The author of PEN-supported novel Morning Sea (Oneworld Publications) discusses the links between introspection, revolution, writing and dreaming, and reflects on Italy’s complex relationship with emigration.
Interview with Tasja Dorkofikis, PEN Atlas editor.
Many of your books touch upon current conflicts, their aftermath and the tragedy they cause to individuals. How do you see the role of literature?
Literature is increasingly alone. We live in an excessively extrovert period, everyone wants to say something before they’ve even thought about what to say. Writing is damaged, words lose their meaning. We speak too loudly and too quickly, we scream on television, we write on our iPhones. To deprive words of their dimension and depth is to become dehumanised, because we are the words we utter. It’s words that make us human. For me as a writer, introspection is the only way to protect human beings. Our society needs to find its way back to introspection.
In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino said that literature must be ambitious, must set itself vast objectives. That’s what I think too. For me, literature is a revolutionary force, it requires courage and risk-taking, it must have the ability to thrust you out of your comfort zone, take you on a dangerous journey, a journey into the unknown, and then bring you back to the centre of yourself. The purpose of literature is to make us more human. Today more than ever.
In Twice Born you deal with the post-Yugoslav conflict and the siege of Sarajevo; in Morning Sea it is the current refugee crisis and Libya in the 1960s and 1970s. How do you choose your subjects? Is the fact that all these dramas happen on the doorstep of Europe significant?
I always find it hard to talk about how my work comes into being. Even now, I don’t know how it functions. For me, writing is like trusting in a creative engine that’s travelling towards an unknown destination. I never look for a meaning first. I never know why I’ve decided to write a particular book. If I did, I wouldn’t write it. I write to talk about what I don’t know, which only writing reveals to me. Every time it’s as if I was trying to stop a landslide. The first mental image is always the recurring one of a landslide, a hole. I go through an apprenticeship, a long inner preparation. A kind of spiritual retreat before battle commences. I withdraw from the world in order to try and restore something of the world. What I want before anything else is to free myself of my own ego. I never write in front of a mirror, I write leaning out of an open window. At this window, I see everything that goes on. The story of the siege of Sarajevo is emblematic, a terrible war that took place in the heart of Europe just a few years ago and seems to have already been forgotten. Very few people know the painful story of the Italians of Libya. I felt the need to go back to these roots of pain that unite the peoples of Europe. They are things that young people today know nothing about. In this sense, literature can have a political role.
Morning Sea is also an exploration of Italy’s colonial past and the ‘festering wounds and collective guilt’ carried by the whole nation. Why did you decide to look at this period in Italian history?
I’m not an essayist, I’m just a writer of novels. The novel is the Trojan horse in which I hide my warriors: the subjects that mean a lot to me, the things which make me indignant, which I can’t swallow, which weigh on my conscience.
I feel I’m being given the opportunity, in a very small way, to stitch up the wound, to ease the pain by simply not leaving it alone. To put people in contact with themselves, with the damaged, most bereft part of themselves. In this excessively extrovert era, we aren’t really in contact with the pain of the world, we are an expression of its sickness. A writer is like a detective who lingers at the scene of the crime when the floodlights have been turned off. He looks for traces of a past that may just possibly point to the future. Since the end of the Cold War, which froze the world into two opposing poles, the great rift of our time has come to the surface: on one side, the rich West, on the other, the South of the world. Through the human stories of my characters I’ve unearthed the hidden story of Italian colonialism, which was about poor people deported and flung out into the desert, but also about a cruel and ruthless policy.
You look at these events through the damaged lives of two women and their families: Angelina, Italian, born in Tripoli and expelled from Libya following Gaddafi’s coup, and Jamila, Bedouin, escaping the Libyan unrest with her son across the Mediterranean. Why did you decide to link these two women in your novel?
A writer is a person who lives in an unbalanced way, between her need to withdraw, her own inner tension, and the great conflicts convulsing the world. Like a seismologist, she captures the tremors of the time in which she lives. My starting point was those distressing images of boats and people fleeing wars and famine, which we see every day on our television sets. An abyss of pain which seems as if it will never end.
True charity, as we know, isn’t throwing the dog a bone. It’s becoming that hungry dog. We Italians know what that means, we’ve also been hungry dogs. We mustn’t forget it. There are stories of emigration that everyone knows about, like the Italians who went to America, but nobody remembers the ‘Tripolini’, the Italians who were born and brought up in Libya, and were expelled by Gaddafi after his coup in 1970. I felt the need to unearth this story, the story of these ‘interrupted lives’. Because that same sea which today is overrun by people fleeing Africa, just a few decades ago was crossed by Italians with the same desperation in their eyes. The history of man is the history of his hunger. Man moves through hunger. The hunger of the poor. The greedy hunger of the powerful.
Your book is also a serious reflection on the refugee crisis on the borders of Europe. And tragically, even though your book was published in Italy a few years ago, the terrible refugee crisis has deepened since then and people die every day trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. How do you think Europeans should address this problem?
Europe is wondering how to stop this migration, how to ‘sort out’ these people. It’s a ‘technical’ problem. Now everyone is afraid of this ‘black sea’. We should probably have thought about it before. Angelina in my book says: no nation that has colonised another nation is innocent.
For us Italians, it’s personal. These people reach our coasts, or die in our sea. Italy is surrounded by sea. The people of Lampedusa have been heroic over the past few years. They’ve had a huge burden to bear. But the world shouldn’t need isolated heroes, just greater sharing of the responsibility.
The Mediterranean is a door that must remain open. A bridge. I thought of that hanging bridge, of a silent dialogue between a woman of the desert fleeing war who boards a boat to get to Italy and an Italian woman born in Tripoli who looks at the sea and keeps searching for the meaning of her interrupted story, but also the moral responsibility of her country.
I thought of a boy collecting the flotsam from shipwrecks on the beach of Lampedusa. A wonderful place, where the sea turtles lay their eggs, a place where death arrives every day. The boy collects this flotsam and pins it to a big panel. It’s as if he’s trying to restore memory, to stop a shipwreck. He may become an artist, but he doesn’t know it yet.
The countries of Africa were colonised and exploited. We know what an enormous mistake the war in Iraq was, when the Arab spring came we all hoped things would change. But what emerged was the black flower of Isis. Those condemned to death wear the same orange jumpsuits as the prisoners in Guantanamo. Now we live in fear of beheadings on the internet, terrorist attacks, the Islamisation of the world. And many of us start to think it was better before… when there were local dictators who kept their populations subjugated. The vague idea of exporting democracy has failed in countries organised on tribal lines that are hard to fathom. The results are there for all to see, the civilian population is increasingly isolated, at the mercy of ragtag armies of madmen, which somehow attract the young. The phenomenon of infiltrators, of foreign fighters, is appalling. Now everyone is afraid – of these poor people arriving on ramshackle boats… of our dark-skinned neighbour who goes to the mosque. And we all know that whoever controls fear controls the world…
Through Angelina you look at the issue of immigration and the feelings of alienation that it often brings. You were born in Ireland, lived in various countries and then settled in Italy. Have you experienced these feelings yourself?
I felt a great deal of empathy with Angelina, a brusque, withdrawn woman with an interrupted life behind her. A woman who every Monday has a day’s silence like Gandhi and writes notes to communicate with the world. On one of these notes that she leaves to her son, she writes: break down the wall of feelings. That’s what I try to do every time I write, I try to break down that wall.
I come from an eccentric family that wandered all over. I’ve always felt rather out of place everywhere, I’ve had to find a place within myself. An artist is always an illegal immigrant, a person who makes himself and other people uncomfortable, who finds it hard to acclimatise himself to the surface of things. Far from everything, he still remains in contact with his ‘ancestors’, with a distant spirit.
Imagery and landscape play a huge part in Morning Sea. The sun is unsparing and the sea both uniting and dividing. Are landscapes as powerful in your other novels?
I write through images… for me, the activity that’s closest to writing is dreaming. In dreams, without the control of the ego, our inner images are able to emerge. Jung said we need to go back to the beauty in our hearts, and the heart doesn’t reason through ideas, but through images…
The sea is an inner landscape that recurs constantly in my dreams and in my books. The sea is a psychic, mysterious, evocative place. A living barrier, like a blank page. It’s calm but it hides storms. The sea is amniotic, it’s the blue blood of the earth.
This novel has been translated by Ann Gagliardi and your books have been translated into many languages. How do you work with her and with your other translators?
A writer is her writing, the words she chooses, the rhythm with which she puts them together. When a writer finds her language, she finds the book. Language is the inner voice, the psyche of a book. You have to find the ‘music’. To restore this music in another language is very hard. That’s why I think translators have a very tough profession; they don’t just translate, they rewrite. They have to allow themselves to be ‘inhabited’, to reach an empathy with the subconscious level of the subject matter. I’ve been lucky, Anne Gagliardi did a really extraordinary job. Morning Sea is a very lyrical book, and translating poetry is particularly tricky.
Who are your literary influences?
Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Morante, Duras, Woolf, Böll… and today, Auster, Kureishi, Grossman, Oates… I could go on. Mishima says: life is short, but I want to live forever. That’s the possibility that true writers give themselves and their readers.
Are there any young Italian writers whom you would like to recommend to readers and publishers abroad?
I’ve heard that in America only six per cent of books are by foreign authors, and that includes Dante! And yet we have many well-known writers. Two names stand out: Roberto Saviano, a social and political writer, and Elena Ferrante, who’s more private and mysterious.