Antonio Casella - Novelist

Antonio Casella is an Australian novelist

 born in Italy

Novels, published      
The Sensualist,
An Olive Branch for Sante
Uomo Infranto (in Italian)
Man Fragmenting

Men and Fathers

Plays             The Ghost of Rino Tassone,   To Catch a Bride.
Tell’m I’m Dead
Lucifer’s Revenge
 A Misfit in Heaven
The Flowering Broombush  
San Rocco Comes to Visit
The Good Priest
Find Antonio Casella on Face Book

The Story

What happens when an Australian girl travels to a Mediterranean village steeped in old-world tradition and discovers that she has a brother, Sante,  living in that village? What’s their reaction when the two siblings discover that Sante was conceived through a rape by their common father? This is the difficult challenge I posed myself when I set out to write, 'An Olive Branch for Sante'.  For me it became a fascinating journey into the complexities of human relationships.

On a personal level the novel traces a path of reconciliation between the siblings and their estranged father. Set in Australia and Sicily, these two  contrasting landscapes are the backdrop  to a journey that uncovers some unsettling secrets. Along the way the novel  explores  questions  about   love, forgiveness and redemption. At its core is a search for identity: personal, cultural and sexual.


“An Olive Branch for Sante "  This novel is a delight to read.”  Gaetano Rando, University of Wollongong. 

“The more I think about this novel, the more it poses intellectually provocative possibilities.” Van Ikin, University of Western Australia.

"The novel is carefully built and beautifully written. It is the work of an experienced novelist." Guido   Bulla, University La Sapienza, Rome.


Critical praise for Casella’s work.

“Casella’s intention is to chart and illuminate undiscovered, difficult country…The characters are entirely, sometimes shockingly believable, and even if they unlikeable, there is a point of understanding and sympathy to which we are drawn.”  Helen Elliott, The Age, Melbourne.

“Dream and ritual intersect with the real man, define the purpose of things.” Walter Tonetto, The West Australian.

 “A beautifully crafted novel.”       Dianne Johnson, The Sydney Morning Herald. 

(“Questa fusione di presente e passato, di nuovo e antico, di vicino e lontano, e’ la nota piu’ caratteristica della scrittura di Antonio Casella.”)

“This fusion of present and past, of  new and old, of proximity and distance is a most important quality of Antonio Casella’s writing.”

Stefania Greco, in  “ Terra e identita’ Nella Narrativa Contemporanea Italo-Australiana dell’Emigrazione.”.  University of Bologna.

Cover of the The Sensualist,  first published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1991. This novel is currently out of print. It will be republished  in 2013.

Recurring themes in my work

If Southfalia was driven by ideology, nostalgia drives  my second novel, The Sensualist. In this work middle-aged Nick Amedeo and his wife, Joyce, both  in the midst of an existential crisis, take a personal journey into their individual past. As a pig roasts away on a spit, under a hot Australian sun, Nick journies back to the Sicily  of his beloved Nonno (Grandfather) and Joyce recalls some disturbing events that occurred on a cattle station in  the Kimberly region of Western Australia, where she was born.

Identity, particularly male sexual  identity, is the main preoccupation of my third novel, Men and Fathers (to be published in 2014). In this novel the main character, Paul Jacobs, goes looking for his father and finds him performing in drag at a gay function.

Identity too features prominently in the fourth novel, An Olive Branch for Sante, in which Sara-Jane, an Australian journalist, travels to Sicily and discovers that she has a brother, 18 year-old Sante, living in the hill-top town of San Sisto. Set in Australia and Sicily, these two fascinating landscapes are the backdrop  to a journey that discovers some unsettling secrets.

I wrote my first novel, Southfalia,  when I was still at the University of Western Australia. Like so many students at the time I was outraged by the sacking of  Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a pivotal event in the history of Australia. Beneath the satire and the humour of this work, lies a sombre message. The epilogue depicts a landscape rendered desolate by human exploitation and greed. Thirty years on, that message seems as relevant and  urgent as ever.

Southfalia, my first novel, was published in 1980.
This  title is available from Amazon and soon on Kindle.
The splendid cover is an original work by my good friend and artist, Godfrey Blow.
(I think it's worth getting the book for the cover!)



