How “The Minotaur at Calle Lanza” Reinvented the Travel Memoir

Zito Madu’s chronicle of Venice is like nothing you’ve read before

June 7, 2024 9:05 am
"The Minotaur at Calle Lanza" cover
Zito Madu's memoir of Venice in 2020 is a fantastic portrait of the city.
Belt Publishing

Zito Madu’s new book The Minotaur at Calle Lanza is about a lot of things. First and foremost, it’s an impressionistic memoir about its author’s time in Venice in the early days of the pandemic. Through that combination of time and place, Madu also weighs in on a host of other subjects, from his sometimes-contentious relationship with his own father to the experiences of immigrants in the United States and Europe.

It’s difficult to classify Madu’s memoir, but it certainly overlaps with a certain tradition of travel writing — think Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuściński. It’s the sort of book that takes big risks with the form and shows precisely what it’s capable of. The result is a memorable, accessible read and a powerful portrait of a city at a specific historical moment.

InsideHook talked with Madu about the unlikely reason he was in Venice in 2020 to begin with, the art of making conversation with strangers and the project’s evolution.

InsideHook: Early on in the memoir, you write that you were in Venice because you were doing an artist residency with an Italian soccer team. It’s the first time I’ve heard of a sports team running an arts residency, so I’m curious how that ended up coming about?

Zito Madu: There’s a famous soccer team there, Venezia, and so they had decided to do an artist residency because they were trying to connect the football team to the art culture of the city. If you’re in Venice or if you’re in Athens, it would be such a waste if you don’t connect yourself to the history of arts and everything in there, right? You have the Biennale, you have everything else there.

I always say that football or sports is no different from any other form of expression, and so I think the CEO of the team was trying to tie that in as well. And so it was an artist residency. I think there were also a couple of photographers there, but I was the only writer who was invited. The residency wasn’t to write about the team or anything. It was simply to  come to Venice and use that as a basis to write.

When I got there, it was the middle of the pandemic. It was interesting because Italy was hit hard, but I think because everyone was gone, as far as foreigners, there were not that many people. You actually realize how small Venice is as far as the native population there. A lot of restaurants were outside. If you were inside, you wore a mask, but outside, you could stay far apart and not wear a mask, and then there was a curfew around six or seven for restaurants — but a couple of them stayed open as well. That restaurant that I kept coming back to that was one of the few that was left open.

Did you have the idea that you were going to write some kind of  travelogue when you went on the residency, or did that approach not come up until after the fact?

No, I think it came out after the fact, from me walking around.  I think you can see the structure of the book as a little bit like that, as me walking around thinking about things. I think it was a consequence of being in Venice, helping my parents out at the same time, the sort of guilt and the sort of reflection of being in a place like that and having this time to reflect and this time to think and this time to sort of — but also having all these tensions going on at the same time.

I think the moment that sort of ignited it was when I first ran into the musician, the man in black who was playing the music, and I thought, “Oh, this is such a strange place. If I don’t write about being in a strange place at this particularly strange time, it would be a waste.”

In the book, you also wrote about your experiences growing up in Michigan and your travels in Nigeria. Was there a conscious attempt to find a balance between those three locations, or did that arise more naturally out of the course of writing and editing the book?

I don’t think it arose naturally, but it’s almost impossible not to happen when I’m walking through this maze of memory as well as physically taking these walks around Venice. It’s written in a way that you think about things. It’s not just like, I’m thinking particularly about this one place, right? I’m in Venice, and I go to pay for something, and my card is rejected, and instantly, I just thought, you could take the poverty out of the boy, but you can’t take the boy out of poverty, in a sense.

That comes up and then there’s a reflection of: where does this sort of come from? And it’s like, when we were in Detroit in the early 2000s, we were very poor. And then you get these structural feelings that come with poverty. It’s so hard to shed, and sometimes you think you’re over it until an event like that happens, and there’s this sort of flood of shame that comes with it.

