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On Women, Love, Writing, and her “Corpo felice”: An Interview with Dacia Maraini

The book, in which she retraces the history of women and maternity, originates from the painful memory of a child she lost when she was 7 months pregnant

by Giulia Po DeLisle and Fabiana Viglione

Dacia Maraini with Giulia Po DeLisle and Fabiana Viglione.

"This is not a novel, but an autobiographical book that originates from the very painful memory of a child that I lost when I was seven months pregnant. But this work is also an opportunity to talk about maternity, as I imagine a relationship with a son that grows and matures through the years. I have seen many of my friends’ children grow older and rebel against their parents--some got lost in this process, but others returned and recovered. So this book is a journey inside the mother and son relationship. It starts from a personal circumstance but then tries to expand the question by pondering on discourses that touch upon history, mythology and education."

In March 2019, Italian writer Dacia Maraini came back to New England to meet with students of the American universities. We met Maraini in Lowell, MA to talk about her latest book Corpo felice. Published by Rizzoli in 2018, the book originates from the painful memory of a child she lost when she was seven months pregnant and, through a conversation with the unborn child, she retraces the history of women and maternity. As the title suggests, the text centers on the body, and the author brings the reader on a journey that intertwines memories of her past with her immense literary and philosophical background. In Corpo felice, Dacia Maraini also sheds light on the condition of women and misogyny in today’s society.

Q: Where did the idea for your latest book, Corpo felice, come from?

A: The idea comes from a real life experience. This is not a novel, but an autobiographical book that originates from the very painful memory of a child that I lost when I was seven months pregnant. But this work is also an opportunity to talk about maternity, as I imagine a relationship with a son that grows and matures through the years. I have seen many of my friends’ children grow older and rebel against their parents–some got lost in this process, but others returned and recovered. So this book is a journey inside the mother and son relationship. It starts from a personal circumstance but then tries to expand the question by pondering on discourses that touch upon history, mythology and education.

Q: The loss of your son during pregnancy was something that emerged from other texts that you wrote such as Un clandestino a bordo. In those reflections addressed to Enzo Siciliano, however, your loss remained marginal and the text offers several considerations on the body, the womb, and abortion. You also touched upon your loss in some of your poems and Il treno per Helsinki that fictionalizes the experience of a pregnancy interrupted by a miscarriage. It’s been many years since you published those texts, so what prompted you to write about it in such a deeper and more autobiographical way now?

A: Honestly, I have no idea. There is always something that harbors in our imagination and, at one point, comes out, and you know that you have to deal with it and write about it. I didn’t have any publishing ambitions or historical aims; it was a need that all of a sudden found its realization. I believe that many things happen because of a series of unpredictable events that we can’t quite control. A writer is governed by her ghosts, ideas, fears, and memories. I don’t know why I wrote this book, but it was inside me and needed to be written. It is true, indeed, that I talked about this miscarriage in other books, but never in such a narrated and complex way; so it was certainly within me, it was one of those things that I had to tell, there must have been an inner urgency that finally found its way out.

Q: In the light of the painful matter that the text deals with, and for an author like you who often states that writing is like falling in love, how difficult was it to write this book?

A: This work rises from an immeasurable pain, a very dramatic experience. I believe that a writer can’t always talk about others, but has to also talk about herself by opening up and exposing herself. This was a moment of my life that I felt had to be told, but it was not planned. I had written three works prior to Corpo felice – the novel on Chiara d’Assisi, the collection of short stories L’amore rubato, and then Tre donne – they had nothing to do with autobiography, but then I felt the urge to deal with a different issue. Sometimes a writer has to put herself out there.

Q: In Corpo felice, the autobiographical parts blend with non-fictional elements–two very different styles mingle with each other and coexist in a narration that is able to make both your personal pain and your infinite intellectual knowledge surface throughout the pages.

A: Yes, this is what the French call “récit.” It is not a novel, but a sort of historical, philosophical, and existential reflection that starts from a reality–otherwise it would be all abstract, and I would be a philosopher. What matters to me is reality, a reality connected to observation and historical memory.

