“Write rhymes with fight for a reason. We’re not all meant to be at the frontline…I’m way more comfortable sitting down and trying to figure out how to write back against something that I really dislike.”
In this episode, Rachel Thompson talks to Eufemia Fantetti about Humber Literary Review.
They spoke way back in 2017 when Euphemia was then the CNF editor at Humber Literary. She is now one of the journal’s editors.
The Humber Literary Review celebrates diversity and is built upon the idea that a healthy and vital community—artistic or otherwise—is an inclusive one, without barriers or discrimination.
Work from the HLR has been featured in Best Canadian Poetry, Best Canadian Essays, and has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. They are always looking to publish and promote more emerging artists.
Full Interview Transcript
Rachel Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, Eufemia Fantetti.
Eufemia Fantetti: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be talking to you.
Rachel Thompson: I want to start by asking you about, sort of your origins as a writer. So, what do you think made you the writer of the family, and did you know other writers growing up?
Eufemia Fantetti: Such a great question, Rachel, I didn’t know other writers growing up, so I had no concept that this was something people could do. I had no idea that anybody could make a living at it, and certainly, there are a lot of people that said you couldn’t. I was the only book person in the family. I was the only person who really read books and was into books, and, um, my father had like a grade school primer that he used to pull out every so often and he would sort of read me, um, Aesop’s fables from it and tell me, like, these are really important stories because you actually learn about people and you learn about life. And I think those were really tender moments and, uh, we were both living in this kind of fearful environment and afraid of my mom a lot. So those tender moments, like, I really glommed onto them, and I needed to escape the violence of my home. So books were there and I remember, I still remember the first word I learned in English and how it got pieced together for me, and I was like, that’s three words in one, the word, “to get her.” You know, it’s like, “to get her” makes one word, and, so, there was such a pleasure and joy around reading, and then writing was just something that–.
I was an anxious kid at school. I didn’t particularly enjoy school. And the only time you could really get me to focus and not notice that the time was passing was if you gave me a piece of paper, the foolscap stuff and the pencil and you said, “Write.” And that’s what I would do. And I’d started noticing that, like, I didn’t make the same grammar mistakes that other kids made only because I read a little bit more. It wasn’t like I was great at those kinds of things it was just that I read so I didn’t make that “there, their, they’re” or the “it’s, its,” or the “you’re, your” mistake because I’d asked teachers if I could take the textbooks home. And then, when Scholastic started doing that thing where they sold the books through schools, I kept asking my dad to get me some. So I think that was part of the journey of being a writer. And that love of books and that feeling that, if when you’re growing up you’re incredibly isolated or lonely because of wherever you’re growing up, because maybe you’re different than everyone else you’re growing up around or because you’re the different one in your family, then your friends are those other writers out there in the world that are, like, giving you a window into another world and letting you use your imagination as a form of survival.
Years and years ago, I saw J.K. Rowling talk about how she had, this was when she was starting to get big. She was, like, just on the cusp of becoming, like, the phenomenon that she became. And people wrote to her, children wrote to her all the time asking for admission into Hogwarts. And she had already hired a staff of people to answer a lot of the fan mail, like, and the children she responded to herself. And I thought, of course. If you’re trying to survive, like, an impossible family or a violent home or, um, a family that rejects you because they don’t all accept you as you come into the world, you would say, like, please let me come to Hogwarts, like I’m sure I’m probably not a muggle. I’ve got to be like a person who has magic in them. So I always felt like that was a really important thing to hear because I thought, like, that’s what saved me was the reading. That’s what still saved me on, when I’m having a rough week or when I’m falling into despair, I just think, like, let me go find my favourite, uh, writer on the shelf or somebody whose work I’d like to read now. And that’s my community. That’s my safe place.
Rachel Thompson: Oh, I’m verklempt even just hearing you say that, not to minimize by using a kind of silly word for, but that’s very touching to hear because I think I really resonate so much with that. You mentioned your father. And of course I want to ask about him, and I’m going to do about right off the bat here because–
Eufemia Fantetti: Fabulous.
Rachel Thompson: I guess I’m thinking because we’re connected on Facebook, and I know you put out little vignettes about what things he said, and then I was also re-reading the essay that you wrote in The Globe and Mail called Food Fight Italian Style.
Eufemia Fantetti: Right.
Rachel Thompson: Where you talk about how he was trying to raise a mopey kid and cope with a mentally ill wife at the same time.
Eufemia Fantetti: Right.
