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Joelle Ballonzoli

French, USA

First Language(s): French
Second Language(s): English


I was born and raised in the 1950’s, in a shipyard town of what was then the blue collar portion of the French Mediterranean coast. I have been living in the United States since 1979. I came to New York as a dancer-choreographer attracted by the tremendous creative energy that animated the downtown scene in those days.


What was your favorite book as a child?

I wanted to be a Ballet dancer when I was growing up. One Christmas I was given a book, Danseuse Etoile, the biographical account of a Parisian opera star called Claude Bessy. Danseuse Etoile was a revelation. Claude Bessy’s birthday was a day later than mine, her background was similar to mine. I identified with her. She became my power of example. My dream of becoming Claude Bessy almost became reality when an old native of La Ciotat, a dancer, came back home and opened a school. I was one of her first recruits. Ballet classes were taking place on Thursday mornings, when school was off. I could not wait all week long to put on my little black cotton leotard and soft dance shoes. I definitely heard the “calling”. Regrettably for me, the ballet teacher disappeared one day. Prior to doing so, she had come to our house to recommend to my parents that I take the test of the Marseille Opera Ballet School. My mother made it clear that was not for me. “My husband is a construction worker. He gets his ass up on scaffolding in the heat and cold year-round, from Monday to Saturday to feed us all. You’re not the daughter of Rothschild’s,” she claimed. I didn’t become a ballet dancer and it took me another few years and a summer job to get myself to Marseille to enroll in a dance school.

Do you remember the original reason or motivation why you started writing creatively?

My first foray into writing began as my career in dance was ending. I started a newsletter, surrealistic in nature, commenting about my daily life as an artist living in a commercial loft in Brooklyn, NY. I suppose I was searching for another creative forum to express myself. A few years ago, I became interested in the rapid decline of my hometown’s local culture, which was so dear to me. Whenever I visited, I witnessed it’s slow and cunning erosion. The evolution of societies toward individualism and globalization have left little room for such cultures to survive. La Ciotat was not alone. Most blue collar communities of the French Mediterranean coast have undergone a similar fate. In writing, I want to focus on the importance placed on the forever-gone French communal nature of life in the 1950s. The idea is to situate the community, to show people’s daily life, as well as my perception of them as a child.

What was the most adventurous or thrilling thing you ever did/experienced?

I came to New York for the first time in December of 1977. At the time, a large population had left the city following the financial crisis of 1975 and a great portion of downtown Manhattan, although often unsafe, seemed to have been delivered to artists and other adventurous young entrepreneurs. There, the population flight and the economic hard times had provided a large area of very cheap housing stock. Due to the low cost of living, the art scene had begun to thrive. Art happened on the street, in dilapidated commercial buildings, multimedia alternative spaces as well as clubs. Anybody could show their work providing they would share the meager profit with the tenant of the space if applicable. Artists were showing other artists’ works. There were a lot of opportunities. Creativity was exploding in all directions. All I needed to do was to show up. Besides, the New York population was friendly, welcoming, unaffected and freewheeling. I observed pedestrians and straphangers in public spaces, streets and subway cars covered with fascinating early graffiti art; strangers saying hello on the streets of the Village. I was delighted. It looked like the whole lifestyle itself was pure art. The scene was invigorating for the dancer that I was. That was the place where I was sure I would bloom. Eleven months later, the week before Thanksgiving in 1978, I moved to New York with my four year-old daughter in tow and $200 in my pocket.

Do you listen to music while reading or writing?

Most of the time, it is impossible for me to listen to music while I write. These are two different worlds in my head. Music triggers movement. Depending on the kind, I can visualize nature, feelings, colors, countries, the world…It is obviously winning over the action of writing when it touches my eardrums. Writing stops or gets confused. My brain orders my skin to shiver a little and most of the time to agitate my feet at first, then my limbs. There are also times when it annoys me. “Leave me alone. I am writing.” It is just as disturbing as the phone ringing nonstop and my obligation to answer it when my mother calls every ten minutes to make sure I pick up – I never put my phone on silent for fear of an emergency. My mother is 97 years old. She cannot hear very well and I find myself yelling in the telephone trying to communicate with her after I pick up. By the time we are done speaking, I have lost my concentration. I just walk away from my desk. I definitely can’t write and listen to music.


The Americans
Issue Fall '19

Heroes and Favorites
Issue Spring '21

Supported by:

Land Steiermark: Kultur, Europa, Außenbeziehungen
U.S. Embassy Vienna
Stadt Graz