Q: Is it correct to say that the autobiographical narrative emotionally engages the readers who are then guided to an intellectual journey on feminism, women, and women’s bodies? Or are the non-fiction sections of the book those that help the writer to emotionally detach from the personal pain?

A: I have a tendency to rationalize: I care about the poetics and the memories, but also about historical reflection and therefore rationalization, so the two aspects went along together. In my opinion, events don’t come by themselves but drag along a series of observations; it is important to try to understand what stands beyond the events. In Corpo felice the emotional part is offered by the maternal catastrophe of a mother who loses her son and continues to hear the voice of her son that returns to her. But I asked myself other questions: what is the meaning of maternity? Why do we live it the way we do? What was it like in the early stages of civilization? Has maternity affected our perceptions of the human body? Hasn’t maternity been displaced from women’s bodies and become a question of property and possession? I found myself reading numerous books that deal with maternity, and this text became an occasion to offer a new reflection on this topic.

Q: Because of your dialogue with the child, the language of your work is able to simplify and summarize complicated concepts and also make them clear to a vast public that does not necessarily have familiarity with the issues that are presented in the text. Was this intentional?

A: Yes, this is definitely true. I chose the dialogue because this does not seek to be a historical reflection between me and the whole world, but a conversation with a child, so I tried to use a simple and comprehensible style. The child also becomes an adult, and I talk to him as an adult, but I am also talking to someone who has never studied the history of women and feminism, so I explained everything as if he didn’t know anything.

Q: So who was your intended audience? Did you have a specific reader in mind?

A: I am not sure, but it is better not to know. Publishers are in charge of studying and attracting readers. When I write, I imagine one reader, only one ideal reader who is willing to understand, who is open to listening.

Q: At the end of the book, you provide your readers with a long bibliography. Is it intended as a tool to encourage them to continue to explore this field of research?

A: Yes, it is an invitation to the readers, in case they are interested in deepening their knowledge and understanding the texts that I quote.

Q: When did you start your research?

A: Many books that I quote in Corpo felice like those by Simone De Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and Adrienne Rich, I had read in the 1970s, but then I read them again. I believe that their theories are very current and meaningful. Emancipation is not something that has been resolved once and for all, there have been legal improvements, but our daily life shows that we are still a far cry from a complete emancipation.

Q: Is it the historical moment that Italy is living that has created this urgency to invite the readers to reflect on women’s history?

A: It was not calculated, but let’s say it coincides because we are living through a regression at this time, and women–especially the young generations that are very proud of their rights– have to understand that the rights you acquire can be easily lost. I tour a lot of schools and I see high-school girls that are more radical than me, but I always try to let them know that rights need to be defended. They are confident that their rights are established, but they are wrong, they do not know History. History teaches us that there is no straight line toward emancipation: we take a step forward and a step back. It happened that rights that took centuries for women to secure have been lost. This danger is always lurking. In some parts of the world, we have taken a big step backward. When I went to Afghanistan with Pasolini, for example, at the end of the 1960s, women were like us, nobody was wearing the burka, women were poor, in a poor society, but they were working, they were walking in the streets, they were selling goods in the market, I never saw a burka. We think that women there have always worn one, but this is not the case. The religious totalitarianism changed everything: women have become like ghosts. One of the first things they did was to put women in their place to control their bodies, their wombs, and their morality. It is important to know that rights may come and go, and unfortunately, we tend to forget that this may happen. This book does not have a didactic intention, but it shows the desire to say and make people understand that we have to be careful when it comes to our rights because we might lose them. The Italian government is currently cutting our preschools, schools, maternity leaves, and all the things that directly attack the rights that women acquired after many centuries. Men can lose their rights as well. For example, the right of speech: in this moment, in Italy and in Europe, newspapers are under attack and journalists risk their lives–they are assaulted and insulted. This is a sign of the lack of freedom of speech, which is one of the most important liberties of a society.

Q: These ideas and historical awareness are not always taught to the young female generations within the school system.

