Unsafe Harbors: A Conversation with Nadia Terranova




ON JULY 2 of this year, I interviewed the author Nadia Terranova at her mother’s house in Santa Marinella, Italy, on a Zoom call from my apartment in Santa Monica, California. Back in 2015, I’d written a review of her first novel ​Gli anni al contrario (​The Years in Reverse​) and we’d met for brunch in Rome and chatted about books, politics, and life in general. In the intervening years, we’ve hung out a few times, and it’s a standing joke between us that the date we first met also happens to be the birthday of the Italian Communist Party.

In Nadia’snew novel, Farewell, Ghosts​, shortlisted for the 2019 Strega Prize and published this year by Seven Stories Press in a majestic translation by Ann Goldstein, the protagonist, Ida, returns to her birthplace to confront her past. The world evoked in this story recalls something that I wrote about Nadia’s first novel:

Reality is multifaceted, the line that separates right from wrong is far too thin, good and evil are sometimes on the same side, sometimes good people are not very good at all, and even when they are, they hurt each other, and besides, as Italo Calvino would say, sometimes good people, the sort of people who are methodically good and full of good intentions, are extremely annoying.

I still think that’s a valid assessment.

This interview is excerpted from our 80-minute Zoom conversation. I have edited and translated it into English for publication here. Thank you to Erik Noonan for his careful feedback during the revision process.

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LUCIA SENESI: I was just rereading my review of your novel ​Gli anni al contrario​ (The Years in Reverse​).

NADIA TERRANOVA: I remember it very well. You talked about the musicality of my words. I liked it a lot.

What American writers do you like? Who are you reading?

To be honest, in the last 10 years I’ve read more Italians and Europeans. I would love it if Tillie Olsen were reprinted in Giovanna Scocchera’s Italian translation. And I have to say, I really enjoy Jonathan Safran Foer. I mostly read classics. I can’t leave out Fitzgerald.

At my house in the United States, we have a birthday party for him every year on September 24. Scott’s Birthday. My friends now expect it every year … You’re very active on social media. How do you do it all?

I don’t write anything on social media, I just post links to the things I do. Also, I refuse to work for billionaires for free, so I only share the articles I write, or the work of others that seems interesting. I use it as a sharing tool, not a composition tool.

With your new novel, Farewell, Ghosts​, I’m curious about how you worked out the beginning and the end, because I believe both contain all the themes of the book: the house, the bodies, the nightmares. Above all, the presence and absence of bodies.

It’s a novel about the body. So much so that, for a long time, the working title was ​The Body of the Father, because everything revolves around the absence of this body. So, for me to define Ida through the absence of the body of the man who engendered her meant clearly perceiving the contours of her body, and asking if she coincided with her body, or if it was just an external instrument. In the beach scene, the first time she has sex, the body-soul dichotomy is staged but not resolved. In fact, Ida says, “If it happens to the body it hasn’t really happened.” It’s a polysemantic phrase, because it alludes to her experience, her growth, and also to the key question of her life: what value should she assign to the father’s body? Assigning a value to the father’s body also means assigning value to her own.

For me, this is an ambiguous book, a book of vast darkness and transference. And since I chose to tell the story from a precise point of view, characterized by a feverish, persistent, morbid narrative voice, I couldn’t let this voice disappear at night. In this novel, the narrative continues during dreams, which is what happens in life. Dreams are part of us, they’re not abstract.

About Ida’s father, you write: “Soon after my father left, when the outline of his body was still fresh in the bed.” 

I thought a lot about Kafka’s ​“Metamorphosis” when I was writing these lines. I was thinking of this character who leaves a man’s footprints and an insect’s trail. I imagined the sheets as a sort of overlap of traces of the Kafkaesque metamorphosis. The imprint on the sheets was all that could remain of a body that hadn’t died so much as evaporated.

Then there’s the body of Ida as a child, and the body of Ida as an adult. She has been married for 10 years. Her husband’s body is also present, hence their bodies together. You deal with sex, with no longer having sex, with the choice of not having children, which then becomes a bone of contention between Ida and her mother.

