Motherlands by Amaryllis Gacioppo review – a brilliant exploration of mixed heritage

The Australian writer and translator traces her ancestral footsteps across Europe and reflects on how we come to understand the past

In 2020, 34.8% of children born in England and Wales had at least one parent from outside the UK, and this figure is rising. A mixed heritage brings riches. There’s more of everything: recipes, languages, festivals and the handy ability to code-switch. But it also comes with a sense of dislocation that complicates the notion of home. Amaryllis Gacioppo’s remarkable literary debut, Motherlands, follows this yearning to its source. A writer and translator born in Australia to Italian parents, Gacioppo traces her ancestral footsteps through four cities: Turin, Benghazi, Rome and Palermo. Using boxes of sepia-tinted photographs, archival documents, and the oral history she has gathered all her life, she pieces together her family history from her great-grandparents’ generation to the present. Part memoir, part travelogue, Motherlands is ultimately an investigation of how we come to understand the past at all. It is also, perhaps, a love letter to her Italian grandmother Annalisa, the source of her stories, whose death was preceded by a stroke that silenced her.

The book’s five chapters reflect Gacioppo’s own and her ancestors’ journeys. Her great-grandmother Rita moved from Turin to Benghazi, in Libya, where she married Salvatore; her grandmother Annalisa, born in Benghazi, was sent to Turin at the outbreak of the second world war; the family were reunited in Rome and moved to Palermo; Gacioppo’s mother, born in Palermo, moved to Australia, and Nonna Annalisa followed.

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