A: The market is open, there are many women writers, and yet when it comes to the literary institutions–that is to say the places where the values and the models for the next generations are established–women disappear completely. Think about the beautiful overview on 20th century literature where maybe only onewoman writer is mentioned.

Q: Maybe, as you state in your book, we need to go back and start again from Greek mythology …

A: It’s true, we should ask ourselves when this process of denigration against women started and when this re-appropriation of female power happened. One of these powers is maternity, which was considered extremely important and was then completely overturned. I consider mythology as a cultural and historical root that belongs to us and is now part of our mental geography. I have always been interested in mythology and believe that symbolically it is extremely visionary. The Greeks had the great capacity to metaphorically envision a variety of human cases. I did a lot of reading and research on Greek mythology: the Greek world was very misogynistic, but also created many important female characters such as Antigone, for example.

Q: In this process of acquisition and loss of rights, what role did women have? In your latest book, the narrator talks to herself, she self-analyzes and wonders where and what she did wrong when Perdu enters the group.

A: Yes, this is true, she self-analyzes and feels guilty, as women often blame themselves. But hers is a fight against society, and society is often stronger. It’s not that she did something wrong, but she couldn’t make it, as many other women find when they are alone. If women come together, though, they can win. Why was feminism successful? Because there was truly a network of women that in many different parts of the world was fighting and protesting in the streets to say no and change the laws. Laws did change in Italy–just think of the honor crime and the family law, for example–but we need to be united, we need community. 

Q: Perdu’s violent words seem to recall Simona Vinci’s novel Dei bambini non si sa niente. Vinci addresses the issue of sexuality in the life of teenagers, and its degeneration when adults interfere with their perversions. Perdu is still very young, but he does vocalize his desire to be violent against a young woman. In the end, however, he changes and doesn’t become like Vinci’s characters.

A: That is a very powerful book that deals with feelings of extreme violence, abuse, and misogyny. Vinci is right when she says that very often we do not realize what happens in the life of a teenager. In my book, Perdu experiences a moment of rebellion, but later he is able to understand why he was wrong. Many asked me why I didn’t write about a girl, but this is the story of my life, with a baby boy. Had it been a girl, maybe, the story in the book would have been different. Some of my feminist friends have had kids that experienced the use of drugs or entered a sort of obscure zone of desperation; some of them have been able to recover, but only after they fell in love or had children. I believe that there is a very delicate moment in life when a child needs to leave the nest and learn how to fly like a little bird. Some of them go through a phase of rebellion, like Perdu, who sees his mother as an old and judgmental feminist pest; he is so absorbed with his group and wants to be part of it so badly that he ends up embracing ideas that are the exact opposite of what his mother taught him. But then he falls in love and recovers. Love is the only feeling that opens every door, that enables you to be interested in the other, that makes you understand the other; without love artificial divisions are easily created, and they mean nothing: us vs. them, women vs. men, good vs. evil. Human beings are very complex and we cannot ignore this complexity. Only love gives us the chance to discover all this; not only sentimental love, I am also talking about love for nature, love for the future and the generation you belong to, love for projects planned together. Love is a force that makes you understand that other people exist, that relationships exist, not only relationships made of hate, rejection, or conflict, but also relationships based on affection and solidarity. In my book, Perdu is able to recover, thanks to love. He ends up being part of a terrible group of thugs, whose ideas refer back to old models of thievery and wild hatred. Perdu accepts these ideas because he wants to be part of the group and wants to participate. Everyone needs to feel part of a group or a community, but there are many dangers in the world outside the family. I am not saying that it is the mother’s fault if her kids lose their way, but just that the world outside has many horrible traps. Gangs have their own internal psychology, which is wild and cruel, and if you end up in that type of group, it is very hard to get out. There is a part of society that pushes young people towards violence and perdition, towards hatred.

Q: In many of your books, your women characters often seem to choose the wrong man. What is the reason for this choice?

