Claudia Callisto Presents International Giussa Day

After her success at this year’s Adelaide Fringe with The Good Italian Girl Claudia Callisto has created International Giussa Day to commemorate embracing her ethnic heritage. The day is to help recognise a community of women that grew up with immigrant parents who left their homeland but kept the customs and traditions of their cultural background.

Friday June 2 is International Giussa Day to celebrate all things Giussa and to go down memory lane of growing up in the 70s and 80s. The event has proven to be just as popular as her sold out Fringe shows, selling out within days of release. Callisto chatted with the Hi Fi Way about how the concept was created and why we should have a day of ethnic celebration.

Have you come down from the high of the success of your Fringe show The Good Italian Girl being sold out?
It was an amazing outcome, and I was so thrilled that all shows were a success with great audience feedback. As the event was dedicated to my late husband John, it was also a very personally emotional show to deliver, and every performance was a reminder of where I came from, who I am, that I was loved despite the difficulty journey, how much I had already achieved in life, and how unique my generation of women are. The show was also bittersweet as the realisation dawned that what I had envisaged for my future with my husband and child will now no longer be, and I am now in new uncharted territory and again ironically dealing with new unwritten rules in the area of ‘grief’ that I was never aware of. 

You ended up adding more shows. How does it feel that the community are embracing the ‘Ethnic’ storytelling? 
I was getting lots of messages from people that they couldn’t get tickets and I was feeling terrible that I hadn’t planned more venues and dates, so I added a few more shows, however I could have kept going for several weeks, even though I was exhausted. On the flip side, I am now receiving comments that people are planning to book early for next year’s performance and bring all their girlfriends. I haven’t even planned that far ahead to be honest, so we will need to wait and see where my new show lands. One can only be grateful for this support and this community following I have achieved since I started on this journey of writing and performing.

I believe it’s because of my unique storytelling which bring back great memories from a world that no longer exists and the reminders that life was filled with simple pleasures and family moments. The message combined with 80s music, I believe, is a winning combination. Each year, I’ve changed the show’s content and songs, but the underlying message of our cultural uniqueness as women and love for our cultural heritage is still there. The most common feedback I receive is that my shows and events are fun, but also heartfelt. Audience members have felt that although they were comedy shows, I didn’t shy away from talking about some of the difficult scenarios many of us share, and that I also talk about these experiences from a place of love and respect.

At the end of the day what I have learned from writing my story is that when one becomes vulnerable and is willing to tell the audience their emotions, it allows us all to feel and remember our own journey along the way. We are not only transported in time, hearing my story, but also the individual audience members get an opportunity to remember their own journey. 

I am proud to be stepping up and talking about our amazing community of women, being their voice and representing them in some way. Women my age come up to me and tell me that they are happy someone is finally talking about their version of growing up, from a female’s perspective. I not only represent myself, but also a huge community of daughters of immigrant parents, especially in Adelaide, who are now in their 50s/60s. 

I have faced only one area of difficulty and that has been due to not speaking Italian fluently despite understanding it well when I am spoken to in Italian.  This always comes up in radio interviews for some reason. I was approached by SBS for a radio to be interviewed about my book and fringe show success, however could not participate in the radio interview as I did not speak Italian fluently. I was very disappointed with this, as I feel my heritage as an Australian – Italian very strongly. However, as all my education was received in Australia, naturally my book is written in English and appeals to an audience of people like me who also have English as their main language, despite their strong allegiance to their Italian roots. I advised SBS that they are not actually capturing my message or the entire community in Australia if we are expected to speak Italian fluently. Most of our generation speak a hybrid Australian – Italian language anyway with many of us not confident speaking Italian at all. However we shouldn’t be dismissed as not being part of the Italian community and having a voice.

It was like a version of discrimination, I got the feeling that you cannot write about the Italian culture or be on a radio program if you don’t speak fluent Italian. I don’t get it really. I was a bit offended on behalf of my community. 

Then I see New Italians migrating to Australia getting more media attention and opportunities than the ones that have lived here all our lives. This is particularly irksome.

What is the most important thing about the way that audiences and the community are embracing their past?
Everyone has a story and unique journey and when people see a normal individual like myself on stage, as I am not a trained actor, talking about their story they can understand and relate. Cultural connection is really what people experience when they attend my shows.

