Folk stories of Italian migrant tradition acquired by National Library of Australia

Folk stories of Italian migrant tradition acquired by National Library of Australia

Calabrian migrant Carmela Speranza never used a library. She was illiterate and her traditional stories were all passed down by word of mouth.

But her traditional wisdom will be preserved by the National Library of Australia thanks to a collection created by her daughter Grace Nolan, through a Master’s thesis at ACU.

The National Library has announced it will acquire Nolan’s collection of 63 traditional stories, songs, and prayers, together with an associated memoir, audio and video tapes. The stories, told in the Calabrian dialect, do not exist in any other library internationally but were once well-known among the people of Palmi, in southern Italy.

Carmela Speranza learned these folk traditions as a child and very much wanted them preserved but her daughter realised that unless they were recorded in a more formal structure, the traditions would die with her mother.

“My mother learned these stories from her father, and they go back through the generations. They are not just part of our family history; they are part of the European oral tradition. It was the way they passed on wisdom,” she said.

But as formal education became widespread in post-war Italy, the oral tradition of stories and the dialect in which they were told began to disappear.

“Education is a great thing, but it has meant the loss of this unique tradition. The young people go to school now. They don’t learn the dialect and they don’t learn the traditional stories,” said Nolan.

High levels of emigration from Italy in the 1950s meant some of the stories were lost in their place of origin but survived elsewhere. Nolan was born in Australia but was raised speaking dialect with her mother and loved the magic of the stories, which her mother often retold.

She began recording the stories in the mid-1990s and in 2002 completed a thesis at ACU researching 20 key stories. She looked for records of the stories in other collections and, although she found some similar stories collected 100 years ago in Palmi, there were no records of her mother’s tales. After the thesis, she continued to turn her mother’s oral tradition into recorded literature.

“I realised that if I didn’t record the stories my mother told, no one else would. I had to make sure they didn’t just die out.”

 By the time Carmela Speranza died in 2006, Nolan had over 60 stories as well as many poems, prayers, songs and proverbs and the makings of a memoir, which she has since written down.

Nolan’s former supervisor, Emeritus Professor Margot Hillel OAM was responsible for suggesting the National Library acquire the collection. She said the stories were a part of Australia’s migrant history as well as an important part of European tradition.

“Carmela Speranza was the repository of the folk stories of the country community she lived in, within the Calabrian town of her birth, and these formed a rich oral tradition for her family and others in her Italian community in Melbourne. In this way too, they have become part of the Australian cultural landscape, a contribution to Australia from the wave of Italian migration to this country in the 1950s.

“The stories had been passed down through generations and were a way, as is often the case with stories in the oral tradition, of imparting wisdom, knowledge and cultural understanding to successive generations. The stories are sometimes irreverent, earthy, and humorous but always fascinating. They form an important collection and should be preserved,” she said.

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