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Interview Melania Mazzucco

"Dear Stacey,
I had great impressions during my short time in Holland. Antwerpen was interesting too – but but so tiring for me. And then Berlin, and Frankfurt, the Buchmesse – so amazing – and back home, back to my new researches, to my new novel, and then on the road again, 'cause Vita was just out in Spain by Anagrama.
Vita changed my life indeed, you know.
Hope to meet you again, and maybe that day I would have learned a bit more english, and I would not speak and write like a child...
But thank you for our talk in Amsterdam, and un caro abbraccio
Melania G. Mazzucco"

Melania Mazzucco
Stacey Knecht


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SK — Vita opens with an intriguing quote: ‘America doesn't exist. I should know – I've been there.’
MM — The quote is from the film Mon oncle d’Amérique by Alain Resnais. It is meant ironically, of course! Because America does exist. What doesn’t really exist, or at least, what remained unattainable for many immigrants in the last century, was the American dream. This quote is a way of explaining to the reader that Vita is the story of a dream. A dream that people all over the world once dreamt. America meant the chance of a better life. Each reader can interpret the quote in their own way, but for me it symbolizes my grandfather, Diamante, who came back from America with nothing at all.

SK — What year was that?
MM — He came back in 1912, to serve in the military. After that he decided not to try life in America again. He remained in Italy, as an Italian. But I think he actually did bring back something from America: the feeling that he had the right to a better life, in Italy.

SK — The book is dedicated to your father, Roberto, who died in 1989. He said something to you once, which you obviously took very seriously: ‘Remember not to forget.’ Yet you also write that Italians have aan ‘aangeboren argwaan jegens de herinnering’. Was your father an exception?
MM — Italy is a country with a very selective memory. The story of our immigration, for example: at the beginning of the 20th century many Italians emigrated, and at the end of that same century people began immigrating to Italy! We have become a kind of America. The memory of this change is an important one. But we Italians have a kind of memory-blackout: we’ve wiped out the past. We prefer to think that the poverty never happened. Every family preserves its own private memory of immigration, of suffering, of poverty, but official history prefers to delete it from the records. That’s why, for me, and for my father too, it was important to remember what we are, what we were. It’s important to remember that my grandfather had to leave without anything, just a few dollars –

SK — Sewn into his underwear –
MM — (laughs) Yes! When I was a child, my father used to tell me this story. I couldn’t believe it, because it was so strange for me, growing up in a country that was so different! It was a story lost in the past. But I understood what my father was trying to tell me. Ten or fifteen years later, when I was studying cinematography at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, I began to understand even more. At that time we had as our teachers the great screenwriters of the Italian cinema, the nuovo realismo and the commedia italiana. I learned a lot from them. I learned to see the world, to see reality, to see the people, hear their stories. We made a documentary about immigrants, so I interviewed many, many boys from Africa and every other part of the world, and I saw where they were living, in Rome, in my country. And I thought, this is familiar. This is how my grandfather lived when he went to the USA.

SK — A kind of mirror image.
MM — Yes. I met a boy, Mahmud, he said he was Egyptian, but I don’t think he really was – Italians love Egypt, so if you say you’re Egyptian, everything is fine, but I think he was Algerian! Anyway, he was fourteen or fifteen years old, alone, he lived, like Diamante in the third part of the book, in a railway station with other men. He was selling hashish – he wasn’t a criminal, he was just making a living – and his dream was to become Italian and remain in Rome. The light I saw in the eyes of this boy was the light I saw in the eyes of my grandfather. The hope and desperation, but also the life, shining in the eyes of this boy, alone, in a foreign country, without speaking a word of Italian. My grandfather’s story was still alive.

SK — Was that when you decided to write about it?
MM — At that moment, I understood the meaning of his story. The symbolic meaning. And why my father was trying to tell it. But it took me ten more years to decide to write about it, and to understand how to write it. I realized that I had to be in the novel, as myself, with my own name, because I was a kind of witness. But I was also a character, because I didn’t have the right to tell the story of my parents’ failures without telling of my own.

