In February 2017, a Belknap Global Conversation featured a reading by award-winning writer and activist Dacia Maraini in Italian followed by a conversation with faculty members Alessandro Giammei and Jhumpa Lahiri.
After the talk, French and Italian concentrator Kennedy Poore ’18 spoke to Maraini about her work and the place of women in the literary world.
Kennedy Poore: What were you like as a young writer? How would you describe the first things you wrote?
Dacia Maraini: I come from a family of writers so it came naturally for me to start very early, but my first love was for books. If you don’t read, you can’t write. I remember that even at school I never listened to the teacher because I was always reading. Once I got sunstroke because I was reading under the sun and got burned all over my shoulders. The first things I wrote were some short stories that I published in my school newspaper. I was in school in Palermo and I was thirteen years old. I started with short stories and some poems and then at seventeen I wrote a novel.
KP: And what was the novel about?
DM: It’s called La Vacanza (The Vacation). It’s about the coming of age of a young girl in a boarding school. Her father takes her on vacation when school ends and she has some bad experiences with the people around her, her family. That’s all, the growing up of a young girl.
KP: You mentioned in your talk yesterday that your characters come to take on a life of their own and control their stories. When you have an idea for a character, how does it develop?
DM: The character knocks at the door, meaning, the character comes to ask me to write his or her story. Usually, I have an idea of the character but I don’t have the complete idea about the story. It comes from the character, from the relationship of the character with the others. While I’m writing, I understand what can happen. It’s not something mathematical. I’ve made many scripts for movies and there you have to know every detail before starting. You need to prepare the technical side of the work. You have to take the actors, the costumes into account. The theatre is like that too. But a novel is open. It goes where it wants go to.
KP: What purpose do you believe language and writing have served in your life?
DM: I think that if you take care of writing, you take care of thought. Everybody thinks, because it’s a normal activity of the mind, but when you decide to engrave what you’re thinking, you have to have a certain competency in grammar, language. It’s like constructing a house. You have to stop your mind. You have to learn to think systematically, which is something that belongs to philosophy, history. Thoughts usually behave like a river, they are alive, but if you stop them you organize the mind.
KP: You are a very active feminist. How are art and justice intertwined for you? Can one exist without the other?
DM: In the beginning, I didn’t even know what feminism was, but I was a child with a very strong sense of justice. Even when I was six years old, I was indignant. Even stupid things, small things made me react strongly. I think it’s a feeling that everybody has, some people more and some less. But it’s very human. Even animals have a sense of justice. With time I realized that there were others who were thinking the same way, or who had the same problems, and I understood that it was a collective problem—people wanted to try and change the world and create a proposition for the future. I encountered feminists and I became militant—but not fanatically, because I don’t like fanaticism of any kind. I think that you have to relate with others and try to convince, not force. Use the mind, use logic, and speak with others, even if they have completely different ideas. Writing means understanding the other point of view. Even among feminists I was criticized because I was too keen to speak with others.
KP: Not feminist enough.
DM: Yes, not feminist enough.
KP: How have your feminist views influenced your writing?
DM: There’s no difference between what you think, what you believe, and what you write. Even if you invent stories, there’s a part of yourself. The books are not an autobiography. It’s true that you put yourself in your ideas, but writing means looking at others and making portraits.
KP: You’ve mentioned before how women lack a voice in literature. What is a problem you see with women’s relationship to writing?
DM: Women have always written. I found that, in the beginning, if you were speaking with a literary critic they would say, “No, there are no women writers.” Well, then I did research and discovered that there are a lot of women who have written. Sometimes they were forgotten and sometimes they were censured, like the mystics, for example. Today the market is full of women writers because the majority of readers are women. But in literary institutions, universities, anthologies, studies, the women disappear.
KP: You believe the difference between men and women isn’t biological, but socially constructed. Right?
DM: If you think there’s a biological difference then you think that there is a race of men and a race of women. Which doesn’t exist; we are all human beings, no? It is true that we have had historically different experiences. Women were closed up at home and were looking at reality through the window while men were going to battles and exploring the world. So if you think it’s the result of history, then you can change what society thinks about women. Women were considered children, irresponsible, incapable of having ideas for the future or constructive minds. Things have changed completely now, we can go everywhere. Margaret Mead, as you know a very famous American anthropologist, wrote a very interesting work called Male and Female. She realized that in certain parts of the world there are women whose roles have completely changed. The role that is usually female is male, and the male role is female. With animals it’s the same; there are certain kinds of animals where the role of maternity is male. This means that it is not a biological question, it is a cultural question.
KP: Building on that, how does the concept of the body make its way into your writing?
DM: The question of the body is very, very complicated. To realize at what point it is nature and at what point it is culture is difficult. It seems like nature but it’s not. It’s an internalization of a certain kind of living. The body became part of a language. For men in the androcentric world, the female body is a language, and beauty becomes an exchange of value.
KP: You were surrounded by other important and talented writers, directors and artists throughout your life. What does it mean to you to be part of a literary community?
DM: Now, unfortunately, there is fragmentation, and people are by themselves. But in the 60s and 70s there was a community. I’m speaking about Italy, but it was more or less the same everywhere. Solidarity and friendship were very important. The difference now is that I see my colleagues and fellow writers with a purpose. We have a meeting or there’s a festival. In a community one meets because of the pleasure of meeting, not because there’s an occasion or work. It was a pleasure to eat together, go to the movies together, go on vacation together, just walk or drink a coffee together. You see, it was to exchange ideas. It created a sort of solidarity. And I think this is something we’ve lost.
Maraini is the author of 16 novels and 20 plays, as well as various screenplays, poems, and cultural criticisms. A columnist for the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Serra, Maraini was the recipient of the 1999 Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary award. Maraini also helped found and write for the del Porcospino theatrical company, whose mission is to produce new Italian plays, and founded the Teatro della Maddalena, a theatrical company run entirely by women.
The next Belknap Conversation will take place on October 10, featuring German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck. She will be in conversation with Deborah Amos, journalist and Humanities Council’s Ferris Professor of Journalism.