Dacia Maraini is a renowned Italian novelist, essayist, playwright, and social activist. Tonight at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York City she will discuss, with Professor Jane Tylus, Writing Like Breathing, a new anthology of Maraini’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama in English translation.
Words Without Borders (WWB): Writing Like Breathing includes autobiography, fiction, poems, plays, essays, etc., all of which explore a vast number of subjects. How do stories come to you, and when do you know what form a story will take?
Dacia Maraini (DM): I will answer with a metaphor: every so often a character knocks at my door. I open it, I offer them coffee or tea and cookies and they tell me their story, and then usually they go away. When a character, after having the tea and cookies, also asks me for dinner and a bed to sleep in, I understand that they have set up camp in my mind and that it’s time to write a novel.
WWB: What does the collection’s title, Writing Like Breathing, mean to you as a writer?
DM: It means to me that writing is like breathing, a spontaneous act that I cannot help but do. At the same time, I do not believe in spontaneity: I do not believe that we write only when we are driven by inspiration. It also requires experience with literature, profound linguistic understanding, and a great sense of rhythm; it takes technical competence and commitment, as well as discipline and a lot of rewriting.
WWB: You have often explored history and the lives of women from the past in your work—for example, The Silent Duchess, Clare of Assisi: In Praise of Disobedience. What draws you to writing about the past, and these women from the past? What do you feel we can learn from them today?
DM: When I choose a historical figure I am not thinking about what they can teach the reader in the present. What drives me is curiosity and the desire to understand. I am very interested in history, and I have always been passionate about the affairs of the past. I remember that at school, instead of listening to the Italian professor, who was always very boring and conventional, I would read history books under my desk, like the The History of Rome by Mommsen and The History of Europe by Benedetto Croce, two books that fascinated me and taught me a great deal. I usually write to understand, not to explain.
WWB: How involved are you in the translation of your works?
DM: I am happy when I am able to collaborate with a translator. Not all of them want to and, of course, it is easier with the languages that I know: English, French, and Spanish. But also with the languages that I do not know, I am also glad when the translator asks me to clarify some moments in the text. My books have been translated into twenty-four languages, including Arabic and Vietnamese, to name two that are distant from European languages. Curiously, the country that has translated the most books of mine is Germany, a country that reads a great deal and also translates a great deal. Then come France, England, and Spain, followed by all the others. America usually buys the translations that have already been done in England—but theater is more difficult because theater contains spoken language and British English does not reflect the way Americans speak.
Women writers, even the most famous, often disappear with their deaths.
WWB: Your writing often features women whose voices are in some way silenced or, conversely, women who are combatting the suppression of their voices. An important conversation happening in the world of translation right now has to do with gender imbalance. Is this an issue that you have dealt with in your own career, and do you have advice for women writers who are trying to make themselves heard through their writing?
DM: I do not think that gender discrimination is carried out in translation. The market is made up of readers, and, according to statistics, it is women who read the most, at least as far as novels are concerned. But if we move from the market to literary institutions, such as universities, higher education, and international criticism, then, yes, women are discriminated against. Women writers, even the most famous, often disappear with their deaths. They are erased from the country’s memory. They don’t have the prestige that accompanies the great men writers. It’s rare, very rare, for a woman to become a literary model for future generations. Usually she simply becomes “forgotten.” In fact, if you read literary histories, you find very few women. In the history of Italian literature, for example, completely absent are the women mystics of the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries whose writings, which were left sleeping in the convents and are only now slowly being recognized, have a beauty and wisdom.
Translated from Italian by Jessie Chaffee.
Read an excerpt from Dacia Maraini’s novel Columba