SK — Vita is publicized as a novel, but it’s more than that. You say you knew you had to include yourself as a character. Can you tell me more about why you chose this blend of fact and fiction?
MM — I didn’t want to write a work of pure fiction. I could’ve given Diamante a different name, or not used my real surname, ‘Mazzucco’, but I felt that the reader had to know that Diamante really lived. He really lived in that boardinghouse in New York, he really had to go to work on the railroad. People really lived that way. It wasn’t a fantasy. Vita is a novel. But I was trying to find a way to write a new novel, a novel with a real history, about real people who disappeared from history, without a trace. A kind of monument to life. You know that in Italian, ‘vita’ means ‘life’ –

SK — Yes, that’s actually the extent of my Italian vocabulary –
MM — That’s interesting, because the title of this book, in every language, will remain Vita, in every part of the world. My publishers have all told me, ‘Everyone knows what it means! We don’t have to change it!’ Which is wonderful for me, of course.
This book is a monument to common people, who lived and died and disappeared from history. Usually, when a life is over, you have something left – documents, photos, letters – but these people wrote nothing, perhaps a card now and then…

SK — And they often didn’t write about what was really happening. They gave their own version: ‘Everything’s fine!’ ‘We’ve got great jobs!’
MM — Yes, and that was one of the discoveries I made in writing this book and speaking with witnesses. Everyone told a personal history, a personal story of the past. A lot of lies: ‘white lies’, but lies.

SK — Were they really lies, or just people forgetting?
MM — No, I think people were trying to rewrite their past. And they rewrote their past by telling a story. For example, my grandfather Diamante never told us about the trip he made with Vita. He said that Vita was just a girl living in NY. But that they had grown up together – that, he never told us.

SK — Why do you think he didn’t tell you?
MM — Because he had decided to live in Italy, with another woman, and the rest was over. He also said that the Mazzucco’s were originally from the north of Italy, but we were not, we were from the south! Diamante decided to change the story. To make it better. That’s what all immigrants do. For example, when I was interviewing those boys in Rome, Mahmud showed me the letters he wrote to his mother. ‘Dearest Mama, everything is okay, I’m working, I’m living with my friends…’ You can’t tell the truth about your suffering.

SK — I guess people don't like to admit to failure, either…
MM — Of course not. That’s why writing this book was such a surprise for me, because there were so many things I never knew. I think that what you want others to know about you, is just as important as what you really experienced. The two make up a person’s identity: truth and lies. That’s why there are a lot of stories in the novel that may never have happened, but Diamante and Vita and Geremia told them, so it’s important that I tell them too. Even if I discover that they’re not true.

SK — In other words, the fact that someone chooses to tell or not tell a particular story tells something about that person.
MM — Exactly. For example, Federico, the man from Piemonte who supposedly discovered water in Tufo – he never existed. But according to my grandfather, he was ‘the first Mazzucco’. And the fact that my grandfather would tell us this is significant.

SK — Water is life. So if someone is able to find it, I imagine he’s pretty important.
MM — In the Mediterranean cultures, the man who finds water is the man who gives a name to the territory. If you don’t know the names of places, you can’t find them. So yes, it was a kind of lie that my grandfather told, but it’s also symbolic.

SK — How did you feel about that? You realized the value of the lies, the stories, but were you also disappointed to find that things you always assumed were true, were not?
MM — I was surprised, but I tried to understand why. That was my function. There’s a funny story. When I found out that the Mazzucco’s have always lived in the south of Italy, in all that poverty and misery, I went to my uncle, Amedeo, and I said, ‘Amedeo, I’ve found documents that prove we always lived in Tufo. We’re southern.’ But Amedeo didn’t believe me. He said, ‘You must be wrong.’ He preferred to cling to his own truth. When Vita was published, I was a bit worried about the reaction of my family, but I was surprised that everyone was quite moved, about the things I wrote, and that I’d had the courage to write them. Often in Italian families, as I said before, there is a kind of shame about what we suffered outside our country. After the success of Vita, many emigrants wrote letters to me – they had read the book and they loved it. It was their life. When I won the Premio Strega, there was a big party, and thousands of people came with a copy of the book for me to sign – but also to talk with me. One woman said that her mother had told her to come, she had read the book and told her daughter, ‘This is my story, I am Vita. If Vita is now an important novel, then my life is important, too. Tell the writer she gave me back my dignity.’ I was so moved that I cried.

SK — I can imagine that.
MM — I had wanted to write a convincing story, but my own life was so different. When I heard the words of that woman, I felt I had succeeded.

SK — At one point you write that Vita, the little girl who went to America, was the hope of her family. But Diamante was also the hope of his family. Yet the novel is called 'Vita'. Why is she the focus of the book?
MM — That was a very difficult decision. The title should’ve been Diamante. But in fact no, because in the name of the girl, the story of the girl, there’s something in which I recognize myself. ‘Diamante’, in Italian, means ‘diamond’, and a diamond is a precious thing, but a diamond doesn’t shine in the dark. You need light to understand how precious it is. The life of Diamante is a broken life – he never recovered from the betrayal of Vita or the betrayal of his dreams. But my way of living and my way of writing and trying to understand people is different. That’s why there’s a page in the novel in which I talk about the Mazzucco men as being made of stone. Tough guys, but guys that keep everything inside them. My father was a shy man, a very sweet man, but he kept everything inside. My grandfather was like that, too. But I am not.