I believe that a familiar journey allows us to relate to each other and understand each other. We have this natural connection and together, as a community of Australian – Italians all embrace our past together in a heartfelt way. We remember the good and the bad. We acknowledge that this is what actually shaped who we are, reminding ourselves that we were loved and that our parents came to Australia so that we could have a better life, and have a great life because of their efforts and sacrifices.

I started writing my book six months after my dad passed away as I felt this need to capture my journey and my cultural uniqueness and why I was the way I was, due to my cultural conditioning. However, my story is also very similar to others because we were all brought up the same, as all our parents immigrated from different villages in the 1950s and brought with them their Italian behaviour and rules to Australia.

You recently had an exhibition for the SA History Festival. Tell us a bit about how that went and what it was about?
Traditionally, an Italian glory box or hope chest is a daughter’s storage box containing precious items, lovingly created or purchased in preparation for married life.

Many of us were left to wonder at the fate of those thousands of items, lovingly collected by our mothers and grandmothers. They were continuing an important Italian village tradition, one which often began in their daughters’ earliest years. The women who migrated to Australia relied heavily on their meagre glory boxes and were so proud to have the means to replicate this ancient tradition in Australia for their own daughters born here.

The exhibition is most importantly, a celebration of the richness of the love and tradition these collections represent. In addition, we have included other bridal traditions like the ‘Bomboniere’ and a glimpse at a beautiful 1950s wedding dress and the popular, but long-lost tradition of the proxy bride.

The event was on the weekend of May 20 and 21 and we have had a range of people attending the event especially history enthusiasts. We had about eighty people attend over the two days at the Campbelltown library. Those attending were amazed with the level of items and craftsmanship that went into creating a glory box, but they were fascinated to learn about all the Italian traditions associated with a traditional Italian wedding. Everyone enjoyed looking at the items in real life which is a very rare things unless you are family. This is what living history is about and the core of the History SA festival.

This exhibition was a team effort with my older sister Laura who is a retired history and languages teacher, and she did all the research on our traditions and gave the exhibition depth as to the reasons behind why our Italian mothers prepared those items for us. I interviewed the seven contributors, wrote their stories and collected their items for the exhibition, including my own personal glory box items. There were some amazing heartfelt stories that I had the privilege to share as part of the exhibition. In preparing for this exhibition, we investigated the origins of this tradition of the ‘corredo’ and uncovered a whole host of expectations around this preparation for marriage. In selecting items for display, we chose things we knew were typical of the glory boxes of our peers.

The event provoked a lot of conversations. More importantly, it simply displayed the love our mothers had for us and their responsibility to ensure we were set up well for our pending marriages.

In my eyes, this was the best outcome of the event – creating conversations and sharing our cultural journey within our community. The exhibition idea started with me joking in my Fringe show about the 70s glory box yellow towels I got for my Communion when I was seven and which were stored in my glory box for over teenty years before I was able to unpack them for my married home. This seemed to really resonate with people and after the shows, I had so many women telling me of their experiences and the subsequent conversations was always wondering about what was going to become of these precious items.

There’s also a Giussa Day that you are planning and is sold out as well, what inspired you to create a day for Giussas?
This event is about celebrating and recognising a community of women like myself who grew as the first-generation daughters of immigrant parents and in the 80s, proudly called ourselves ‘Giussas’.

Recently on March 8 we saw a lot of marketing about women from all different parts of the world come together to celebrate International Women’s Day. This day commemorates the social, political, economic and cultural achievements of women in the world.

That same day, a Wednesday from memory, I dropped off my son at school, completed some grocery shopping and then I walked into my beauty and hair salon called The Salon on Reid for my appointment with my beautician Antoinette. 

In casual conversation I mentioned that it was International Women’s Day and that we should be at a lunch event celebrating, not working today. My beautician looked at me and said, “I have so much to do at work and home that I can’t afford to take the time to attend something like a women’s event.” I continued to discuss that the reality was our generation of women (aged 40/50 plus) are very family focused and culturally unique in our how we view our role as women and our daily responsibilities for our families, especially us Giussas, the daughters of immigrant parents in Australia. 

