have and when those relationships also involve food. So it’s, it’s really my obsession with what nourishes us.
People have described my humor as gallows humor occasionally. And it’s something that I think of as a superpower and a shield. It’s the only thing that’s been a buffer between me and some of the difficulties I’ve experienced with my mother’s illness and it really does come down to like, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. So it enters my writing naturally, but then I also try to amplify it because I just think there are so many absurdities in life. There are so many things that are ridiculous and ludicrous, and we need to, we need to acknowledge that. And at some days it is the funniest thing in the world to think like, this is so absurd that this is happening.
Does anybody else see this? The way that I see this? And I think that’s just, that’s been a gift that the universe has given me to be able to just like flip it. And it’s really a coping mechanism.
Excerpt from My Father, Fourtune-tellers & Me
In my old apartment in Vancouver, I answered a knock early one Sunday evening and found a policeman standing outside my door. I assumed something must have happened in the neighborhood and that the officer was going door to door in the co-op to warn everyone. Ridiculously handsome, tall and broad-shouldered, he looked as if he’d stepped out of a GQ magazine cover shoot, or maybe worked as a stripper in a cop uniform until he landed his big acting break.
I wore baggy track pants and a sweatshirt, my doing-laundry attire. I had my hair piled in a messy topknot, held in place with a scrunchie.
He said, “Don’t be alarmed.” Even his voice was gorgeous; soothing, like hot chocolate swirled with peppermint. “Is your name Eufemia?”
“—I’m a little alarmed that you know my name.”
“Your mother called the police in Toronto and reported you as a missing person.”
I closed the door behind the officer as he stepped into our kitchen. With his back turned to me, I reached up to undo my bun realizing, just in time, it would look mildly lascivious. Nothing could make my comfortable outfit appear more adult-in-control.
“My mother is severely mentally ill. I’ve been told her file with the Toronto police is the size of a telephone book.”
“Right, well, they gave us a call. Someone sent you an email, but you didn’t reply. We have to investigate every claim.”
I’d given my mother my cell phone number, thinking I would limit the aggravation from my roommate and my relatives it she could reach me. In the first week, she left 17 messages, shouting, screaming, badgering, and bullying threats that went on for five minutes at a time. I called her, told her I couldn’t take it anymore and changed my number.
I explained this all to the officer. He nodded and looked sympathetic. “At least this time was quick. Sometimes we go to ten houses before we find who we’re looking for. It only took us an hour to find you.”
I resisted the urge to say, “Because I wasn’t missing.”
My Father, Fourtune-tellers & Me is a memoir about my experience growing up with two immigrant parents who had an arranged marriage and battled mental health issues. So I’ve noticed that the way my mind works as a writer is that I will, usually I have to be in motion. So I have to be walking or I have to be on the subway and, uh, sentences start to form in my head. And they are usually words that are kind of coming together as a jumble when I’m thinking about something. And then I recognize that I’m thinking about a situation or a relationship or something that I’ve experienced at work.
And then the sentence comes into my head and this becomes like the seed of a story or an idea, but the remainder of the story or the project doesn’t come into place until I figure out the frame. With the memoir, I was really trying to answer this question about my family and how they dealt with everything that was fate vs free will. Why did they accept their fate? Why didn’t anybody try harder? And I, you know, I was really aware that there were certain things that I could never understand about where my parents came from and that time and place in the world of being born in post-war Italy and in a rural environment where everybody knows everybody and secrecy is the standard. You do not reveal any flaw. Flaws are considered like a punishment by God. So anybody that’s less than perfect is certainly someone who would be maybe abandoned, isolated. It was really a life threatening situation.
And then at some point I realized <affirmative> after reading an essay that was called “The Tarot of Transformation.” She used the structure of the major Arcana cards. And I was like, this is my structure because it’s the fool’s journey. And I wanted, I wanted that for my structure. I was trying to figure out how my story could be hero’s journey, because I’d left home and I came back, but the nightmare hadn’t ended. Because of my mother’s illness, certain things were really, um, prehistoric fly frozen in amber. Like they were not going to change. And my reaction was not changing. My way of coping was not changing. So I looked at that structure as the structure that I needed because I, the journey of the fool being completely unaware. And by the end, having a level of awareness and acceptance was the journey that I wanted because the journey where things were going to change for the better was not going to be our story.
I think this is the greatest gift that writing has given me, the opportunity to be the witness and be the observer so that I can actually spend time focused and, and gnawing on sentence structure and how to craft a story. Instead of just driving myself around the bend, worrying about the situation.
