This book was the Joint Winner of the 2017 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Modern Italian Studies.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Chapter 1
- A Queer Reading of 1970s–1980s Italian Women’s Writing
- Chapter 2
- From Madonna to Whore, or Femininity Undone
- Chapter 3
- The Fall of the Patriarch, or Masculinity Undone
- Chapter 4
- Queer Time: Overthrowing the Bourgeois, Reproductive Imperative
- Chapter 5
- Queer Space: Physical and Symbolical Dis/locations off the Normative Path
- Chapter 6
- Sexual Fluidity and Textual Hybridity in Autobiographical Women’s Writing
Many people accompanied me throughout the various phases of this book, and I am deeply grateful to all of them. My special thanks to Sharon Wood for being such a wonderful mentor over the years and for offering her invaluable expertise. I am extremely grateful to Simona Storchi and Marina Spunta for helping me find the right direction of my research and for providing many hours of stimulating discussion. And to Stefania Lucamante, whose intellectual insight was very helpful during the early stages of my project. I also wish to thank Ursula Fanning and Marion Krauthaker, who provided insightful advice towards the structuring of this book. I am greatly appreciative of the tireless support from my colleague and friend Oliver Brett, and of his patient readings of the final drafts. Thanks to Michela Baldo, Francesca Calamita, Alex Standen and Katrin Wehling-Giorgi for their sisterhood and helpful discussions at different stages of my research. I would like to acknowledge the support of the University of Leicester for awarding me a Travel Grant to carry out archive research and interviews in Italy. I also thank the Hispanic and Italian Studies Department at Wheaton College, MA (USA) for the wonderful and productive time I spent there in 2014 as Fulbright Teaching Assistant.
A special thank you to Dacia Maraini who, despite her very busy schedule, was always willing to discuss her work. And to Angelo Pellegrino, for meeting with me at the Sapienza-Pellegrino archive in Rome, and for providing unpublished manuscripts by Goliarda Sapienza.
The publication of this book has received support from Peter Lang Oxford, for which I express my deepest gratitude to the general editors of the Italian Modernities series, Pierpaolo Antonello and Robert Gordon. Thanks also to the staff at Peter Lang for making the publication process a pleasant experience.←ix | x→
I thank the following editors in granting permission to incorporate some parts of my previous publications in this volume: Stefania Lucamante for permission to use ‘Kaleidoscopic Sexualities: Defying Normative Resistance and Maternal Melancholia in Aracoeli’ (Elsa Morante’s Politics of Writing, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015) in Chapter 3; Alberica Bazzoni, Emma Bond and Katrin Wehling-Giorgi for permission to use ‘‘‘L’acqua in gabbia”: the Heterotopic Space of the (Female) Prison in Goliarda Sapienza’s and Dacia Maraini’s Narratives’ ( Goliarda Sapienza in Context, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016), which I substantially revised and expanded in Chapter 5.
Lastly, my deepest love and gratitude go to my parents, for always believing in me, and in my work.
Originally coined to designate a theoretical paradigm for thinking about the social constructivism inherent to the notions of gender and sexual identity, ‘queer’ has by now become a ubiquitous term in the field of critical theory and beyond. Emerging from ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ studies, with which it shares a rebuttal of essentialist categories, ‘queer’ also departs from them in expanding its realm of investigation to sexualities that do not fall neatly within binary opposites. Opening up to articulations beyond the gender divide, it can be interpreted as a confrontation vis-à-vis heterosexuality, as any other hegemonic understanding of the relations between gender, sex and identity. Commenting on the practical implications of ‘queer’, and on its institutionalization as an academic discipline, David Halperin has recognized its importance in ‘support[ing] non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality, encouraging both theoretical and political resistance to normalization’ (2008: 341). As often happens for all-encompassing labels, over time ‘queer’ has acquired diverse meanings, proving to be a productive tool of analysis for theoretical discourses that intersect with postcolonial theory, psychoanalysis, race studies, disability studies, poststructuralism and posthumanism, just to name a few.←1 | 2→
For the purposes of this study, I intend to restore the original meaning of ‘queer’ as – to reappropriate Dacia Maraini’s epigraph to this book – ‘a more fluid way of being sexed’, which comes very close to saying, as Judith Butler does, that there is no ontological reality behind one’s anatomical configuration, for the body is ‘always already a cultural sign’ (1999: 90). The paradigm that I propose in this study analyses what I define as the queering of gender in Italian women’s writing, with a particular focus on three authors. Such a paradigm takes cognizance of the historical and socio-cultural backdrops against which the texts are produced, though interpreting them in the light of theories that are more usually applied to texts of more recent vintage. Whilst acknowledging previous (feminist) interpretations, I also depart from these by suggesting that the chosen narratives go beyond female advocacy by challenging any fixed notion of gender and sexual identity. I use the expression ‘queer(ing)’ with the suffix ‘ing’ contained parenthetically in the title to outline the performative process of identity formation, in line with the queer belief that individuals are not gendered from the outset but become so as the effect of the imposition of predetermined socio-cultural norms. The ‘queering’ paradigm that I advance in this book allows for close textual and intertextual readings, examining non-normative characters, situations and spaces as problematizing binary associations between sex, gender and sexual desire.1 The current resistance to queer theories in Italy makes an approach of this kind all the more timely. Against the backdrop of its difficult national reception, I suggest the adoption of a transnational and much debated concept to (re)read texts pertaining to the Italian literary tradition and to illuminate their ongoing relevance.
