Exclusive! “Ulysses was also a woman” says Nadia Terranova, author of Farewell, Ghosts

By Francesca Lombardo. As last month I was nearing the ending of my memoir-novel writing I had the chance to attend a conference about female autobiographic writing at Insieme, a new literary Festival held at the Auditorium of Rome in October 2020, where two of the most interesting female writers of the Italian contemporary literary landscape, Nadia Terranova and Rossana Campo were speaking about female autobiographies and memoirs writing.

Two weeks earlier I had happened to finish reading Nadia Terranova’s latest Novel Farewell, Ghosts, which has been published in the UK and the US by Seven Stories Press. The central theme of the narration is the returning back home as an opportunity  to dispel and process the past but also to look at unresolved traumas with bigger lenses and with a new perspective.

Born in Messina, and Roman by adoption, Nadia Terranova is the author of four novels. Farewell, Ghosts, ( her first book to be published in English) was a finalist for the Premio Strega 2019 and won the Premio Alassio Centolibri. The book has been translated into English by Ann Goldstein, former editor of the New Yorker, and translator of many great authors such as Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Elena Ferrante to name a few.

Farewell, Ghosts tells the story of Ida, a married woman who lives in Rome and goes back to her hometown Messina, as the mother wants to renovate the family home and asks her to go through her possession that dates back to her childhood. Surrounded by the objects of her past, Ida is forced to deal with the trauma she experienced as a girl, twenty-three years earlier, when her father left one morning, never to return. Through the rediscovery of the forgotten objects of her past and a selection of what to keep and what to throw away, and the re-emerging of a conflictual relationship with her mothers, she is forced to revisit, it in light of the woman she has become as a result of that trauma, her past and present fears and her ghosts.

I virtually interviewed Nadia as she is doing a residency at the Santa Maddalena Foundation, an international retreats for writers founded in honour of the late Austrian author Gregor Von Rezzori and today’s managed by his 94 years old wife Baroness Beatrice Monti Della Corte Von Rezzori, a retreat which has hosted international authors of the likes of Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Colm Tóibín, Zadie Smith, Hisham Matar, and many others.

Your last novel, Farewell, Ghosts seems to tap into many aspects of the human’s self-exploration and of coming back home theme of the hero’s journey. Is there a literary referent you had in mind for your novel?

I’d say that my literary referent is Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini, it very similar structure in some way; there is a man who goes back to Sicily, there is a mother who is waiting for him, an abandoned home and a missing father, yet this is from the very point of view of a male narrator. The other example I had in mind is the Odyssey, but here as well, the hero’s journey of coming back home after leaving for an exploration of the world is from the point of view of a male character. I felt there was a missing story about coming back home from the perspective of a woman, which is not often treated in the literature as if it is considered a less significant experience.

Did you have these models in mind right from the beginning?

Yes, although as you know in the writing process you start from a simple idea, you never start by having some narrative models in mind, as you write, it becomes more evident that the story you are writing is modelling on what you take as a literary reference. As I got more into my own story, it also became evident to me another thing that I found interesting. In the mentioned books, there is always a man who lives and a woman who stays behind.

So Ida like Ulysses then?

That’s right, that is probably the most feminist aspect of my novel. She is the traveler, intended as the explorer of new lands and the past is the land to rediscover. Her husband, Pietro, is Telemachus, Ulysses’ father, but he is also Penelope, and like them, her husband is patiently waiting for her at home waiting for her. Ida is coming back home, but that means she has left for another world, another city, and she is now ready to face and explore her past and she will come back different.

That is very interesting, so in this case, the roles are reversed and you have created a new literary character, the man who waits?

Yes, Pietro is available, but Ida doesn’t feel it is necessary to make him part of her trip into her past. This journey is her journey, she needs to experience it by herself, not everything needs to be experienced with your partner or your man. This is probably the most controversial aspect. A woman can be considered selfish if she wishes to live and experience some key aspects of her journey by herself while historically men exclude women from their endeavors. No one is asking Ulysses, “why didn’t you take Penelope with you?” It’s expected that man enters into the world, whether for real or figuratively, without their female partner but the woman’s journey, even a spiritual one, seems to have to be always interconnected with her male companion (partner, husband, etc. ) Often a woman who leaves purposely behind someone, a man, to embark on a journey of self-discovery or simply discovery, is demeaned as selfish and as kind of unnatural. This is the myth I wanted to challenge. In this case, Pietro is a devoted man and doesn’t correspond to the idea of masculinity as we perceive it. She simply could not do that journey with her husband, she had to embark on this journey by herself in order to respect and protect her individuality.

Ida is an immigrant, someone who moves to make another city her home. Talking about migration, and immigration, there is always a strong negative meaning attributed to this status, which is instead ingrained in the human experience. The coming back home theme, clearly implies that someone has emigrated, can you tell us about how you treated this in your novel?