As a joke I said maybe I can rename it and call it Giussa Day instead and that might encourage you to stop and celebrate with your fellow Giussa besties for a few hours. Both Antoinette and Rosy, the salon owners then answered in unison “I will buy a ticket to that concept no problems, let me know when that event is on Claudia and make sure it includes 80s music and a fun atmosphere like your fringe show.“

The name ‘Giussa’ is a bit of fluff, a word used to describe our community of women in the 80s, however what I am actually talking about is the ethnic women sisterhood and how supportive we are of our family and friends.

We are kindhearted individuals, hardworking, brave in spirit, family orientated beautiful women. 

Most of us also love 80s music as it reminds us of an era where we laughed a lot and enjoyed life with our fellow Giussa besties. It was simple back then; we went out, we danced, we partied, we loved our group of friends and dreamed of meeting the man of our dreams.  

So, this event is about recreating those fun times in our life with our girlfriends by our side, but also recognising on a “international level” how awesome and culturally unique we are as women and our ethnic community. 

This event also has a personal aspect to it as I do not think I could have even imagined coping with my grief this past year without my Giussa girlfriends support constantly around me. My community really stepped up and showed me what kindness means.  That’s whats Giussas do, small acts of kindness.

At its core, this is what this event is about – continuing our connection as a community of women who support each other through the good and bad times of life as well as celebrating our cultural uniqueness and family values. 

Together there is always a way. Together we can laugh and enjoy our lives including supporting each other during the dark moments. Together we can be stronger, we can learn from each other and most importantly inspire each other and our next generation of children.

Why do you think shows and events like this sell out so quickly?
The event sold out in two weeks and with limited marketing, again I was blown away with the reaction to the event. I love that I have this following. Who knows I might get to perform all over the world one day and represent the Australian – Italian Giussas globally. Essentially women like myself within my community want to attend fun events with our friends. My events are unique, have great music and fun. I put a lot of creative effort and planning into my events to ensure that people are left feeling culturally uplifted and positive. 

To add a uniqueness to this specific event I have created my own special 80s Giussa Quiz which has been sponsored by SA leading salon hair supplier – Davroe Hair who have donated all the prizes for the quiz and event to help us raise funds for Catherine House. I made up of all the questions based on what a Giussa did in the 80s, especially what I did with my friends. Only real Giussas will get all the answers, and I am excited to see the reaction to the questions. My aim is to transport them back to that era, reminisce and laugh out loud that they keep talking about those days amongst themselves and their friends well past the event. Again, for me personally, it is about having a positive influence within our community and about creating conversations.

Part of the funds raised will be going towards a great organisation Catherine House. How important is it to help and support other women in today’s world?
Kindness makes a difference in people’s lives and small acts of kindness from many people can make an impact. So, I felt the Guissa women community could all contribute and make a difference to other women and support those less fortunate. My girlfriend Ida Tirimacco is an ambassador for Catherine House, and she does a lot of personal fundraising to support this charity, so we have teamed up to fundraise at my event and Davroe Haircare have so generously donated a large number of products to be the prizes for the event, quiz and raffle with proceeds going directly to the charity. 

Over three years ago, with my sister Diana, I established a business called of Shining light that provides women and children the tools to practice mindfulness, kindness and gratitude, as well as develop positive mindsets. Our ultimate passion in life to is also to help all individuals to shine in their journey of life and we donate often to women’s charities. My thoughts are if you can help others in life, then you should do what you can.

Having just lost my husband recently I know firsthand what it is like to feel vulnerable and worry how you are going to cope and support your family. I had my immediate family behind me supporting me, however not everyone has that in their lives. 

Why is it so important to hold on to our upbringing and our history of our ethnic backgrounds?
I believe that understanding your cultural history and upbringing allows the individual to really know where they have come from and then in turn this gives as a sense of “self “and ultimately a sense of “stability” and from there, you can grow and become your own person when you know who you are deep down.

I wrote my book The Good Italian Girl from this very place. I wanted to find out who I really was inside, and in the end, I only really discovered that by knowing where I came from.

The podcast series I also produce The Good Italian Girl and Friends is developed along the same concept. On this podcast I am sharing stories with friends, connecting, laughing and reflecting on our journey as first-generation daughters of immigrant parents and what it was like to grow up in an ethnic house, how it shaped our lives, and what our lives are like now as a result of those experiences. We also discuss why it’s important to keep our culture going for the next generation and how we navigate that within our own families.

Interview by Anastasia Lambis

%d bloggers like this: