Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“I inherited my mother’s longing for home,” said Christopher Castellani ’94 at Tuesday’s reading of his latest novel, All This Talk of Love. “All my life I grew up hearing her longing for her parents and her siblings, and I weirdly inherited that, even though my parents were right there. Any time we were separated I was anxious that I would never see them again.”
Castellani gave a thoughtful and intimate reading from All This Talk, the final in a trilogy of acclaimed novels. Based on stories told to him from his parents and his own experience growing up Italian-American, the trilogy chronicles an Italian family’s immigration to the United States and the difficulty of coping with a new culture and new generation.
Castellani is teaching the Advanced Fiction Workshop this semester. After graduating from Swarthmore, he received his Masters in English Literature from Tufts University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University.
While most authors’ first novels are semi-autobiographical, Castellani’s A Kiss from Maddelena was closer to a biography of his parents. In order to make sense of himself, he first needed to explore his parents’ lives. “When I was starting to write, I was thinking a lot about what it meant to be the child of immigrants, meant to come from that particular ethnic background,” Castellani said. “I wanted to understand […] where I came from.”
The characters Maddelena and Antonio are strongly based on Castellani’s own parents, though he took care to differentiate them from their real-life counterparts. “The goal is not to write it to be exactly like them,” Castellani explained. “The goal is to be inspired by them, but to make them a completely different character.” In creating these characters, Castellani discovered their motivations and insights. Whether or not those insights are the same as those of the people on whom they’re based, Castellani doesn’t know—he can only be true to his characters.
All This Talk of Love is a book about goodbyes. Maddelena and her son, Frankie, go through a ritual of repeating “Good night, I love you,” over and over until one of them hangs up the phone. The words carry through the story with bittersweet repetition. Castellani said that this final installment deals with his anxieties over saying goodbye to his parents one final time. “It’s certainly my own way of dealing with my own aging parents,” Castellani said. After completing his first book, Castellani read it aloud to his parents—though they don’t read English, they love his writing.
The family members, separated by distance, age, voice and worldview, are brought together by the prospect of a trip to Italy. Though Maddelena and Antonio have similar strong emotions related to their homeland, they feel differently about the trip—Maddelena is reluctant, while Antonio is desperate to go. The looming visit forces each character to examine their relationship to the country.
Like his previous three, Castellani’s next novel will feature Italian and Italian-American characters. While he is moving on from writing from his own experience as an Italian-American, he still feels inspired by his ethnicity and connected to the topic. “I’m in the same area, but I’m not doing the same thing,” he said. “I think every writer needs that kind of thing. Something to be grounded in.”
At Tuesday’s reading, audience members were struck by the sympathy with which Castellani described each character. In both his reading and writing, Castellani passed no judgment—even Antonio’s most outlandish views were treated with care and without any tongue-in-cheek asides. In the passages Castellani read, audience members remarked that it almost sounded as if he was quoting his own family. It was clear that he was drawing from personal experience.
Castellani says goodbye to his family in a loving blend of truth and fiction.