Queer(ing) Gender in Italian Women’s Writing uses a queer lens to investigate the works of Dacia Maraini (1936–), Goliarda Sapienza (1924–1996) and Elsa Morante (1912–1985) written between the 1970s and 1980s. This timeframe coincides with the height of the Italian pensiero della differenza sessuale, emphasizing the socially constructed nature of ‘woman’ and advocating a new symbolic order, with a focus on the redefinition of female identity. Yet, the texts examined in this study are not, or not just, feminist manifestoes. This book argues that, while sharing with their fellow feminists a marked concern with issues around questions of identity, sexuality and corporeality, Maraini, Sapienza and Morante also went beyond the theoretical paradigms available at the time and moved on to challenge and problematize the notion of identity itself. Read today, their writings appear in line with Anglo-American queer theories concerned with presenting subjectivity as non-linear, multiple and irreversibly fragmented. An approach of this sort stands as an original contribution to the philosophical paradigm of the Italian pensiero della differenza sessuale, understood as the advocacy for an autonomous soggetto donna that marks the cultural context in which these authors belong.←2 | 3→
Italian pensiero della differenza places at its centre the material, corporeal dimension and promotes the irrefutable difference between man and woman, namely, the fact of being differently sexed. In her retrospective analysis of Italian second-wave feminism, philosopher Adriana Cavarero equates sexual difference with being ‘engendered in a different sex [which] is something not negotiable’ inasmuch as, for each woman, ‘the difference is rooted in her being […] as that which she necessarily is: female’ (Cavarero qtd. in Bono and Kemp 1991: 16). This fundamental attention to the corporeal dimension represents one of the distinctive traits of Italian advocates of sexual difference and, at once, their main point of departure from those theoretical assumptions that proliferated in the 1990s in the North American context and that have now been gathered under the name of queer theory – born out of feminism and, partially, as a reaction to it (in Butler’s terms, ‘ “women”, the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought’ 1999: 5).2 Albeit also relying heavily on the corporeal sphere, the texts of Maraini, Sapienza and Morante considered in this book do so less as a validation of the specificity of the individual (female) experience than as an exposure of the mechanisms of power played upon it, investigating ‘the possibility of reworking normative gender categories’ (Butler 1997b: 3). While it is true that the time was ripe for a radical approach to issues of gender and sexuality, given the deep transformation in mores and customs that society was then undergoing, it is also true that their works and the ideological agendas staged therein stand out from the main literary trends of the day. A queer approach thus proves useful so as to group three writers who do not always share the same stance towards the dominant theoretical paradigm of their time and its primary concern towards the marginalization of woman as ←3 | 4→ ‘other’. To this, they respond with a mutual uneasiness towards the binary categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’; categories that are largely maintained by feminist criticism and that queer sets out to challenge.←4 | 5→
Dacia Maraini is currently one of the leading and most celebrated figures of the Italian contemporary literary panorama, where she has established a reputation as a committed activist for women’s rights. For Rodica Diaconescu-Blumenfeld, the late 1960s marked the onset of Maraini’s activism (2000: 4). From the campaigns and surveys carried out in support of the legalization of abortion during the 1970s to the creation of the women-only fringe theatre La Maddalena, or from the staging of her first feminist play Manifesto dal carcere (1969) to the enquiries on women’s prisons for the daily Paese Sera from which her novel Memorie di una ladra (1972) is drawn, numerous are the testimonies to Maraini’s relentless activism in those years. Concurring with critic Grazia Sumeli Weinberg, for whom a markedly feminine viewpoint subtends the author’s artistic production as a whole (1993: 23), Maraini acknowledges her role as a writer to be that of unveiling the intricate dynamics of power and unbridgeable differences between the sexes, starting from the assumption that ‘la discriminazione viene da lontano, ha radici profonde’ [discrimination comes from afar, it is deeply rooted] (Maraini 1987: xxix–xxx) and, as such, needs to be brought to the surface in order to uncover the mechanisms of gender oppression and abuse that have become ingrained in the social tissue through centuries of enduring patriarchy.3 But Maraini does not limit herself to exposing the shortcomings of patriarchal laws, specifically in the regulation of female sexuality; she also engages in a process of denaturalization and reconfiguration of the same. The arduousness, and revolutionary