We are thrilled to announce the publication of “Twice Eggs,” the latest Ploughshares Solo by Alexandra Johnson. The Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish long stories and essays in a digital format. Recent Ploughshares Solos include “Small Country” by Patricia Grace King and “Portrait” by Kathleen Hill. Visit our website to see all of the Solos.
In this evocative essay, Johnson revisits Viggiano, set amid the wild beauty of a southern Italy alive with ancient superstitions. She’s quickly reabsorbed into the large Italian clan that would have been hers—had she wed her old boyfriend, Giorgio. Now married to another man, she comes back ostensibly to help Giorgio improve his English as he considers leaving Italy and its struggling economy. In Anna’s kitchen, Johnson observes the habits and rituals of Italy’s first civilization. What she discovers is that memory may have less to do with mining the past than with altering the future.
An excerpt from the Solo:
To be sitting once again in this kitchen is a perfect example of Italians’ favorite word: arrangiarsi. To make do. To be paid in nero, working several jobs but paying tax only on one. Arrangiarsi is the way truth is adapted in Italy with its fragile government coalitions. Deals cut. Accommodations. Arrangiari: “to get out of a tight spot.” Modern Italy is full of lived contradictions.
“Like popes named Innocent,” Nino jokes. Or perhaps Giorgio’s habit of keeping old girlfriends like foreign coins he can’t toss out. Others have also sat here. I keep my face neutral but register Carla’s glance: trainwreck.
She’s spent all week preparing upstairs rooms for relatives returning from South Africa or Australia. Most emigrated after the last war, resisting earlier waves when a third of the population abandoned the south.
“If a stranger arrived at sunset,” Nino says, “locals were fined if someone wasn’t taken in.” I do not ask the obvious: why a fine had to be implemented. But it’s been a law since the 3rd century when Christianity was still a minor cult in Viggiano.
Nino is head of the Pro Loco, the local chamber of commerce. This province of Basilicata is often snubbed even in Italian guidebooks, citing “una tradizione di isolamento,” a wind-swept landscape of jagged mountains suited to hermit monks and bandits whose caves still honeycomb the hills. But twice a year Viggiano is thronged when it celebrates the festa of the Black Madonna. The miracle-working image has been carried in millions of suitcases to Chicago, Sydney, or Cape Town.
And now, on the first Sunday in May and September, many return and climb the winding mountain path that opens to blinding sky. The crowds are mostly local. They’ll circle the shrine three times. Then they retrace their way back. No one comes here without a private petition. Not even the emigrants who return with Australian accents. We arrive in May and leave in September—the season of strangers and pilgrims, travelers, and houseguests.
Outside the kitchen, the Dolomite Lucane cast shadows along mountain ridges where the Romans set up military garrisons.
Nino lifts his glass. “To things from America.”
“You and the tomato,” Giorgio says.
I clink glasses, aware of something I still can’t shake.
About the Author:
Alexandra Johnson is the author of The Hidden Writer, which won the PEN/Jerard Award for nonfiction. She is also the author of Leaving a Trace. Her personal essays have been included in several anthologies, including I Always Meant to Tell You and To Mend the World. Her essays, reviews and travel pieces have appeared in numerous national publications, among them: The New York Times, O, (the Oprah Magazine), The Nation, Ms. Magazine, AGNI. Her work has been featured frequently on National Public Radio, including on “Talk of the Nation” and the “Diane Rehm Show.” She has taught memoir and creative nonfiction at Harvard, Wellesley, and in Lesley University’s MFA Program. “Twice Eggs” is adapted from The Saint’s Laundry, a memoir in progress.
Interested in submitting a story for the series?
Solo submissions are accepted during our regular reading period, June 1 to January 15. If you have a longer story or essay — roughly 6,000 to 25,000 words — please read our guidelines and submit online. Make sure you select “Pshares Solos: Long Story/Novella” from the drop down box under “genre.”