CW: Eating Disorders

In my search for books that resonate with me, I have delved into contemporary literature to escape the historical narratives prevalent in my Italian reading list. I found it difficult to resonate with many of the literary works I analysed, and as part of my year abroad, I was eager to find narratives that explored the concept of being an outsider in Italy. Consequently, I stumbled upon Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee and Igiaba Scego’s La mia casa è dove sono (Home is Where I Am).

I first read Scego’s La mia casa è dove sono for my prelims. It is a memoir chronicling the author’s struggles with her African-Italian identity, inside a racially charged environment. Similar to Scego, I grapple with the challenge of embracing multiple cultural identities: being both British and Asian. Her exploration of mapping life stages against the geography of Italy resonated deeply with me as I, too, tackle the complexities of my own identity in a foreign land; first, being Asian in the UK, and now, bringing all of my identities to Italy with me. 

My experiences mirror Scego’s journey as she strives to reconcile her Somali heritage with her Italian upbringing. Her realisation that she is both Italian and Somali, regardless of external perceptions, unfolds as a beautiful narrative of self-acceptance and celebration. This story, filled with strife and a yearning for belonging, struck a chord with me. It is an accurate parallel to my own navigation of my British-Asian identity in Italy. 

Moving to Pavia in Italy presented an additional layer of complexity, forcing me to confront cultural differences and grapple with being perceived as a foreigner. Despite studying Italian as part of my degree, I quickly realised the challenges of limited conversations and integrating into a new culture. In January, I stumbled upon a new book that oddly encapsulated my experience, allowing me to explore the intricacies of identity, belonging, and acceptance in this new chapter of my life. 

Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee follows the life of Hannah, a woman in her thirties who relocates from Boston to Florence, seeking a fresh start after battling an eating disorder that left her jobless. The novel intricately weaves together Hannah’s attempts to rebuild her life, her immersion in the cultural tapestry of Florence, and her struggle with self-identity.

Chaffee’s descriptions of Florence are captivating, offering readers an immersive experience following Hannah around the city and discovering the sights with her. It reminds me how I feel wandering through the streets of Pavia. The vivid portrayal of the city, coupled with the warm sun and the cobblestone streets, create an authentic Italian atmosphere.

While the world-building is commendable, the novel’s plot raises some concerns, especially the exploration of Hannah’s relationship with Luca. Although the relationship itself tends to be wholesome and sweet, the storyline suggests that Hannah’s life problems (particularly related to her eating disorder), find resolution through her romantic involvement with Luca. This aspect of the narrative feels somewhat problematic, as it implies that external validation, in the form of a boyfriend, is the key to overcoming deep-seated issues. This approach makes Hannah’s self-improvement journey seem less authentic and empowering  than readers might expect. I was hoping perhaps for a narrative that fosters genuine self-empowerment and self-discovery; I wanted something that steered away from oversimplified resolutions in favour of complex personal struggles.

Despite these criticisms, what really stuck with me is the novel’s exploration of eating disorders, owing to my own prolonged struggles with food. My battle has been marked by cycles of extreme fasting, obsessive concerns about weight gain, and subsequent binge eating. Like Hannah, the complexity of my relationship with food has been a constant challenge.

The novel accurately portrays the conflict Hannah faces in Italy, where the culinary delights are abundant. She grapples with the notion that she should be able to enjoy food without being consumed by harmful thoughts. This struggle has become particularly relevant for me during my time here. The absence of a kitchen in my college, coupled with the limitations imposed by the canteen’s specific meal offerings and designated eating times, has intensified my anxiety around food. Being informed that the canteen serves as a central hub for social activity in the college added another layer of stress, considering the language barrier. The prospect of both navigating social interactions and managing my eating habits, all in a foreign language, has turned out to be extremely daunting. Similar to Hannah’s naivety in thinking that moving to a country known for its delicious cuisine would magically solve her problems, I, too, initially believed a change in environment would alleviate my struggles. How wrong I was!

The reality, however, is that personal challenges accompany us wherever we go, necessitating a direct confrontation. Like Hannah, I had placed excessive importance on the canteen for both sustenance and socialising, mistakenly assuming it was the sole source of food and friendship. The revelation that there are actually numerous dining options in Pavia and various ways to connect with people has been crucial in reshaping my perspective.

I wanted to celebrate food, to savour it. I had bit off more than I could chew, placing singular importance on a specific dining venue despite how unhealthy this mindset was. Hannah’s journey serves as a poignant reminder that true resolution lies in addressing personal struggles head-on. I am grateful for the opportunity to find my own path to a healthier relationship with food, as well as social interactions during my time in Pavia.