The choice not to have children is a choice that affects Ida’s life only up to a certain point, in the sense that, for her, it’s a strategy for happiness. And this is very complicated to explain in a country where a woman, in order to fulfill herself, must be a mother, because in reality Ida doesn’t face a conflict over her own fulfillment, she faces a conflict over her chance of being happy. Choosing not to have children protects her from an intolerable fear of abandonment. My two grandmothers are the women I grew up with, apart from my mother, and they each lost a child. So, I saw this intolerable pain, and I sensed that there could be no room for the possibility of another abandonment in the life of a girl who had already been abandoned.

Of course, there are different ways of reacting to abandonment. There are those who surround themselves with people, and then there are those who choose very carefully whom to bond with instead, because they know that this person can leave at any moment. Ida chooses not to have children because she can’t tolerate abandonment, while her decision to be together with her husband Pietro is a commitment to something that, in her opinion, is more lasting than desire. Desire is evanescent, it’s something we can’t control. We say, “I don’t want to desire,” or “I want to desire,” and it makes no difference. It’s there and then it’s not. Ida’s body is the measure of everything. When Ida talks about her love for her husband, the fact that there’s a distance between them, a space that isn’t filled with desire anymore, is a theme, but it’s not enough to wipe out the love. So, she measures space with her body, time with her body, and then makes her choices. Really, she uses her body as a unit of measurement.

At one point, when they’re far away from each other, this lack of desire turns into desire again and there’s a phone sex scene.

Yes, because distance naturally facilitates desire. The voracity of desire comes from a thirst for knowledge, so that in order to know, I have to consume, devour, appropriate, make mine something that I don’t know. There’s no distance between two people who share intimacy. Therefore, intimacy can be the most ferocious enemy of desire. If there’s no one for me to take a step toward, no one’s attention for me to capture, desire withdraws. But it doesn’t go hand in hand with love: I can continue to love without wanting to devour the other person with my kisses. That’s why Ida finds a new desire for Pietro, when there are no longer six centimeters of distance between them in bed, but 16 miles between the cities they live in.

You write about a generation of adults who had a very particular relationship with their parents when they were children, a relationship based on silence, which is why I think that opening the book with an epigraph from Natalia Ginzburg is a great choice. And yet today, a new generation of parents seeks to build a relationship with their children that’s based on equality. Do you think the new generation of children can understand a story like this one?

I’m frightened by the excessive protectiveness toward children, which actually hides a huge fear and a huge insecurity on the part of the adults. In this regard, I read the most fascinating reflections in the latest book by Bret Easton Ellis, ​White,​ which touches upon the endless freedom and solitude of childhood and adolescence, and the discovery of the world on your own terms even at the cost of harming yourself. And this seems to have gradually gotten lost as the philosophy of education grows more urgent. Of course, I agree that children should be protected. But I’m puzzled by the fact that a lot of kids’ autonomy is being revoked, at least in Italy. The idea of ​​having to help children with their homework! I’ve never been helped by anyone, despite the fact that I had a grandmother who was a teacher and two teacher parents. I think those children don’t learn to accept failure. Having said that, I believe that, even today, in a time when parents are hyper-vigilant, children still live in a narcotic state of great freedom and solitude, and that this is the fertile swamp from which imagination arises in adulthood.

I’m thinking about an interview with Julian Barnes of a few years ago, in which he declared that a lot of students don’t even want to read ​Madame Bovary these days, because Emma is a bad mother and there are “negative” characters.

This revisionism that’s directed toward the characters and developments of the literary past frightens me because it presumes a total identification between what we read and how we live. I don’t want to read the stories of people whose ethics I share or people for whom I would vote. I want to keep questions of good citizenship distinct from questions of literary taste. If we’re well-behaved everywhere, even in literature, then where is it possible for us to confront our fears, our instincts? The dimension of myth is born for just this purpose. Terrible things happen in Greek mythology: parents devour their children, children kill their parents or sleep with their fathers or their mothers, people go blind. This goes to show that we can explore all of our drives in the field of literature. If we can’t go there, because we have to be well-behaved and correct even in our imagination, then the possibility of creating real serial killers is actually much higher.

I completely agree. In the United States today, a lot of people have this tendency to want to teach others at all costs how to be good political activists, even those who have been engaged in social and political issues for years. So, there’s a pressure to only commit to a certain kind of activism, whereas for those of us with European backgrounds, it’s the opposite: that is, it’s disobedience, and not conformity to a pattern, that makes politics.

Yes, absolutely. But we reside in the simplistic empire of everyday life, so people are looking for characters to identify with, to know what’s right. Not to empathize with, not to get at the heart of what they don’t want to admit to themselves. In reality, people don’t look for books that embroil them in a dispute, they look for books that stroke them and validate them, and it’s just so wrong.

Another book that I thought of while reading ​Farewell, Ghosts is ​Menzogna e Sortilegio (House of Liars)​ by Elsa Morante. You write, “Everything is true in my fantasies, everything is absolutely present,” and then later on, toward the end,  

That was why I took refuge in my fake true stories: over them I exercised absolute sovereignty. I was the ruler of what I wrote; I constructed characters and moved them around, I recorded their complaints, their priorities, their satisfactions, like a god or a despot. Writing, I had the illusion of being self-sufficient.

True, there is something of that ​sortilegio​ here, so much so that my editor used this word on the back cover of the book. Elsa Morante is a beacon for all women who write in Italy. Morante’s characters always have something animalistic about them; they say what they feel. They think and speak in a way that doesn’t allow them to be tamed. This is their strength. The problem today is that even books are photographed, cut up, and posted on social media as if they were picket signs at a political rally. But they’re not, they really aren’t.

How much freedom did your publishers give you in terms of style?

Complete. I felt neither forced nor directed. I wrote the book I wanted. I discussed some parts with my editor, but the last word was always mine, my style and my language. My first novel, ​Gli anni al contrario​ (​The Years in Reverse)​, is inspired by the story of my family.

But with such style! Because in that book, as Annie Ernaux does with her books, you risk being labeled a mere diarist, whereas your contribution to narrative art is enormous.

Yes, sure. I’ve never attempted to reproduce my family dynamics. I looked at them and chose what was literary and political for me. Although we have different styles, it’s very similar to what Elena Ferrante did. We don’t know how far Elena Greco’s life resembles Elena Ferrante’s, but we certainly know that her work contains knowledge of certain mechanisms, certain dynamics, certain places that she drew upon, to tell a story that’s probably invented in its action. And I did that, too.

At the beginning of the book, you write, “Things never work when they’re transported from one era to another.” But your character is also a different girl every time she reappears. Proust comes to mind. How many Albertines are there?

Yes, I agree. When I write about Ida, I always try to keep in mind how many Idas there are, and how many different ways there are to be Ida. She’s a character that changes over time, but it’s always her. I imagine her as a ​matryoshka.​ There’s another doll, the same but smaller, and then another, also the same and also smaller. To do this, I often thought about my legs. My legs are the part of my body that I’ve observed the most. I had chubby legs as a child, then I had very thin, long legs when I was an older girl and a teenager, and I felt this agility. And then later, I felt them weigh me down again. For me, this sensation of dwelling inside my legs, if you will, which I also give to Ida, is a measure of the passage of time.

Of the house in this novel, you write: “Every atom of me was made of the air of the house in Messina, and for that reason I would have to leave it.”

It’s true, that’s the way it is. Every atom of me is made out of the air of that house. That’s a phrase I gave to Ida, because some houses are simply houses, while others are a whole world you’ve projected yourself into. There will always be something too wholehearted about the way Ida carries that house around with her. Places only remain intact in our memory. It’s an illusion that we carry them with us. In reality, the place is changing.

The house becomes a point of conflict between Ida and her mother, but it’s also the zone where this mother-daughter conflict is resolved.

When I was first writing this book, Ida’s mother told her that she wanted to sell the house. But I immediately felt she wouldn’t sell it. This character has fierce attributes, negative ones, and so I wanted to give her the most important role, which in my opinion is to make the story thrilling. So when the mother actually threatens to sell the house, she’s doing this because she knows that’s the only way to get her daughter back. And this way, at one stroke, I made her intelligent, with an ambiguous gaze.

You write: “At that moment I understood what a mother really is: something from which there is no protection. It’s said that a mother gives everything and asks nothing; no one says that she asks everything and gives what we don’t ask to have.”

I worked a lot on those lines. That’s really the definition of a mother for me: an unsafe harbor. Paradoxical, isn’t it? A stormy port. You sleep badly aboard this boat, docked at the maternal port, because on the one hand you’re close to solid ground, while on the other the sea dances and goes on dancing.

I think it’s important for us to talk seriously about our relationships with our parents. It’s best to get out from under family myths, the myth of the mother, but also the myth of the family itself. Maternity, everlasting love. Any and every myth. The book of the moment for me is Simone de Beauvoir’s ​The Second Sex.​ The more I grow, the better I understand it.

It’s an important book for me, too. I’ve been rereading it these past few months. I got a copy when I was in Messina, before the lockdown. Then I left it there because I was expecting to go back in a couple of months. Then the coronavirus came, and I still haven’t gone back to get it. I can’t wait. But in the meantime, I’ve taken to the feminism of difference, a kind of feminism that I didn’t think of as my own before, because I was entirely focused on rights. And it’s fascinating now for me to pick up Simone de Beauvoir again instead. I think it’s going to be my summer rereading.

We need to talk about the role of women outside of Disney feminism. Otherwise, it’s just like that line in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s ​The Leopard:​ “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

By the way, I am absolutely against male feminists.

The worst. Totally agree. Men who declare themselves feminists are the worst.

There is a line by Carla Lonzi, I’m almost reciting by heart, she says, “The feminist movement is full of political and philanthropic intruders. We are indifferent to both their consent and their arguments. We suggest that it’s more dignified for them not to intrude.” These sentences reflect my view exactly. The moment I have to be told how I should be seen by a man, I pack my bags and depart from the discussion.

You see this in the professional arena of the workplace. Being a feminist, for some people, means helping or controlling any woman who is willing to do what pleases men.

The women they recognize as intelligent, yes. So, it’s always a form of patriarchal recognition. I don’t care at all if a man wants to wash his conscience squeaky clean by saying he’s a feminist, in order to validate a position for himself on the righteous side of this world. It’s something I find to be aberrant. I find the old-fashioned man, who is aware of the culture that he inherits, which also weighs on him, much more dignified. When it comes to masculinity, there’s a lot of work to do.

Do you think there’s a difference between a male writer and a female writer?

I believe that writing is something that has a lot to do with the body. I can’t ignore the fact that I’m a woman, the fact that I was born 42 years ago in a city on the Strait of Messina. I can’t ignore my physical, sensory experience. I know this isn’t your question, but if the question is whether a woman is more sensitive because she’s a woman, or whether a woman talks about motherhood because she’s a woman, then the answer is no, that’s not true. But if you ask me, for example, whether I feel like a male writer or a female writer, I absolutely feel like a female writer. I know I’m female, even if I write about a male teenager, and I know it because in doing so I take a step that allows me to put myself in the shoes of that person, a process that makes literature. Elsa Morante is credible when she writes about Arturo, because there is a male teenager imprisoned inside her. And this is a part of her being female. Who can say that’s not an experience of the feminine?

I understand Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg, who preferred to be called ​scrittore (“writer,” masculine) rather than scrittrice (“writer,” feminine), because they believed they were neutralizing the word. In their day, they believed that the word scrittrice was used as a term of derision. And they were probably right. It was as if to say, male writers write books, female writers write romances. So, I understand the historical underpinnings of this choice. Today, I think we can go one step further and say we are female writers, and that this word ​scrittrice ​is on the same level, if not a step above, that of male writers. So, I personally feel like a female writer. And I don’t think this takes anything away from me. I think it opens a lot of doors.

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Lucia Senesi is an Italian director and writer based in Los Angeles. In 2016, she completed her first feature-length film, Avanti, a documentary about the sociopolitical crisis in Europe. Her short film, A Short Story, premiered at the LA Shorts International Film Festival in 2019 and received an Honorary Mention from the 2019 Santa Monica Film Festival, among many other awards.

 

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