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Listen to them: the Italian Australian collective telling migrant women’s stories

Ascolta Women are exploring their migrant heritage in the context of a colonial settler Australia. 

Ascolta Women is a collective of Italian-affiliated women living in Australia and London. They meet regularly over Zoom to discuss creative works, academic research, community engagement and activism. 

Initiated by Teresa Capetola – from Deakin University’s School of Health and Social Development – on the cusp of Australia’s first Covid-19 lockdown, the collective’s work is informed by their experiences of the pandemic. 

We sat down with Ms Capetola to discuss Ascolta Women’s creative mission, and the importance of sharing migrant stories. 

Uplifting Italian voices through storytelling

Ms Capetola understands the power of good storytelling; how it can ignite compassion and empathy, and how it can be used to uplift voices that are struggling to be heard. 

These are the kinds of stories that she explores in her research – social and political issues that have to fight to be addressed in mainstream discourse, or even to be discussed within Italian migrant communities.

Using multiple methods of storytelling, Ms Capetola has been recording her community’s lived experiences of mental health issues, family violence, racism, sexism and sexual and gender oppression – and how this intersects with Italian identities. 

“As a post-World War II second generation Italian Australian woman, I wanted to explore my migration heritage, which stems from one of the largest and most significant social events in Australia – the post war immigration of hundreds of thousands of peoples to Australia,” Ms Capetola said.

“I also wanted to understand my Italian heritage experiences within a colonial settler Australia, and to contribute to a body of knowledge for polices, practices, and institutional and structural reform.”

Ms Capetola said that Ascolta Women – ‘ascolta’ being an Italian word for ‘listen’ – was a natural extension of her PhD thesis, Storying Distance: The Lived Experiences of Post-World War II Second Generation Italian Australian Middle-Aged Women.

Having presented her research at the 2019 Diaspore Italiane Conference in Genova, Italy, she was able to share her work on a more local level through Melbourne’s Italian Assistance Association (CO.AS.IT) in March 2020. 

Migration legacies and family folklore 

Just days before Australia’s first Covid-19 lockdown, Ms Capetola organised a women’s only public forum: Ascolta! Listening to Unheard Stories: Italian Australian Multi-Generation Women’s Experiences and Migration Legacies, as well as a creative writing workshop, Writing Migrant Women’s Stories, facilitated by Italian Australian writers Elise Valmorbida and Anna Maria Dell’oso.

“Both the public forum and the creative writing workshop galvanised the many women who attended to continue meeting to discuss their Italian heritages and migration legacies,” Ms Capetola said. 

That enthusiasm remained, even as the country entered its first Covid-19 lockdown. Many members of the collective turned to the artistic world to find comfort and self-expression.

“We looked to other examples of global pandemics which spurred creative productions, and also to our heritages and family folklore,” Ms Capetola said.

“We thought about the resilience and courage of our communities in the period of early settlement in Australia; their experiences of being isolated and under threat were met with ingenuity and resilience. 

“We also looked to the many migrant women who are frontline workers in the health, cleaning and caring sectors, and took strength from their persistence.”

The collective has attracted Italian-affiliated women from a range of backgrounds; daughters, mothers and grandmothers, those recently arrived in Australia and those descended from several generations of migrant families. 

Their bi-weekly Zoom meetings have provided a supportive and stimulating forum to workshop creative pieces and discuss contemporary political issues. Members take it in turns to host a creative writing exercise and offer constructive feedback on each other’s work. 

It’s also been an opportunity for some of Deakin’s Italian-affiliated academics to further their research.

This includes Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, an internationally recognised writer, researcher and consultant on social diversity; Dr Vivian Gerrand, a Research Fellow in the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (ADI) who specialises in migrant displacement, representation and resilience; Dr Daniella Trimboli, a Research Fellow within the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation; and Katrina Lolicato, a social documenter and lecturer. 

“Given the multiple marginalities some of us and our families have faced as migrant women, it was important that we modelled and fostered a feminist space of creativity and learning,” Ms Capetola said.

From inside stories to food as heritage   

Since their inception, Ascolta Women have published a creative anthology, Stories from the Inside, which contains writings and visual art based on the collective’s experiences of the pandemic. It launched as part of International Women’s Day in Mildura and has been endorsed by the Gloria Anzaldua Society in the University of Texas.

“Several Ascolta women hail from Mildura, and we wanted to honour the Italian community in the Mallee region who have contributed to the vital food bowl and wine production for decades,” Ms Capetola said.

They’ve continued their work by presenting at the American Association of Italian Studies conference and running community workshops in North Melbourne.

They’re also working on their next publication.

“This will be broadly based on the topic of food – as it relates to family, memory and heritage,” Ms Capetola said.

“We will also explore food as it relates to sustainability; how it is consumed and wasted within a climate pressured world, the politics and gendered nature of food production and consumption, and how the internationalisation of food manufacturing raises issue for global justice and equity.

“We ground our work in the knowledge that we are part of a colonial settler nation, that our Italian heritage also stems from another colonial nation, and that this has implications for our roles and responsibilities towards First Nations Peoples here and in other colonised worlds.”

Teresa Capetola is a lecturer within the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University.

Ascolta Women will be presenting at the 2021 Diaspore Italiane conference.

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