An earlier picture book by Claire A. Nivola, Elisabeth, told about the true experience of her mother, Ruth, a Jewish child whose family fled Nazi Germany. In Orani: My Father’s Village, author-illustrator Nivola takes readers along on a remembrance of her childhood visits to the small Sardinian town where her father was born.
1. Tomie dePaola’s New York Times review of Orani called your illustrations “the heart and soul and brilliance” of the book, but the text also paints a vivid picture of the village. The descriptions are both childlike and child-friendly, and you’ve recounted, with a remarkable lack of sentimentality, both the good (honey and bountiful fruit) and the bad (flies and scorpions). Was it difficult keeping the nostalgia at bay while immersing yourself in your childhood memories?
Claire Nivola: My father used to describe his native island of Sardinia with two words, orrori e delizie, horrors and delights. In the Mediterranean, the bright white light of the sun casts commensurately dark shadows; it is a place of contrasts. As a child, I was always eager to go back to Orani and, once there, to stay longer. A good part of its appeal was that it was so real and intense. The people were real and intense, ecstatic things happened there and terrible ones, nature itself was beautiful but not pretty.
Though the contrasts grew sharper as I thought back on the village to write the book, I had felt them as a child, and I knew, as children do, that this was Real Life. If I hadn’t been writing for children and if my paintings didn’t tend toward the beautification of reality, I would have made a book that was even less sentimental than this one; I would have made it “passionate without sentimentality,” the words my father used to describe his mother, the grandmother I barely knew.
2. You’ve said about previous books of yours that the text usually comes first (either your own or another author’s), and then you create the illustrations. Was that true for Orani?
CN: Yes, as always I began with the words. In fact, before I began final sketches, the idea and words and initial sketches went through many changes over many years. At first, I had thought of the story as including more of my father and his perceptions of his hometown. A beautiful series of reminiscences he had written, entitled Memorie di Orani, were published in 1996 in Italy, eight years after his death. But I came to realize that I could not use, nor do justice to, his poetic retellings of his lived experience and that I had to take the task on from my own point of view entirely.
3. The book is a distillation of the numerous trips you made to Orani as a child. Did you take your own children to visit the village when they were young, and did their perceptions of the place change how you saw it?
CN: I took my children to Orani twice when they were young. My son and daughter, being very different people, reacted very differently, helping to confirm, now that I think of it, my own perceptions. My daughter plunged right in, instantly inebriated by the attention, the freedom of movement, the companionship of all those black-eyed eager children who were somehow related to her. Within minutes she disappeared, led by the hand, as I had once been…She loved it! My son cowered. When people in Orani see a child, they hug and kiss him or her, and children there are inured to these shows of affection. My son felt under attack. Too many people, too many of them talking in voices that are too loud. Too much food forced on him. Too much going on all at once. Instead of exhilarating, he found it overwhelming. These two reactions sum up the experience of Orani: it is more nourishment than one can get anywhere else, and it is, after a few days, more than one can take. One arrives starved for the love and vitality it can give, and one leaves drained to the core. I’m exaggerating, of course, but living in America one does become dependent on a certain quota of anonymity.
4. In your author’s note you mention that you still go back to Orani. Were you able to travel there while working on the book?
CN: Yes, I took one trip back after I had painted only one or two of the illustrations. I made a few notes while actually looking at doors, windows, etc. It has always been extraordinary to me how little one sees until one needs to make a drawing of something. I tell children, “try to draw your mother’s face — you’ve certainly looked at it enough — try to draw a bicycle.” The rule held for me with Orani; I knew the feel of it, but I had to go back and really look to see it. And even so, my illustrations do not capture the texture, ruggedness, and exhilaratingly intimate scale of that corner of the world.
5. In the book, your child self returns home to New York City and wonders how many others in your hometown have an Orani of their own. What other insights did your visits to Orani give you? How did having that “complete world…just the right scale for a child” affect you as a child and/or as an adult?
CN: Orani wasn’t the only place we traveled back to. My parents had good friends in Florence, Milan, and Rome. Sometimes we flew first to Paris. My parents were very European, and many of their friends in America were European immigrants who, like they, had left Europe in the late 1930s because of the war. So I was somewhat steeped in, and very familiar with, the different view of life held by Europeans — a kind of resignation, sometimes fatalism, at best a worldly acceptance. The notion that everything can be changed, anything can be made better, that one can start over, is very American.
Both perspectives are true, of course, and one needs both. Access to both is maybe the greatest gift I have gotten from straddling two continents. In Orani, what I am calling the European attitude ranges from (to me) infuriating resignation to mature acceptance. As my relationships with my cousins continue into maturity, they have taught me both the trap of fatalism and the wisdom of acceptance.
Orani also inoculated me against snobbery. My father was almost entirely self-taught, having barely attended school, and most of my relatives have never pursued higher education. Yet the depth of his and their intelligence is evident to me. The family trade was masonry, what we here might call construction work. In America, when my father made sculptures for buildings in public spaces, I sometimes assisted him, and the ease with which the two of us moved among the electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and masons on the job made me proud. Orani taught me to relate to people with directness and lack of pretence. In America, people often commented on my father’s charm and immediacy of presence. Only recently have I realized that not only most everyone in his extended family, but most everyone in the village of Orani shares this quality of genuineness.
Finally, from Orani, or maybe from having both Orani and America in my experience, I have come to know fully that nothing is all good or all bad. There are prices to pay for a tight-knit, traditional, organic community, for all its benefits, just as there are prices to pay for the mobility, choices, and breadth of modern life, for all its virtues. Nothing, in short, is simple.
From the October 2011 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.