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Reading Maria Rosa Cutrufelli
I meet Maria Rosa Cutrufelli at the crossroads, crossroads that are cultural and geographical, personal and political, real and imaginary, biographical and auto-biographical. As Sicilians in exile, we meet at the intersection of myth and history.
Born in Sicily in 1946, Maria Rosa Cutrufelli left the island when she was nine and moved with her family to Florence. A prominent figure in Italian feminism, Cutrufelli would go back to Sicily in 1972; the three years she spent there helped her to shape the feminist consciousness that would lead her to write several feminist studies as well as, later, several novels that filter creatively that feminist consciousness. In some strange way, her departure from and return to Sicily and the work she produced as a result of her stays on the island on two separate occasionsin 1972 and in 1993are linked to my own life experience and relationship to Sicily, though not always in clear and direct ways.
By translating and including Cutrufelli's essay "In the Kingdom of Persephone" in a special issue of the journal Voices in Italian Americana devoted to Italian American women, which I edited in 1996, I hoped to open a conversation between Italian and Italian American women authors. That volume contained Graziella Parati's review essay, "The Impossible Return: Women, Violence, and Exile," in which she discusses "the distance that exile creates from the cultural geography of origins."Authors like Dacia Maraini and Cutrufelli, Parati writes, "can only return to these mythical origins by further distancing themselves in the construction of autobiographical fragments reflected in fictional characters' and in other women's stories, who in turn embody the impossibility of return to a unitary identity, origin, and cultural identity" (260).
"In the Kingdom of Persephone" tells of Cutrufelli's encounter with Emanuela Azzarelli, character in flesh and blood, modern-day Persephone, "a masculidda da mafia" ("the mafia tomboy"), whose life Cutrufelli fictionalizes in Canto al deserto. I have written of the myth of Persephone as a "life line" between Southern Italian, specifically Sicilian, women writers, in Italy and America. I call these women Persephone's daughters. Persephone's story is a story of departures and returns, returns that are never complete homecomings as they always entail other departures. It's a story of crossings, repeated and inevitable. That myth maps out the history of Sicily and the stories of her daughters, particularly those who left, like Maria Rosa, like myself, like the Italian American women I write about, most of them second, third, and fourth-generation. These women are utterly removed from their ancestral land, which nevertheless emerges as a haunting memory in their writing, even when these writers have not had a direct geographical encounter with Italy: cultural and imaginary encounters have a way of occurring in the most unexpected places and manners.
This essay is the result of unpredictable encounters, real and imaginary encounters which always involve a departure, a failed or missed return, a homecoming that is never fully realized.
Summer 1976: I have just turned seventeen. I live with my family in the town where I was born, Gela, on the Western coast of Sicily. Despite the industrial development brought about by the oil industry in the 1960s, Gela has retained a provincial flavor: a town small in mentality if not in dimension and population. The intimate details of people's lives constitute a subject of conversation, a pastime for both the young and the old. The favorite source of entertainment remains the evening passeggiata on the corso, a slow walk along the main street that runs from the acropolis to the cemetery, the borders of the ancient Greek polis. With its carefully orchestrated rhythms and rules, the passeggiata is the central ritual of social life. The pace at which womenespecially younger womenwalk and the section of the corso in which one walks can be revealing of ones social status, popularity, sexual behavior. In my early teens, I, too, strut up and down the corso, arm in arm with my girlfriends. The interactions with boys are carefully regulated. Walking alone with a boy can compromise a girls reputationso while my friends and I socialize with the opposite gender, we are acutely aware of the gender polarization in our culture and of the surveillance it engenders.
