By Michael Colbert
I started reading it on the tour bus. Tucked against the curtain, I gave more attention to sleuthing sisters, Antarctica, mother-daughter magician duos than to Sicily beyond the window.
Laura van den Berg was one of our spring visiting writers, so my creative writing professor had assigned her new collection The Isle of Youth before her visit. I’d been in the fiction workshop all year long, something I’d aspired to since my first year of college, though I never tried too hard to get into the class or spent much time writing anything. I’d just had the idea that I’d take the class and things might click, I would write. For our first round of workshops in the fall, our professor assigned only the first five pages of a story, organized around different themes. My theme was “freaks,” and the day before class, I started writing about pop-up Halloween stores and wolf masks. Nothing really changed all semester. I wrote in response to deadlines. In the spring’s advanced workshop, I shared an excerpt from a novel I hadn’t looked at in months and that I thought, of course, was gold. I’d made it as far as spring break without thinking maybe I’d like to write in my free time, bring something to workshop I’d been chewing on instead of something whipped up at the eleventh hour.
The book slotted into my backpack for our tour through Sicily. Laura van den Berg’s collection begins with an emergency plane landing. A couple on vacation in Buenos Aires meets disaster and other couples at a resort. At first, I was pulled by the way these people talk about the destination. They’re visitors who experience the place through the guidance of fellow tourists. This felt timely; my Sicilian literature seminar had traveled to Sicily with a course in the classics department. Together, we wound from Palermo, down the island’s southern coast, passing through Greek ruins and literary parks honoring Luigi Pirandello and Leonardo Sciascia, until we reached Catania, where we’d commence the journey home. In the fall, I’d studied Italy’s Southern Question with my professor. Poring over Italian travel documents and literature from the 1800s, we contemplated the North’s need to distance from the South by drawing out this sense of danger, wilderness, the exotic. Though we’d come to Sicily to study Montalbano and Greek ruins, I was also interested in the fragmentation of identity, of how the crossroads Sicily represented manifests today.
In “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name,” the narrator perceives a disconnect between the landscape and the people who use it as a vacation destination. This echoes in the inscrutability of her husband. After the crash landing, he tells her, “The seatbelt sign is still on.” They settle into married life with hourlong showers and flat smiles after disagreements. She eats sand on the beach at night, a surreal, maximalist demonstration of what’s not working.
The sand hooked me. Did she really eat the sand? Why? Does it matter? Laura van den Berg writes for a reader who trusts her, who is open to blurring reality to convey meaning, liminality and surrealism to come slantwise at our most intimate relationships.
I glued myself into my seat in our tour bus as we journeyed across the island. I read about a troop of young cousin robbers before we pulled off at a roadside stop for dinner, where a fish tank lay empty, an unrealized dream. Our tour bus climbed through fog along a serpentine road to Erice, a city known for a cult of Venus, where at night we ate marzipan in a famous pastry chef’s home and I read about a woman untethered from her partner in Paris. She meets acrobats, swims in the Seine. Sicily unspooled beyond the window, and I luxuriated in the hours on the bus when I could descend into van den Berg’s extreme landscapes, the magic of her prose, and the rawness of these protagonists’ relationships.
And as we continued, I felt the richness of the world we were in condense. In Monreale, we whispered to the others in our group about the biblical stories depicted on the chapel ceiling. An Italian teacher scoffed at us for lingering, said, “In Sicily, we do as we wish.” I held onto my professor’s words when she called her an art history teacher by way of an insult. I wanted to explore the depths beneath the interaction, remember the faces of that teacher’s students when they called us deficienti. We visited street markets, ate arancini at bars, trekked through open temple ruins and befriended the dogs that lived there. I was learning about literature and classics, but van den Berg was my Virgil on our bus rides. I was learning how to read the world as a writer.
I’d had it in my head that I wanted to write. It always felt like some constant, a truth I’d never confronted. Reading The Isle of Youth in Sicily, my senses were overwhelmed by all I wanted to capture, to witness and convey on the page. I savored each step of our nighttime walk to a bar in Porto Empdecole, saw the violence of the dark road when we passed a dead dog, held the feeling of cramming into the bartenders’ cars when they drove us home at the night’s end. In our stay in Siracusa, we visited the same bar both nights, and with friends we talked about homosexuality in the Mormon church, about dreams for when college ended in two months. I began encountering the raw material that can make a story so felt, dug in. I learned how to find that back home, too.
Back on campus, I finally wrote a story I was excited to turn in prior to workshop. I’d begun thinking of environments as ways to unfold a character’s obstacles and desires. The heat of New Orleans became a way to underline a character’s struggles with body image and relating to his grandmother. Laura van den Berg visited our class prior to her reading at night, and I hung on every word she shared. She read from a new story she was working on and unlocked for me the thrill of being a working writer, of bringing people into the process, sharing the exploration with fellow creators. In our first day of our literature seminar, my professor said, “La Sicilia è la chiave di tutto,” or Sicily is the key to everything, a quote attributed to Goethe, reflecting on his travels through Sicily. The titular story of Laura van den Berg’s next collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, takes place at Punta del Saraceno, the far northeast reaches of Sicily. Maybe there’s some magic to the place itself. Maybe you can find it if you know what to seek.
Michael Colbert loves coffee (his favorites are Costa Rican and Ethiopian) and horror films (his favorites are Candyman and The Silence of the Lambs). He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Wilmington, and his writing appears or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Southern Humanities Review, Avidly, and No Contact, among others. You can follow Michael’s work at michaeljcolbert.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @mjcolbert16.
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