The early years

Writing has always been my passion. In primary school, back in Italy, I wrote about things around me: sun, snow, insects, birds and often about imagined creatures. I also wrote poems my mother. Later, when I attended a Jesuit college and thought I had a vocation for the priesthood, the object of my fervour shifted to Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  Other kids liked to draw pictures on unlined paper, I wrote in my exercise book, pressing firmly on a pencil, taking care that the letters stayed within the lines on the page. I didn’t know it then, of course, but my writing was- and still is- an attempt to navigate a path in the confusing labyrinth of existence. Through the curls and twists of those pencil lines I was attempting to find connections between my dreams and a harsh external reality.

Growing up in post-war Sicily was harsh. Electricity had not yet been connected to the house and water had to be collected in buckets from the nearby communal fountain. Food was basic, even scarce at times, but we never went hungry. And there was the reassurance of my mother’s love and the solidity of family support, though this was at times replaced by personal rivalries in a household dominated by aggressive male personalities. Being the youngest in a household that could be supportive one minute and explosive the next, was not easy.  I remember experiencing fluxes of utter sadness for reasons I certainly could not explain then. Looking at the exposed rockface on the hillside I would be overcome by a strange desire to be like them, for the simple reason that they were not subjected to the kind of wretchedness I was as a human.

I was born in the hilltop town of San Fratello, Sicily and migrated to Australia at age 15.  My two older brothers had migrated some years earlier, then sponsored the rest of the family, consisting of my parents, my sister and one more brother. It was 1959. The five of us travelled to Messina to get a medical. When it came to my turn the official told me to strip down, then proceeded to fondle my testicles so hard that tears filled my eyes.

‘Does it hurt?’ he asked with a cheeky smile.

‘No,’ I lied, fearing that if I said yes, I might fail the medical.  I’m guessing that he was making sure my reproductive plumbing was in good working order. Australia did not want to invest in infertile migrants. But I could not help noticing a glint of enjoyment in his eye, not sure if it derived from pleasure or sadism. A bit of each, I think.  

 Migration is challenging at any age, no less so for a growing youngster in the throes of rapid physical and emotional changes. Migration removes you from the world you know, your friends and the familiar surroundings that formed you and gave you reassurances.  In moving to another country, strange new faces confront you, a new culture, new language.   

When I went to enrol at the local school I could tell, by the body language of the Deputy who took the interview, that I was not welcome.  Put simply, I was a burden to the administration. Belmont High School, as it was then known, did not cater to the needs of migrant children with no English, even though at a time of high migration, there was a great need for intensive English language classes in schools.

The Deputy took a cursory glance at me. I was a problem the school could definitely do without. Then an idea struck him, he turned to my older brother, who acted as interpreter and suggested,

'Can’t he get a job with you? He’s old enough to leave school.

My brother, the first in the family to migrate, was then working in the construction industry with a group of Italian labourers. The question piled more misery upon gloom. In Italy I had shown promise at school, so much so that I had been offered a scholarship to attend a Jesuit college in Catania. I was considered the family’s only hope to make it to one of the professions. Now that prospect seemed hopeless.

The Deputy looked at his watch impatiently. There were many problems out there that needed his attention. In the end it was decided to put me down one level with the year 9’s.

“The work will be easier in year 9.” Concluded the Deputy, ending the interview on what he considered to be an optimistic note. And that’s how the school tried to manage my situation.

Needless to say, the plan didn’t work out. For a few weeks I vegetated at the back of the classroom, uncomprehending, bored and full of misery.

There were other boys of Italian background at the school and I made attempts to speak to them in Italian, but my efforts only embarrassed them. Boys of that age want to belong to the group. They don’t want to be associated with a new arrival who can’t speak English. Some girls, probably out of pity, attempted to make conversation with me, in a mixture of single words and sign language, but that seemed to make the boys more antagonistic and threatened the girls not to talk to the new wog boy or else. The schoolyard is a cruel space.

I remonstrated about this with my teacher. Mr Boeur was a good sort. A couple of times he took me aside and tried to talk to me one to one, but the language barrier made it difficult. A kind teacher is a great comfort to a boy in my predicament. I became very attached to Mr Boeur. I ran to him often with problems, of which I had many. I cannot emphasize enough the value of a teacher like Mr Boeur at that time of my life.

Incidentally, some 12 years later I was to meet Mr Boeur again. By then I had managed to achieve a level of English language competence that gained me entrance to an Arts Degree, at the University of WA. Mr Boeur was doing further studies. He was astounded to find me there, and I was so overjoyed that I wanted to hug him. But I didn’t think he was up for that. Instead, we opted for a handshake and a coffee in the University café. I felt elated, both because I had met Mr Bouer again and because the encounter reminded me just how far I had come from those dark days of my arrival in Australia.