Rachel Thompson: And, uh, I’m going to pack a few things into here. So, at one point we also spoke about the writing advice that he’d told you early on when you had decided you wanted to be a writer.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yes.
Rachel Thompson: Like, oh, you can write when you’re married, right, and looking after the kids. What does he think of your writing now, and how has that worked out?
Eufemia Fantetti: So, yeah, I was 17 when he said that to me, and I had actually had this experience where I’d written a play and the play had done well, and I was, like, it’s happening! This life I could of only imagine and dream of, just that feeling inside of me and I was like, “Is it really possible for me? Like, you know, I don’t come from book people. My parents didn’t have access to a bookstore or a library. Could I possibly be what I imagine this person who can actually say things in an articulate fashion and have people, like, want to know what I think about something? So he turned to me, and it was one of the biggest fights we ever had when I was 17 was, he said, you know, what’s the big deal, like when you’re at home with the kids and your husband goes to work you can just write, you know, like it’s not like it’s an all-day job looking after kids, was his thinking. And, uh, I said that’s the most ignorant thing I’ve ever heard anybody say, and my dad’s not an ignorant man. So the word “ignorant” exploded, and we came home. We were in the car and we came home, and we were fighting, we were shouting at each other, and it was so rare that my mom actually was in shock, and she went into, like, nice overdrive, which never happened. Because we were fighting, she actually brought out a different side of herself. It took me, like, hours to forgive him and say, like, you don’t understand what I want. You don’t understand what I need. You have no concept of, like, I have dreams, that kind of thing that you can say it when you’re arrogant and you’re young and you don’t understand any of the sacrifices that your parents made.
Eufemia Fantetti: And, uh, he said to me, “Do you think I dreamt of being a butcher?” And I was, like, oh no? So, said, uh, I had dreams, too. I didn’t have those opportunities. We didn’t have the money for me to go to school. There was no opportunity for the education that I wanted. I went to work. I paid off my parents’ debts, all things that, like, you just don’t have a sense of it. And he, he just let me know that and I was, like, oh my god. Like, I can’t believe I’m not, you know, I knew something of their life, but, really not a lot. And, uh, it was the beginning of kind of going, like, if I really want what I want and he never said to me, like, get a practical education or do this or do that. He just said, like, whatever you want, you know, whatever you want to do, I support you. I just think this is going to be really hard. I don’t know how you make a living with this. Like, we have been told when I was in grade 8, a teacher who’d said Eufemia’s a good writer, like, maybe she should go to journalism school. And I didn’t even know what that meant. That’s how far reality was from, like–. I just sort of had this idea, like, a journalist is a person who understands political science and they understand this and they understand — and I thought that’s beyond my capabilities. And so I was like, clearly, that’s not who I’m going to be.
Eufemia Fantetti: [00:09:57] And my dad had said to me, you know, you’ve had some encouragement in this field, so you should pursue that. But how will you pay your rent and how will you make a living? And, he, I think, hoped that I would have a more traditional life. He’s always been incredibly supportive of anything I did but, initially, I think he was just really, really worried, and he was really stressed. He was developing mental illnesses that we didn’t know about. So the times that he hasn’t been able to be, like, 100 percent there, it’s mostly been because of fear and that the fear is sort of aggravated by mental health issues, but otherwise I consider myself incredibly lucky that he never told me, “You can’t do that. That’s ridiculous. Don’t dream. Don’t think about these things.” He’s always just sort of said to me, like, that’s your gift. He really believes that gifts come from God. His gift is mathematics. Yeah. We couldn’t be more different and look so similar. Like, he looks like me. But 30 years in the future and as a man. You know, we’re clearly deeply connected to each other. We have completely different skills and abilities, kind of thing.
Eufemia Fantetti: But going back to your question about if I knew any writers. I didn’t know any writers, but I knew storytellers because I come from people who didn’t have a lot of access to education or books, but they were incredible storytellers so that oral storytelling tradition that we all come from I think has real value. And I think sometimes it gets neglected in this world where the emphasis is on the publishing and the book, and the hardcover is better than the softcover. Like, all of these different layers of judgment instead of just realizing that, like, the storytelling, that’s the gift. It’s the gift, and it’s also the huge responsibility, like I think because I write so much about my family, sometimes I wish, for them, I wish that I didn’t. For me, I have no choice. Like, I write to excavate what’s happened and find my way through the chaos of what’s happened because, otherwise, some of those experiences felt like there’s a lot of suffering and chaos without self-awareness and I don’t want to continue my life that way. I want to be like a pinball at the mercy of life. I’d rather figure out, like, oh I’m having this reaction because this is happening and I remember this from this. And I know this because I’ve written it down and I’ve accessed that awareness that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t write it down. That kind of thing.
