Venera Fazio, an accomplished writer, poet and editor, belongs to many organizations which happily includes our Lambton Writers’ Association.
Venera has graciously submitted a beautiful essay for the Writers Networking blog. It was originally published in Exploring Voice, edited by Venera and Delia DeSantis.
On Writing and Dreaming
When someone asks me how or why I became a writer, I hesitate before answering. Should I tell the truth or should I reply with a superficial but socially acceptable answer?
I never wanted or planned to be a writer. In the 50s and 60s when I attended elementary and high school, I dreaded the subject “Composition.” Year after year, we were drilled in spelling, grammar rules, and the three elements of essay writing: introduction, body/main points and conclusions. Our teachers chose the subject matter. Whenever I needed to commit words to the page, my imagination ether presented me with too many alternatives or I drew a blank. Usually I produced short, terse paragraphs. I rarely received a failing grade, but came close with marks that hovered in the “C” range. My essays were returned to me with numerous red circles indicating spelling and grammar errors. Typically, my teachers passed back marked essays starting with the pupil receiving the highest mark. I felt embarrassed my classmates also knew about my below average grades.
When I attended university, my essay grades improved, mainly because of my detailed research. Research appealed to me because I loved reading. When I was a child, we did not have books at home. At age seven, I discovered the Dundas Carnegie Library. There, the librarian enforced a “No Talking” rule. The silence soothed me. Initially, I read in the library to escape the loud voices at home. Our house on Hatt Street, a half duplex of not more than 1200 square feet, vibrated with conversations, usually more than one at the same time. These voices included my parents, two brothers and for a number of years, a second family of aunt, uncle and cousins. Throughout the 1950s, my parents generously sponsored relatives from Sicily. These families lived with us until they were able to afford their own housing.
During those years of living with extended family, it was my Saturday afternoon habit to read in the library for several hours. Eventually, I also took home an armful of books. When a book engaged my imagination, I discovered I could ignore voices around me and experience a quiet, peacefulness within. I escaped into the fantasy world created by Enid Blyton in her Noddy books and then later, I devoured her Famous Five adventure novels. I also liked to read biographies. Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton were my heroines.
Fast forward to my early forties: I am married, a stay-at-home mom, caring for two young children. I am thinking ahead to when my children will be in school full time. I did not become a nurse like my childhood idols but I had worked as a social worker for nearly twenty years. My career included counseling sexual assault victims, runaway children and shift work in a 24-hour psychiatric crisis centre. I seldom read for pleasure. The voices of troubled clients filled what was once my inner quiet space. I was ready for a career change. Instead of consulting a career counselor, I sought the answer of “what should I do next?” from within. I asked for direction from my dreaming mind.
While some individuals go to sleep wondering, if in the morning, they will remember a dream, I go to bed curious as to how many vivid dramas my unconscious will present. The poet Mary Oliver in her poem “Dreams” (from her collection Dream Work ) compares dreams to buds on a tree opening during the night. In the centre of each petal of the blossoms, there is a letter, Oliver writes. If the dreamer remembers the letters and is able to string them together, the answer to the dream will be revealed. Most mornings, I take twenty minutes to absorb and make sense of the previous night’s stories/”letters.” During my social work career, I learned the skills of dream interpretation by attending seminars. Over the years, I’ve also participated in Dream Work Groups. Years ago, when I asked for guidance as to my next career move, my dreaming mind and I were already good friends.
I rely on dreams for direction because I believe they do not lie. As Roger Housden comments when reflecting on David Whyte’s poem, “What To Remember When Waking” (ten poems to change your life again and again): “in the subtle world of sleep nothing is bound by our perceptions about how things are meant to be; the brakes are off, and the images appear free of the constraints and opinions of the conscious mind.” (98)
I also believe, like Louis M. Savary, in his article on “Dreams and Spirituality” given to me during a Dream Work seminar, dreams can help reveal personal values, answers to spiritual questions such as Why am I here? What is my meaning and purpose in life? What does life and death mean to me? To what am I truly committed?
Luckily for me, when I asked my dreaming mind for an answer to what I should do instead of social work, I received a straightforward reply. The next morning, I dreamt I was sitting at a desk, writing stories. My face reflected the same absorbed, blissful expression I have when I am reading. I felt the sense of peace/inner quiet I have previously mentioned as well as something more– a feeling of completeness.
Because I was at a loss as to what to write about, I did nothing. Several weeks later, I had the same dream. Still, I did nothing. Then sometime later, I dreamt a variation of the first two dreams. This time, Margaret Carlson with whom I studied Family Therapy in my social work program, appeared. She told me that I must write about my family.
My unconscious presented me with two challenges. The memory of all those C’s inhibited me. To overcome my fear of writing, I enrolled in a “Writing for Magazines” course at Calgary’s Mount Royal community college. To my surprise and delight, three of the articles I submitted for publication, written for the course, were published in local magazines. I felt encouraged. The idea of writing for publications seemed possible.
The second aspect dictated by my dream, felt more daunting. How could I write about my family and respect their privacy? I chose a broad interpretation of the concept of “family.” The accompanying essay, “My Journey into Silence” explains why for many years, I hid my ethnicity. After my third dream, I began a journey of reclaiming my Sicilian heritage.
My first step was to change my fist name back to its original Italian– “Venera.” The anglicized version of “Verna” had been forced upon me by an English neighbour and my grade one school teacher. No doubt these adults were trying to be helpful by giving me a name that was easy for the Anglo community to pronounce. But being called “Verna” never felt authentic. Changing to “Venera” took several years of correcting friends and family. I am glad I persevered. Maria Mazziotti Gillan, an Italian American poet, who also changed her name to be accepted in an Anglo society, writes “changing your life starts with accepting all the parts of your past you were so anxious to give away” (Changing My Name” from Ancestors’ Song, 13).
To draw closer to my Sicilian heritage, I did what I love to do—read. I read books on Sicily and Sicilian authors in English translation. I started with Mary Taylor Semeti’s On Persephone’s Island and her Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food. Mary, an American expatriate, living in Palermo provides an excellent overview of Sicilian culture. She also included in her books lists of literary sources that led me to read the novels of G. Tomasi Lampedusa, Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello, Elio Vittorini and Federico De Roberto.
When I visited my family in Dundas, in particular zia Carmela and zio Salvatore, they responded to my interest in our culture by telling me stories of their lives before they immigrated to Canada. I was fortunate my uncle Salvatore, in his later years, passed on to me, his mantle of “family historian.” During this learning period, I also travelled around Sicily a number of times, absorbing culture and history. I found, like Karen Mulhallen, that “visions of Sicily are as old as Homer, older even, old as myth itself. For Sicily is an enchanted island, desired by gods and men alike” (preface to Descant 154: Sicily, Land of Forgotten Dreams). I visited my birth village, Bafia and became close to my family there. The sense of belonging I felt in both Bafia and in general, Sicily, is beautifully expressed by Lillyrose Veneziano Broccia:
My body is born of this faraway island. This island is beautiful. Am I then? I must
I am of this earth, which means that it is never far away and yet only now do I
feel at home with this part of me….I found that the land and I converge in places
unknown by others. All is understood between myself and I here, where I
decipher my own face among many.
(“Hyphenated Identity: Sicily in the Body of an American Poet,” Sweet Lemons: Writings with a Sicilian Accent, 272-273)
I have had the pleasure of co-editing three anthologies relating to the culture of Sicily. My culture of origin is my Muse. Not that editing or writing, be it short stories, essays, articles or poetry is easy. Writing is hard work. I can agonize over every word. The memories of those “C” grades and the accompanying fear of failing have not completely faded. Yet often, in the process of writing, I can slip into the same reverie as when I read absorbed in my imagination, and that is my reward.
Recently, with the passing of my parents and a number of aunts and uncles, I have been writing prose poetry spanning five generations of family. I am taking the advice of Margaret Carlson to a more intimate level. Sometimes, my unconscious rewards me when I write these poems. For example just after I wrote the poem, “Broken” about my Uncle Carlo, reclaiming him from the confines of our “family closet,” he appeared to me in a dream, kissed me on the cheeks, thanking me for the poem.
Carlo Fazio (1922-1969)
his skin of ebony
reflecting a shimmering Sicilian sun
stretches across your tombstone.
While you were alive
we locked your name in our family closet
sealed the door with silence.
seeped sibling stories:
quickness with switch blade
suicide attempt in Coote’s Paradise
your hospitalization in Hamilton Sanatorium
the skipped medical payments
then, deportation back to aged parents
your early death by pneumonia
in archaic Messina hospital.
Before the war
Carlo was molto bravo lamented a sister.
He suffered a brain injury falling off an army truck
said one brother, sounding unconvinced.
Another brother joined in: No, no, he was broken …
days trapped in a sewer. Someone snitched and the
Germans bombed the hideout. Your uncle Carlo was the
The snake snaps open his jaws
points unfurled fangs towards me.
Can only the living fully forgive each other?
I have literally followed my dreams. The Poet David Whyte speaks for me when he writes, “to be human/is to become visible/while carrying/what is hidden/as a gift to others. To remember/the other world/in this world/is to live in your/true/inheritance” (“What To Remember When Waking,” qtd. in ten poems to change your life again & again, 94).
Broccia, Lilyrose Veneziano. (“Hyphenated Identity: Sicily in the Body of an American Poet.” Sweet Lemons: Writings with a Sicilian Accent. Eds. Venera Fazio and Delia De Santis. Legas, New York, 2004. 271-274.
Gillan, Maria Mazziotti. “Changing My Name.” Ancestors’ Songs. Bordighera: New York, 2013. 13.
Housden, Roger.” Your True Inheritance.” ten poems to change your life again and again. Harmony Books: New York, 2007. 97-105.
Mulhallen, Karen. “A Sicily of the Imagination.” Preface. Sicily, Land of Forgotten Dreams. Descant 154 (Fall 2011): 11-15.
Savary, Louis.M. “Dreams and Spirituality.” Handout, n.p. nor n.d.
Whyte, David. “What To Remember When Waking.” ten poems to change your life again and again. 93-96.
Book: Fabric of My Soul (Poems )Publisher- Cusmano Communications, 2015 Longbridge Books
Anthologies: Sweet Lemons: Writings With a Sicilian Accent, Editors: Venera Fazio, Delia De Santis, Published: Legas, 2004
Writing Beyond History: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry, Editors: Licia Canton, Venera Fazio, Delia De Santis, Assoc. of Italian Canadian Writers, Publisher- Cusmano, 2006
Strange Peregrinations: Italian Canadian Literary Landscapes, Editors: Anna Foschi Ciampolini, Venera Fazio, Delia De Santis, Publisher: Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian Canadian Studies, 2007
Reflections on Culture: An Anthology of Creative and Critical Writing, Editors: Licia Canton, Venera Fazio, Jim Zucchero, Publisher: Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian Canadian Studies, 2010
Sweet Lemon 2: International Writings with a Sicilian Accent, Editors: Venera Fazio, Delia De Santis, Publisher: Legas, 2010
Sicily: The Land of Forgotten Dreams, Editors: Michelle Alfano, Venera Fazio, Published: Descant 154, 2011
Exploring Voice, Editors: Venera Fazio and Delia De Santis, Publisher: Special Issue of Italian Canadiana Volume, 30 (2016)
April 2016- The Association of Italian Canadian Writers- Honours presented for “Extraordinary Contribution to the Italian Canadian Writing Community and to Canadian Literature”