I think I just wrote it trying to stay faithful to me walking around thinking about these things. I  let it flow in that way, because I just have faith that it would all come together, because there’s a central idea surrounding it, right? Walking around, it becomes that labyrinthine experience where certain things come up over and over again, but I’m approaching it in different ways each time.

Do you have a way you think about the book? There are aspects of memoir there, and there are aspects, arguably, of travel writing. There are even aspects — in terms of the references to Jorge Luis Borges later in the book — of literary criticism. Is there a way you think about it or how you describe it to people? Is it all of the above?

I always describe it as the “most me” book, right? When I was writing about it with the publisher, I said that I can’t help but to write a book the way that I see the world.  Giving me the form of a memoir is only just a form, but that’s not how I think about the world. Even towards the end, I remember sending it off, and some friends asked, “What just happened?”

Legitimately, when I got there, that’s what I felt, and that’s what I was thinking, and so I wrote it as I was feeling it, rather than looking at it and going, “Oh, this doesn’t fit the memoir form.”  I think I was much more concerned with writing the thing that I was experiencing, and writing the ways that I see the world more than it had to fit the idea of what a book is, or what a memoir is or what a travelogue is.

There’s a lot in the book about your relationship with your father. Was that in the realm of things you were thinking about as you walked around Venice at the time, or was it something that came into focus as you were sitting down and writing and editing the book?

It was a little bit of both. I was thinking about it because I was helping my parents out. They’re both teachers; back then the teachers had to teach online, and my parents work in this specific space of helping transition learning disabled kids to general classrooms, which is already difficult without technology. And these are poor kids, so it’s not even like the parents can’t supervise, etc. So what was already difficult just became incredibly hard, and so I was always helping them when I was in Detroit, and then I went to Venice and that just didn’t stop. 

I was doing it by remoting into their computer or walking them through the steps like an IT professional, basically. It was sort of reflective of when I was younger and I used to go with them to school when they were doing their master’s program. They used to take me to take notes and help them with stuff in class, and so it started becoming funny to me that this has been the role that I’ve played for so long. But then when you’re thinking about that it’s hard to avoid the specific amount of time where me and my dad were just fighting all the time.

When I started writing it, I was going through those things, but then I started reflecting on how me and him were really good before we moved to the States, and then we’ve been good for a long time now, and so there’s just this exploration of, “What happened here?”

It’s interesting because I think the people who read it went in assuming that I was going to write, “Oh, I hate my father,” when it was more that I’m so fascinated about what happened to change the relationship that I had with this person that I truly greatly admire. A lot of it was that you realize that when you’re older that it’s about the context that you exist in. Someone like him who was a well-respected person back where we were from suddenly is stripped of everything from money to any accolades or even his degrees. Suddenly there’s this constant humiliation of poverty that’s happening, and then you have the one kid who’s misbehaving all the time.

I was also careful not to say, “Oh, it was my fault,” because  there’s a lot of conflict there. I was trying to portray it and trying to get it from all the sides of what facilitated this. I know what I was fighting against at the time. I know why I was behaving that way at the time, and I think there’s a part where I was thought, “Oh, I’ve won.” But then the victory doesn’t feel so sweet when the person that you beat out for the victory doesn’t understand why you hate him so much all of a sudden.

You wrote a lot about immigration in this book, whether it’s your own experience or that of some of the people you met in Venice. It’s being published at a time when there is a lot of conversation about immigration in the news. Did that issue being in the spotlight affect any of the ways you wrote or revised the text?

That has just always been one of my deep interests — and deep political interests as well. It’s interesting to have a place like Venice that is often painted or talked about in terms of it being this beautiful place, even when it’s negative. It’s like, “Oh, it’s beautiful, but it’s too crowded,” et cetera, et cetera. But I think for someone like me, traveling in these places — Venice, Paris or even parts of Greece — it’s impossible to not notice what facilitates a lot of this. 