In my mid-teens, the passeggiata, the parties, the ride on a friends motorcycle, the crush with a schoolmate, begin to lose their grip on me. Other things begin to matter, things bigger than my life and that I nevertheless feel on my skin. As my adolescent voice and ideas struggle to emerge, my father and I engage in inevitable, simultaneously invigorating and debilitating parent-child conflicts, particularly intense because I am a girl. My father is a philosophy and history teacher, a man of great knowledge, who both opens and shuts the horizons of my desire for novelty. He talks to me about Plato and Aristotle but agrees to send me and my seventeen year-old sister to our schools field trip only if my mother will serve as a chaperone. He is progressive and repressive, so smart and so obtuse. Everyone in town knows my father: il professorein Sicilian, "prufussù"an appellation redolent with intimacy and respect. I was always "the daughter of the professor." This was a gift and a burden, a source of pride and embarrassment; it defined and erased me. My relationship with my father embodies the contradictions of being a Sicilian daughter. In the interstices of this conflicting relationship, I begin to tailor my understanding of womanhood.
My parents have taught me that to study is important, that education is a key to my future. My father encourages wild aspirations: to study Chinese, to become a diplomat, to travel to places neither he nor my mother have ever visited. While the fact that they have never urged me to think of my life as naturally leading to marriage distinguishes them as progressive by comparison with my friends' parents, they seem often confused by their own attitude. They are often repressive, especially my father, in regulating, indeed forbidding any kind of social interaction with boys. When I am taking a walk on the corso with a male friend, I move away quickly if I see my father or one of his friends, who is sure to report to him. Interlocking and contradictory familial and cultural pressures leave me with a confused but deep longing for freedom.
The months preceding the summer of 1976 are intense: I have my first personal encounter with political activism. It happens almost by accident; the confluence of a number of private and public events triggers the development of my political consciousness. Italy is divided over the legalization of abortion: on one side, the Vaticans and the Christian Democrats' firm opposition to legalized abortion; on the other, the feminist movement's mobilization around this issue. In between, the Communist Party's and Socialist Party's proposed legalization of abortion asks that women make their way through a bureaucratic maze with obligatory stops at various doctors and psychologists, typically male. At sixteen, I hardly have a political consciousness of my own. But Italian high schools are a fertile soil for the political awakening of young minds. 1968 is a recent memory and politics is still in the classroom.
My high school, the Liceo Classico Eschilo, is crowded with political activists, mostly members of the FGCI, the Federation of Young Italian Communists. Other political organizations make their presence felt too: a couple of members of Democrazia Proletaria, a leftist party that wants to take its distance from the Communist party and its politics of compromise with the Christian Democracy, the party that has held political control over Italy for three decades; a few "missini," of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the right-wing modern-day reincarnation of the old fascist party that stubbornly proclaims the viability of its politics in a country in which the Constitution forbids the recreation of the Fascist Party. In my town, missini are not dangerous, but in larger cities, especially in Rome and Northern Italy, the members of its youth organization are renown for beating up anyone who looks like "a compagno," a comrade, a leftist. Being involved in politics is exciting, but also scary. I gravitate towards the leftist groups, yet I cannot fully identify with any of them, perhaps because there are no feminists to be found on the local political carousel.
Heated discussions during philosophy classes, meetings, student assemblies, and strikes occur almost daily in my school. At home, I talk excitedly about what happens in school with my father. At times, I feel stifled by his knowledge and eloquence. Yet, that knowledge nurtures my budding political ideas, too. I both seek and question his influence. Whether it is the politics of ancient Greece or modern Italy, my father always talks politics. The news blasting from the TV in the dining room marks a sacred time of silence. At lunch, between pasta e melanzane and cotolette di vitello, I watch, mesmerized, the feminist marches for the full legalization of abortion: they take place in Milan, Rome, Bologna, cities that feel so geographically and culturally removed from Sicily.
I take the issue of abortion personally. I know women and girls, just a bit older than I am, who have had abortions in secrecy, in medically unsafe conditions. I have seen the sumptuous mansion of the doctor in my hometown who has become rich thanks to illegal abortions; I know of the mammane, the women who help you abort for little money; I know of the knitting needles that pierce women's wombs; I know of women who have bled to death. The injustice of the male political powers' interference in women's body affairs enrages me. Nobody has told me that the personal is political yet, but I already know what this means.
I am in awe of the feminists I see on TV: they wear long, flowered skirts and shawls. Their hair let loose or cut very short, clogs at their feet, they march bravely, holding hands and chanting: "Se il Papa fosse donna, l'aborto sarebbe legale!"If the Pope were a woman, abortion would be legal!" These women fighting for their rights and other women's provide, with their courage and boldness, a much-needed alternative to what I see as most Sicilian women's passive acquiescence to men's dictates. It will be years before I will come to recognize and respect these traditional women's strength, their determination, their resilience, which they have passed on to me. It will be years before I will begin to listen to their stories, and the stories of their female ancestorsmy ancestors. It will be years before I begin to understand how intimately connected with and inspired I am by these women, how their struggles and contradictions are mine too.
At sixteen, I often think that I am lucky that I do not have an older brother.My friends are bossed around and often beaten by jealous brothers who act as raging husbands, especially when it comes to their sisters' sexuality. My sisters and I are accomplices with our brother Diego, who at twelve has an empathy for his sisters that I have not seen in anybody elses brother. He does not tell on us. He covers for us.
My female friends worry about make-up, clothes, parties, and especially boys. Some are already engaged at sixteen and have to ask their fiancées permission on all sorts of things: can I go out with my girlfriend? Can I wear this miniskirt? Can I cut my hair? I am horrified to see these young men who do not even have a real beard boss their girlfriends; even worse, I cannot comprehend the girls willing participation in this game that is not in the least attractive to me. We still hear of fuitine. Alittle escape: fuitina is the term used when a girl and boy run away because they want to get married without their parents permissions. Fuitine are still common in Sicily in the 1970s. By the time I am sixteen, I become intolerant of the way in which men mark, in one way or another, the boundaries of my life. I have not articulated this yet, but a restlessness boils inside. I want to fight for things that are meaningful and important. I crave a community of women with whom I can associate and with whom I can identify. I want to become a strong woman; I want to become a feminist. But feminism on TV and in the papers is like a mirage: inaccessible. Yet I know that feminism has already made its presence felt in Gela through a woman I have never met, an eccentric teacher who scandalized the town a few years back. In Gela, she started the first feminist group in Sicily, Lotta Femminista, named like the group she had founded in Bologna before coming to live in Gela, where she taught for a while at the Liceo Scientifico. Later, while still living in Gela, she taught in nearby Riesi, where I too would teach as a substitute a few years later. I know this because people gossiped about her and because Rosanna, a friend of my sister, belonged to her group, as did other girls who were about my older sister's age. After she left, Lotta Femminista disintegrated as quickly as it had clamorously emerged. But I remember her name: Maria Rosa Cutrufelli.
A month before I turn seventeen, I go and stay with my older sister, a medical student at the University of Catania. There I find myself at the doorstep of the meeting place of the Radical Party, a party that, joining forces with the MLD, the Movement for the Liberation of Women, was fighting for the full legalization of abortion; it is the only party that acknowledged and respected women's rights to decide over abortion without the patronizing interference of snotty bureaucrats and medical personnel. I am the youngest there, but nobody is condescending. At the eve of elections in which I could not yet vote, I find myself campaigning for the Radicals, the party with the red carnation sprouting in a fist. I make my first contacts with a feminist group. I would renew them a year later when I would move to Catania to attend college. In the midst of this exciting time,I fall in love, making a quick, painful transition from the rather bland, innocent relationships with boys of my age in Gela to a tempestuous relationship with a city boy, who is nineteen,an alcoholic, a drug addict. I begin to understand how unsafe women are, that the modes of oppression may change, but whether you are in a small town or in a big city, as a woman you have to fight men. When I return home, I feel beaten and disillusioned, robbed of the romantic fantasies of adolescence. Nobody, not even I, understands how scared and isolated I feel. The external signs are baggy, masculine clothes and hair cut so short that men in the street tease me: "sei femmina or maschio?"are you female or male?
I feel alone, isolated, bored by the monotonous, provincial life of Gela. Intellectual hunger helps me beat depression. I devour one, two books a day. Having quickly exhausted my library, once a week, in the summer heat, I walk through the dusty streets leading to Rosanna's house and return home carrying armfuls of books. In her bookshelf, I find Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Dacia Maraini, Elsa Morante, Oriana Fallaci. My older sister, who has also become a feminist, brings from Catania Maria Rosa Cutrufelli's book Disoccupata con onore (Honorably Unemployed, 1975) and Maria Rosa's first feminist study L'invenzione della donna: miti e tecniche di uno sfruttamento (The Invention of Woman: Myths and Techniques of Exploitation, 1974), which opens my eyes to mythologies of femininity in capitalist society, and also Donna perché piangi? Imperialismo e condizione femminile nell'Africa nera (1976), which will be translated as Women in Africa: Roots of Oppression in 1983, a book on the links between women's oppression and neo-capitalism in Africa. I am especially touched by Cutrufelli's study of women's labor in Sicily. The injustice she is writing about speaks, albeit obliquely, to my own experience of gender oppression. That Cutrufelli has taken the time to research, meet, and write about these women inspires me. Her work will always keep an attentive eye on the economic dynamics at the root of gender oppression, as in Operaie senza fabbrica: Inchiesta sul lavoro a domicilio (Women Workers Without a Factory: Investigation into Home Labor, 1977), Economia e politica dei sentimenti: la "produzione" femminile (Economics and Politics of Feeling: The "Feminine" Production, 1980), Il cliente: Inchiesta sulla domanda di prostituzione (The Client: An Investigation of the Role of Demand in the Prostitution Market, 1981), and Il denaro in corpo: Inchiesta sulla domanda di sesso commerciale (Money in the Body: Investigation of Demand for Commercial Sex, 1996). My early readings of Cutrufelli's workmy first feminist readingsteach me to think of myself not just as a feminist, but as a Sicilian feminist. The contradictions of being a Sicilian daughter will stay with me for a long time. They are still with me. But I also begin to learn how to use those contradictions to make myself strong, instead of succumbing to their debilitating power.
Cutrufelli thus became my mentor, though we had never met. Her books articulated for me, clearly and for the first time, my reasons for being a feminist. Within months, I started two feminist programs at the local radio station, Radio Gela. The first one, strategically broadcast at three in the afternoon during my father's siesta in order to circumvent his prohibition to speak on the radio, was called Sfruttata con onore Honorably Exploitedin tribute to Disoccupata con onore and its author. The second, Dalla parte delle donne (On Behalf of Women), which I hosted with my older sister, kept me busy the summer before I started college.
I have saved the old blue imitation leather diary, with the bright yellow and black Radio Gela sticker on the cover, in which I dutifully wrote down all my notes for the programs, especially Sfruttata con onore. I wrote in a tiny, tidy, timid handwriting, so different from the messy and bolder shapes of my vowels and consonants these days. Every week, I would go around with my tape recorder, gathering interviews for the programs. Every week, I would drag a sometimes reluctant, sometimes thrilled friend into the recording room. The program included a special topic discussion, interviews, a Book Corner, and a "Notiziario delle donne" (Women's News). I open my old journal and my eyes fall on a name: Vincenzina Condello, a Calabrian sixteen-year-old. Pregnant with her father's baby, Vincenzina had been authorized to obtain the "legal interruption of maternity," but the hospital surgeon and his eleven assistants refused to proceed: "after 20 days of painful waiting, the girl has an abortion in Florence. Now she is secluded in a religious institution."On another page, the story of Italia di Domenico, a 38-year old woman who, tired of being accused by her husband of talking too much, locks herself in the bedroom and cuts out her tongue with a knife. Bottom of the same page: Angela D'Avila, Sicilian immigrant in Milan. Her husband pressures her into committing suicide because she has been raped by a cousin. She consents reluctantly, but when she starts pouring into her mouth the muriatic acid she had purchased with her husband, she starts screaming. Neighbors rush her to the hospital. Later, her husband tries to strangle her. At this point, she wants to separate from him, but is accused of trying to destroy her family, and is denied custody of her child.
These are the stories I gather from newspaper clippings and the news. At night, in my room, listening to American music on the radio, I put the fragments of these broken lives together while the characters from Homers epics, from Greek tragedies, and from Ovid's Metamorphosis I am reading in high school watch over me, keep me company. The blood of Philomel, Iphigenia, Echo, Arachne, and Persephone, spills on the page and blends with that of their sisters, Vincenzina, Italia, Angela, names dripping with the bittersweet sounds of the South. These women are my sisters.
I read a journal entry containing the notes for one of the radio programs:
The pain, courage, and lucidity of my seventeen-year old voice leaves me stunned. I think of Audre Lorde's reaction to a poem she had written at nineteen: "Did I know that?" Today I realize that the silent depression I suffered during adolescence was cultural as well as personal and familial. And like Lorde, I, too, realize that there is often a time gap between having knowledge and being able to use the power that knowledge yields.
Those radio programs, aired throughout 1977, generated inflamed phone calls from listeners, the excitement and support of some young and not-so-young women, gossip, sneers, and boisterous responses from a few scandalized old men who monitored the entrance to the radio station building. Ultimately, however, there was no movement to generate and sustain broader, deeper changes that would affect the texture of the community in a radical and long-term manner. In Catania, the city where I would attend college a year later, I became involved with the feminist movement and joined a consciousness-raising group. Ironically, while many of the young women who had worked, directly or indirectly, with Maria Rosa, helped build the movement in cities like Catania, where they moved to go to university, in Gela even the history of these radical beginnings vanished and no record of the first feminist group in Sicily exists, just as no record of those 1977 programs and the small movement around them exists. Perhaps somewhere there are still tapes of those programs, buried in the dust. Like Maria Rosa and the women in her group, I too have left.
Loss is as familiar to Sicily as the lines of orange and lemon trees that fill my eyes as I drive from Catania to Aci Trezza, as familiar as the black volcanic rocks the sea spits out as if disdainful of the smoothness of its own blue surface. Leonardo Sciascia offers a glimpse into a fear that is particular to the fact of being born Sicilian:
For Sicilians, departure is an archetypal form of loss. Yesterday: Persephone separated from her mother once a year to be reunited in the underworld with the husband who had dragged her forcefully from the fields of Demeter, the goddess who was not vigilant enough to protect her daughter. Today: immigrants begrudgingly nostalgic of the island they have left behind. Sicilians chew nostalgia as their daily bread. One of the characters in Cutrufelli's Canto al deserto captures the relationship of Sicilians to their land with a distinctly Sicilian bittersweet understanding:
I recognize myself in this third category, in what Cutrufelli describes as "Andare e tornare. Un'oscillazione perenne. Il nostro vizio segreto" ("To go and to come back. A perennial vacillation. Our secret vice."): "la memoria e il sentimento dell'esilio stanno solo nell'irrequietezza di chi vive altrove" (50) ("memory and the sentiment of exile exist only within the restlessness of those who live elsewhere"). And why do we leave? Why did I leave?
My hometown is used to loss: losing its children, its archeological remains scattered in museums all over the world, the clean water of its sea poisoned by the oil industry, its large sandy beaches devoured by the same voracious industrial entrepreneurial spirit that wiped out the neatness and quaintness of the small town Gela used to be. Today it's a chaotic mass of half-finished houses, an environmental and architectural devastation that years ago won Gela the title the worst case of abusivismo edilizio (violations of construction code) in Italy. The famous Greek colony where Aeschylus came to die has given way to a town consumed by a pernicious, deadly violence and corruption that years ago earned Gela a different kind of fame for possibly the highest number of mafia-related murders in Italy in a given period. And who is to blame? Those who left? Those who stayed? Those who came?
Summer 1995: I live in North Brunswick, New Jersey. While chatting on the phone with my colleague Graziella Parati, she tells me of Maria Rosa's new book, Canto al deserto: storia di Tina, soldato di mafia. I ask my mother to send it to me. When it arrives, I read it immediately. I cannot put it down. As I read, I weep. This novel is about lives that intersect, again, with mine. The story of Tina, the "mafia soldier" protagonist of the novel, feels painfully close to me especially because she is inspired by Emanuela Azzarelli, a girl from Gela who attracted the attention of the national media as "a masculidda da mafia," which loosely and rather blandly translates as "the mafia tomboy." Tina, like her real-life counterpart, was the leader of a gang of adolescents, those same adolescents among whom the mafia recruits its soldiers.
The timing of my reading of Canto is fitting: I have been away from Sicily for a few years; I am working on several essays on Italian American women authors; I have been thinking about planning a trip to Sicily, about returning home. Cutrufelli's novel enables me to begin my return. This book initiates my reconciliation and reconnection to the island, and especially the town towards which I feel anger, regret, and a conflicted nostalgia. Canto al deserto is a song, aching with a longing that I understand well. And it is a story of encounters, again real and imaginary, between people and cities, authors and characters, stories that stare each other in the face in a shock of recognition: the story of Tina, the little mafiosa, and the nameless narrator, an oblique representationof the author herself.
I am moved by Cutrufelli's evocation of the geography of the island, of the devastation Gela has suffered, of the town's tragic transformation in the last thirty years: "Crudele è questo paesaggio che stento a riconoscere e che non corrisponde più alla mappa della memoria" (12) ("So cruel this landscape I hardly recognize, that no longer matches the map of memory"). I am moved by the way in which she captures the idiosyncrasies of her Sicilian characters, the roughness and sweetness of the dialect domesticated by the relentless force of Italian. I recognize the loving and resentful addiction of the islander who has left. Cutrufelli gives body, through her words, to her own, my own visceral, painful love for Sicily, to that which propelled us to leave and return. When I finish reading, I write a letter to Maria Rosa for the first time. A few weeks later, she writes back. We begin an epistolary exchange. I invite her to contribute to the special issue of VIA on Italian American women. It's a homecoming of sorts. The following summer, I will finally travel back to Sicily.
A few years later, in May 2000, Maria Rosa Cutrufelli and I finally met face to face. She was one of the speakers at a Symposium on Italian American and Italian women, the first on the subject, held at Casa Italiana at New York University, which I had helped to organize. In 2001, Maria Rosa asked me and Caterina Romeo, another Italian in the US, to help her put together a special issue of Tuttestorie, the journal she edited, to be devoted to translations of writings by Italian American women. This was a groundbreaking moment for Italian American women authors whose voices would appear collectively in Italian translation and, importantly, in a feminist publication. This issue of Tuttestorie also included my first published writing in Italian. In March 2001, I traveled to Rome where, with Caterina and Maria Rosa, we presented this issue at the Casa Internazionale della Donna, a feminist center that has been active since the late 1970s.
It is auspicious that our sponsor was the Zora Neale Hurston Multimedia Center.Maria Rosa sat next to me. How appropriate these crossings and re-crossings, these departures and returns. It all came together as the Italian women in the audience listened eagerly to the words, now translated into Italian, of their sisters, not so distant on that day, and recognized not sameness, but a connection, the kind of connection I developed, as a seventeen-year old, with Maria Rosa.My encounter with Maria Rosa occurred long before she knew me and our relationship began to develop before we met face to face, and yet her words generated extraordinary encounters, which in turn created spaces where we met and continue to meet as women and as Sicilians in exile.