One night I was watching—during the pandemic, so many things have been bizarre to that have comforted me. And I started watching true crime videos on YouTube, which I never do. Like that stuff is, is terrifying. But you know, you, you start to see this behavior of these like serial killers and they’re the horror that they inflict on people. And I thought, you know, the way that I’m looking at this serial killer documentary right now is the same way my family looks at me like, what are you doing? What is wrong with you? What is your head that you would expose the darkest flaws or the worst flaws of your family? What, what possesses you to do this?
I find this is the hardest thing to negotiate in creative nonfiction is the fact that you are not, uh, a person experiencing life in a vacuum. So there are other people who are going to be affected by your telling these stories. So it’s a really difficult one to manage at the start. And, certainly, I find it fraught with a lot of tension. I ask for permission. I ask my father for permission, my mother wasn’t capable of giving permission and I’m not in contact with her, but I have actually done things like lit candles and asked for permission from my ancestors. The interesting thing about my father’s perspective is not long after the memoir came out, my mother was harassing one of my aunts, his eldest sister. So he took her to the police to lodge a complaint and translate for her and he had the memoir in his glove compartment and he pulled it out and said to the police, “This is the story of everything I’ve been through. My daughter wrote about it. And this tells you how much I suffered.” And the police officer was like, oh wow, how interesting. But I sort of said to my dad, that’s, that’s not the story. And if you’re not gonna read it—which I knew he wasn’t going to, because it’s too difficult in English, and also he lived it. He doesn’t need to read it. Um, he just, um, I’m grateful for his support. I just was like, don’t tell people what the book is about, cuz you don’t know.
So the prompt that I use with students is specifically for creative nonfiction, but it can also be used for fiction. It’s called map the personal and chart the global. So I get them to actually create a chart with four columns and four rows. There could be more rows depending on age, but they’re going to label those columns. The first column is decade. The second column is personal events. The third column is local events and the fourth column is global events. And then they number the rows in the decade column. So the each row has a span of 10 years. So, uh, the first row would be one to 10. The second would be 11 to 20. The third is, uh, 21 to 30 and you keep going like that. And so I ask them to start filling in personal events first. What do you really remember before you were 10?
And then what are the things that really impacted you when you were a teenager, start filling in the personal events. Then I ask them to think about local events. So I use examples like for me, I remember the Mississauga train derailment because my aunt came to stay with my other aunt and I was so excited to have them both close by, uh, or I remember the kidnapping of a certain person, a certain child and how it was a citywide search and how it instilled terror in all of us. Then I asked them to think about world events. So I’ll mention like, uh, major earthquake that happened in Italy in 1981 and how it was felt on the side of the country that my family was from and how you could just see the adults just like worrying until they got ahold of the adults, uh, overseas and all the tension and stress that, that the worry that, um, filtered through our home.
So I asked them to create that chart and then they have to pick one decade and answer questions. Like where did you live? Where did you go to school or work? Who was your closest friend? Who did you consider a bully or an enemy? What kept you comforted at night or what worried you and kept you up at night? And I find that if they start charting that information, they realize they have a lot of material to work with. And then with the world events, I say to them, this is just a way to help us understand where in time this story is happening. For fiction, I tell them they can also use the same exercise and then do what ifs off of this. Like what if you know, you’ve got this global event, what if this happened? Or what if this happened to this type of character, how would they do, how would they handle that?
And so I get them to do these charts, not just for the events, but for like the soundtrack to their life and the movies and the books that they read. So you can actually say, you know, it was the summer of this blockbuster movie and it helps place us in time because everybody has some awareness of that. Or it was when you know, those Chilean miners were being rescued and everybody’s like, oh, I remember being aware of that. And so you actually help your reader understand you’re experiencing something personal while everybody’s attention is glued to something global.
Excerpt from Tongues: On Longing and Belonging Through Language
When I was 25, my friend Luciano told me, “When you talk Italian, you sound like a sixty-five-year-old man seated outside a village cantina arguing with other geezers about the state of the world over a glass of wine. He marveled at my Molisan and scrutinized my inflection as if it were a prehistoric beetle trapped in amber. I overheard him on the phone with a sister in Rome: “You wouldn’t believe this unless you could hear her, but she’s fluent in farmer speak like the elderly from the Mezzogiorno.”
In Molisan, I say, “Ne capisce,” instead of “Non ho capito,” “che gehh” instead of “che cos’è,” “Me fa male a cauch” instead of “Me fa male la testa,” if I’m among safe paesani. Rural peeps. Countryside kin.
In Molisan, my voice is peppered with exasperated sighs and resonates with exhaustion. My tone could be titled Tired of Dealing with Bullshit. The pitch is slightly deeper than my vocally fried English. Woe is imbued in idioms and articulations. At times, I sound more worried. The tenor, more frustrated. Some notes harmonize with an inherited “angling for a fight” attitude.
