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Le altre e io (The Other Women and I)—Women Writing within and beyond Italy

By Chiara Marchelli

Chiara Marchelli’s novel Le notti blu is shortlisted for the 2017 Premio Strega national Italian literary prize. 

For a long time I thought I was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, speaking the wrong language.

Then Elena Ferrante came. My position started to shift, not because of the author herself, but because of the phenomenon she engendered. Suddenly, contemporary Italian literature was in the spotlight, and the international attention was focused on something that related to me closely: Ferrante is alive, she is (supposedly) a woman, and she is being read beyond the borders of her country. I am very grateful for all of this, because it represents an opportunity for American readers to start exploring what else exists in Italian literature. Which is a lot.

The Italian literary scene is vibrant despite the gloomy self-judgment of Italians, who are exceptionally severe toward their compatriots (we perfected to its highest degree the No man is a prophet in his own land motto). Perhaps living abroad provides objectifying binoculars, or perhaps I am just biasedly homesick. Whatever the case, I see a cluster of writers who actively contribute to the literature of our time with original ideas, styles, and works.

Some of them are women, a few of whom I find particularly interesting. I feel we share the same shaping sense of displacement—emotional or geographical—and we are all searching, as individuals and as women in literature.

We share the same shaping sense of displacement—emotional or geographical.

A PhD holder in mathematics, Chiara Valerio is an editor and blogger for several literary magazines, and she also contributes to theater productions, and radio and television broadcasts. The connection she draws between mathematics and literature is fascinating: Valerio observes everyday life through a magnifying analytical lens, a clear reflection of her mathematics education, with a style that is precise and clear-cut.

Simona Vinci’s first novel, Dei bambini non si sa niente, achieved immediate renown, while causing great controversy because of the content it explores: the precocious and violent sexuality of a group of children, set against the background of a contaminated adult world. The book provoked strong reactions, and paved the way for more investigation into the experiences and natures of those who are forgotten. Her latest novel, La prima verità, received the Premio Campiello 2016, one of the most important Italian literary awards.

Of Somalian descent, Igiaba Scego was born in Rome. An author and a contributor to several magazines that specialize in migrations and African literature, she focuses on immigration and the exchange between cultures. Her work is rich in autobiographical allusions. It mirrors the complex and, at times, culturally contradictory context in which she grew up, and offers a contemporary—and sometimes ironic—take on cosmopolitan reality. 

Michela Murgia is a Sardinian writer and politician. Passionate about her heritage and territory, Murgia is part of the “New Sardinian literature” movement that has gripped Italy in recent years. Her prose is poetic, profoundly inspired by the Sardinian culture, and delivers enthralling stories in the style of oral tradition. I am fascinated by Murgia’s work. Her roots are entrenched and her books reflect specific geographical boundaries and regional influences. Reading them, I have found myself longing for such rock-hard clarity. Her confidence in foundation and structure is as crystalline as mine is befuddled, suspended, unidentified, ever-morphing.

I was born in a very small town in the Italian Alps. I grew up between Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont, and lived in Venice, Belgium, and Egypt, before I ended up in New York, the motherland of the uprooted. As a writer, settling in the city wasn’t a painless process: for a number of years, I was filled with doubt, guilt, fear, and a cavernous, ravaging sense of solitude. At some point this produced a curious symptom: I couldn’t write anymore. I felt I didn’t know one single place well enough that I could write from: the smells, the streets, the light. And if such details fall from a writer’s sensitivity and memory, it is my belief that she is doomed.

The smells, the streets, the light . . . if such details fall from a writer’s sensitivity and memory, it is my belief that she is doomed.

Until, faced with no choice but seek an alternative to going back, I started to glimpse a different perspective: turning loss into a resource. What I saw as a deficiency could help constitute a new space, in which I could create something that I would recognize. So I surrendered to the uncharted land and accepted the hovering identity, trying to turn it all into a hospitable territory. I began to work again. Writing past the absence of direction and cautiously setting foot on unexplored soil, I wrote stories based in Italy and the States, written in Italian while living here. Tales that couldn’t exist without feeding upon my full experience and that required a new language to be told.

Teresa Fiore, Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair University, and Domenico Starnone, author of numerous celebrated novels published internationally, described the work that I—and others—are producing as a new genre: “a new form of Italophone literature,” Fiore wrote, one that uses “Italian language to talk about displacement and double belonging . . . Marchelli writes in Italian in the contemporary diaspora, indirectly interacting with a long tradition of Italian writing outside the country . . . Italian in her books becomes the language of a quest for roots across borders.”

I am not alone. Novelist and poet Tiziana Rinaldi Castro has lived in the United States for more than thirty years, and for most of that time has written about the American experience in Italian. Only in the past four years has she begun writing in English as well. There are other women writers who belong to the same literary genre: Francesca Duranti, Marisa Fenoglio, Silvia Di Natale, Simonetta Agnello Hornby, among the others.

I trust this is just the beginning. In a world where borders stretch more and more, identities are destined to loosen their margins and form different outlines, and people are destined to tell new kinds of stories.

Read Chiara Marchelli’s Italian-language article about the growing interest for Italian authors among American students in Il Libraio

Read Igiaba Scego’s “The True Story of ‘Faccetta Nera,’” translated by Antony Shugaar

Read the September 2016 issue: There Is No Map: The New Italian(s)

Published May 17, 2017   Copyright 2017 Chiara Marchelli

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