Rachel Thompson: Yeah, and I definitely want to ask you more about how you do that and how you’ve used that gift and take the responsibility. And I find that’s something that I struggle with often is thinking about, like, what you’re saying about, that you have no choice.
Eufemia Fantetti: Right.
Rachel Thompson: So, that it’s a little unfortunate for your family somehow, too, that you’re writing about it, but that you need to, you must.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yeah. I have prayers that I say before I write. I have intentions that I speak out loud before I write. I remind myself that the goal is to get to the truth. And to uncover it. I tell myself that I would have really benefited if someone had come forward and said, “This is what it’s like when you come from a family that’s an immigrant family dealing with a person with a severe mental illness, intensely violent, steeped in misogyny, steeped in Old World Paganism married to thousand years of Catholicism and the burden that that is. I think that if someone had said to me, like, it looks like this, or if I’d even read about a character that was like that, and I said, look there’s me on the page. I think about what an incredibly life-affirming and earth-shattering and thunderclap that would have been for me. And so I think when I go to write these stories—years ago I was doing this play about my family. So it was like a one-woman show. And the big shock for me was the number of women that came out to me and said, “My mother tried to kill me, too. My mother was really dangerous. My mother was violent.” And I was, like, I thought it was me. I thought it was something so particular to me, like, my experience of, um. It’s really easy to think it’s you if you’re the person on the receiving end of a lot of aggression and violence, and especially from birth, from the moment you have memory.
So, to find out that there’s a whole tribe of women who’ve gone through this and not just women, but there’s a whole tribe of people that have had this experience, and they are just looking for the validation that it’s happened. And they’re just looking to have someone put into words what it feels like. Because maybe they’ve gone and tried to get help, or maybe they’ve done a whole bunch of other things looking for help and then you get that kind of, like, the pushback that I think sometimes happens in therapy, where they’ll be like “What can you do about this? What can you do now?” And I feel like that puts the onus on the person who has suffered to end the suffering. When, sometimes, it’s better to just say, “This really awful thing happened. I’m sorry that it happened. I’m going to sit here and give you a cup of tea or something like that, while we just wait out this terrible feeling.” Because so many atrocious things happen. And, uh, I think that there’s this pervasive kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you got to fix this, what are you doing to make this better? Do you have a self-care list? Do you have a fist? Do you have a– Are you doing this? Are you going for a run? Are you going for a walk? Are you going for a jog?”
All of that kind of stuff that I think we all know that, like, there are things we could do that would be a little healthier than maybe running across the street and buying, like, a gallon of Haagen-Dazs and eating that at the same time as you’re eating chips and then just kind of being, like, that’s my dinner for tonight. Everybody knows what it takes to eat a healthy diet. When you’re in pain, or when you’re suffering because something’s happened, and it’s like a tripwire that really ignites that trauma in the central nervous system, I think it’s appalling to kind of ask people to be, like, “Could you have handled this better? Could you have done that?” I think it’s incredibly insensitive. When I think about writing about my family, I think that there will always be the person that says, “That’s not how happened.” Like, my mother’s never going to agree with me. My mother’s never going to admit that she was abusive. She’s never going to think that she was excessive in her violence. She really grew up in that world, in a time, in a place where you could do anything to people, short of murdering them, and they had to tolerate you. They had to take care of you. They didn’t walk away from you. You don’t– she didn’t come from a world of divorce. And so she just brought her worst self to the game every day and we put up with it for a very, very, very long time. My dad was married to her for 36 years, and I didn’t stop speaking to her until about four years ago.