A: Unfortunately, that’s reality: there is love, of course we fall in love, but then culture emerges. In Italy, the idea that men can claim the right of owning women still exists; many men based their life on the axiom “I love you, then you’re mine.” The culture of possession and control is very widespread, even for educated men, who are still unable to tolerate the fact that their wife may be an independent woman. But it’s a cultural issue. I do not believe that men and women are different, there are no biological differences, we are all the same, but we have had a different history and over the centuries, women have unconsciously internalized a strong sense of guilt. Men forced women to learn some good skills, like taking care of the kids and the elderly, but in my opinion, the one good thing we learned is the art of sublimation. It has been forced upon us, but it is still a good thing. Women have learned to sublimate and, as a consequence, there are fewer women criminals. I did a lot of research and discovered that for every 100 incarcerated women, there are 3000 men in prison. This does not mean that men were all born criminals, but that men are taught, over time, to become soldiers, to take, conquer, be competitive; they are taught that they have rights over women, so men feel legitimized, and they have never learned how to sublimate. To sublimate means to learn how to repress your animal instincts. However, in our society, this superstructure has been so deeply introjected by both men and women that when you try to question it, the foundations of human relationships and reciprocal respect start cracking. When a woman is abandoned by a man, she cries, she insults him, but she never even thinks of killing the man; on the other hand, men’s minds work differently and when they are rejected, femicide might happen. There are almost 200 cases of femicide a year in Italy; the number of murders is decreasing, but the number of murders within the family is increasing, and it’s always the man that kills the woman, not vice versa. It’s not that men are bad in their nature, but they are framed within a logic of possession and arbitrariness, and for this reason they feel entitled to exercise their control. It’s an archaic instinct: it is a sense of control that is identified with virility.

Q: Talking about this plague of violence against women, especially within the family, do you think that books can help our society to overcome this problem? And if yes, to what extent?

A: I don’t think books have the power to change laws or to send somebody to prison; however, they help to increase awareness. The more the people know, the more they are careful, because awareness also means being able to control your own instincts, and having this kind of control makes you a rational human being, respectful of the other. So a writer’s job is to increase awareness, nothing more. 

Q: In your books, little girls are often victims of violence and abuse: from your first book La vacanza to the most recent ones like Tre donne, where the protagonist gets pregnant by her mother’s partner, or Corpo felice, where Perdu vocalizes a desire to inflict violence against a young woman and reiterates a patriarchal discourse of power over the female body. Could you talk about this choice?

A: Obviously, those who feel strong and powerful always pick on the weak ones. It’s a law of nature. However, our pretense of being better people, superior, or even children of a perfect god should make us say, “No, we must protect the weak.” Because the laws and democracy are supposed to protect the weak. Among the weakest, children–especially girls– and the elderly are the ones at risk. For this reason, I say, when there is an absolute uncontrolled power, anybody — man or woman – tries to abuse it and to preserve it; it’s an absolute psychological rule. It is extremely important, then, to create a counter-power that is able to control the power itself, because inevitably the power tends to preserve itself and eventually promulgate illiberal laws.

Q: Corpo felice reminds us of Oriana Fallaci’s book Lettera a un bambino mai nato. Did Fallaci’s book influence your writing? Is there a connection between the two texts?

A: Not really, because Fallaci has a different approach in her book. Fallaci’s child never grows up, there’s never a growth, or a confrontation with the mother. There have been many books about this topic, it seems to be very common among women writers. Sure, I read Fallaci’s book, but it didn’t inspire me; I had no external influences and the book evolved in isolation. Fallaci wrote Lettera a un bambino mai nato as a text against abortion, but my book has nothing to do with it, it’s something else. What surprised me very much was Erri De Luca’s latest book that deals with the same topic, but from a man’s perspective. How incredible! It’s the story of a man who is in a relationship with a woman who decides to have an abortion, and he is devastated. The whole book is the story of the unborn daughter with whom he continues to have a dialogue. Our books were both published at the same time, but neither of us knew of the other’s work. It’s a book that really impressed me, because it is basically the same story but from a man’s viewpoint. For him losing a child is also a terrible thing and he decides to keep having a dialogue with her. This probably means, then, that some issues strike you at a certain moment in your life. Maybe at this moment the topic mother-son/father-daughter is spreading because the phenomenon of violence against children is increasing, and we feel the urgency to reflect upon it.