I went to Italy, and I’m a big lover of the Mediterranean Sea, but it would be naive to not realize or point out the fact that the Mediterranean Sea is also where a lot of immigrants are drowned, right? It’s both this beautiful body of water and a graveyard. And so I think for someone like me, with my political leanings, the book is structured around the people that I affiliate myself with. 

The first instance is the man who gets stopped at passport control. And that is a person where  the only difference between him and I is the passports that we’re carrying. And then there’s that episode where I walk over the bridge, and there’s a Nigerian man who catches my eye. There’s this sort of conflict when you have a specific passport like I do, and you have  an ease of background in the sense that my instinct was to differentiate myself from him — like, “I’m not a refugee, I’m just a traveler.”  But then understanding that the only difference between him and I is just a change of situation — or pure luck at this point. And then also understanding that probably everyone else around us sees the two of us as more closely linked than anything else. So I think I’m always so aware of those things and noticing the lives of those people.

You can’t talk about how beautiful a place is if you’re not talking about the lives of the marginal people there. So a little bit of the book is written to avoid talking about how pretty this place is, how beautiful this place is. Because I feel like, at least for me, that doesn’t have as much depth as writing about how I sat here and had a conversation with this immigrant who’s here, and we talked about the villages that we’re from, and then every time that I saw him afterwards, we would wave and sometimes grab a snack together. That, for me, was always the substantial thing more than just, “Venice is pretty.”

From reading your book, it seems like you have the very admirable ability to strike up a conversation with a stranger while traveling, which I think a lot of people don’t necessarily have. Is that something you do a lot? Is it something you have any advice to readers about who might want to be more sociable when they’re visiting somewhere new to them?

I feel like part of this comes from me growing up in the Midwest. The Midwest teaches you how to have small talk, right? I think there are a lot of people who are against small talk in the sense of, hey think that it doesn’t add depth, but I always think of small talk conversation in general as a practice like anything.  Or let’s say it’s an exercise, in that if I’m going to go work out, not every day needs to be the hardest workout of my life.

I grew up as an athlete, and our practices were scheduled as, you’ll have two really hard days of practice, and then we’ll have one technical practice and one fitness practice or whatever. The whole point is, you don’t overburden everything.  You don’t overburden yourself. So I always think of conversation in similar terms. Before we can have those deep, hard conversations, we need to sort of establish a baseline or have lighter conversations.

It’s a sort of dance in that way. We’ll start talking about how there’s no one here in Venice at the time, how strange it is. And then you just keep that conversation going, and eventually you’re going to get to those deeper things. So I always think, I can be in the line getting ice cream and turn to the person next to me and say, “Wow, it’s so hot today.” And then next thing you know, we’re talking about politics 20 minutes later. 

I think my advice with that  is just to be able to understand how to use lighter conversation to facilitate connection. Small talk is very valuable as a way to close the distance between you and someone else. And then see if there’s someone who’s interested in talking to you more.

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Have you been back to Venice since the period you wrote about in the book?

I was there last April, just gallivanting around with some friends, some artsy friends and whatnot. I actually ended up writing an essay that I deleted, but it was about how strange Venice is for me. When I go to Venice now, my friend was saying that my Venice is not the Venice of everyone. And so now when I go, it’s like, oh, there’s so many people here. It’s claustrophobic versus the Venice that I’ve had, and which is stuck in my mind, where I could walk around in the middle of the night and not see anyone for an hour or so.

Do you have any recommendations as far as other notable books or movies or writing or art about Venice that inspired or influenced you at all?

The one that I would point out is Watermark by Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky is one of my favorite writers, and so when I had told my friend Simone that I was going to write about Venice and I told him the whole idea of the book while we were there, he said, “You would love this book.” He went home and then gave me a copy of Watermark. I read it and thought, “This is incredible.”

It was one of those things where I was thinking about Venice in a particular way, and asking, am I losing my mind, or is this going to work? Reading  a renowned writer like that and seeing certain ideas, like the Labyrinth idea and the Minotaur idea live in there, I thought, “Okay, I’m not losing my mind. I can make this book work.”


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