INTERVIEW WITH MARIA GIURA, AUTHOR OF THE MEMOIR CELIBATE.
MR:Celibate is a stunning and honest narrative—I can’t put too fine a point on that; what was the process of coming to the kind of raw honesty that memoir demands?
MG:It took so many years, more than twelve, to finish the memoir. For years, I wrote around the story. I was too afraid to face myself and the whole truth about my relationship with a Catholic priest to be able to write the scenes that needed to be written. I was also still finding out what the truth was. My process was a lot of trial and error. I wrote whole scenes and chapters that I would later realize weren’t needed, but I needed to write them in order to figure something out. Sometimes whole chapters later became only paragraphs in the book. For example, there’s a short scene in which I/the narrator have a vision of a nun while sitting at my computer at work; it was originally a whole chapter titled, “Admissions.” It’s now one short paragraph in the first chapter, “The Long Loneliness.” To say that writing a full length memoir was a learning curve for me is an understatement.
MR:You seem to have felt a calling for your entire life, and the struggle was certainly real; as the reader , I could feel that in the strongest sense—it felt like more than just “what should I do with my life?” Can you tell us a bit about that process, which was lengthy and difficult?
MG:I first felt a religious calling when I was around eight years old. I always felt drawn to God and to my Catholic faith, and I also had a sense, by the time I was fifteen, that I wasn’t meant to marry. Yet, for many years I hoped and acted as if I were wrong, as if I didn’t have a calling. I also wasn’t sure that I was discerning God’s will correctly. (Sometimes when some Catholic women go through a crisis, they mistake the crisis for a calling. Perhaps this happens to some men too; I just can’t speak to it.) There were also a lot of things I needed to be healed of. For three years in my late twenties/early thirties, I discerned becoming a nun (I reveal which order in the book), because, outside of getting married, I thought it was the only respectable and valid life for an Italian-American Catholic woman; being “just” single seemed an embarrassment to me. After those three years, which included living with the Sisters for a year, I was headed for novitiate, which was the next and deeper stage… There’s more, but I’ll leave that for the book. Yes, the journey was lengthy and difficult, but not every aspect of it. I liked living with the Sisters, sharing prayer and community life with them. I also love the saint who founded their order. She had been a wife and a mother before she became a widow, a convert, and then a nun. For me, she closed the gap a little between marriage and celibacy. She’s one of my heroes.
MR:Was there a time when you felt that the stakes were just too high either personally or emotionally in writing this memoir?
MG:Yes. That’s part of the reason why it took me so long to get to the real story. I was stalling, afraid to show what I needed to show on the page, afraid of what my family and others would think. The first drafts didn’t even include anything about my family story. I was much too afraid of the fallout. Yet at some point, I made a decision that during the hours when I was writing, I was not allowed to think about “fallout.” I just wrote. That’s when I started to hit a stride. When it got closer to publication time, though—in fact as recent as three and half months before the memoir was due to be published—I considered pulling the memoir from my publisher. It was a very brief thought but a very real one.
MR:You are a woman of faith in a family of faith. While the narrative makes clear so many in your family suspected that there was more than just friendship between you and “Father Infanzi” I did not really sense (I could be wrong!) any outrage on your the part of your family—deep concern, yes, but nothing that would signal that having such a friendship with a priest was inappropriate. Am I just missing something?
MG:I think that for my mother and two of my sisters, especially my mother, the outrage might have been stifled. They didn’t want to own up to the fact that something was going on between Father Infanzi and me. When I look back at that younger me, I made myself seem irreproachable, and my family, up until that point, trusted me. I think the three of them might have been outraged if I had helped them to see the truth. My sisters were also in the thick of raising their children at the time, so even if, and when, the thoughts went through their minds, they were too busy to dwell on them.
MR:The passages you write about your father I find particularly poignant. That you loved him and that he loved you is made clear and is never doubted. The rupture in the family upon his departure and his unwillingness to help in the care of his daughters (which seems somewhat cultural) seemed to , understandably, cause a deep, deep yearning in you that was assuaged somewhat, in the short time, with Father Infanzi. Can you speak to that?
