Conversation / 25 December 2016

If I Would, I Would Not Be Free

An Interview with the Italian writer Susanna Tamaro

The story of the creative path of the Trieste-based writer Susanna Tamaro reads like the story of one of her works: the path of empowerment. Her first novel, Illmitz, was not accepted by the publishers. Public Italian television RAI, where she worked in the 80s, did not want to employ her because, even as a woman with a degree in directing, she did not seem educated enough to them. After the publication of her novel La testa fra le nuvole (1989) she got sick with asthmatic bronchitis and moved from Rome the Umbrian town of Orvieto. The critics noticed her first in 1991, when her second novel, Per voce solo, received the international PEN award. Her third published novel, Follow Your Heart, became an international bestseller and the most sold book in Italy in the 20th century. She admits she needed a couple of years to recover after that immense success. “The expectation simply become too big. Your readers want your next novels to be as strong and as convincing. But it's not that simple. I am not a bestselling author. If I were, it would be much easier. I was just immensely lucky.” She wishes that the attention would go to her works only, and not to her personally, so she leads a nun-like life. She lives alone, among many pets.

Follow your heart is a novel about happiness. The grandmother, who writes letters to her grand-daughter, does not perceive happiness as an emotional state, but more as a cluster of patience and peace. Is this sort of happiness characteristic of older people?

I think it is. Young people want ecstasy, intense, euphoric feelings, they strive for everything exceptional. This becomes tiring after a while. I also think the need for ecstasy is not only characteristic of youth, but determines everybody. The society wants to achieve things quickly, without effort, without structure. When I was a girl, everybody had to work really hard to succeed in something, but today people expect this to be served directly to their table.

But when you wrote the novel, you were yourself young, you were around 35.

True, but as a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and great-grandmother. I think they transferred a lot of life wisdom and intuition onto me. I have identified with the way they perceived the world. I internalized it.

The characters of your stories and novels seem to be helpless or completely scattered at first. In your story entitled “Answer Me,” we meet an orphaned woman who always chooses the wrong partners, as she can't deal with her lack of love and attention. Nevertheless, she gathers enough will, at the most important moment of her life, to do the right thing. Your characters always end up enlightened. Why can they achieve enlightenment? What are they equipped with?

They are simply resilient. Because they have been through a lot, they have developed a sense of themselves, a specific type of strength in their core. If a person is lonely or alone, he or she learns to handle his or her life alone, and this skill can reach a high-point in certain life situations. Maybe we could call this dignity. People are often very wrong when they perceive those who have a had a hard childhood or life in general, as helpless. The fact that you have slipped or suffered once, does not mean that you are not incredibly strong. Strength and will only need time to develop. It is not a rule though, that those who suffered become strong or that suffering is the key ingredient of strength. It is dangerous to think so.

But the majority of people are not resilient. The majority choose to suffer comfortably or their suffering turns them into bad people.

That is very true. The reasons for that are either genetic or social or sociological. A person's psychology is also a factor. Society needs weak people, weak people are much more interesting.

Why is that so?

A weak person is a good consumer. He is easy to lead, insecure, very dependent. Because he can't rely on himself, he surrounds himself with things. He surrounds himself with people, as if they were things. Something has to fill his void. But this void can't be solved, and he can become an even worse person. Bitter, even offensive. In general, people want somebody or something else to set limitations to their lives and decisions. That can be another person or an institution or the general social atmosphere. At the same time, an individual wants to be an individual, the innovator in his and of his life. The majority of people never come out of this duality, this ambivalence.

We are speaking of freedom, actually?


Freedom is hard, not because there would not be any limitations, but because a person has to set these limitations for herself?

Somehow, yes. Although I believe people don't invent their limitations, but only have to realize what these are and accept them in the end. If the rules are not external, they have to be internal.

But this demands a lot of honesty from an individual, and honesty is a strife. People don't want to face those facts about themselves that do not align with their perception of themselves, or don't want to face those features they might perceive as harmful.

Yes, these processes are extremely hard. Mostly because they demand a lot of humility from a person. But not humility in relation to others, more a humility in relation to herself, her relationship to herself. We are not as exceptional or as unimportant as we believe we are. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Are you more or less free as a writer?

More. I do not only know my own limitations. I also know the limitations of the characters I create. I can be more people at the same time.

You are also an active environmentalist. You’ve cooperated with an organization for the protection of animals for a long time now. Is the care of nature only a logical consequence of the care for people?

Definitely. We are all part of the same processes in the universe. I do not distinguish between beings and lives.

I read somewhere that, as a girl, you were quite mystical and etheric, and that out of this your faith developed. How is your faith today?

It is pretty similar to what I have believed in as a child. I have admired nature and have always wondered how it can be so unbearably orderly, even though everything is dying and being born all the time. I suspect that there is something above us, taking care of this all.

But that is not a Christian God?

No, I do not really need that concept. If I would, I would not be free.


Ana Schnabl

Ana Schnabl is a writer and editor, based in a lovely alpine town of Kamnik, Slovenia. She received Best Literary Debut Award for her short story collection "Razvezani". She is also the author of a novel entitled "Mojstrovina". Currently she is working on her third book.