Island stories

Negotiating identity between different Italies

SANDY AND BERYL Stone had ‘a really lovely night’s entertainment’ one Tuesday in Melbourne in the late 1950s – according to Barry Humphries’s brilliant ‘Sandy Stone’ satire of Australian suburban life – when they attended a picture night at the tennis club. ‘The newsreel,’ Sandy reported, ‘had a few shots of some of the poorer type of Italian housing conditions on the Continent and it made Beryl and I realise just how fortunate we were to have the comfort of our own home and all the little amenities round the home that make life easier for the womenfolk, and the menfolk generally, in the home.’ [i]

Sandy’s remarks on Italy echo those of ‘Nino Culotta’, the pseudonymous author of John O’Grady’s novel They’re a Weird Mob (Ure Smith, 1957), published at around the time Humphries first performed this sketch. The novel is the story of Italian journalist Nino Culotta’s arrival in Sydney and initiation into the Australian way of life, and Nino was taken by some to be a real migrant until a couple of months after the book’s release. At one point in the story, Nino comments: ‘Italy was a terrible place. Who would want to go back there?’ [ii]

Sandy and Nino – one very much an ‘Old’ Australian, the other ‘New’ – could agree, as Nino put it, that ‘There is no better way of life in the world than that of the Australian.’ [iii] O’Grady’s novels are crude, if sometimes funny, examples of migrant stereotyping and assimilationist propaganda. He stacks the cards in favour of Nino’s successful assimilation. Apart from making him educated and bourgeois, he has him come from way up north, in Piedmont. Of all Italian regions, by the mid-­nineteenth century, Piedmont was the one most readily associated with both political and economic modernity.

By making Nino Piedmontese, O’Grady deliberately confounded his (mainly Anglo-­Celtic) readers’ stereotypes of Italians as short, dark and swarthy. ‘Perhaps it is a matter of opinion,’ Nino explains, ‘and an Australian would lump us all together and call us “bloody dagoes”, but we didn’t like Meridionali, and they didn’t like us. Up in my country there were a few of them, and mostly they found themselves being officious in the police force. Perhaps subconsciously that is why we did not like them. Nobody likes police forces.’ [iv]

Published the year after O’Grady’s novel, Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (Oxford University Press, 1958) claimed that hostility to the ‘officiousness and authority’ embodied in the police was a distinguishing trait of the typical Australian.[v] Nino was evidently made for us. But O’Grady’s argument works only by creating an ‘other’ against which Nino’s suitability for full acceptance as an Australian can be set: They’re a Weird Mob is unrelenting in its negative portrayal of ‘Meridionali’, or southerners.

When Nino finds himself sharing a train carriage with an abusive, racist and drunken ‘Old’ Australian (who naturally assumes that Nino is also an Australian until our hero opens his mouth) and a group of Meridionali, Nino assures the southerners, in Italian, that he will throw the man off the train if he tries to harm them. Interestingly, one of the drunk’s abusive comments towards the southerners is ‘Knives all bloody over ’em’. How does O’Grady deal with this racist stereotype? By having one of the Meridionali men produce a knife. Nino demands the knife and throws it out the window of the train after having ‘bumped him on the top of his head’.[vi]


MY FAMILY ARE Meridionali. Although my parents were born in Australia, my four grandparents were from the Aeolian Islands, a group of seven volcanic islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Lipari, my maternal grandparents’ homeland, is the largest; Salina, the original home of my paternal grandparents, is the second largest, and the setting for the film Il Postino (1994), which depicts a stay on the island by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Stromboli is famous for its lively volcano, while Vulcano, which also has a smouldering crater, is admired for its hot springs and mud baths, if not for its overwhelming smell of sulphur.

The Aeolian Islands have for thousands of years been exploited for their volcanic products, such as shiny, black obsidian in ancient times, and less striking pumice in more recent ones. They also contain orchards, vineyards, market gardens and farms. At the time my grandparents were born, around the turn of the twentieth century, some local men fished and others worked in the merchant marine. The grape industry was devastated by phylloxera, the marine by the coming of the railway. A history of rapid outward migration – I also have many relatives in the United States – led to drastic depopulation. Mussolini’s fascists for a time used these islands as a conveniently out-­of-­the-­way place to exile political prisoners, but today tourism seems to overwhelm all. The local cult is that of the martyr Bartholomew the Apostle, who was flayed alive. There have been many in my family with this name. In Australia it has often become Bob, but sometimes Bart.

