“Repetition is truly that which disguises itself in constituting itself, that which constitutes itself only by disguising itself. It is not underneath the masks, but is formed from one mask to another, as though from one distinctive point to another, from one privileged instant to another, with and within the variations.”
—Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (trans. Paul Patton)
One of the most common theories about why Americans read so little foreign literature is that we already have the foreign at home. As Esther Allen is quoted in the now-notorious article “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction,” “on the one hand we feel very cosmopolitan, with Mexican restaurants and cab drivers who speak Swahili, and we feel that we inhabit a mind-boggling multicultural universe, but at the end of the day, it breaks down to different ways of being American.” This, I think, still encapsulates the stakes of both writing and translating multicultural literature: writing as a way of carving out belonging, building a home with many windows; and translating as a way of challenging the facile exoticisms, the banal varieties of foreignness to which we have grown accustomed, complacent.
Gabriella Kuruvilla’s story “Barbie,” like the others in the collection from which it is drawn, forges a complex dialogue about dual identity within an increasingly yet awkwardly multicultural Italy, and like the rest of the work in the September 2016 issue of Words without Borders, it has a certain immediacy and urgency in its national context that it does not have abroad. And so although it doesn’t speak directly to us in the same way, it is certainly familiar.
For one, the story’s prose is distinctive. As opposed to many of the contemporary Italian works I have read and translated, Kuruvilla’s language is concise, unlyrical, ironic, and all exposition, its details neatly contained in structures and metaphors—it has an American minimalism descended from the Hemingway school, an element I play up in the translation by using short sentences and staccato rhythms. Kuruvilla’s opening sentence is several lines long, beginning with “L’ho fatto anche oggi: [. . .]” (“I did it also today: [. . .]”) and going on to recount what she did. My full-stop rendering, “I did it again today,” announces an even greater foreboding, perhaps intensified by its faint resonance with the famous first line of Camus’s The Stranger.
Doing it again. The story is structured on repetition and doubling from the very beginning. What is being repeated? The main character, an Indian-Italian named Mina, aka Patmini, has been abandoned by her partner, the father of her young twins, for a young blond American. She reacts by spending her days while her kids are at school obsessively reenacting this rejection: she goes to different cafés to change from her plain (“Italian”) clothes into an exaggerated Indian costume, and then stands by traffic lights shaking a Barbie and yelling “whore of a doll!” (“troia di una bambola!”). If identity is the product of the “stylized repetition of acts” (Butler), this is identity gone haywire. Her performance exposes ethnic identity as a cultural code, which not only relies on subconscious imitation but takes on an entirely different shape and meaning depending on context. In Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, one day being Indian is in, the next day it’s out. English, however, is in: so there is English used in the original Italian when Mina’s textile designs are described as being labeled “Made in India” rather than “Fatte in Italia.” The function of English in Italy is then inevitably muffled in the translation.
Mina’s repetition of acts is mirrored by various forms of repetition throughout the text, creating a structure of echoes and parallels. Thus in translation I sought to find forms of repetition that worked in English in addition to repeating lines or words that were repeated in the Italian, from the list of “props” in the character’s bag to phrases like “old adolescent,” and from parallelisms like “drowning” both idle conversation and the self in alcohol to proverbial statements like “lateness is the antechamber of abandonment.”
Repetition is also the story’s indirect way of exploring the problem of assimilation, which is represented in all its ambiguity and ambivalence. When the main character’s act of demonstration causes the police to pick her up, they note with surprise that she is an Italian citizen and release her without comment. In turn, we may wonder how that scene might have unfolded if she were an immigrant—citizenship is a privilege that trumps the disadvantages of difference. Then there is the question of raising children. While the main character goes primarily by Patmini and not her given name, Mina, her twins have, at their India-obsessed father’s insistence, the common Indian names Ashima and Sandip, which she plans to change to the common Italian names Paola and Luigi. Perhaps this is to spare them the sort of tokenism to which she herself has been subject. While Barbie’s assembly-line ideal represents the most normative standards of white beauty—another familiar element of the story— Patmini/Mina is by no means immune to the desire to conform to the mainstream.
Is it assimilation when it’s your own country? Perhaps it boils down to a different way of being Italian. Just as in translation, the foreign is not an absolute value when it devolves into imperialist exoticism. Rather, it must be part of a new interpretation—one that contains both repetition and difference, and that can appreciate multiple forms of hybridity as not mutually exclusive but reciprocally illuminating.