So. When I write those stories, I tell myself no one was at their best. We all failed each other. And I want to be honest in telling that story. I don’t want to gloss over the parts in the times where I was vicious, or angry, and I didn’t walk away. I didn’t take the silent protest or the peaceful route. Like, I fought back. I’d landed blows whether I was cornered or just because I was having that kind of day where I was, like, I’ve had enough of this and now I, I respond this way, too. So I think when I get to the writing part, I think how can I do this and honour the stories that we’re all carrying inside of us, me, my mother, her mother, my father, his father, all the way back. And I just think, I’m sure that the ancestral memory of the violence that my parents and their parents, and going back, endured in poverty, in lack, in not having enough, like, just that kind of really not ever feeling safe or secure in the world. Then I think, I’m here to honour that. I’m here to acknowledge that. I’m here to say, this is what happened. And also ensure that it doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Rachel Thompson: Really appreciate what you said about being honest about you landing blows and, like, understanding the story from a bunch of different angles. In some ways, you’ve answered some of my questions too, around… Like, I write from my life as well, and I struggle sometimes with how to write about, with difficult times, in part because I fear repercussions in my personal life. But at the same time, I think that therein sort of is the answer of, like, how you do this, too, is with that kind of ethics in mind. I love what you do with that prayer ritual. Because for me, when you’re writing something that happened, you finally understand it from different angles because you’re forced to get some of that perspective.
Eufemia Fantetti: Exactly. I think you have to ask for help, whether it’s for writing it on a piece of paper or saying out loud, ask for the help. You need the support. And you need the help in telling those stories that are the really hard stories to tell. Because usually I might sit down to try to write something else, but it always comes back to the thing that I’m most afraid of. The thing that I’m uncomfortable about, the thing that that’s where the writing starts to go because it wants out. It doesn’t want to sit in a dark corner and intimidate me for the rest of my life. It wants me to pull it out, and look at it, and examine it, and throw it into the sunlight, and say, like, I see what you are. You’re this experience and the reason you happened is because of all of these threads of history, and expectation, and grief, and loss, and violence interconnecting. And then I came along. And that was that day in 1979, August. That kind of thing where you, like, and that’s how it all came together. Because otherwise there’s just more and more, unpacking of, like, pain and pain. And I think, like, if you can start to look at it from all those different angles with honesty and with compassion, too, because in the moment when I’m working on things, I’m not feeling this way. I’m just feeling dreadful, and I’m feeling like I don’t think I want people to know this. Why would I want people to know this about me? Why would I want them to know this about my mother? Or if it’s a terrible draft, like if you’re working on a shitty draft and you’re like, oh god this sounds like I want people to pity me or something. So every step of the way, it feels uncomfortable for a different reason. Maybe because you’re thinking, like, well it’s not great writing. Or you’re thinking, oh I don’t really want to reveal this. So all of those different factors can add up to making you feel, like, incredibly uncomfortable. And, I don’t know how else to get through that other than to keep writing. Other than to just kind of keep nudging that story forward and figuring out what the best way to tell it is and how you’re going to reveal the things that you want to reveal and recognize that not everything is necessary for the story. Like, some of the stuff that you write, it might not fit that particular essay or that particular story, so you’re going to have to, like, compost it and throw it into something else. Nothing’s ever wasted, just the process of trying to figure out how to tell the difficult stories. It’s not wasted.
Eufemia Fantetti: I was thinking about, in the last couple weeks, Nicole Breit had her course, the CNF Outliers were starting up again. And a year ago, I took her course because I knew I was going to be writing an essay. I was asked to write an essay on the topic of love and I thought, God, this is going to be really hard. I feel a lot of shame and humiliation around this topic. Those two words, uh, shame and humiliation, when you say love, that’s not your first eaction. But for me it was, and I thought, I want to take this class. And I figured out the story and how I was going to tell it before the end of the class. I figured out it needed to be in a hermit crab. And she was starting up her class again and I sort of did a signal boost to former students saying, like, this is a great class. You might want to think about it if you’re feeling like you want to really develop the lyric essay and/or develop unusual forms of creative nonfiction. And it was right on the heels of, like, stuff in politics that I was, like, waking up listening to Trump and learning stuff about Doug Ford, and all these things where I just felt like, oh, the bullies and the brutes, they just always win. And I sent out the e-mail saying, like, write rhymes with fight for a reason. Like, we’re not all meant to be at the front line and capable of wielding something that’s like an instrument of fighting. But you can sit down and write if that’s your way of fighting back. If that’s your way of trying to overthrow things, like that’s what you do. That’s where you come from. I’m way more comfortable sitting down and trying to figure out how to write back against something that I really dislike and putting in, in the most concise and clear, direct way of saying, no. This is what racism looks like. This is what misogyny looks like. This is what this looks like. This is what, you know–. I hadn’t even heard the term microaggression ’till two weeks ago when, uh, Leonarda Carranza told me and I was like, What! I had no idea what that was and I’ve been experiencing it my whole life. You know? I used to call them back-handed compliments, you know, and where I was just, like, I walk away feeling like, that doesn’t feel good. So I was, like, now I’m on the microaggressions.
Rachel Thompson: There are so many threads I want to pick up. I mean, I definitely want to give a shout out to Nicole Breit, who is an amazing teacher.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yes.
Rachel Thompson: She and I did a webinar on writing about trauma.
Eufemia Fantetti: I loved it.
Rachel Thompson: For me, it was an experience of going into it going, I don’t know how to do this. And learning, like, I have to do this as a writer and that sometimes– and, actually, I’ll tie this in a bit with what Alicia Elliot was telling me in my most recent interview, where she’s saying you don’t have to write about the trauma. You can write about what you learned or around the trauma, too, but if you feel compelled to write about it, there are other ways to do it. And I love the idea, too, of the hermit crab essay. That’s a brilliant form where you can sort of hide within this shell but still be able to tell the story in a way that–.
Eufemia Fantetti: Definitely. When I think about, let’s say trauma or the thing that you’re writing about, I think of mine as, like, mine always comes to me in the form of the house that I grew up in. Like, I still have nightmares about that house, and I think of it like this: I don’t walk up to that house and knock on a door and say, “Let me in.” I go in the side door. And I look around and then I get out before the ghosts, notice I’m there. And it’s because there’s so much in there. And sometimes when I’m writing an essay, I’m building a new room onto that house. Because that house is always frozen in time and place for me. And so it’s kind of like a place to go visit, and I can look at the trauma from a different angle. I can look at the experience from another place and time. And definitely, I think, like, you don’t have to write about the trauma, that you want to write about, like, what you’ve understood. And what’s formed you and what you understand about the mini-traumas that people visit on each other every day out there in the world. Like, just the acts of aggression and the acts, like, unkindness that you see that are just going to be tripwires for the difficulties that you’ve experienced in your past. That kind of thing.
Rachel Thompson: Sure. I want to say something about the work that you do with other writers and the light that you bring because when you’re talking about referring students to Nicole’s course, you’re talking about your own students, too. And I know one thing I just want to discuss is in setting up this time with you, I had some mental health-related challenges, like I had this anxiety and insomnia the first night and so I had to reschedule and I felt totally safe telling you this straight out, in spite of, you know, not knowing each other that well. Like, we haven’t– we’ve only met a couple of times in real life, I think.
Eufemia Fantetti: Right. Right.
Rachel Thompson: And me, you know, wanting to put on the professional podcaster hat and–professional podcaster, that. But I mean you have such a spirit of care for other writers and I see that in the interactions that other writers have with you on social media mostly, but that comes through every interaction you have with writers. And, so, I’m just wondering what motivates you to help other writers. Like how do you get from that fear and trauma, and OK I’m going to tell my story because I didn’t see my story growing up, too, and then getting into that literary citizenship where you’re working and helping develop other writers and help them tell their stories, too.
Eufemia Fantetti: Just to say you’re a very professional podcaster and I’m loving Lit Mag Love, so thank you for this. It’s just such a great, um, service for the writers that you’re providing. And, so, I think the thing that inspires me the most is, like, to make sure that community and other writers feel safe. And I think it comes out of the times that I haven’t felt safe and the times that I’ve had terrible experiences. And I don’t mean in writing specifically but just in life. Like, it was very fundamental to my formation and my core to experience a person very very close to me, like the person that should be my protector, and should have been a person who shepherded me carefully through childhood and into adulthood, was actually, uh, the person who antagonized me the most and was incredibly cruel and difficult and didn’t offer that support. And so, it was like a constant struggle. And a constant fight.