MG:Thank you so much, Michelle. I’m happy the writing got this across. Yes, I think that my father’s emotional absence during my most formative years is part of what sent me into Father Infanzi’s arms, though I don’t blame my father. Lots of women have emotionally absent fathers, yet do not grow up and fall in love with a Catholic priest or some other authoritative figure whom they should not be with; I take full responsibility for my choices. I was looking for a father figure and for God the Father in a mere man, who was just as needy and immature as I was. In many ways, he and I were the “perfect storm.” I had never before met a man who was fascinated by me, who was as attentive to me, and who listened to me the way Father Infanzi seemed to. It was all very heady and very painful.
MR:How long did it take you to write the memoir and what were some of your processes for doing so?
MG:More than twelve years. Whenever I wasn’t teaching, I was working on Celibate. I sat for hours at a time. I’d start by reading a few pages from the books of my favorite writing coaches: Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, Gail Sher, Louise DeSalvo, and then I’d do at least twenty minutes of free writing to help me get into the “space” of writing. I also practice(ed) centering prayer to quiet my mind. I also read a lot of memoirs and still do, paying attention to how the authors do what they do. I was very blessed to have a writing mentor and coach throughout the whole process of writing Celibate—a brilliant man with whom I had studied autobiography in grad school. He read every one of my chapters and made me rewrite every sentence that didn’t reverberate with emotional accuracy and concreteness. He helped pull the book out of me.
MR:What is a memoir that his impacted and what do you like/dislike most about the genre?
MG:There are several. Some include Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, A. Manette Ansay’s Limbo, and Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle. They are all quite different from the other, but each of them has narrators I trust implicitly. I care about them. Each author understood that what you leave out of memoir is just as important as what you put in; they didn’t go in a million different directions. They understand that, as V.S. Pritchett said, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for the living.”
I dislike that the genre of memoir, even literary memoir, can sometimes be misunderstood and under appreciated. I don’t always relish the, “You’re brave” reaction I often get when some people have read my work or even just know that I write autobiographically. Sometimes, when I hear some say the word “brave,” I really hear them saying, “better you than me”! I’m interested in hearing what readers think about the writing, if there were passages that stood out for them or crystallized something for them, or—and this is always wonderful—if something even helped them. Please don’t misunderstand, though. I’m also super-grateful when someone has taken the time and has had the interest to read my book…
MR:I would imagine that your family would learn most details for the first time when reading this book. What has been their reaction, so far?
MG:I’ll just say that since the memoir’s publication, my family’s reaction has been somewhat mixed. The older generation wishes that I had not published the memoir at all, or that I would have at least taken a much lighter touch with it, that I wouldn’t have been as detailed as I was. They don’t understand why I would expose myself and my family (including them). It’s been hard for some of them. The “younger” generation (my peers more or less) feel a lot of sadness about the struggle I went through even though I helped create a lot of it myself. Several of my family-peers have had especially compassionate and wise reactions to the book, which has been greatly affirming. There are still some people, including some extended family, who I have not yet told about the book. I’m telling people about the book in waves.
MR:How has your way of life enriched your faith and your writing?
MG:My way of life has provided me with the story to write. Without it, would there have been a memoir in me to write? Maybe; I’m not sure. After many years of struggling with, and stumbling toward, my calling, it eventually did enrich my faith and continues to deeply. I know a lot of people are under the vague impression that celibacy was made up by the Catholic Church, but it wasn’t. It was Jesus’ idea first. He would never tell someone, “you ought to” if he didn’t first. This—he—has made all the difference.
MR:What are you working on now?
MG:I’m sporadically working on another poetry book, which would be my second (my first is What My Father Taught Me from Bordighera Press, 2018), but it’s still a ways off. In addition to this, I have some interest in writing scenes/vignettes from my childhood that are either not in Celibate or only partially in it, but this time, I’d try writing in the present tense and in the child’s voice, in the vein of memoirist Jo Ann Beard. I think this would allow me to explore my childhood from a somewhat different angle than I have in Celibate, to focus on the light and joy that were as much a part of it as the difficulty was. This would be both a fun and challenging experiment!
As a related aside, Michelle, I want to thank you not only for featuring Celibate in this edition of Ovunque Siamo but for giving all of us Ovunque Siamo in the first place. It’s always brimming with such original, smart, and moving work. Grazie mille.
MR:Thank you Maria! Thank means a lot to me. Finally, is Father Infanzi aware of the memoir?
MG:I will leave this one unanswered. I hope you don’t mind too much.
MR: I understand completely, Maria. Best of luck with Celibate!