Odysseus was an early visitor. In his travels he once found himself on ‘the Aiolian island’, ‘a floating island, the whole enclosed by a rampart of bronze, not to be broken, and the sheer of the cliff [that] runs upward to it.’ There, King Aiolos, a favourite of the gods, lived with his wife and twelve children. Conveniently, these were six sons and six daughters, ‘so he bestowed his daughters on his sons, to be their consorts.’ Aiolos treated Odysseus and his men with hospitality for a month. When they wanted to leave, the king gave Odysseus a bag containing all the winds, and helpfully set it up so that the west wind would take them home. Ten days after they sailed, they came into sight of home, but a ‘sweet sleep’ came across Odysseus. The men assumed the bag contained gold and silver, and so opened it to get their share. The ship was blown back to the island, and an angry Aiolos, assuming the men were hated by the gods, sent them packing.[vii]

The Aeolians have been coming to Australia since the nineteenth century. My father’s family were pre-­World War I migrants who settled in the Wimmera town of Nhill. I recently found on the National Library of Australia’s Trove database an account in the Nhill Free Press of my then teenage great-­aunt Katie – I recall her as an elderly woman in Melbourne in the 1970s – singing at public functions during the First World War: on one occasion, to welcome home from Gallipoli two local heroes, her ‘Gondola Dreams’, a nice Italian touch; on another, to raise funds for the French Red Cross.[viii]

The impression left by these fragments of reportage from more than a century ago is of a migrant family doing its best to fit in, but this did not mean they left their old associations behind. My father used to joke about a relative who would describe himself as ‘a dinky-­di Aussie, proud to be Italian’. The Melbourne Aeolian Club (Società Mutuo Soccorso Isole Eolie) was established in 1925, inspired by a migrant who had been a member of a Strombolian club in New York. The name Bongiorno appears in the minutes of the first meeting of the Melbourne Aeolians, as does Santamaria, the most famous Australian name associated with the island group. The staunchly anti-communist Catholic Bob Santamaria’s family migrated in the same pre-­World War I wave as my father’s family, and from the same island, Salina.[ix]

As Celeste Russo suggests in her 1986 University of Melbourne thesis on the club, although it brought together ‘Aeolians’, more local identifications probably mattered most to these people. They identified with their family and village, then with their own island and, at a stretch, with the island group. Sicilians and Calabrians were, by comparison, outsiders. ‘Bloody Calabrese’ were words I sometimes recall hearing in my childhood, a neat combination of Australian vernacular and old enmity.[x]

I gave little thought to my Aeolian ancestry until 1996, when the last of my grandparents died. But there were other reasons to reflect on ethnicity, immigration and identity that year. That was the time of the Pauline Hanson outbreak. Even in the south-­eastern Brisbane suburbs, where I lived and worked, with their large and prosperous Asian population, the tensions came to the surface. On one occasion, I was standing in a queue at the Griffith University newsagency while a customer subjected the young Asian-­Australian girl behind the counter to a barrage of verbal abuse. The girl had made a mildly disparaging remark about Pauline Hanson, who was pictured on the cover of the copy of the magazine she was selling him.

Hanson’s arguments against Asian immigration and multiculturalism had been heard loudly and often on the political right, especially since the controversy generated by the historian Geoffrey Blainey in 1984 over the pace of Asian immigration to Australia. Australia, Hanson said, was in danger of being ‘swamped’ by Asians. They did not mix with the existing population; they formed ghettos. Europeans did not feature in this argument. Indeed, Hanson’s key adviser and the author of much of her early material was a larger-­than-­life figure named John Pasquarelli. This is not an Anglo-­Celtic name, but Pasquarelli said he’d been ‘dewogged’.[xi]

I may have been inclined to accept that I, too, had been ‘dewogged’ – but another experience intervened. With my Australian studies students in Brisbane, I was surveying the debates over ‘suburbia’. We looked at numerous critiques, as well as Hugh Stretton’s famous claim in Ideas for Australian Cities (self-published, 1970) that Australians had adapted the Australian suburb to their own needs, desires and imaginations.[xii] I began thinking about the northern Melbourne suburb in which I had grown up, Thornbury, and realised that my own experience of suburbia was different from that described in most social criticism. I lived in a house with my mother, father and younger sister. On one side of our home lived my mother’s maternal uncle, with his wife. Next door to them lived their own son, with his wife. An opening allowed you to walk between the backyards of those two houses. On the other side of our own home lived my mother’s paternal uncle, with his wife. Behind them lived their daughter and son-­in-­law, with their young children. Again, a gateway led from the backyard of one home into another. These arrangements allowed younger people to keep an eye on the ageing Italian-­born generation, while grandmothers and grandfathers were easily enlisted as babysitters and childminders as required.