Eufemia Fantetti: And I found, by the time I was a teenager, I was exhausted. And it took years to find out. And I had to do it on my own. I had years to find out I was really dealing with PTSD. And it was like a complex version of it from childhood. And I was being told that I had depression and I was, like, I don’t think that’s it. It doesn’t suit. It doesn’t fit. And so what I noticed happening was that my inner critic, just like anybody’s inner critic, is incredibly vicious and incredibly effective. And I don’t even think I can call my inner critic that, inner critic. It’s really like a choir. Like an intense choir, like the one that starts up with that deep, scary organ music. And I’m like, here we go, it’s coming, like. So, I’ve noticed everybody has that. And, in the classroom experiences that I had where I was really privileged, and it was an incredible honor to suddenly be a teacher, I drew on the teachers that I’d had. Really some of the vital ones that I had in childhood who’d been kind to me and recognized that I really loved writing. And I drew on some of the teachers that we both know from The Writers Studio, Betsy Warland and Wayde Compton, and just really lovely people. And I would get into the classroom and at least one, if not three or four students, would come with their work for workshopping and they would say, like, rip it to shreds. You know, I’m fine if you just take this apart. And I just was like, that’s not what’s going to happen. And there was a constant need to remind people, especially because I was teaching creative nonfiction, that you never get to judge the person’s decisions. You never say, like, I don’t understand why this narrator went back to her husband when he was being abusive, or I don’t understand why this person would even put up with this relationship. Or, I don’t understand why this person got pregnant. Like, you can’t say that, and it’s not safe for the person who’s written the story. Even if you’re saying “the narrator,” it’s absolutely uncalled for. You have to create this protective space in a room where people are being creative. And so that automatically means to me that no one is ripping anybody apart. And where they got that idea from–. I understand where they got the idea from because we all live in this world, and we all think, like OK, you know, I’m going to be a better writer. I want to be better now. I want to be better yesterday, and I want– just rip it to shreds. Tell me how to make it better. And I thought, has that really worked for us? Look at where we are as a society, as a global, like, as a planet. It’s not working. And if people really think that the incredible amount of writers that have been successful–really, really successful and held up as, like, geniuses–if those writers didn’t have their egos massaged, really? Like, I don’t think so. Like, that happened all the time.
And I feel like, it’s very clear to me when I’m in a classroom and when I’m seeing other writers that they’ve experienced what I’ve experienced. Maybe they didn’t see themselves in books, so they never saw themselves reflected in literature, and so they didn’t know that they were of value. Because they valued books that the books didn’t value them. They were told that to get better, they had to put up with having their work critiqued. That’s not the same as being abused, and we know that that happens. Like, the people take people’s work apart and they say cruel things, and that’s more of an attack than giving feedback. And we have to kind of establish those parameters and make sure everybody recognizes them and– There’s no moving forward without compassion. I think, for ourselves and for each other, I don’t want to be part of a community that doesn’t have that kind of baseline of respect and compassion, and care for each other. I’ve walked away from people who don’t engage in respectful behavior. I’ve walked away from friendships where there wasn’t, like, care for each other. If there’s, like, this kind of weird envy that comes in, like, there’s no place for that in building a safe community. I’ve been told that I’m hyper-vigilant about this kind of stuff. And I think, like, well, I’ve had a lifetime of watching and experiencing cruel ignorance. And so I’m on guard. I am hyper aware of it, and I am, like, no, that’s not acceptable. No, that’s not, you know, like, I–I’ve sometimes walked up to people and said things like, I really don’t like the tone that person was taking with you. And then they’ll be, like, oh. And then I think, like, am I really. Because it’s easy to gaslight yourself if you’ve been gaslighted by so many people in your life, you know, and I’ve had enough of it. I’ve been through it, and I’m not going to accept it anymore. So, I think all I can really do, like I was saying before, is champion other people and get them to see we’re all on this path. It’s an individual path. Yet every so often our paths are going to meet up. And when we get to the meadow clearing where we can all get together and have a party and say, like, great, this person got published over here. Or this person just got nominated for this award. Or this person just got recognized. Then we all get to celebrate, and then we have to basically go back on that trail that’s kind of lonely and isolated. But for any chance, you get to say to someone else, “I see where you are. What can I do to help?” There will be bad days, and there will be days where the writing is bad or the days where you feel terrible and you have to keep writing because you have a deadline. There will be all kinds of things. But there will also be days where we can get together and celebrate our collective achievements and our community moving forward.
Rachel Thompson: There’s the quote, I’m trying to remember, that you told me about–the opposite of envy or jealousy?
Eufemia Fantetti: Oh, uh, yeah, that’s actually a quote from these Buddhist teachers on this retreat that Danny Shapiro goes to. And it’s, she mentions it in her book, Devotion. And what these teachers say is the far enemy of sympathetic joy is envy. The near enemy is comparing. It is painful and unskillful to compare. No matter what conclusion we draw, comparison creates agitation in the mind. So, I mean. It spoke to me, and I copied it out because we live in a deeply competitive world. And there’s constantly comparisons being made. I think comparison is one of the ways that misogyny thrives in the world. And I think that anything we can do to unseat that and up-end it and throw it over and, um, throw it over. Is that the right–? No, overthrow. Yeah, sometimes I say things backwards in my head. But they’ll come out OK.
