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Seeds and Roots
or, read the original in Italian
by Maria Rosa Cutrufelli
translated by Edvige Giunta

06/06/05

I was born in Sicily. My mother was from Florence. This meant that I spent my childhood shuttling back and forth: from Sicily, island of the father, to Florence, city of the mother. In the end, however, when it was no longer about traveling but about migrating, we did not choose either place: instead, we settled down in Bologna, which became the city of my immigration.

In momentous 1968, I found myself living in this elegant city, a generous and serious city. Even though I was studying at the local university, I worked full time in a public library: I was, as they say, a student worker. And even though my days were already much too full, I became involved in the political activities of the student movement. How could I not participate in the great feast of my generation?

Thus I discovered Marcuse and the “liberation of the opulent society.” I discovered that freedom from the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality constitutes the foundation of progressive political practice, that change and a new society begin within our consciousness.

I also discovered, naturally, sexual liberation. But in those days it was still too easy to be objectified in a relationship, too easy to feel taken advantage of. So I lived my sexual emancipation with ambivalence.

Economic emancipation was a different matter. I had no doubts about that. My mother had taught me that it was good for a woman to have a job: I had grown up with that certainty. But I did not want any job. I wanted a job that would make me stronger, freer, especially in relationship to men. For this reason, I worked and studied. A woman’s ambition is always surprising. At the time, it was scandalous. I was scandalous.

I was not aware of just how scandalous during that distant 1968. I realized the enormity of my ambition only a year later, when I started, with other women from the Left, the first feminist group in Bologna.

The group was born almost clandestinely.

Just a while earlier I had started, together with some young men and women from the Left (communists, socialists, independents), a Borough Collective that used the library where I worked as a base. We held our meetings at Spartaco, the local Casa del Popolo (House of the People).

At the meetings, we discussed subjects that, in other official contexts—for example, political parties—were not mentioned or were regarded as of little relevance: family, sexuality, relationships between parents and children. Among the group members was Carolina, a girl who lived in Bologna but studied sociology in Trento, where the first Italian feminist group, the mythical “Cerchio Spezzato” (Broken Circle), had just been founded.

Soon Carolina started to tell the women in the Collective that in Trento the women held separate meetings—she explained the significance of the new feminism. It did not take long. We were convinced from the start. We waited until we were a majority and, one evening, we announced to the men that we were going separate ways. We had, in a manner of speaking, expelled them. Some of them remarked: “You will never make it by yourselves.”

It was a beautiful time.

We met two, three times a week, to read documents and flyers (there were no books on feminism available), to hold consciousness-raising meetings, and to make contact with other women. Our meetings started at three in the afternoon and went on until two in the morning. It was a continuous discovery—of ourselves, of other women.

We were not afraid of anything. Finally, we could talk and cry and laugh; we could theorize and plan projects without fear of being inadequate, not political enough, not competent enough, too detached from reality. Finally, we could give voice to our reality.

Thus we discovered that our privilege as emancipated women was not the equivalent of freedom, and that love, even love, was a “foreign country”; we discovered that the female body was colonized, just like a ghetto or a Third World country (that was the phrase used then).

It was an exciting time, an intense time.

At times, the process of self-discovery was not pleasant. It was not pleasant to discover how much we depended on others, how affected we were by tradition. It was not pleasant to realize that the road to liberation was a labyrinth and that relationships among women were difficult: solidarity is a political conquest that must be revisited and renewed every day.

In the meanwhile, in other cities the first feminist groups were emerging publicly.

We would often go to some meetings, as listeners (outside our group, we felt rather inhibited): in Milan, it was the group of the factory workers of Rank-Xerox; in Ferrara, Lotta Femminista, a group that spoke in favor of salaries for domestic work. There was joy in finding each other; in time, as the movement developed and diversified, that joy got somewhat lost.

My life, too, changed. I no longer worked at the library. I had graduated. I had started teaching. And then that sudden decision to go back to Sicily, the place of my birth….

I went back at the end of 1971 and stayed three years.

I lived in Gela, not my birthplace but one of the centers of industrial development on the island: the oil industry, the “cathedral of the desert,” marked the rhythms of the town’s life. At times, in the evening, when the flames of the torches on the pinnacles of the refinery suddenly turned the sky red, people on the street would stop talking and look up anxiously.

During that first return, I wrote a book about Sicilian women. In that book, I recorded the voices of factory workers, peasants, unemployed women, “white widows,” students—voices of rebellious girls and passive wives, of rebels and conformists, voices that in each and every instance defied the legend of the historical silence of Southern women. I gave little room instead to the mafia and its women. At the time, we knew little about the mafia women; on the newspapers, only the names of two women had appeared: Maria Antonietta Liggio—sister of the notorious boss—and Antonietta Bagarella—fiancée of Totó Riina, then Liggio’s lieutenant—who had disappeared after two years of special surveillance in Corleone. Two indistinct, elusive figures that pointed to unexplored life paths. Women and Southerners—they were in some way the darkest part of me, of my origins. Counterparts. Shadows that emerged from the tenebrous kingdom of Hades and painted, on a modern backcloth, the Sicilian tragedy of Persephone, forever divided between the solar world of the mother and the gloomy kingdom of the god of underworld. Yet, I think that it was then, during that first return, that I welcomed inside me the seed of another book, a novel I would write much later.

In any case, I lived in Sicily—and it was not easy. Nevertheless, I discovered myself there. Even today, only in Sicily do I feel truly “at home” (I am afraid the immigrant syndrome will never leave me).

Naturally, in that southern context feminist practices and struggles changed and I, too, changed.

Soon after arriving, I had met some women students who were activists in leftist parties and youth organizations. I told these young women about my experience and for them, too, feminism became the obvious approach. In Gela, we formed the first group that attempted to analyze the situation of Sicilian women relying on strategies that, at the time, were new, original. Thus, in the customarily endless meetings we questioned the concept of honor, the cult of virility, and the exclusion of women not only from politics but also from public life in general. At the same time, we managed to organize block meetings in the areas where the families of seasonal laborers lived, involving all the women, even those who had never opened the door to a stranger. We believed it was imperative not to separate the practice from the theory. Therefore, our mobilizing, our political initiatives, all of our “practice” had to be connected to a theory that always took into account our history—a history that was specific even if we discussed abortion and divorce, domestic work and violence in the family, that is, problems that all Italian women shared.

The meetings were held at my place. Only mine, not taking turns at everyone’s home, as we used to do in Bologna, as it was customary in the collectives in Northern Italy. Here it was not possible to use other homes. The situation did not allow it: the girls did not live on their own and had no free use of their homes. It was already a lot that, in spite of arguments and the inevitable family prohibitions, they were part of the group. The group kept growing: some teachers, some unemployed women. Different realities and different languages but one shared passion: the search for women’s freedom.

Soon, similar groups formed in Catania, Palermo, Siracusa. But to communicate

was difficult, amongst ourselves and especially with the feminist movement on the “continent” (the term used to refer to Northern Italy). Traveling was expensive and we were not professional revolutionaries—this is what they called the women socialists of the early twentieth century who organized the party traveling back and forth from the North to the South of Italy. We were different: we had no support; we could only count on ourselves.

Then my life changed again.

I traveled further south, to Africa: Zambia, Congo, Ghana. And there I learned many things. The one who taught me the most was a woman from Ghana, my sweet friend Nah Nierley Oku, proud of her African name, which she did not want to change into a Western name like Sara, Maria or Elisabetta, as was customary at the time. She taught me, for example, that if polygamy is painful it also gives greater autonomy because it prevents women from depending psychologically on men. At least that was her experience.

Three years later, one more change: in the late 1970s I was back in Italy, immersed again in the debate of Italian feminism.

But it was no longer the beginning. We had gone a long way; many ideas and battles were starting to yield results. And we women of the old guard, we were already “old” because the younger ones had their history; they quoted each other and contested us; they followed in our footsteps and separated themselves from us: in other words, they were building their freedom.

By then I was no longer writing essays on feminism. Instead, I was writing novels: I needed a creative form to write of myself, the world, other women. I finally wrote that novel the seed of which had been planted many years earlier, during that first return to the island. It was not accidental that I wrote a novel. The novel, creative writing in general, enters empathically into the hearts of people; it attempts to capture the vital essence of things. This was the kind of writing I needed to approach the disquieting universe of the women of the mafia—women who had chosen the road of perverse emancipation and believed (illusorily?) that there can be power without freedom.

A disquieting and growing universe, statistics reveal, as do investigative reports, and direct experience of that social reality. There is a growth of feminine subjectivity that cannot be contained, that violently impacts the sharp rocks of discrimination, of stunted growth, of the distorted mechanics of a violent market, of a society that thwarts instead of enabling self-affirmation and the search for a full existence.

What is surprising, then, about this feminine “machismo” that, in the subterranean world of crime, replaces the desire to exist, the hunger for citizenship that all women now share? With their active complicity or autonomous gestures of violence or allegiance to models of criminal life, these women sanction a paradoxical right to a negative emancipation.

Canto al deserto (Song to the Desert) is the novel with which I have attempted to juxtapose positive and negative forms of emancipation: two women characters, two lives, two opposing destinies, an identical anxiety to impress one’s mark upon the world, a powerful desire to exist that makes the line between good and evil dangerously subtle.

The novel is, of course, set in Gela, sorrowful town, the martyred town where I had lived.

And then, one day, a letter comes to my home in Rome (this is where I ended up eventually, around 1980) and it takes me back just to those Gela years. The writer is a young woman. A scholar. A Sicilian feminist. Her name is Edi Giunta. After reading Canto al deserto, she sat in front of her computer to reach me with her words. She is from Gela, but was much too young in the times of my feminist group. And now this young Edi, whom I did not have the opportunity to meet then, lives and works across the ocean, in the United States, but still keeps, just like I do, her roots in the distant island. In her letter, I read my story, but from her perspective. I am somewhat surprised and somewhat moved because if it is true that to win a law, a right (Italy is today a modern nation thanks to women who won the battle for divorce, abortion, equal salary and more) is a beautiful thing, it is even more beautiful to learn that another woman has found a connection in one’s words; it is moving to learn that her singular life and her personal passion for freedom and writing have fruitfully crossed with yours.

Thanks, Edi, for reaching me.

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