Contessa and Ettore Saforo awake to a normal day in war-stricken, occupied Italy. By the end of the day, however, their house is in ruins and they must seek shelter and protection wherever they can. But the turbulent politics of 1944 provide a rich and varied account of Italian migration to Australia after World War II.
When I was young, I entered a short story in a children’s writing competition, ran weekly by our state newspaper. I didn’t win.
I decided to try again. I thought if I wanted to win, I had to write from the heart. What could I write about?
I recalled my father telling me stories of being an Italian migrant in an Australian school, where the teacher spoke English and he had sat there not understanding a word. The image of my father as a boy, sitting in that class, lost and confused, had always moved me. I wrote my short story about it and sure enough, it won! The story was printed in the newspaper and I received a certificate and five dollars.
Years later, with several unpublished manuscripts in my drawer and an inbox littered with rejection emails from publishers, I recalled my childhood experience. Write from the heart. Writing about my father, empathising with him, had impressed a judge before. I decided to go down that path again, much further down.
My father was a willing subject. He loved to tell stories about his past and he had so many unique and fascinating tales. Packing pen and notebook, I went to my parents’ house to interview him about his life, and asked him to start from the very beginning.
My father couldn’t recollect this city of his birth. He was only a baby when his family’s house was bombed by the Allies during World War II. Rendered homeless, his family was forced to shelter with friends. They waited out the war, hoping at the end of it, they could start over. But it wasn’t to be. Neighbouring Yugoslavia, under Tito’s Army, came to take the German-occupied city; a city wanted for its strategic port.
With no living memory of the war, my father introduced me to an Italian woman, aged in her eighties, a family friend. She was 16 years old when the Yugoslav Partisans came down the hills to take the city. She whispered, almost as though Tito and his spies were still around to hear: “they threw Italians alive down the sinkholes and old mineshafts”. She was too upset to elaborate.
I went away and researched. I read that: according to an Italian researcher: “perhaps thousands, of Italians, both partisans and civilians, were imprisoned and subsequently thrown alive by Yugoslav partisans into various chasms in the Karst region and the hinterland of Trieste and Gorizia”.
I was shocked to learn that my grandfather was on the Yugoslav Partisan list for execution and could have been a victim. Other family friends also shared their harrowing experiences of how they had to flee Fiume.
Over a year, I wrote my father’s story, keeping to his memories and the stories his parents had told him. A wonderful family history was written. But my research had opened my eyes to a part of Italian history that was not widely known and I wanted to write more about it.
I took what was essentially my father’s biography and, over another year, re-wrote it as a fiction.
Events that had happened in isolation, I now crossed over to create more conflict and drama. I introduced new characters and coloured in the ones I knew little about. My imagination filled in gaps and allowed my characters to be where I needed them to be, experiencing the history that I wanted to cover.
I was writing from the heart. It was essentially still my father’s story. I was imagining him and his parents and siblings but I was giving them more of a voice, seeing more through their eyes. No longer limited by truth or memory, I could create a fast-moving, gripping story.
Empathy was my guide. Research kept the story on track. It was a writing process that suited my journalistic background, my passion for history and my love of family; where fiction was being inspired by truth. I found I was enjoying writing every word, page and chapter.
I could so easily imagine my grandparents returning to the site where their house once stood, standing on the edge of the bomb crater, my father just a baby in his mother’s arms, wondering what would become of them... and there I was, poised over the keyboard, writing exactly that.
My story, Port of No Return, was published by Odyssey Books on July 31, 2015. The offer to publish was emailed to me on my father’s birthday.
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About the Author
Michelle Saftich is a first time author who resides in Brisbane, Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Business/Communications Degree, majoring in journalism, from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). For the past 20 years, she has worked in communications, including print journalism, sub-editing, communications management and media relations. Born and raised in Brisbane, she spent 10 years living in Sydney; and two years in Osaka, Japan, where she taught English. Now residing in Brisbane, she is married with two children. Find out more at Michelle's website michellesaftich.com/ and find her on Facebook and Twitter @MichelleSaftich.