SK — And neither is Vita.
MM — No. In a way, Vita was my true grandmother. Her way of living, of trying to begin again after failure, is my way. Maybe the real Vita was a woman of stone! But in my dream, at least, Vita is similar to me. There’s a photograph of Vita in the book. Many people say to me, ‘You look just like her!’

SK — It’s fascinating, because she wasn’t really related to you. Perhaps in some spiritual sense?
MM — There were two women in Diamante’s life: maybe I’m a bit of both. Emma was a humble girl, she worked in a factory, but her dream was to be a poet. She abandoned all that for the love of Diamante. Vita was a good mother to her children, but she was also a working woman, she managed a restaurant, she made money. Vita realized the American dream. She found money – which immigrants want more than anything – stability, a new home, a new country. I think that if Diamante had decided to live with her, she would’ve come back to Italy. On the other hand, she may never have survived in the Italy of the 1950's. She was an American woman – she wouldn’t have recognized Italy anymore.

SK — What a contrast: Vita in later life, wealthy, industrious, and the child who had come over on the boat years before. Until I read Vita, I never realized how young some of those children were: Diamante was twelve, Vita was nine, all alone on a battered ship full of immigrants. Perhaps it was nothing unusual in those days for a mother to send her children away…
MM — Immigration was, first of all, a question of men. Men left behind wives, if they had them, and went to the USA alone. They lived together in communities of men, violent and sexually repressed. It’s interesting, because when you think of Italian immigration, you usually think of the Italian mother. But that’s a cliché. Because initially, the men were alone. Later, they brought their families over from Italy. Many men had two families: one in New York and one in Italy. And they loved both. In the novel, Agnello never returned to Vita’s mother, but in reality many Italian men did come back, every few years. Italian mothers sometimes sent their children to their fathers in America, because they thought life would be better there. They put them on the ships and they never saw them again.

SK — You describe it as being a ‘rite of passage’, sending your children off to the New World.
MM — That was my own theory. When I first read the passenger list, I was shocked at how many young boys were on the ship, seventeen, eighteen years old… I’d always had a different image of immigration, families with all their belongings, women in kerchiefs… but that’s another cliché. When Geremia left Minturno to go to America, he went with a man from the same village: one man and ten boys – that was the typical Italian immigrant ‘family’ in the United States. I was very surprised to discover that.
You know, in Italy, only ten years ago, all the immigrants were men, mostly from North Africa. Later, they started bringing over their families. In our schools nowadays, at least 10 or 20 percent of the children come from Africa. There are also a lot of women from Eastern Europe. But before the fall of the Berlin Wall: only men.

SK — Melania, can you remember at what point you decided to include photographs in the book?
MM — Yes. But first let me tell you a little about my first novel, Il bacio della Medusa. It begins with a photograph, in which you can see the protagonist of the story. But this photograph doesn’t really exist. I describe the photograph, the color, what you can see in a corner… but the photograph is imaginary
CHANGE — . Still, it was important for me, because I think that writing, in a way, is like developing a photo in a darkroom: you let things emerge from the darkest part of yourself. And the same thing happens in the darkroom when the photographer sees things emerging that he never knew he’d seen. That’s why I chose to begin my first novel, the first book I’d ever written in my life, with a photograph. It was a way of explaining how I write. I’ve been fascinated by images all my life. Don’t forget, I studied cinematography!
I didn’t have many photographs of my grandfather. Nothing from his childhood, only the photo of him at 24, which is in the book. I’m not even sure that the girl in the picture of Vita is really Vita! It could be anyone. Anything I could find, I used in the book. These are ‘pieces of life’, of lives. Evidence. Perhaps imaginary, as in my first novel, but still. I build my novels using documents from the past.
The novel Vita actually 'created' life, created more stories. After the success of the book, I got many letters from readers who had found the names in the book of their parents, or grandparents. They said, ‘Please help me find out more!’ One man wrote, ‘Help me find news of my grandfather! We know he went to the United States at the beginning of the century, but we know nothing of his life after the day he left Italy.’
So you see, sometimes truth creates lies and lies create truth. Maybe I should write a book about what happened to me after the novel was published!
SK — Your father said, ‘Remember not to forget.’ Have you accomplished, with Vita, what you set out to do? Or does the journey continue?

MM — Vita was a very important, fixed point in my life. I was thirty years old and I wanted to know who I was, now that I had become myself. I’d lived my whole life trying to become myself. And I had to be myself before trying to understand what family was. It was my responsibility, too, to try and understand our story – I’m like the last of the Mohicans, the last Mazzucco. I think I’ve succeeded. Vita is the journey’s end.
The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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