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, "Im
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. Peters. The entire horizon beyond the Tiber River was on
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 paintingsbut not too manywooden
floors and a few scattered carpets, and a small petroleum stove to supplement
the scarce heating on the higher floors in Romes 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. Europes 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. Womans 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?
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 womens rights, Veronica Frances
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; Im
a loser because Im a woman."
"That was revolutionary
thought," Signora Maraini said. "And if one woman wrote such
things, others were thinking it. Yet, womens emancipation here began
around 1900 with the books of Annamaria Mozzoni, the historian of the
womens movement. The most advanced movement for womens 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 womens
action after 1968, laws on divorce and abortion would never have come
Dacia Maraini, 62,
has been in the forefront for the broadening of womens 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
"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
cant 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 Orteselittle
known even in ItalyElsa 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.
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. Its a masculine
worldreactionary, traditionalist, misogynist. Therefore women writers
like Deledda disappear after death."
in Florence, Dacia Maraini lived the first eight years of her life
in Japanformative 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 fathers 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 dont 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
"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
LEtá del Malessere [The Age of Malaise] won
a major literary prize, the Prix Formentor. She was on her way to becoming
one of Italys 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.
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 writers social-political commitment. Isolina
is a young girl of a workers 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
notesand her book is the proofhow difficult it is to eliminate
completely any human life. Something always remains.
lover is of the military class and bears the major responsibility for
the tragedy, Marainis 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
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 mothers 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."
Rome sky was black when we ran out of words. I could barely distinguish
the outline of a darkened St. Peters behind Castel SantAngelo
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."