This year, among the dozen longlisters for Italy’s most important literary award, the Premio Strega, seven were women. The presence of titles written by women on the Strega longlist has never been so high, and yet this is hardly surprising. Though #MeToo has never taken root in Italy, there have been pushes in the direction of equality for a while now in many artistic spaces (in which certain changes can, or should, occur before they do in others). After the 2018 finalists were revealed, it was rumored and then confirmed that Helena Janeczek would be the first woman since Melania Mazzucco in 2003 to win the Strega. Come this year, the tide had clearly turned in favor of women writers.
I am always a bit wary when it comes to Quote rosa (“Female Quotas”), which are now law since the Italian parliament acted in 2011 to guarantee female representation across all sectors of society: business, education, government bodies, and the like. Out of naivete, or perhaps optimism, I like to think that the actions of a human being are judged independently from her gender. But I know, having lived this reality in my own skin, that it doesn’t exactly work that way. Italy is still a place that must create a dedicated and protected space to give voices to different “categories,” that of women among them.
Prodded by my misgivings, I asked myself if and to what degree the titles chosen by the Strega committee were actually deserving, or if instead they were the result of a negotiation calculated on a certain amount of female presence that must make it through. I was soon comforted: the books admitted to the top twelve were all, “male books” and “female books” alike, of the highest quality.
Having made this necessary introduction, I would like to turn to the books written by the women of this year’s Strega, to understand what they tell us, what they see, the voices they capture, the position they occupy amid the panorama of contemporary Italian literature.
Cristina Marconi is a journalist who has lived in London since 2011. From there she writes about politics, economics, and culture for several Italian newspapers. After graduating with a degree in philosophy from the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, she moved to Paris and then Brussels. In her debut novel, Città irreale (Imaginary City), she tells quite the modern story: that of twenty-seven-year-old Alina who, like many young Italians, decides to leave Italy and search for a job and a new life abroad, London in this case. Alina’s story is a coming-of-age tale in an international context, unfurling within the fabric of a city where she must learn to build new relationships, new routines, and a new, free identity despite the frustrations, missed opportunities, and suspension between cultures and identities to which her condition as an expat has destined her.
Marina Mander is a writer from Trieste who lives in Milan. The story she writes in L’età straniera (The Foreign Age) is that of two boys, Leo and Fiorin, who are opposites. Leo is a “normal” teenager whose mother is a social worker and whose father has committed suicide. Fiorin is a Romanian boy who speaks little Italian and must work as a prostitute to survive. One day, Leo’s mother brings Fiorin home and has him sleep in Leo’s room because, as the mother puts it, perhaps they might be good for each another. The relationship between the two boys is difficult and directly explores an extremely contemporary theme relevant far beyond Italy—fear of the foreigner and their difference—that is often confronted only in the abstract. A fictional idea with a strong grasp on the social is at the base of this other bildungsroman that teeters between the disparate poles of belonging and unfamiliarity.
Paola Cereda is a psychologist and lover of the theater. She has worked as a director’s assistant, and during travels to Argentina she became interested in community theater. She now lives in Turin, where she works on artistic and cultural projects with a social bent. Quella metà di noi (That Half of Us) is set in Turin and tells the story of Matilde, a retired schoolteacher who—because of a debt incurred by building a hotel abroad with a man whom she loves but will not follow—goes back to work, reinventing herself as caretaker to an elderly engineer. She divides her life between her neighborhood on the outskirts of Barriera, and the center of Turin, where the engineer lives. This is a story about the spaces in-between: between two houses, between multiple languages, between other lives, in a society that changes and brings about new needs and new professions.
Eleonora Marangoni is a Roman author living in Milan. She graduated from university in Paris and now works as a copywriter and communication consultant. Her novel Lux details the life of Thomas Edwards, a young scion of an Anglo-Italian family, who inherits an old hotel in southern Italy, a pygmy baobab orchard, and a healing mineral spring. Thomas travels to the location with his fiancée and her son in order to sell the property. There he meets colorful characters, this very crossing of lives making up the plot of the novel, where the shadows of the past come to light. Called by many “a novel of bygone times,” Lux is notable especially for its stylistic work and its imagination, with its carefully plotted pace and its variant shades of landscapes and psychologies.
Three of the women on the longlist made it through to the shortlist:
Nadia Terranova was born in Messina and lives in Rome. Author of works for children as well as adults, she contributes to various Italian newspapers. In Addio fantasmi (Farewell to the Ghosts) the protagonist, Ida, returns to her birthplace of Messina, because her mother wishes to renovate the family apartment in order to sell it. Back in the places of her youth, Ida is forced to reckon with the trauma that changed her when she was a little girl: twenty-three years ago, her father disappeared. His absence has weighed down her whole life, from her relationship with her mother to that with her husband, and only through confronting her own history can Ida truly free herself. With its focus on loss and the desire to overcome it, this book is a portrait of inevitable confrontation with the past, resolving in final catharsis.
Benedetta Cibrario is a Florence-born writer living in London. Il rumore del mondo (The Sound of the World), a historical novel set in the era of Italy’s Risorgimento, tells the story of Anne Bacon, the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant who is married to the Piedmontese official Prospero Carlo Carando di Vignon, on duty in London. When she joins the family in Turin after recovering from smallpox, Anne is confronted by a hard reality and difficult marital life. But her father-in-law, Casimiro, invites her to oversee the family’s Mandrone property. At this point, Anne’s story is closely tied to that of her husband’s family, and she finds herself with the opportunity to achieve personal emancipation and guarantee her place in the history of a country not yet born, Italy. The novel earned Cibrario second place.
Claudia Durastanti was born in Brooklyn and lives in London, where she works as a translator. One of the founders of the Festival of Italian Literature in London, she is a regular contributor to Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The protagonist of La straniera (The Stranger), Claudia, is the daughter of two deaf parents who oppose the feeling of isolation with their passionate, irascible relationship. An adult when the story opens, Claudia emigrated from New York as a child to a village in Basilicata, returning periodically to the city of her birth. As a result of this deep uprooting, she in turn becomes a migrant as an adult: for her studies, for liberation, for love. In this novel-memoir hybrid centered on the mother figure, the author examines memory, identity, foreignness across time and place, and tells of a sentimental, contemporary education while reflecting on social distinctions and irreducible cultures.
These seven novels have several commonalities between theme and genre: there is the coming-of-age story, the confrontation with one’s self and with the other, the rewriting of the past to make a new future possible, the aspiration to success and personal freedom, the place of the individual vis-à-vis the collective, the autobiography, the migrant’s tale.
With the exception of Lux, which differentiates itself from the other novels through both its intention and narrative universe, and Il rumore del mondo, set during Italy’s Risorgimento, these books give particular attention to the position of the individual within society today, a scope that allows for addressing such questions as diversity, migration, and the definition of one’s autonomy in a globalized world.
In those works where it is present, autobiography serves to define not only the self but the surrounding world, too. The narration is generally open about transformation and brings about an often unsought catharsis. In the case of the bildungsroman, the protagonist’s development is almost never a solitary phenomenon, but a process that depends, in part, on others.
The next step in exploring the direction that women’s writing in Italy is taking might be to widen the perspective to include contemporary fiction beyond the Strega; it would be interesting, for example, to analyze the cultural-historical place of the authors writing today in Italy. What is the legacy of those who came before these authors and what is the literary impact of globalization on what until just decades ago was a rather traditional society? Consequently, what is the position of women in contemporary Italian society, and what are the defining traits of their identity? How do they express this identity? Where do they search for it? These are open questions that the authors above have begun to grapple with in their work, questions that are destined to evolve alongside them.
Copyright © 2019 by Chiara Marchelli. All rights reserved.