Rachel Thompson: I love “throw it over.” That’s great.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yeah, throw it over. So, I think, anything we can do to do that. It’s our responsibility to do that.
Rachel Thompson: So, can you tell me about how you got involved in Humber Literary Review? And then, I guess, what does that look like in terms of creating access and trying to not just, you know, not do harm to people that you’re teaching or publishing, but also try to be that kind of gate opener for people who haven’t had a chance to have their voice heard. Let them have it heard faster.
Eufemia Fantetti: Right, um. So, I just joined last year, and I have to say I’m still kind of trying to wrap my head around the whole, like, wearing, and it’s probably reporters that do this but in the 1940s, but I’m thinking of myself as, like, wearing that visor that editors wear in those 1940s black and white movies that you see, where the editor’s, like, chomping on a cigar, an old white-haired guy. And I’m like, is that me? Like, that’s not me. The myths that existed for the longest time about who’s the editor and who’s the writer and–. Those are things that I’m kind of still confronting in my own life. And, so, what happened was I was working at Humber College as an instructor, and, um, Humber Lit Review did a mental health issue, and I submitted something that they published, and I was really grateful for that. And then after that, I just thought, well maybe I can ask if I could be an editor. I couldn’t imagine myself in that role, but I still was like, oh, you gotta start somewhere and maybe they’ll let you and–. And the magazine’s really new. It was the brainchild of their Vera Beletzan who was the Associate Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. And she basically just sort of asked around and said, “Do you think there’s room for another, um, magazine in Canada, and everybody went, ‘Yes!’”
Eufemia Fantetti: And, so, they started pulling this together. And it’s a beautiful magazine that comes out twice a year. And the editor’s Meaghan Strimus who is herself a really brilliant poet and a really generous soul. So, I asked if I could be part of it, and Meaghan was, like, yes. And so I’m an essays editor with another woman, Elisabeth Oliver. And then there’s fiction editors and poetry editors. And, so, what it looks like for me is, I look for creative nonfiction. The word “essays” is still one of those words that scared me in high school, so I’m, like, really? I can’t believe that’s next to my name, essays editor. But I look at it as, like, taking the writing that comes through Humber Literary Review, the submissions that we get, and, unfortunately, because of the fact that we’re all, like, teachers, and so we have, like, a heavy course load of students that we are working with every semester. The work has to be close to polished for when we get it. There are some things that I think, like, OK I can see maybe this will need some work, and–.
Rachel Thompson: Do you have a chance to give feedback to people, or do you make suggestions?
Eufemia Fantetti: I do, but it has to be light feedback. Like, it’s only going to need, like, one or two edits. It’s not, like, really substantive edits that we’re talking about. So It’s that close to ready. But since we only do two issues a year there’s, like, a part, where I’m like, am I already in the future if I say to this person, like, do you think you could work on this and let me see it again? That kind of thing. Because it’s so new to me. Because I’m still figuring it out.
Eufemia Fantetti: I think, um, a year ago, the first issue, we got the pieces, worked on it, put it together. That was all good. And then I sort of realized, of course, rejection letters go out and that didn’t even occur to me. And because of the fact that I’m a writer, I know what it feels like to get them, and I know what it’s like as a human being to be rejected. So, I asked Meaghan and Michael Spencer, managing editor, if I could write a better rejection letter than the basic one that Submittable sends out. Because I think it’s really difficult to do this stuff. It’s difficult to create. Then it’s difficult to edit. Then it’s difficult to send it out. And it’s really painful to get the rejection. And, so, because I’m aware of that process, I said, I want to write, like, a nicer rejection letter because, unfortunately, we have a little bit of time to edit the work that we get. We don’t have enough time to send back personalized rejections. So I wanted to send a nicer rejection that said, look, we get that this is hard. Don’t cross us off your list. Keep sending to us and keep sending to other places.
Rachel Thompson: Because, in truth, we also reject a lot of great work, right? So, that’s something that doesn’t come across–. I don’t know about you, but for me that was one of the big eye openers when I became an editor was, oh, okay, when it comes to the end, it–. These are very difficult choices between really great quality pieces.
Eufemia Fantetti: Yes.
Rachel Thompson: And then it’s, like, more about the fit, not about–
Eufemia Fantetti: Exactly.
Rachel Thompson: –the quality.