To Hanson, this might have seemed a ghetto, but those living in it also participated in the wider community. My grandfather’s brother, one of our next-door neighbours, was elected to the Northcote City Council with Labor Party endorsement in 1962, served for over twenty years and was mayor for three terms. He was active in Co.As.It, the Italian welfare organisation, and in Rotary. My mother’s cousin, two doors up from us, was a member of the Aeolian Club, but also active in the Lions Club, as were my parents. The relationship of these Italian Australians to one another and their community could not be captured in the easy clichés of right-­wing politicians and conservative professors.

I never imagined that my mother’s family had been able to replicate in Melbourne the ‘Italy’ they had left behind. Yet I also found it implausible that their ethnicity was irrelevant to the world they had made in the Melbourne suburbs, or that – like Nino Culotta and his son – they had slipped quietly into grey suburbia. There had to be an in-­between place.


I VISITED ITALY for the first time in 1997; I was in my late twenties. I saw this as a holiday, not a pilgrimage, but I did ensure that the Aeolian Islands were on my itinerary. The day before I left Lipari, I decided to try to find the house where my grandfather had lived. I knew it was in a village above the main port, and I hailed a cab. At first the driver was incredulous that I wanted to go to this place on a Sunday morning. The village, at the top of a steep hill, seemed deserted, but we eventually spotted a man working in an orange grove. He hadn’t heard of my grandfather, but suggested I ask someone over at the church, where mass was being held. I waited outside and when the service was over, the villagers started to emerge. I had little luck finding anyone who could speak English until one man pointed me towards a young woman about my age. ‘Do you speak English?’, I asked. ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I’m from Sydney.’

Once my mission was explained, and with the young woman acting as interpreter, the man to whom I had originally addressed my question quickly took me to the house in which my grandfather had grown up. I recognised it from photos. Very soon, the locals I encountered were able to connect me in their minds with those of my family they knew, either from the islands or in Australia. They knew my great-­uncle because, in their eyes, he had become a big man, and because he and his wife had visited from time to time. They gave me coffee, fed me chocolates and presented me with homemade biscuits for the journey to Palermo. But they also insisted on taking me to visit my ‘family’ on the islands.

The mental maps of many of these islanders included bits and pieces of an obscure country on the other side of the world, the Australian suburbs in which they had brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, aunts and uncles and cousins. The great Australian historian of modern Italy, Richard Bosworth, has called this the ‘Empire of the Italies’, arguing that ‘for many Italians, the more obvious and decisive frontiers were not located in a printed atlas but wherever their minds or custom advised’.[xiii]


NINO CULOTTA’S OUTSIDER status when he first arrives in Sydney is based on his inability to comprehend the Australian idiom. His epiphany – which occurs at the blokiest occasion imaginable, a buck’s party – concerns his ability to think in Australian English. Nino is happy that his own son will be unable to speak Italian, and that he himself will forget how to speak it, and so have trouble conversing with his own parents back in Italy. He brands as ‘disgraceful’ parents he sees in shops ‘talking to kids in their homeland language, and the kids translating into English’. [xiv]

I was raised in an English-­speaking home by parents who spoke Italian – including the Aeolian dialect – but only used it when dealing with Italians. Yet I do not speak Italian, and neither do the Italian Australians of my generation in my extended family. This meant we only could have outsider status in the Italo-­Australian community, and I was always conscious of the cultural differences between myself and the ‘really’ Italian kids (who usually had Italian-­born parents) at school. Other differences came down to whether one’s family was among the relatively small numbers of migrants who had entered Australia before World War II, or in the mass emigration of the 1950s–1970s. Hairstyle, dress, taste in music, whether one liked soccer more than Australian rules football, accent, whether one spoke Italian: these were all critical markers of identity. The choices you made, or that your family had made on your behalf, determined the nature of the cultural capital you acquired. Namely, whether you could plausibly claim the privileges of full membership of the still Anglo-­Celtic-­dominated community with the cultural power that entailed, or whether you belonged to an accepted minority of the kind that had ‘enriched’ Australian life through its spaghetti and soccer. Ghassan Hage has described this process well: it is all about who gets to control the terms on which national space is imagined, entered and experienced.[xv]

