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Lauren BW 04. Vera Marmelorgb

Lauren Aimee Curtis is a writer from Sydney, Australia. Her first novel, Dolores (2019), tells the story of a pregnant girl taken in by nuns through vivid snapshots of her past – a church basement, a love motel. Strangers at the Port (2023), her latest, continues this intense exploration of secrets through three people who knew the Aeolian island of S before a mass exodus of its inhabitants in the late 19th century: a young girl who lives on S with her mother and sister; an archduke who drops anchor off the island’s shore; a woman, in old age, who struggles to retrieve memories of her childhood there – each trying to understand their identity in relation to a lost home. As in Curtis’ debut, the writing is rhythmical, tense and heated, gesturing at an emotional world just beyond reach.

Interview by Lucie Elven
Portrait by Vera Marmelo

LUCIE ELVEN At the beginning of Strangers at the Port, Giulia addresses a professor who has written a book about the island of S, where she spent her childhood, telling him that life was more emotional and complicated than he understands; she also says, “I knew no history.” The novelists Sarah Bernstein and Daisy Lafarge recently discussed the critical accusation that some contemporary literary writers aren’t dealing with history in the “right” way, meaning they aren’t building a novel out of specific period details. Where do you stand?

LAUREN AIMEE CURTIS There have been quite a few novels lately, including my own, that draw on historical events to talk about or imagine something else. Whether they work is up for debate – but the idea that there is a “right” or “wrong” way is ridiculous. The novel is the most flexible form – it can accommodate anything – and it progresses by people breaking established rules, or trying new things, or combining things that haven’t been combined before.

LE Giulia boasts that the island of S is the “greenest” in the Aeolian archipelago. She feels that her family are “better than the people who lived on the opposite side of the island”. She describes throwing rocks at some “strangers”, prisoners who arrive one day. Why start here?

LAC The novel is partly about structures of power and the island has its own hierarchy. Being poor but feeling better than the people who are poorer than you, or throwing rocks – children do these things, but it’s learned behaviour. The sisters throw rocks at the men because they’ve absorbed the fear of the adults around them. Giulia is narrating from a time when she’s older, and the memory of these actions come from that perspective; she’s defensive because she feels guilty. There’s also a parallel storyline: Giulia’s family themselves will emigrate and become outsiders.

LE What history does the novel draw on?

LAC In 2019, I was researching the Aeolian islands and I read about these unrelated historical events in the late 1800s: one of the islands was used for habitual detention; the phylloxera epidemic destroyed the vineyards and prompted economic collapse. I had the idea to bring them together, then I started writing the book and the pandemic happened. Suddenly, I couldn’t write the original novel I had conceived, a tense, mysterious story about this thing causing an affliction, and the suspicion in the community about where it’s coming from. Playing with that situation became repulsive to me. It was a very uncertain time, with doubt about the future and reckonings with the past. These feelings fed the narrative: the further along I got with it, the more doubt and uncertainty I injected. People had all sorts of wild theories before they understood that the vines were dying because of an insect pest that had come from America. In one part of France, they had laid down train tracks for the first time, and they thought the vines were dying because of the metal interacting with the soil. There was a fear of new technology and what it was doing to the natural world. In fact, the culprit was something of the natural world, it just wasn’t in the place it was meant to be. I found these parallels too much.

LE Giulia’s older sister Giovanna attempts to correct Guilia’s memories and misleads her about life in general. The two of them play a game in the pumice quarry based on their mother, “the sad young widow goes to work”. Can you tell me about that relationship?

LAC There are so many novels about female friendship, which is rich thematic terrain. I’m not sick of them, but sisterhood is even more heightened, because it’s a female relationship that stems from birth or early childhood; there’s almost a secret language, a kind of mirroring, a doppelgänger effect. When you have that shared history that goes back to your very beginning, you hold onto scenes from childhood that might make other people laugh, but are extremely important to you and define your relationship to yourself.

LE Where did the Archduke come from? Did you relate to him because you were living in a new place?

LAC In Palermo, I found a travel series about the Aeolian islands in a secondhand bookstore. It was a modern series, but it had old sketches and passages by Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria, who had travelled there. That unlocked something for me; my nonna was born on one of the islands. The sisters’ voices often felt difficult to write whereas his parts of the narrative came much more freely, maybe because I felt aligned with his outsider status – going to this new place and trying to understand it, wanting to be liked by the locals, but ultimately feeling rejected. When I’m writing fiction, I become superstitious and ritualistic – you want a sign that what you’re doing is working, or it’s worthy. I had read a little about the real Archduke’s life and then went off and wrote pages and pages of material. Then I went back and read more deeply about him. It felt like there were coincidental similarities between the real version and mine. There is a section in the novel where he talks about his bad handwriting and then I discovered that the real Archduke was notorious for his bad penmanship. I was so excited.

