The New Illiteracy

On Writing about the Body in Italy

/ by Elisa Biagini

Caricature by Harry Hancock
I read my first books, understood my first conversations and observed the interactions between adults in the 70s, when there were still bookstores in my city, and my parents and their friends seemed quite confident that things would improve, and the world could become a better place.

Then came the 80s (and, for me, adolescence) and, unfortunately, we all know what happened.

In those books I read for hours, the main characters were little girls (or females of other species) rebelling against the traditional roles of wives, mothers, daughters, who often left their stifling environment to become musicians, writers or explorers, choosing to have full control and awareness of their life and bodies (and none of them wanted to be on TV). Perhaps it was precisely during these readings that I decided to become a poet, and to write about our “being in the world,” and the relationship with others, interested in a narrative where the body was at the center, from the very beginning.

The body as a natural filter through which we interpret reality has always been political, especially that of women, and so has its story. The responsibility of the writer is to try to draw a map, connect the dots that form a common body, giving voice to a thought that carries the imprint of that entity, crafting a word that covers the void between one body and another. And the deeply political aspect of this act is in its insistent search for the other, despite his being abysmally far, who alone can give fullness to our being: the tension, the dialogue, the shift of our center of gravity by means of words, this is the attempt of poetry. But which is the language that outlines this territory, which is its grammar? I believe it’s the “exact” word, the one that tells the whole truth about the body, but does it sideways (a la Emily Dickinson), never in a direct, didactic, inevitably trivial way. A tale never comforting, raising constant questions and facing its own contradictions, that could indulge, but always in a controlled manner, always aware of itself, never repressed.

Sadly, it seems to me that the narrative of the body that one could find in a lot of prose and poetry by women in Italy in recent years has a literal and monotonous approach: the gaze on the “entirety”  of the female body by the writers of the previous decades has been replaced by younger authors, with a way of looking at the body in "pieces" (and not in “fragments” that could be recomposed), quite similar to the univocal and traditional male view of women. Proud of their illusory emancipation from bourgeois and Catholic conventions, these women acquiesce, to the delight of publishers and male readers alike, to a cultural model of ubiquitous “sexualization” that, thanks to television, has been ruling since the 80s. The only body that interests them is the sexual one, described with a childish defiant attitude, in all its predictable aspects.

Inevitably, the language of such narratives has become progressively less original, in line with commercial standards, simplified with an apparent sophistication in fact borrowed from pornography, and its lack of imagination. Faced with such "illiteracy," I wonder what went wrong (but I can easily answer myself by retracing the social and cultural history of this country in the last 30 years), and why all this is not perceived as a problem, not only for obvious political and social reasons, but also because the literary quality of this writing is inevitably poor.

This is not about morals, but about bad writing, boring because it is not interested in complexity (it is much more difficult to write in a nuanced way), embellished with formal virtuosity, but with little regard for thought and emotion. Some believe such direct talking about flesh - read: "gynecological" – to be a sign of great intellectual bravery, the result of a thoughtful philosophical observation of the current times. I think it is rather an issue of intellectual voyeurism and editorial opportunism: thighs sell!

Where is the much-reiterated liberation in adapting so easily to the wishes of the male gaze on the page (and on the screen)? Where is the use of the body as an ideal lens for the understanding of the world, precisely because of its being, at the same time, so universal and so deeply personal? Why, in relatively few years, have we forgotten (or chosen to forget) the work previously done, in Italy and abroad, to develop a richer and more multifaceted language suitable to talk about that “space of flesh” that, historically, women's bodies have been (always told by others)? The pages around me written by women are still haunted by the dichotomy "virgin-whore" that I thought dated and obsolete: either a reassuring and maternal discourse, or a saucy and ambiguous one, committed to denying the complexity and the potentials of the body.

Elisa Biagini

born in Florence in 1970, has lived, studied and taught in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. at Rutgers University, taught Italian there and also taught at Columbia University and New York University. She translated Louise Glück, Sharon Olds and other American poets into Italian for the anthology Nuovi Poeti Americani (Einaudi, 2006), and her translation of Gerry LaFemina's collection, The Parakeets of Brooklyn, won the Bordighera Prize in 2003; it was published by Bordighera in a bilingual edition the next year.

Her poetry has been translated into a dozen languages or more, including French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.

Elisa Biagini lives in Florence and teaches creative writing, literature and art history in Italy and abroad.