We are all migrants. I am an immigrant, I moved to Rome 17 years ago but I often go back to Sicily, this is why it was important for me to write about the experience of revisiting your home, your childhood, and your family relationships. I think that even if you move away from your hometown or childhood home when you never leave your past behind. Being an immigrant is strongly linked to the theme of revisiting the past. Moving away may feel like you bury your past, but you never remove it. It never ceases to exist, you simply archive it, you put it in different boxes for a certain period but the effects of your past continue to work throughout your life, in different ways and it affects you differently depending on the stage you are at.

How does Ida deal with her past? And how can we in general use our past to unveil or reveal important aspects of our present?

There is a quote by Milan Kundera, I always keep in mind, which says that our memory and our past are like an ever-changing dress, as we look back we always project different meanings to it and we see it in different colours. We can call it Revisionism, if you look at a love story or a family relationship, there are moments that we have seen them in a certain light, and years later we revise them and they bring us back a new meaning.

In Ida’s story, her past also brings back the concept of absence, which is felt very strongly in your novel, is that correct?

Yes, I also wanted to address the pain of the absence Ida feels. Ida’s story is defined by the absence of the father, who simply vanished and never came back. I too have experienced the absence of my family member with my father who died when I was still a child.

What is the most significant memory that still informs your life?

Because of his absence caused by his early death, the memory of the relationship with my father, I think is the most significant memory for me and what it is interesting as I mentioned, it is something that you can experience very differently as time passes. I had the chance to spend with him the first ten years of my childhood before he died. My memory of those years as I was still very young, it was of him as a father. As I turned 38, it was a turning point, I started becoming older than the age when he died, and after that. He started becoming younger than me and so my perception of him changed. I am seeing this as well in Baroness Beatrice. If you think, she is now 94 years old. She still speaks very fondly of her Armenian mother who died at the age of 26 years old. Imagine the immense age gap that there is between them. I think migration as a human journey can also be a temporal experience, and I think it can be applied to how we experience our journey into our past.

Talking about objects in, Farewell, Ghost, objects seem to become a Deux ex-Machina, almost characters in their own rights, like the red box that contains letter images, hence the depositary of the past Idea, can you tell us more about the meaning of objects from the past in this novel?

The question that Ida sets for herself are what to keep and what to throw away from her childhood home, this is already something of some form of a process of selection. This brings us back again to the concept of the past, we can’t and don’t want to keep everything. It comes to mind a poem by Antonella Anneda who talks about pruning away as a key process concerning our past. We are constantly evolving so even our memories, we constantly prune away what is necessary and what is not relevant and that is a process that we can’t control. I think we emerge from this mental exfoliation, different and new. Every 7 years we have new cells, and on the surface so we constantly change.

How much autobiographical is “Farewell to Ghosts” compared to your previous novel, Gli Anni al Contrario (The Years in Reverse)

I’d say that they are both quite autobiographical, yet, Ida is not me though. I’d say she is my alter ego. I was creating a character but I wanted to create a character that would resemble me and of that There are autobiographical in a different way. The Years in Reverse is more autobiographical in the actual narration of the story. That was the story that I have inherited from my father. I wanted to tell his story and it was narrated in the third person. So there is a bit more detachment and less involvement in this narration than in Farewell, Ghosts, where I use the first-person narration. Hence, the narration becomes more subjective and probably feels much more personal to me. The story now is about her though, while her father is only perceived as his absence.

Can you truly say farewell to your demons and ghosts through writing and if so, how cathartic is it?

You never say goodbye to your demons and ghosts, fortunately, we are constantly digging and when you bring back and allow a demon to come back, it brings many others with him. Writing can help you organise your emotions, and put them into a certain order, but I do not believe you ever get rid of your inner ghosts, and thankfully, as otherwise, we would have not had anything left to write about. Initially, those demons are your demons, that pain is your pain so the emotions, then it becomes a book and then you see it as a book, a novel that others interact and connect with.

Where does the idea of a book or a story come from for you?

From a moment, from a memory, from intuition, from something that reconnects to yourself.

You have also written children’s books, what children’s writing gives you that writing for adults doesn’t?

Freedom of imagination, liberty, bringing back my childhood’s point of view, which is very empowering. I still feel like a child at heart. Children have a tenacity about life and about being optimistic that adults no longer have. My children’s books are quite dramatic and tackle pain toobut I believe I always keep a sense of hope and perspective alive, in all my writing and books.

Can you tell us something about your next novel?

It is another story about Messina. I consider it the third one of a trilogy with Messina, my hometown in Sicily as the background Messina … there is still an unresolved conflict with my city.

In general, what do you think when they talk about female or male writing and how men and women differently approach pain in writing?

Sometimes, they talk about female writing in a demeaning way. But I think today we should use this definition to give more status to writing produced by women as for too long literature has been dominated by male voices or even female voices written by males. A lot of great female writing has been lost over many years. If you think about Italian literature, there are very few great female writers from the past we can name like Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg but there are so many who are forgotten like for instance Alba de Céspedes who are still not valued and not ranked at the same level as a male writer. Women are naturally more accustomed to pain. If you think about the female period and bleeding, biologically women are more accustomed to cohabit with pain and, in my view, are much stronger when it comes to the ability to face it and explore it.

The Farewell, Ghosts is available across all major UK retailers as well as from the Italian Bookshop

Facebook Comments