potential, of such a task has been aptly captured by Sharon Wood: ‘[Maraini] challenged what she perceived as a narrowly bourgeois, bien-pensant categorization and regulation of sexuality as serving the interests of rhythms of production and reproduction in a capitalist society’ (1995: 219). Despite her commitment to the woman’s cause, the author has always been reluctant to label herself as a ‘feminist’, to which she prefers the expression ‘dalla parte delle donne’ [on the side of women] (Diaconescu-Blumenfeld 2000: 3). Recently, when interviewed by Joseph Farrell on the commonplace that sees her as ‘una scrittrice “femminista” ’ [a feminist writer], she has provided a lucid response to the relevance of the women’s movement in the twenty-first century: ‘Il femminismo era un’ideologia, come il marxismo, come il socialismo. Le ideologie sono tutte morte, così anche il femminismo. […] Ora si può parlare di una prassi, male grandi ideologie, come le grandi utopie […] sono finite ed è giusto parlarne come di un fenomeno storico concluso’ [Feminism was an ideology, in the same way as Marxism and Socialism were. Ideologies are all dead, and so is feminism […] Now you can speak of a practice, but the great ideologies, as well as the great utopias […] no longer exist, and it is important to treat them as concluded historical phenomena] (Farrell and Maraini 2015: 125–6). In the same interview, while discussing what is generally considered her most explicitly feminist text, Donna in guerra, Maraini observed: ‘l’ho scritto in un periodo per cui per l’appunto il femminismo era ancora un sistema di idee, vivo e importante per il mondo femminile. Si scrive dentro una epoca, dentro un clima, anche quando si crede di esserne fuori. Poi le cose cambiano e anche la scrittura cambia, i temi si modificano, è normale che sia così’ [I wrote it, precisely, at a time when feminism was still a relevant and important ideological system for women. One writes under the influence of their historic time, even when they think they are extraneous to it. But then things change and writing changes, too; one chooses different topics, this is normal] (Farrell and Maraini 2015: 133). In the light of Maraini’s own remarks, then, a productive way to read the texts that most reflect her involvement with the feminist movement would be to treat them as not just products of their time, but as gesturing towards contemporary quandaries over taken-for-granted notions of gender and sexuality that are at the heart of the debates between present and past feminist theory and more recent queer approaches.←5 | 6→
Sapienza’s stance on the woman’s cause traces back to the influential ‘Woman Under Socialism’, originally published in 1879 by German socialist politician August Bebel.4 The first comprehensive account on the plight of women in capitalist society made by a Marxist, Bebel’s work is a denunciation of the exploitation of women as a means of production (of men’s progeny) and, at once, a source of unpaid labour. Such is, according to Angelo Pellegrino, the ideological legacy that Sapienza inherited from Maria Giudice. With a socio-political background of this kind, Sapienza’s hostility to certain manifestations (she would call them ‘infantilisms’, in the sense of involutions and degenerations) of feminism comes as no surprise. The author regarded 1970s Italian feminism as anachronistic since, for her, the women’s movement as she had known it had died with her mother, failing to reach its greater end. It was the feminism for which Giudice herself had fought her whole life, and whose vestiges could be found in the practical and legal gains attained by women during the previous decade – gains, that, however, had only partially resolved the contradictions of women in a patriarchal society. Sapienza was firm in her criticism against the tendency of Italian feminists towards separatism, a tendency that consolidated during the 1980s after the publication of the famous issue Sottosopra verde (1983) by the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, sanctioning the need for separatism as a political strategy (Bono and Kemp 1991: 118–22). Moreover, for Sapienza, the emancipation of woman could not possibly be attained through the aping of men on the part of ‘lady di ferro, donne poliziotte, soldate e culturiste’ [iron women, policewomen, female soldiers and female bodybuilders] (Io, Jean Gabin 3), a category of masculine women emulating men’s occupational choices that, as we read in the incipit of Io, Jean Gabin (2010), the author saw as encapsulated in the figure of English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.5←6 | 7→
Disseminated in Sapienza’s private correspondence we find insightful clues on the reasons behind her aversion towards feminism and, particularly, its separatist strand. In a letter to literary critic Enzo Siciliano, the author expressed her delight and surprise for the favourable reception of her colossal L’arte della gioia by feminist Adele Cambria, a key figure in post-’68 Italy who had read Sapienza’s book in manuscript form: ‘proprio per lottare per questo odio-malattia infantile del femminismo (nato tardi, purtroppo, e da quello americano invece che dalla matrice vera e ricca delle femminilissime voci della Kollontaj, della Woolf e di mia madre stessa) presi a scrivere delle avventure di Modesta dieci anni fa a costo di mettermi contro di loro’ [it was to fight this infantile hatred-craze of feminism (which, unfortunately, was born out late from American feminism, rather than its real matrix, that is, Kollontaj’s, Woolf ’s or even my mother’s feminism) that ten years ago I began to write about Modesta’s adventures, at risk of siding against them] (Sapienza-Pellegrino Archive, unpublished 167). Standing not against feminism per se, and in fact defending the ideology of which her mother was a spokesperson, Sapienza found fault with what she regarded as a form of ‘odio razzista’ [racist hatred], a resentment that Pellegrino, in the afterword to Io, Jean Gabin, defines as ‘la sua amarezza e il dissenso verso un certo tipo di femminismo che portava dritto all’omologazione dei sessi’ [her disappointment and dissent towards a certain type of feminism that led straight to the homologation between the sexes] (2010: 121). For Sapienza, man-hating feminists were responsible for replicating the dynamics of patriarchy, trading age-old patterns of exclusion for new ones, thus ultimately running counter to the ideals of emancipation that she found encapsulated in the advocacy for radical social change of Marxist revolutionary Alexandra Kollontaj or in the support of women’s personal experience contained in the feminist literary criticism of novelist Virginia Woolf. It is against a feminism epitomized in the woman ‘che per avere il coraggio di parlare si traveste di panni maschili’ [who disguises herself as a man in order to find the courage to speak] that Sapienza addressed her contempt: ‘Lo capii leggendo “Il secondo sesso” della De Beauvoir e se c’è ←7 | 8→ fra voi qualche ragazza che porta la cravatta o gli sta spuntando la barba le consiglio […] di leggersi quel libro prezioso’ [I realized it while reading De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and if there is some girl who wears the tie or who is starting to grow a beard among you, I advise her […] to read this precious book] (Lettera aperta, unpublished manuscript 46). In her letter to Siciliano recalled above, the author continued her crusade against what she regarded as a degenerate version of historical feminism, going as far as to call it ‘veleno’ [venom], culpable in her eyes of separating men from women. Going beyond the models of relationality put forward by the feminist movement of the day, in her texts Sapienza is able to forge new spaces that challenge institutionalized social arrangements whilst also suggesting new forms of being and relating to others.←8 | 9→
Morante is recognized internationally as one of the most original and influential authors of twentieth-century Italian literature. Refractory to the leftist slogans of her time and their call for politically engagé writers as she was to the feminist movement’s demands for the literary representation of women and their struggles, she was well known for her anti-conformism. The author refused to adhere to any ideological movement, and manifested a marked aversion for all ‘isms’ – including feminism – that dominated the Italian cultural scene in post-war Italy (Wood 1995: 153). During her lifetime, and beyond, Morante was the target of criticism by feminist and non-feminist authors alike who reproached her for portraying mythologized female characters more identifiable with the natural world than with the combative ideals of womanhood promoted by the women’s movement. The position of Anna Nozzoli is emblematic in this respect. In her Tabù e coscienza (1978), she accused Morante of being hostile to her own sex; an anti-feminist.6 In the eyes of Nozzoli, and of other feminist critics with her, Morante was culpable of failing to produce politically engagé female characters (Lucamante and Wood 2006: 7–8). It is likely that this animosity was fostered by the author’s refusal to refer to herself as a ‘scrittrice’ [woman writer], preferring instead ‘scrittore’ [man writer], which, however, reflected less her unwillingness to be assimilated to her own sex than her attempt to combat sexist resistance towards literature produced by women (Bernabò 1991: 11). Moreover, Morante was accused of essentialism because of the representation of female characters that allegedly perpetuated the culture versus nature stereotype for being mostly lower class and subjugated to dominant husbands, or else destined to sexual repression and self-effacing motherhood ( Jeuland-Meynaud 1989). Cesare Garboli took up such accusations when claiming that ‘nessuno dei messaggi della Morante ha per destinatarie le donne, né può essere indiziato di solidarietà con la loro lotta, la loro ideologia, le loro battaglie in favore dell’emancipazione femminile’ [none of Morante’s messages are directed towards women, nor can they be said to share solidarity with their struggle, their ideology, their battles for female emancipation] (1995: 223). Taking his allegations to greater