Eufemia Fantetti: Like, that’s the astonishing part, where you’re, like, oh, this is a great companion piece to that one that we’ve already said yes to. And then you’re, like, so, can’t say yes to these ones. So, what are you going to do? And, so, it has been an eye-opener that way. And I think we’ll, we’re going to be signing the, like, when that rejection letter goes out, it’ll say “the editors of HLR.” Because they took care of it the first time around, and I also remember saying, like, I don’t really want to put my name on a rejection letter. Because people will hold onto that, and be like that person rejected me.
Rachel Thompson: Yeah.
Eufemia Fantetti: You know what I mean? And it’s, like, no that’s not the person who rejected you. It’s actually, like, a decision that’s being made. The editors are in discussion, and I think because of what we were talking about, what’s happened in the CanLit communities, like, you can’t always know who’s really gunning for you to succeed. And who is just sitting there kind of rubber stamping, going like, “I don’t care. If it doesn’t look like me, and it doesn’t sound like me, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” You can’t really know, I mean–. You know more now, because you can see them on social media, right?
Rachel Thompson: Yep.
Eufemia Fantetti: But, you have to be aware that there are, like, stages of people saying, like, well, we can’t accept this but we also don’t have–. Everybody’s got, like, busy-busy work, life. All those things, and they don’t always have time to get back to the person and say, like, oh, I really loved, like, your use of humour here. Like, I think this is really fantastic, or even to say, like, who we think you should send it on to. Like, there’s just not enough time. And I feel like that’s the part where I’m trying to make sure that, you know, it’s new but I’m going to get better at it, and I’ll be able to find a way to manage that and actually reach out to people and make sure that they’re not slipping through the cracks. So, for me, I think I’ve just always been interested in diverse stories because it was so long that there was a lack of them, or that they were being filtered through a white male voice. And I’m, I’m done. I don’t need to hear that anymore. I’ve heard it. I’m not saying that people don’t have something to say, I’m just saying, like, I’m tired of hearing their version of someone else’s story. Like, I’m not interested. Because I’m in essays and creative nonfiction, I’m reading true stories. So I’m, like, looking for the story that someone’s going to share with me about what it is to be human. What it is to survive, like, the many trials and tribulations of being a human being in this day and age and all the things that happen to us.
Rachel Thompson: Can you tell me about a recent piece that you chose for publication and why you picked that one?
Eufemia Fantetti: Sure. So, this piece that we published that I really, really loved was called the, um, Memory Piece: Macau. And it was written by Sheung-King. It’s embarrassing, maybe, but I’d never heard of Macau. So, I started reading this piece, and it’s just–. He does this beautiful job of like, uh, he mixes playwriting with prose. And I hadn’t seen anybody do that. And then he throws in this story–I don’t know if you could call it a fable–it’s, like, a story of a butcher and a Buddhist priest. And I was, like, this is so fascinating. All these different elements that he uses to basically weave a story about a place where it’s, like, an island, and it’s, like, a Portuguese settlement in the 1500s, and then the population is something like just over half a million people. But They get 30 million visitors every year because they’ve got this huge gambling kind of structure to their economy. And so here’s this guy whose father was born there, and he goes back there.
The essay’s about him going back there. And this relationship is kind of falling apart. And he weaves in this story of this relationship falling apart with the story of this Buddhist priest who thinks he’s kind of a holier than the butcher, and the butcher who basically cuts out his own heart to kind of say, like, I want to be a better person and, like it–. There’s just so much in it that I’m in love with in terms of the way he tells the story. The way he mixes up genres. The way I learn about a place I’ve never even heard of before, and now I’m on the, you know, I’m Googling and going, like, Macau, where is it? What, the–. This is everything I love about writing, where people take this story about a place and their experience of it, and how it’s such a huge part of their identity. And now they’ve opened up a door and let me into their world, and I can come in and be part of that world with them. And I’m not there as a tourist. I’m there as a person, like, experiencing what they experienced, and I’m feeling it like they’re feeling it. And I just, I love work that does that. I love work that gives me that opportunity to expand my awareness of the world and the human heart.
Rachel Thompson: I think we should end there. That is lovely. We’re going to end on the human heart, actually.
Eufemia Fantetti: Good, because I didn’t want to be a downer. It was a bit rainy here today.
Rachel Thompson: Well, I thank you so much for the time that you’ve generously given.
Eufemia Fantetti: This was really wonderful. So, thank you.
Links Related to the episode
- The Humber Literary Review
- Eufemia Fantetti
- “Food Fight Italian Style” (The Globe and Mail)
- A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love by Eufemia Fantetti
- Sheung-King’s “Memory Piece: Macau” is in the print edition of the Humber Literary Review