Back to 1960 then. At the end of my first term at Belmont High School, my prospects looked not much brighter. The general feeling at the school and within my family was that, sooner rather than later, I would be leaving school and get a labouring job. In the end, two events forced a decision upon me, both involving violence.

The first incident occurred in the school yard. The head bully of the year 9’s, Robby, a year younger than me, but a head taller, challenged me to a fight. I detest violence, and will do anything to avoid it. But Robby was not giving me a choice. I don’t remember much about the incident, I have a poor memory, decidedly a handicap, but it can be a blessing when it comes to bad experiences.  I soon forget them or at least am able to bury them in the vast reservoir of the sub-conscious.  I do remember that there were a lot of faces out there watching, faces I could not distinguish as tears clouded my eyes. This turned out to be lucky for me, because some girls started yelling, “leave him alone, Robby, you’re a bully.” This seemed to have an effect on Robby who hesitated long enough for me to land a punch, much to my amazement.  Robby then moved up and got stuck into me. I don’t recall that much damage was done though.  Luckily a teacher on yard duty was attracted by the commotion, ran up to break the fight and dragged us to the Deputy’s office.

The other incident was domestic. In my dejected state I went and poured out my frustrations to an Italian priest in the city. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but perhaps (really not sure about this) I mentioned having thoughts of harming myself. The priest urgently got in touch with my family.

A few words about my family. My mother by this time was in her sixtieth year. I adored my mother, but she was more of grandmother than a mother to me. She was 44 years old when she gave birth to me and looking years older.  Her life had been hard. A tiny woman, she had given birth to seven children. The first child died at birth. On the night of a very difficult home delivery during which a storm was raging. There was no electricity in the remote farmhouse in the mountain, where my parents lived. The oil lamp went out as the baby was being delivered by the midwife.  What would have been, my oldest sister, lived just long enough to be given the rite of baptism. She was named Francesca, after my paternal grandmother, as per custom. The second child, a boy, survived the birth but only for 5 months, when he too died.

After such traumas, my mother must have dreaded the prospect of another pregnancy, understandably. But in those times- around 1929- she had no choice on the matter. Her role, as defined by custom and tradition, was to be a wife and a mother. She went on to give birth to 5 more children, all survived.

A tiny woman, well under 5 feet tall, she spent her life rearing children and working out in the fields, worrying about being able to properly feed her growing brood. The family owned some chickens, a pig, a goat, a work donkey and a couple of cows. Some of the produce like cheese and oil was sold to buy clothes and other necessities.  I remember that in particularly cold winter, my mother was forced to sell some eggs, which she the family should have consumed, in order to buy some necessary items.

 When the war broke my father was called up to serve. I’m not sure why that was, given that by this time he had four children to provide for. It was left to my mother and my older siblings to work the land and look after the animals. And even when my father returned from the war, there was not enough to feed a family of growing children. So my father, a stocky, powerful man, was often away working other people’s land, in the Sicilian countryside. Once again, the daily running of our farm was left in the hands of my brothers and my mother. In such circumstances the prospect of migration to Australia was truly godsent. First one, then a couple of years later, the second of my older brothers left for Australia.   

By the time the rest of the family  migrated my parents were a spent force. Unable to speak English, aged beyond their years by hard work and with children now grown up and eager to get on in life, they retreated into themselves and the Italian community. The running of family affairs shifted to the children, the oldest of which by this time was pushing 30. Like my father, he grew up to be very much the domineering force, only more ambitious and more determined  than our father.  

On hearing that I had taken what he considered to be family matters to the priest, my brother flew into a rage.  He cornered me inside the house, I ran to the bathroom to escape from him, but he jammed his foot in the doorway, flung the door open and lunged at me.  What I remember most was not the hurt of the kicks, or the anger and shame that followed. No, the most poignant thing I remember was the sadness on my mother’s face, yelling at her oldest son to stop beating her youngest.

There and then I wanted to leave home, but I had nowhere to go. Despite everything the family provided me with a sense of security. And besides, I loved my mother too much to hurt her by leaving.

By the time of these events I was almost 16 years old. I decided to leave school and take a job, any job. It was decision taken out of humiliation, hurt pride, a desire for revenge and for taking control of my life. I would no longer be dependent on the family to maintain me.

Despite the turmoil going on in my life, the desire to write remained strong in me, and since I knew that my future resided in Australia, I would write in English. First step was to learn the English language. I got a job by day and attended English classes in the evening.