Dialogue with the DEAD
by Fred L. Gardaphe
What if your mother handed you a novel she had written before she died and you read it, only to realize it wasn’t publishable? Most people would have set it aside with her effects, leaving it for future generations to peruse. Not Lawrence DiStasi. As he read his mother’s fiction, he began to respond to it with questions, comments, clarifications, compassion, outrage and joy.
In a brilliant and original move, Lawrence decided to publish his mother’s novel along with his reactions to the stories. The result is a bold and innovative work titled “Esty,” the gathering of family voices first envisioned by Margaret Weisz DiStasi. Margaret is the daughter of “Esty,” a Hungarian Jew who, despite an arranged marriage, manages to consummate an affair with Vonny, her first and perhaps only love, while her husband escapes to the U.S. to avoid World War I. The tryst results in Margaret’s birth, or so the story goes. But is this fact or fantasy?
This is only one of the questions that Lawrence tries to answer as he moves through his mother’s story. Along the way, he offers additional insights he had while conducting his research for the novel. At times, Margaret stays with the fiction, but at other times, she strays into the reality, all the while maintaining that whatever anyone thinks, this is her story, and she’s sticking with it.
Margaret was long dead by the time Lawrence had the idea for the book, but he resurrects her now and then to respond to what he has written. This is where the excitement builds, as mother scolds son for the liberties he takes, and son let’s mother know that he isn’t always on her side. This interaction, along with the voices of other key figures, such as Margaret’s abusive (and possibly alleged) father, marks the brilliance of Lawrence’s work.
Like Esty, Margaret is forced into a marriage. However she escapes with the Italian man of her dreams, and he protects her from her father’s attempts to force her to return to her Jewish husband. Margaret converts to Catholicism and raises her family out of the shadows of her past. The excitement returns when those shadows are recast later in her life, and she must ex- plain them to her children.
Lawrence keeps the voices separate by leaving his mother’s writing in the conventional format of capital letters at the beginning of sentences, while his input appears in lower-case letters: “the question we keep wanting to iterate is: what?” he queries. “what was the irreducible and unadorned fact that leads to this story? or that this story leads to? ... because it’s the story here, that keeps us boxing with shadows.”
Margaret’s imagined voice after her death in italicized sentences as well as lower-case letters: “no, but couldn’t I at least have got a son to help me with instead of — my god, don’t you see what you’re doing? hasn’t my life been misery enough, and writing it more of a misery, isn’t that enough without you making it worse? isn’t it? would it be so hard to just let it be?”
The result is one powerful and engaging read that makes us rethink our own family histories and their relationships to the forces that have shaped not just our present, but also the very way we look at the past.
EXCERPT From the Book
…but this is not just any fiction. this is a fiction that cries out in the night to be told. and its telling travels over three generations and through loin after loin to insist on one overriding truth: i am not my father’s daughter. i have never been his real daughter. as my mother, the breathtaking, chest-nut-haired esty, was never truly his wife. she was vonny’s. and i am vonny’s. royal vonny’s who had to die. and what fitter way for a secret, a noble, mythic father to die than in the very first charge of the very first battle of the very first world war? amen. ... trouble is, it’s not easy to keep real events in phase with mythic events in a novel. you try and try, but time keeps slipping out of joint.
Esty: A Novel/Memoir
by Lawrence W. DiStasi & Margaret Weisz DiStasi
I Pages: 215 I Cost: $16.95 (paperback) I ISBN: 978-0-9652714-2-4 I Visit: www.amazon.com or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawrence W. DiStasi has previously published “The Big Book of Italian American Culture,” “Mal Occhio: The Underside of Vision,” and “Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II.”