Assimilationism did influence the life choices of emigrants and their children. Ironically, this may have had a greater impact on the earlier generations than those who entered under the postwar program and were officially subject to it. Many of the pre-­war arrivals, a small minority, had suffered persecution in Australia during World War II, and had every reason to want to blend in after it. Some, including my Uncle Tony, who later became the mayor, were interned as enemy aliens. ‘Getting on’ meant playing by the rules of British Australia. The Aeolian Club in Melbourne had enjoyed a membership of 200 before this war, but only forty-­one renewed after it. The club became very dependent on the new postwar waves of immigrants.[xvi]

The children of migrants had little incentive to ensure that their own children learnt Italian. It was more important to acquire skills that would help you to get on in life. Some likely believed that speaking too much Italian at home would harm their children’s English. My parents avoided giving their children Italian names. I was named after my maternal grandfather, Francesco, but became Francis. My parents would not have seen this as in any way anti-Italian or anti-Aeolian. It was simply about fitting in, adapting to the new.

Many of my own generation of Australian-­born Aeolian Australians became quite detached from the cultures of their parents and grandparents, even as they also experienced fragments of these cultures in their daily lives – through food, snatches of the Aeolian dialect and barely articulated habits of mind – such as the instinctive turn to extended family when you needed or wanted something, and the desire to touch government only with a very long pair of tongs. Some, like me, entering their twenties, donned backpacks and used the financial rewards of professional jobs of which their grandparents would not have dared dream to visit their ancestral homelands. Now, as we get older, we travel there in more comfort. Relatives on my father’s side of the family assemble on Salina every few years for a family reunion.

Their Australian story has been the familiar one of migrant success, as celebrated in From Volcanoes We Sailed: Connecting Aeolian Generations, an exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum in 2016. Curated by my cousin, Cristina Neri, the Aeolian-­Australian experience was seen to be embodied in business and professional success, cultural continuity and a thriving family life. There was a great deal of nostalgia about food and families, and a sense that modernity and the passing of the migrant generation threaten both. When Russo wrote about the Melbourne Aeolian Club in 1986, she thought its future ‘precarious’, since the migrant generations were getting old, the community was well integrated and the young seemed little interested in maintaining these connections. [xvii]

But the club – which sponsored the 2016 exhibition – now seems to be flourishing, and Aeolian identity is being reimagined by migrant descendants, who can happily pick and choose which bits and pieces of culture they embrace. We are free to ignore the patriarchy that consigned many women to inferior educational opportunity and to the home – that belongs to the past, as another country – while celebrating spicchitedda and other delicious treats of the kind made in the well-­stocked kitchens ruled by those very same women.

The unrelenting gentrification of Melbourne’s inner suburbs has seen the demolition of the home in which I grew up, replaced in recent years by stylish townhouses. Years ago, newer immigrants — Greeks and Lebanese — moved into other homes on the block that had once been occupied by my family. Soon, most signs of the little world made by this group of Melbourne Aeolians in our street will be gone. But the traces of these islanders have not been so easily obliterated. In an era of globalised identities and easy mobilities, their descendants are reimagining their own ‘Empire of the Italies’ as a reflection of their affluent, progressive and cosmopolitan selves.


[i] Barry Humphries, A Nice Night’s Entertainment: Sketches and Monologues 1956-1981 (London: Granada, 1981), 16.

[ii] Nino Culotta, They’re a Weird Mob (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1957), 180.

[iii] Ibid., 204.

[iv] Ibid., 10.

[v] Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988 [1958]), 2

[vi] Culotta, They’re a Weird Mob, 55.

[vii] The Odyssey of Homer, translated with an introduction by Richard Lattimore (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), Book X, 1-77.

[viii] Nhill Free Press, 25 February 1916, 2; 1 August 1916, 2.

[ix] Gerard Henderson, Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man (Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2015).

[x] Celeste Russo, ‘The Società Mutuo Soccorso Isole Eolie: From the Aeolian Islands to Melbourne’ (BA (Hons) Thesis, Department of History, University of Melbourne, 1986), 23-25.

[xi] John Pasquarelli, The Pauline Hanson Story by the Man Who Knows (Frenchs Forrest: New Holland, 1998), 183.

[xii] Hugh Stretton, Ideas for Australian Cities (North Adelaide: The Author, 1970).

[xiii] R.J.B. Bosworth, Italy and the Wider World 1860-1960 (Routledge: London & New York, 1996), 4.

[xiv] Culotta, They’re a Weird Mob, 204.

[xv] Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Sydney: Pluto Press, 1998).

[xvi] Russo, ‘Società Mutuo Soccorso Isole Eolie’, 55 and Appendix 3.

[xvii] Russo, ‘Società Mutuo Soccorso Isole Eolie’, 63.

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