“Writing a book is like playing a game of cards: a game with four people, two rival pairs.” So begins the poetic allegory of writing offered by Elisabetta Rasy at the start of the first edition of the Italian Literary Fiction Festival, held in New York City June 6th – 8th, 2022.
For Rasy the first of this foursome is the writer, partnered with a “secret alter ego” whose “intentions are not always clear.” Of the other pair, one partner “looks careful and fair, but his reputation as a treacherous and unpredictable player precedes him. That is the reader.” But it is the fourth player who is “the truly fearsome rival.” This final player is time. Time would prove to be a central topic throughout the three days: time of writing, time as the recurrence of history, time as memory, time as epochal, and time as the chunk of the present in which living authors let their writing bleed out into the margins of the literal and virtual pages. But not only.
Fabio Finotti, who, for many years before becoming the present Director of the Italian Cultural Institute of New York has been Professor of Italian, and director of the Center for Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, together with the artistic director of this festival, Maria Ida Gaeta, and with the expertise of scholars from various universities, Chiara Benetollo (Bryn Mawr), Monica Calabritto
Those guests included vibrant newer voices like Chiara Valerio, Jonathan Bazzi, Teresa Ciabatti, Francesco Pacifico, Vincenzo Latronico, along with more established writers like Valerio Magrelli, Sandro Veronesi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edoardo Albinati, Walter Siti. These writers presented short stories, essays, but also reflections and personal experiences.
Michela Murgia offered a compelling reading that provided one of the most riveting moments. Contemplating the status of contemporary literary production and its impact, Murgia considered the flexibility of a novel in its invitation to confront topics on which intellectuals might better be understood as witnesses rather than experts. To be sure, intellectuals have a method in observing reality, and necessarily they reveal their standpoint. On the one hand, the writer’s intellectual integrity guarantees truth; on the other, any description is only partial. “The intellectual is bound to the truth for reality to change, with the consequent risk of one’s own life in a dictatorship, at a great personal cost in a democracy”. An attack on her own method came about after she expressed concern regarding Italy’s vaccination campaign in 2021, resulting in an intimidatory refrain of “stai zitta!” (shut up!).
Chiara Valerio instead began her comments with, “Tutto è esatto tutto è mentito” (all is correct, all is a lie). Slightly departing from political analysis, yet sticking to the question of method, Valerio offered a virtuosic performance of writerly art. Witty, ironic, sharp, and at the same time incredibly profound, her piece revealed the complexity of writing in which emerge the striving for “being precise”, but not necessarily authentic. “Esattezza appartiene a chi valuta” (precision belongs to the one who investigates), she proclaims.
The same intensity of approach characterized the comments of Jonathan Bazzi. In his first novel Febbre (Fandango Libri 2019). He takes the reader into a poignant journey in redefining his own identity, juxtaposing his queer experience and with that of his social class, as one who comes from “the margins”. In his second book, Corpi Minori (Mondadori 2022), Bazzi instead subverts the narrative of the heroic role of the oppressed, victim, martyr who overcomes adverse circumstances, offering instead an antihero with a distinctly flawed humanity.
This three-day festival took place at the Italian Cultural Institute and the Center for Italian Modern Art, and concluded at the Rizzoli Bookstore with the announcement of the finalists for the 7th edition of The Bridge Book Award 2022 that sees Jonathan Bazzi, Veronica Galletta, Vincenzo Latronico, Claudia Piersanti and Chiara Valerio for the category of Italian fiction, and Walter Siti for Italian non-fiction.
Fabio Finotti and Maria Ida Gaeta, artistic director of the festival, introduced the recipients of past editions. Elisabetta Rasy with Le Indiscrete (Mondadori 2021), Bridge Book Award 2021, began her speech stressing the importance of book translation as a way for circulating ideas, and as a clear indicator of democracy. The success of this first edition is undeniable, and it was possible, as discussed in the final panels of the last day, thanks to the pivotal role of the cultural institutions involved. To corroborate the leitmotif of the entire event, and to strengthen the dialogue between the literary practices of the US and Italy, Danielle Evans, Margo Jefferson, and Maaza Mengiste, winners of the Bridge Book Awards in 2021, 2019, and 2015 respectively, were invited to speak. Danielle Evans with The Office of Historical Corrections (Picador 2021), Maaza Mengiste with The Shadow King (W. W. Norton & Company 2019), and Pulitzer Prize-winner Margo Jefferson with Negroland (Vintage 2015) spoke precisely on the role of a contemporary writer at the intersection of class, gender, race, and identity, questioning what it means to talk about history and deploying different literary methods to tell stories, to promote change through individual efforts, but above all, as a collective voice, multipli forti indeed.