length, he went as far as to assert the author’s purported masculine (and masculinist) identification: ‘Se a una madre si chiede di fare da educatrice, da guida, da aiuto nella difesa dei diritti della donna, se a una madre si chiede un atteggiamento solidale nei confronti del maschio, la Morante può essere considerata sì e no una pessima matrigna’ [If we ask a mother to act as a teacher or a guide, to help in the defence of women’s rights, or if we ask a mother to be sympathetic with men, Morante can, at best, be considered a terrible stepmother] (1995: 223–4). Critics have rightly detected in Garboli’s words the misogynist assumption that a female author should necessarily have other women as addressees and, besides, her writings should invariably be informed by a feminist message (Lucamante and Wood 2006: 9). While it is undeniably true that Garboli’s allegations can be read as misogynist, it is also true that they seem to originate in some controversial statements advanced by Morante herself. The fact that the author was recalcitrant towards the positions of feminism is well known. Morante openly admitted her preference for ‘le vere madri’ [real mothers]; in her own words: ‘Ho un grande amore per la donna semplice. Non amo molto le femministe perché ritengo che la donna sia una creatura necessaria all’umanità, agli uomini. Amo molto le donne come Nunziatella dell’Isola di Arturo, come Aracoeli. Mica tanto le signore borghesi o le intellettuali’ [I cherish simple women. I do not like feminists much because I believe woman is a necessary creature for the humankind, for men. I love women who are like Nunziatella ←9 | 10→ from L’isola di Arturo, or Aracoeli. Not so much bourgeois or intellectual women] (Schifano 1984: 125). This assertion could seem disturbingly conservative, as well as anachronistic, since it conflates the idea of motherhood and womanhood at a time when women were channelling their struggles against a discrimination based on their biological difference from men, in a bid to free themselves from the patriarchal model of femininity as the dual ideal of ‘donna madre’ [woman-mother]. Her contradictory remarks notwithstanding, the fact remains that all of Morante’s novels are infused with controversial taboo topics and borderline behaviours, oftentimes verging on pathologies including unresolved Oedipal dramas and sexual obsessions. Never before, however, had the author tackled so explicitly all of these issues at once as she did in her last novel Aracoeli (1982), which is unique in the Morantean repertoire for stretching the boundaries of representability of gender and sexuality to an unprecedented level. Staging queer characters that transcend a straightforward man/woman dichotomy while also addressing the violence of a regime of compulsory heterosexuality, in the context in which the novel was written the authorial choice of the themes it tackles is historically, and ideologically, remarkable.←10 | 11→
Without discarding the validity of previous feminist interpretations of Maraini’s, Sapienza’s and Morante’s works, in this book I propose a different perspective, one that acknowledges their sharing of many of the concerns of feminism, whilst also going beyond the movement’s ideology.7 Through close readings of a corpus of texts they wrote in the 1970s and 1980s, queer theory will prove a productive line of enquiry to investigate the critical attitude that these writers upheld towards the cultural and philosophical positions of their time and to suggest new ways of understanding their works nowadays. Issues of corporeality permeate their works. And yet, without leaving the materiality of the body behind, Maraini, Sapienza and Morante stand out from their contemporaries in responding to the dominant philosophical and ideological positions of the 1970s and 1980s – specifically, those emphasizing differenza sessuale as a dualistic biological category – in a most original way, formulating alternative discourses and contesting the notions of sexual and gender identity as predetermined and static categories.
Chapter 1 continues with an exploration of the socio-cultural milieu in which Maraini’s, Sapienza’s and Morante’s works were produced, with a focus on the formulations and practices at the heart of the Italian pensiero della differenza sessuale. This allows me to contextualize the authors within the preeminent cultural and philosophical debates of their time and to establish their originality in foregrounding, in their works, queer formulations elaborated within the North American context in the early 1990s. I also offer a terminological clarification of queer and of the reasons behind my choice of using it as a tool for critical enquiry. I conclude the chapter with an overview of the Italian response to queer theory, both at a grassroots and academic level, considering the reasons behind its problematic national circulation.
- X, 306
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2021 (May)
- Italian Studies Women’s Writings Gender Studies Queer Studies Dacia Maraini Goliarda Sapienza Elsa Morante
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 306 pp.