I’ve always been obsessed with language and communication barriers that I’ve experienced with my parents because there’s no dictionary for the dialect that we speak. So I speak Molisan with my father and, you know, it’s years of like at least once a week, there’s a conversation where he’ll use a word and I’ll say, what does that mean? What does that mean? And I’m, you know, I’m trying to find it on my phone. I’m trying to find it online. And it’s a word that’s just, I’m not going to find the definition. So the thing that is interesting is language is not static. It is constantly changing and constantly influenced by pop culture and waves of immigration and the stories that people read and tell.
But the fascinating thing for me about the line language that I speak is that it is static. It is frozen in time. So my parents left Italy at a certain point in time. They immigrated in the sixties and their language stayed at what was spoken in the sixties. So when I’ve encountered people that are Italian and I, you know, try to keep up with proper standard Italian, but I slip into Molisan. As soon as they catch that accent, they make certain judgments about me that I’m rural, that I come from people with no education. I come from people with limited education because those opportunities that wasn’t there wasn’t a value placed in that country on education. There was a ruling class that had the money. And they profited from the peasant class, doing all the labor and they meant to keep them down. So I get really feisty and agitated about certain things about my language, because it is legit.
I do recognize like there’s some terms that I use that have been out of use for 40 years, which is unusual. But I, I also feel like, well, that just means I’m an archivist <laugh> you can see me as a living archive of this language. I’m obsessed with everything that we lose when we lose a language and the violence that’s been committed in this country, specifically, in taking away Indigenous languages that are so connected to identity and to the environment.
You know my father, once he’s retired, his English got a little worse because he was no longer having to communicate in English. So I had to step up my game and I don’t speak to him in English as much as I used to because he’s constantly communicating in Molisan. So when I witnessed that, I thought, oh, so here’s what’s gonna happen is I we’ll probably lose huge chunks of this language when he’s gone. And so, uh, it’s disturbing to see something go extinct that way.
Working on the Humber Literary Review has just been an incredible gift and a joy. I started as an essays editor and then had the opportunity to become a co-editor with the collective, which is really wonderful. You know, the hardest part of being an editor for me is having to reject any work.
Rejection is a painful experience. It lives in the body as pain. And so I’ve told writers, my feeling about rejection is that you can’t get through life without experiencing it, but you should be aware of the impact that it’s having on your life. So I started referring to rejection as this oven where I had four burners on and at one point almost all my burners were on high. I had my family burner on high because of the rejection I dealt with with my mother.
I had work on high because I was struggling to find work. I had relationships on high because I was not choosing to engage. And then the last burner was writing and I was like, not sending anything out because I was like, I can’t have all my rejection burners on. What am I going to do?
So it was fine for that period of time to not send out work because I thought everything else is at a pressure cooker point and I can’t handle it. So what I tell writers and the reason I wanted to rewrite our rejection letter, it shouldn’t be an awful experience to be rejected as a writer. It should just be something that’s part of writing. It is part of the process and that you always have the opportunity to improve. And that this is the really the, the wonderful thing about writing is you don’t have a window of time that you have to achieve that in like the Olympics that we’re just on. You have a window of time that you can excel in certain sports and then you have to retire. And sometimes that’s quite young in my mind, but for writing, it’s something that you can just get better at and get better at and improve at as you age, as long as you’re taking in that feedback.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon, in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Eufemia’s work, including her memoir My Father, Fourtune-tellers & Me. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Eufemia Fantetti describes how she approaches teaching with compassion, outlines the challenges of writing about emotional trauma, and shares how she uses humour as a superpower and a shield. She discusses:
0:52 | Teachers who take their frustrations out on students and why it’s important to provide practical tips in every lesson
4:34 | Writing food and complicated relationships in her short story collection A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love
8:44 | Finding the narrative frame for her memoir My Father, Fortune-tellers & Me and how the “fool’s journey” provided a useful template
11:46 | Watching true-crime documentaries during the pandemic and the insights it gave her into writing about family
14:01 | Helping students enrich their creative non-fiction by “mapping the personal and charting the global”
17:15 | Sharing the Molisan dialect with her father and how her fascination with language led to the anthology Tongues: On Longing and Belonging Through Language
21:14 | Working on the Humber Literary Review, imagining rejection as a four-burner oven and embracing writing as a life-long pursuit that you can always improve at
How Learning to Write is Like Learning to Play the Piano
Writing Narratives About Child Abuse
Additional Teaching Resources
Persephone’s Children: A Life in Fragments by Rowan McCandless
Southside Buddhist: Essays by Ira Sukrungruang
The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction