Growing up in Italy - A literary journey

Growing up in Italy - A literary journey

This is an article I wrote for the Women Writers, Women Books website, published on their website on 4th November 2015.

I recently launched a small publication company which specialises in Italian women writers. When I tell people, they either nod knowlingly or look quizically at me, and in both cases they say: “Ah, books in translation”. My love of books goes back a long way. Family lore tells of how often I could be found, as a toddler, with a book held upside down, following with my podgy little finger the lines of writing and “reading” to myself.

Later I read anything that came my way: Little WomenPeter PanThe Secret Garden, The Jungle Book, David Copperfield, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and countless of other titles familiar to any child growing up in England in the Thirties. The thing is, I was growing up in Italy in the Sixties. I also read Pinocchio, CuoreIl giornalino di Gian Burrasca and the Emilio Salgari’s pirate stories, but home-grown titles were few, and there were no contemporary titles in the mix.

I never asked myself why that was so at the time. It has only been in the last few weeks, as I was putting together some notes for an article I wanted to write about Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist and author who changed my life and the way I look at books, that I started asking myself this question because how I feel about Oriana Fallaci only makes sense when you understand what came before.

Until I came across her Letter to an unborn child, published in 1974, books had described worlds that were outside me, and far away from me, in time or space, often both. The world of books was where I escaped to. And yet, the stories and the settings had no link to my “real” life, and it didn’t really occur to me that they should. Letter to an unborn child, the monologue of a woman contemplating motherhood not as a duty but as a responsible choice, made a teenage girl in a traditional Italian family in the Seventies question her beliefs, her reality, the very world she lived in.

Reading Fallaci’s other books, Nothing and so be itIf the Sun dies, and then later, Interview with History, A Man, I became aware that my life was not mapped out, and I could actually go and visit and discover for myself the worlds I had discovered in books as a child. And that I had a choice in how I lived my life, which was something I had wanted but not felt entitled to do.

So, why had it taken me so long to figure out the connection between books and real life? Why had so much of my reading in earlier years been so disconnected from my reality?

Part of the reason for this is that the percentage of books in translation in Italy is much higher than in the UK. Some recent (2013) Italian sales figures indicate that in the adult fiction sector (which accounted for 39.1% of the total books published) a mind-blowing 64% of books are by foreign writers (some 60% are translated from English, with other European languages make up most of the rest).

People in Italy never talk about “books in translation”, only about “books”. This makes reading in Italy, if not quite yet a multicultural experience, at least one that covers a wide selection of Western literatures. But this is not the whole story.

The main reason is that, in spite of a very rich literary past, ordinary Italians people have historically had very limited access to their own literary resources until very recently. In Italy libraries are, to this day, still considered places for academics and students, a service for the few.

The idea of libraries as a public “service”, which only really started in the Seventies, still struggles to take hold. I had studied Italian literature at school but the curriculum stopped well before the beginning of the Second World War. Also, because books were expensive and my family of modest means, access to modern literature was in effect denied to us and it remained so for a long time – books were not for us common mortals, but the domain of intellectuals.

The discovery of Oriana Fallaci was accidental, as the book was controversial enough to have made the news. Most public libraries were set up after 1972 and, as I lived in a fairly large town with a university, I was lucky enough to be able to set foot in a library at about the same time. I felt as I had discovered heaven. That’s where I found Fallaci’s other books, and also Carlo Cassola, Primo Levi, Eugenio Montale, Italo Calvino, writers who had made a literary history I had not been aware of.

Many others of my generation never did make the discovery – at least those whose path did go through academia: books remain something alien, an absence in their lives. Around 10% of household in Italy do not own a single book (the figure is 3% in the UK), 66% of people never buy a book (25% in the UK), only 5% reads at least one book a month (69% in the UK). A trade definition of “bookworm” is someone who reads 12 books in a month – in Italy you would only need to read 12 books in a year to be defined a heavy reader. I am sure, even at these levels, the number of readers in Italy is now much higher than it was when I was a child.

Considering this background, it is wonderful to realise that Italy has still managed to produce such brilliant writers as Oriana Fallaci, Dacia Maraini and Paola Capriolo among many others. I look forward to introducing some of them to the English speaking market.