Dacia Maraini: Books and Writers, Feminists and Culture, Loves and Nostalgia

I had not been eight floors high in many months in the city of Rome, whose typical buildings are seldom more than five or six floors. I heard her running to open the door and then back to the phone. I heard her say, "I’m giving an interview now. Call me back at seven." Meanwhile I was drawn to the scene from the picture window: the Roman tramonto, the stupendous sunset that painters of the world have visited the Eternal City to capture. Huge and orange-red, the sun was sinking behind the cupola of St. Peter’s. The entire horizon beyond the Tiber River was on fire.
         "I’m proud of that view," said my hostess, the successful Italian writer Dacia Maraini. One of those persons whom you like immediately, it was unnecessary to break the ice and get to know her. Something in her smile, the way she moved her hands, or walked across the room to prepare the tea, said it all. Her apartment too reflected her warmth: inviting but unpretentious, comfortable couches, walls of books and paintings–but not too many–wooden floors and a few scattered carpets, and a small petroleum stove to supplement the scarce heating on the higher floors in Rome’s cold winters.

         I told Signora Maraini I had thought of her after recent readings about the real situation of women so exalted in Renaissance literature. Michelangelo had begun changing things in his Last Judgment in which Eva does not pluck the forbidden fruit and give it to Adam; each picks the fruit for himself, which is not the same thing. Still, in the 17th century, I expounded, the first female graduate at the famous old university in Padua generated polemics all over Europe. Europe’s cultured women historically aroused suspicion and were often considered demonic. Such women were not obedient. They refused to follow old paths. The witch, male culture charged, was an anarchic mystic. Woman’s destiny was to become a witch. Woman thus begins with Eva offering the fruit and ends up as a witch.

         I cleared my throat nervously, certain my introduction was too heavy. Would she think I was just trying to impress her?

         "Renaissance courtesans were women of many surprises," Signora Maraini said, also starting far back. "The courtesan of the period was a great invention for it permitted also girls to study and learn. Like the 16th century Venetian poetess, Veronica France, who wore the yellow ribbon of the official prostitute. She had a rich literary life, writing books and poetry, while she also received important people like King Henry III in her big house. On the other hand, Isabella Mora, the daughter of a nobleman, wanted to acquire a culture like her brothers who studied in Rome and Paris. When her father saw her intellectual restlessness and that she wanted to be different, he put her away in a secluded castle in the south. When her brothers learned she had found a tutor who lent her books and with whom she corresponded about books and culture, they killed her. That was forbidden fruit for women."

         If Catholicism has always been a brake on women and women’s rights, Veronica France’s 16th century poetry sounds like modern feminist writings. She addressed to men things like, "You use the sword, but I use words." Or, "You are a winner because the world is on your side; I’m a loser because I’m a woman."

         "That was revolutionary thought," Signora Maraini said. "And if one woman wrote such things, others were thinking it. Yet, women’s emancipation here began around 1900 with the books of Annamaria Mozzoni, the historian of the women’s movement. The most advanced movement for women’s rights in Italy however emerged from the ferment of 1968. Since then we have new laws on the family, abortion, divorce, and rape. Many myths have fallen, like the sanctity of matrimony, and even about love itself, which until recently was seen in the 19th century manner. Without women’s action after 1968, laws on divorce and abortion would never have come about."

         Dacia Maraini, 62, has been in the forefront for the broadening of women’s rights in Italy, which as in most social matters has lagged behind north Europe. She is a feminist. She has been concerned with the same feminist themes as Nadine Gordimer and Germaine Greer. Yet, she shies away from feminist ideology.

         "I am not an essayist but a creative writer. Literature should stay far away from ideology. Literature is visionary and imaginative. I believe that creative women writers have broadened the feminist discussion with their books. But you can’t create literature with limiting ideology. I believe that ideology follows on the heels of fantasy, not the contrary. Feminism should liberate the fantasy and imagination of women. Women should use the greater power and liberty that feminism has obtained in order to develop their own fantasy."

         During the last century Italy has had a number of outstanding women writers, like Annamaria Ortese–little known even in Italy–Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginsburg, Lalla Romana, and Anna Banti. The Sardinian writer, Grazia Deledda [1875-1936] wrote some 20 books, won the Nobel, died and vanished from literature. No studies were ever done of her work. She is not included in the all-important anthologies.

         "It’s hard to start out in writing for everyone. Women here have some advantage because 70% of Italian readers of novels are women. About 10% of Italian writers are women, similar to other countries. But anthologies of the last 20 years are the real gauge; there women are less than 5%. Women have their public but their real problem is to endure after death. The American essayist Kellogg wrote that a writer can not last unless he succeeds in entering into academia. Women writers can sell well and become popular but the academic world of Italy is largely closed to them. It’s a masculine world–reactionary, traditionalist, misogynist. Therefore women writers like Deledda disappear after death."

Born in Florence, Dacia Maraini lived the first eight years of her life in Japan–formative but for her nightmare years. Her father, a noted Orientalist and her Sicilian aristocratic mother, were known anti-Fascists. The entire family, comprising also three small daughters, was imprisoned in a concentration camp for anti-Fascists near Kyoto, in an atmosphere of brutality and on the verge of starvation.
         "This was a determinant experience for me, to know hunger and to feel the sensation of death as a daily presence. This was a Buchenwald-type camp, very, very hard. Nothing to eat and all imaginable diseases, doing forced labor and suffering sadistic cruelty. My father’s courage saved us. We small girls would have died. Since he knew Japanese mentality well, he decided to apply the tradition of yubikiri: he cut off a finger with an axe and threw it at the Japanese. That is considered a supreme act of courage. It means, ‘You are a coward and I am more courageous than you.’ They gave us the milk that saved our lives. Today I don’t write about Japan, though I feel affection for that good and refined people. Most of all the experience reinforced my love for my father who has influenced my literary themes."

         After liberation by American troops, the Marainis returned to Florence where Dacia spent three years in a repressive Catholic girls collegio. She recalled how it was permeated with the petty discipline that has conditioned generations of Italian women. How many narrow-minded bigots and how many rebels those schools generated.

         "I was always a rebel. I knew early that my vocation was a cultural one. I had a great passion for literature and I have written as long as I can remember. My father wrote. My grandmother was a writer. I saw my rebellion as a search for a new way to express myself. At 19, after I moved to Rome, I published a magazine together with some friends called Tempo di Letteratura."

         In 1963, at 24, she published her first novel, La Vacanza. The year after, her novel L’Etá del Malessere [The Age of Malaise] won a major literary prize, the Prix Formentor. She was on her way to becoming one of Italy’s important novelists. Some of her novels have become films. She has always written poetry and has published many volumes of her poems, and several plays. Her books have been translated into a dozen or so languages.

         In 1986 she published a biography of Alberto Moravia, with whom she lived for 18 years, and with whom she remained friends for the rest of his life. The much older Moravia, who loved women, especially beautiful young women, helped and stimulated her, but their writing styles and subjects are worlds apart.

I want to dwell for a few moments on a typical Dacia Maraini novel. It is unlikely that Isolina will ever be published abroad but it demonstrates well the writer’s social-political commitment. Isolina is a young girl of a worker’s family and questionable morality in the very Catholic city of Verona. She becomes the mistress of a military officer. When she gets pregnant, she is killed or dies in an abortion attempt, is cut to pieces by an "expert hand," and her parts dumped into the Adige River. Not only is no one convicted of the crime, but Isolina is cancelled from the memory of the city. In her meticulous reconstruction taken from newspapers, city and court records and testimony, Maraini adds from time to time her own remarks. At one point however she notes–and her book is the proof–how difficult it is to eliminate completely any human life. Something always remains.
         Since Isolina’s lover is of the military class and bears the major responsibility for the tragedy, Maraini’s book is an attack on the military caste. Verona was a military town and officers above all suspicion. If the book is marked by anti-militarism, it is also of anti-male inspiration.

         "To the degree that men identify with military spirit, the book is anti-masculine. Males who identify with war are my enemies. They are not only the enemies of women, but also of other men. The acme of that masculine ideology is war. That is a world created by men, against women in a particular way. According to the old rule, the victors had the right to rape the women. Women thus are objects. That practice is part of war ideology. Women have no part in that."

Although her autobiographical book, Bagheria, evokes a distant past, Maraini rejects the sentiment of nostalgia. Bagheria is the name of a town near Palermo, once the site of many majestic and magical villas, with their parks and fountains and flowers where many of the elite of Europe met. Before Sicilians arrived, there were Phoenecians and Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Borbons. Her mother’s family lived in the sumptuous Villa Valguarnera. The book Bagheria recounts her return there and testifies to the destruction of that former treasure of Sicily by the Mafia, most of the villas demolished, the parks covered in concrete, and the entire town Mafia-ized.
         "I lived in Sicily many years and am aware that the real problem there is the Mafia. Sicily is culturally rich, its people intelligent, capable, enterprising, imaginative. But they are terrorized by the Mafia. I know many who fled because of the difficulties there.

         "For me there really is no return possible there. The impossibility of Sicily is another reason nostalgia is not part of my experience. One usually feels nostalgia for childhood. My childhood was terrible. The concentration camp and the Catholic school. My years from 10 to18 in Sicily were on the survival level. We were poor. Society was closed. I was a prisoner in that repressive mentality that was not only Catholic but also Arab. I remember a school companion in Sicily whose father chained her to the bed every afternoon. That was considered normal. My home was freedom but not my surroundings. When I went out the door alone, people looked at me from behind their closed blinds and considered me a whore."

The Rome sky was black when we ran out of words. I could barely distinguish the outline of a darkened St. Peter’s behind Castel Sant’Angelo and the palazzos along the Tiber embankments. The room was half dark when I switched off the recorder. The wooden floors creaked in the sudden silence. The phone was jangling in the next room. Her next appointment, I knew.
         "You have enough materials for a book," said Signora Maraini and laughed. "One journalist did just that recently. He managed to get a whole book out of an interview like yours today."

Gaither Stewart
Rome, Italy
July 2001

Gaither Stewart, a native of Asheville, North Carolina, has lived most of his life in Europe. He served as Italian correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad and wrote for publications in various countries. Recently, he lived over a year in Mexico to research and work on a novel that takes place in Italy and Mexico. He recently returned home to Rome.