LE Who is your book in conversation with?

LAC At the time of writing, I was reading novels that engaged with history in interesting ways: Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion [1987], Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian [1951], Amina Cain’s Indelicacy [2020], Sheila Heti’s Ticknor [2005] – they were doing something different in terms of form or voice. I was also watching and rewatching films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, Béla Tarr, Pedro Costa, Lucrecia Martel, Claire Denis. I was thinking about Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura [1960], which was filmed on Panarea, and Red Desert [1964], which is set in an industrial area of Italy in the sixties.

LE This is a novel that doesn’t over-explain. The island is named S, and the city to which the family travels is M.

LAC I didn’t want the reader to expect a realistic rendering of history, and naming Messina, for instance, would evoke the actual place, leaving little room for the imaginary. With the island S, I drew on the history of two different islands: Lipari, where there was a prison and where the pumice cliffs are, and Salina, which is known as “the green island”, and where the shipbuilding and winemaking industries were concentrated. I like ambiguity in fiction. As soon as you name something, you narrow the possibilities.

LE Can you tell me about the book’s form?

LAC Once I realised that doubt had to be an integral part of the novel, and I didn’t want to rely on tension that came solely from a plot about a mysterious affliction, I started searching for different ways that tension could operate. One thought was to address the book to someone. When I went to Salina I was given the business card of an Italian professor who has dedicated himself to the study of migration from these islands. He collects stories from families whose elders have left, and is by all accounts well-intentioned, but when I got his card, my instinct was to distrust. I was shocked by this distrust that I had of him, and then later on I came to align this distrust with the worst possible perception of the novelist – this person who takes the stories of other people for their own benefit. Giulia’s section was originally conceived as letters to an imaginary version of this professor: she is telling her story, which we’re supposed to question, to this authoritative figure. Does she want to scold him, impress him, educate him?

LE That’s funny to me, as I know you through long-distance forms too – email and phone.

LAC Yes, for sure – there’s a romance to that kind of communication. I’ve always been interested in the letter as a form. Elizabeth Hardwick thought that the letter is a performance of the ideal self. The Archduke, too, is writing in his journal, another arena for performance. It’s a form that can easily slip between bravado, censorship and invention to vulnerability and confession. I had another possible epigraph, from Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark [1983]: “Whose voice is this? Not mine. Not mine. Not mine.” Hélène Cixous has this great line: “The I who writes gives speech to all the other Is.”

LE The professor tries to reconstruct Giovanna’s journey for her: “You reach the city of M – the city without memory – and your first thought is that it reminds you of the junkyard on your island, only larger.” This use of the second person pushes the reader to consider the experience of people displaced by natural disaster. Do you keep an eye on the broader political message?

LAC Both my novels have come from a political place. Dolores came out of my frustration at the lack of reproductive rights in certain countries. But I have this fear of writing anything that’s didactic, because as a reader I don’t respond to that in fiction. I will say that I was thinking about the cyclic nature of migration: the colonisation of Australia; the shameful way in which it treats its immigrants and refugees, not to mention First Nations people; offshore detention, which is really horrific and which now the UK is adopting; the situation in Italy with refugees from Africa – all of this was in the back of my mind when I was writing. There’s a museum of emigration on Salina, with photographs of everyone leaving for America. There’s part of a boat that capsized on the way to Sicily from Africa which has on its side, written in Arabic script, “My life in the hands of Allah”. We don’t have enough empathy, even in countries that have gone through these experiences themselves.

LE Something remarkable happens in the conversation between the professor and Giovanna. She doesn’t find it easy to remember her past so turns to invention, at which point her memory seems to take off. “Writing is like sleeping; you loosen the grip on your consciousness and suddenly friends and foes appear in the dark,” says the Archduke. “I am a vessel for the voices,” says Giovanna. Do you find writing to be like that?

LAC Talking about the act of writing in any concrete way always feels risky, but those two lines felt like they came from an honest place. “Writing is like sleeping...” – that’s a corny line, but the idea is that loss of control might pull you some- where surprising; it might be generative. This duality between control and loss of control, or between artifice or invention and honesty, makes writing fiction interesting. If I can feel the battle between them when I’m reading, that’s good fiction to me. ◉