Italian author Dacia Maraini reflects on how her experience in a Japanese concentration camp has influenced her writing.
Dacia Maraini says writing runs in her family. Daughter of a Sicilian princess and a noted Florentine ethnologist, she is one of Italy's foremost authors. Her novels are rooted in humanitarian themes, exploring issues of violence, social injustice and crimes against women and children. Her novel, Buio (darkness) won her the “Premio Strega”, the highest literary honour in Italy. Maraini's first novel was published when she was only 26 and she has gone on to publish numerous novels, collections of poetry, essays and short stories. She also founded Italy's first experimental theatre run solely by women, Teatro della Maddalena. Excerpts from an interview:
You are a prolific writer. What made you start writing?
First of all I come from a writer's family. My father was an ethnologist who always wrote books. My grandmother, who was English by the way, was a writer. It is tough to say why or how, but I started writing very early, when I was 13. I used to write in the school newspaper. Then I started to publish short stories in magazines. Then at 21, I started writing novel.
Your work is strongly feminist, and there are threads of both social and political activism...
I won't say that my work is political; I would say it's social. When you say political you refer to an ideology. I don't believe so much in ideology. I believe in ‘being on the side of'. I'm on the side of women, of any person who's away from the centre of the society, who is treated with injustice and violence. In my books, I try to investigate the theme of violence. I've written two books on violence against children. I'm a pacifist. But then, these are also novels. I write stories.
This attempt to explore violence and war, is it because of your own experience of having experienced both at such a young age?
Yes. In 1946, the Japanese government asked all Italians in Japan to sign an agreement with the Fascist government in Italy. My mother and father were anti-fascist. They wouldn't sign the agreement. So they took my parents and their three daughters — I was six; my sisters were four and two — to a concentration camp in Japan for two years. They didn't give us enough to eat, we were starving; we suffered from beri beri and anaemia. Every day, the guards would count the people in the camp, and say when we they won the war they'd cut our throats. I was a child; I didn't know if we were going to win or not. I was terrorised by the idea that the family would be slaughtered. It was a very important, a very dramatic experience for me.
And the stories in your books? Where do you find them or the inspiration for them?
Depends. I wrote two historical novels; one, which became very famous and was translated in many languages, is my most popular book: La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa (The Silent Duchess). It is about a girl who is deaf and mute and was set in Sicily in 18th century. Another is a true story about a girl who was killed in Rome in the early 20th century. The murderer was a powerful military person who paid off all witnesses. It was a big scandal in Italy. I studied the story; spoke to the girl's descendents and tried to understand what happened. Buio (Darkness) is about violence against children inspired from real stories.
Tell us about your work with women's theatre.
It's not that it is for women but it is made by women. In theatre traditionally, there were actresses but no women directors, playwrights, no female technicians. We decide to give place to women's expressions. When we started, we were the first ones, and now, because of us, there are women making plays all over Italy.
What are the authors you read?
Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, I love their work. Also, the American poet, Emily Dickinson. I also admire Sylvia Plath. I don't know about influence, but I love these writers.
How has this trip to India been?
For us, in Europe, Gandhi was very important. We think of India as the world of Gandhi. He gave an idea that you can change the world without making war. Of course, I know there are hundreds of other things, but this is very important for me.