Q: Maternity is a recurrent theme in your books. In Donna in guerra, the protagonist Vannina rejects maternity and wants to have an abortion. In the books published during the eighties like Il treno per Helsinki and Isolina, the protagonists’ pregnancies are accidentally interrupted by an act of violence. In La nave per Kobe and in Tre donne, your second to last book, there seems to be a reclamation of power and a recovery of the desire of maternity: in the former book this happens through a dialogue with the mother, and in the latter through the character of the daughter who, even if she is very young, only briefly contemplates the option of having an abortion. Then, in Corpo felice, you write of a natural miscarriage of a woman who strongly desires to become a mother. So, Vannina’s decision to have an abortion seems to be unique, it stands alone and seems to reflect the feminist idea of refusing maternity, common during the 1970s, while your other protagonists (except for Isolina) want to rediscover a desire for maternity. Could you please explain in more detail this path of the maternal desire?

A: In a woman-friendly society, abortion wouldn’t even exist; I don’t think abortion is a big achievement. Sure, when there was no alternative because any kind of contraceptive was prohibited, and abortion was the only possible solution, the fight for the right to abortion was extremely important. As a matter of fact, as soon as the law was approved, the number of abortions decreased. However, abortion is not such a great liberation, because in the end, it’s an act of violence against a woman’s body, and against a project of birth. For sure, it’s been extremely important to legalize abortion, so that it is no longer illegal, but it is still an act of violence against women’s bodies, and for this reason I do not consider it a big emancipation for women. The only alternative is responsible motherhood, i.e. giving women all the possible options to not get pregnant if they don’t want to. Up to fifty years ago, the Catholic Church used to prohibit the use of contraceptives, and especially contraceptives for women, which were considered a taboo and could not be found anywhere. I don’t think a woman has to reach the point where she has to have an abortion. It doesn’t seem such a liberating achievement; who likes to have an abortion? Nobody! Instead, it is important to educate women, and give them all the necessary tools – cultural, physical, medical – to avoid pregnancy. Unfortunately, all this situation is a consequence of the fact that nobody ever cared about women. In my novel Tre donne, the niece is a very irresponsible person, she doesn’t realize how much pain she causes her mother, and she doesn’t think of the consequences of what she does. For her, as for many young people, sex is just something you do, and then you can just forget about it. But when she realizes she is pregnant, the birth of the child becomes a drama, and, in fact, she thinks of having an abortion, but the grandmother helps her to keep the baby. To me, motherhood is a wonderful thing, but you need to be responsible, and make babies when you want, when you can keep them and raise them. It’s not a moral question, but a question of responsibility and sensibility. Responsibility is everything in life, we need to think of what we do.

Q: Corpo felice begins with a reference to an episode in your childhood, a moment of injustice that your parents carry out against you when they do not believe your words. Afterwards, the book takes another direction by addressing topics of women and feminism. Could you explain your choice to mention that initial episode?

A: I’ve always had a profound indignation for injustice, and I asked myself “where does it come from?” and one of my first memories is exactly that episode of injustice within my family, when I ran away and didn’t wanted to return home. Apparently, my indignation was very strong. I believe it affected me profoundly, because this indignation against injustice is what drives me many times to express my thoughts, to write, and to engage in my debates.

Q: As the title suggests, the female body and a search for women’s freedom and independence are at the center of the narration; what is a “corpo felice” exactly?

A: Unfortunately, in my opinion, a happy body – “un corpo felice” – does not exist, because a happy body is capable of giving, but also of taking, of desiring, of asking. However, female eros exists only in nature, it doesn’t exist as image, narrative, code. Female eros remains untold. Iconography, from painting to advertisement, is based on male eros. Women are the object of desire, but they never desire. This is again the product of a male-dominated, patriarchal society.

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