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Subject: Cultural Studies »

Gwenda Tavan about her childhood as the daughter of Italian immigrants

Mara Moustafine and Gwenda Tavan.

Gwenda Tavan describes her childhood as the daughter of Italian immigrants, who returned to italy, and came back again to Australia



Date Added:

16 February 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

17.2 MB






I’m the daughter of Italian migrants, my parents met here in a factory in the early 1960s, got married and had three children. My father was from northern Italy, my mother from southern Italy, so that’s a very interesting combination and I grew up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne here, first in North Carlton and then on a housing estate out in Reservoir.


My father was a fitter and turner, he had a skill and after a – I think, a quite long period of unemployment in the early 1960s, he got a good job in Melbourne and had a good income and had a very demanding job that took him away from home a lot. My mother had come out to join her sisters in the late 1950s and her brothers, who were also here. But they all returned to Italy in the 1960s and she found herself very isolated, so my father was away from home a lot and he was very involved in his job and my mother really struggled with, you know, her sense of social isolation and I think a real sense of grief that she’d been separated from her family.


And we in fact, returned to Italy when I was four years old, in 1968 and the idea was that we would resettle there. But that didn’t quite work out and this dynamic I think has often happened with a lot of migrants, you feel that you don’t quite belong, you know, in one place and then when you try to go back and pick up where you left off that doesn’t work out either. So they returned here, but much to my mother’s displeasure and in a sense that story was played out for the rest of our lives, with my father quite settled because he had a good job, a demanding job and he was able to establish a social network but my mother really I think struggling very hard to get on.


And it’s- it got better over the years, you know, they had three children and we’ve all settled and I guess, integrated and married and had children of our own, so in fact, what’s happened over the years is my family’s established roots and I think that’s made it easier for my mother. But you know, it’s a – can be a very painful experience for a lot of people and I feel that I saw two sides of the whole migration story through my parents: you know, the successful integration and a person in the shape of my father who was very happy with his decision and my mother who in contrast, often looks back and –


So I was at school in the ‘60s and 1970s and I don’t have a lot of very happy memories of my – of my time growing up, especially at school and in terms of interactions with my peers. There were some aspects that were good, I remember as a child when we lived in North Carlton for example, that because of my father’s work, my – you know, we did have a social network of sorts, that is, there were events and functions that we went to occasionally they weren’t big church goers, so that wasn’t an important role in our lives, or even in terms of formal Italian community events etcetera, so there were some good things but at school, I really struggled. I really struggled with a sense of feeling isolated and on the outer.


And when I got to high school I experienced – I had some actually quite nasty experiences of prejudice, including violent, you know, physical abuse. I went to a very rough school in the outer suburbs of Melbourne and it was the ‘70s and there were some nasty types. So I don’t actually, you know, it’s interesting, my brother for example, he has much more positive memories, but I really struggled and I think a lot of my adult years has been spent trying to undo some of that damage and my interest, I mean in a positive sense, I guess, my interest in the politics and history of immigration, comes out of those experiences.


We were a bit odd because as I say, my parents came from different parts of Italy, they had no strong connections, they had no extended family network here, they weren’t strongly connected to church and they weren’t involved in Italian community groups. Now they’re the sort of institutions that can help that process, that socialisation process. We really only had a couple of cousins and you know, Dad’s work and the friends that he had made through that. So there was a sense of kind of working it out on our own and feeling quite isolated and not having the benefits I think, of some of those extended networks. So I did feel kind of odd as a – and I was very keen to fit in, that’s the other thing so I was very – as my mother now says – Anglo oriented. And so I –for that reason I struggled, my brother had a group of Italian friends. He found it easier, I kind of felt, you know, on the edge, on the periphery.


- I did by Year 11, make –actually then meet up with a bunch of girls, all of them Anglo Australians. And we became very close and I still have those friendships and they often express surprise and I think shock really when I tell them about my earlier years at that very same school that they hadn’t realised that his sort of –


We lived in this housing state in Reservoir– but I was actually bussed into Fawkner every day. So that was a factor in itself that I didn’t actually live physically close to the school that I went to. What else? It was very much southern European and then I guess, what you’d call Anglo-Celt Australians. I ended up marrying a Anglo-Celt Australian. That I met at that school. And so, you know, so that there were positive sides, but it was pretty tough going for a few years and quite, you know, emotionally very damaging.


End transcript