In the Kingdom of Persephone


My whole childhood was always a leaving and returning, from Sicily, the island of my father, to Florence, the city of my mother, an alternating of places, houses, people. Even my feel­ings oscillated, from the shifting rhythm of curiosity, which did not have time to take root, to exclusive passion. Florence seemed sweet to me. The tenuous colors of the dome and the Battistero, the clear facades of its churches and its palaces, made me say, upon returning to the island, that over there they grew sugar houses. Sicily, instead, left me dizzy with its dark green carpet of almonds that filled the country terrace during harvest time. And there were the freezing waters of Alcantara, the deep holes between one granite stone and another, where I would anchor myself so that the fruit I ate at snack time tasted fresh to my palate.

Then it was Bologna. The city of emigration, the foreign city, for me, as a child. In the obscurity of its long arcades, in the ele­gant severity of Piazza Maggiore, the feeling of nostalgia was born: the island—so far away that it represented the other side of life, the side in the shadow of earth—became, in this way, the dream of origins.

In reality I no longer belonged to a place. Wherever I went I felt “distant.” Free. Free to leave, free to go back, free to choose. The peninsula was a long strip of land to explore, an unknown con­tinent: for those who left the domestic haven, for all those who abandoned the safe protection of their sky and climbed up, up to Piedmont: it was like arriving in America. Veneto, incomprehen­sible like the Argentinian pampa, the golden Madonna on the dome of Milan, unreachable like the Statue of Liberty.

Only in the profound collective motivation, in the unattain­able waters of an ancient time, in a History that gathered and yet obscured the individual stories of each man and each woman, only in the well of utopia, in the distant desire, the desire of the risorgimento of the nation, or in the conveniences of the modern industry, was Italy “one and united.” The differences—of culture, customs, daily habits, rituals, mourning, and celebration—tried with difficulty to compose themselves into a complicated mix of people and languages.

And in this live interweaving of beliefs and prejudices, of cold climates and warm remembrances, of northern fogs and African Sirocco winds, I occupied a place apart. I was different. So dif­ferent that I spoke only Italian, which is everybody’s and nobody’s language. The dialects sedimented inside me, my mouth played with words, my mind amused itself with syntactic con­structions, but my accent remained terribly “other”: neutral, aseptic. Italian. Italian and nothing else. Nothing tainted it. Not one smudge, not one lexical imperfection.

Where did I come from? Nobody could guess. I could choose the mask most suitable for the moment, the situation, my mood or the moods of others. I was the unstable element in a stable world. I escaped every territorial classification. Everyone belonged to a tribe. I, instead, could move from one tribe to another. And, unlike the others, I was interested in the journey and not the des­tination. The path, with all its infinite points of escape, and not the point of arrival, not the refuge.

But others asked for the certainty of identification, expected a “place” to locate me, demanded identification papers.

It was then that I chose the island of my father. The salt of Sicily resurfaced on my lips, erasing the sugary taste of the maternal city. I chose the island because I felt it was strong, tragic, and sunny, classical and baroque, cowardly and invincible. But I chose it especially because I felt it was threatened. For the northerners, Sicily had only the colors of mourning. No longer the land of culture but of blood and misery. Of a contagious misery that the sea could not contain.

I suffered—I who had fragile roots, unsuitable for clinging to the earth, ready for transplant to any soil—I suffered facing the ignorance and loathing, the intolerance and the rejection. A rejec­tion that, on the surface, did not touch me: daughter of a scientist and a green-eyed Florentine with a love for literature, despite the poverty of those years that forced us to ration bread and milk, I did not belong to that mass of miserable and obstinate people climbing the ridge of the Appennines to converge on the crowded outskirts of the northern cities. Their drama was not mine. I could pass untouched through the territory of exclusion, through the humiliation of racism. Yet that sense of humiliation had been forging inside me the reasons for a sense of belonging, one that until then I had ignored and kept silent.

There was a battle to fight and I have never run from a battle­field.

Thus I traced backward the path of emigration and, as an adult, I went back for a few years to the island.




Those were strange and important years, years of social com­mitment and writing: for me the two will always be linked. In some mysterious way, even when I experiment with new forms of narration, even when I sink into unknown linguistic forms—in fact, especially then—I feel all the responsibility of writing, my involvement in the things of the world, the burden of a search.

I wrote a book about Sicilian women, a study that was part historical analysis, part social analysis, and part field work. Voices of factory workers, of peasants, of jobless women, of white widows, of students, of restless girls and subdued wives, of rebels and conformists: voices that always defied the legend of a “historical silence.”

Woman and Southerner: this was the stigma that I carried with me. My body was marked by a sense of belonging, while in my imagination I incessantly re-created a place of origins, the point of departure and return. It seemed that arrival could not be granted me. I never arrived anywhere. I could only explore the route, a route that suddenly curved, always turning back on itself, and then again moved beyond, escaping towards infinity. Woman and Southerner. There was a link between the two, a bond made of sorrow, pride, and passion. I was a double. Doubly susceptible, doubly trapped in the consciousness of my being, in the represen­tation of my self to myself. I was also a matriarch without power, like the women I had given voice to in my book. I, too, re­bellious and submissive, disobedient and acquiescent, ready to change and tenaciously clinging to ancient customs. I, too, defied the law of the father, and I, too, bent to its will. Again, I started leaving and returning, returning and leaving. Always farther away, on the other side of the world. Every time for longer peri­ods, in a new temporal dimension. It is impossible to stop; it is impossible to separate oneself definitively from the island.

And every time, upon every return, I saw the contradictions grow, the violence grow. What also grew was the power of the mafia. Re-reading my book twenty years later—a book thanks to which I had traveled throughout Sicily, from one end to the other, trying to flatten its thousand folds, probing its cuts, its crevices, its fractures—I find only a few sentences about the mafia. Just a few lines, sketchy bits of news, in passing. I was writing, then, of the “concept of honor” and the “cult of virility.” The “mafia spirit” seemed to me directly linked to the mythol­ogy of masculine virtues. Something that was fueled and con­firmed in the tradition of the overbearing power of the male.

“The mafia has always been cosa di uomini,” I wrote then.

Only the names of two women had appeared then on the pages of the local news. Maria Antonietta, Liggio’s sister, was indicted at age sixty-three for aggravated extortion and the purchase of land with dirty money, serving as her brother’s name-lender; Antonietta Bagarella, the fiancee of Totó Riina, who was then Liggio’s lieutenant, had disappeared from Corleone with her brother after two-and-a-half years of special surveillance. Two women involved in mafia business through a man or through the family, intended as a space for the protection of the masculine, a sanctuary where one celebrated and perpetuated it, the cult of virility and the sacrifice of the feminine. Two elusive, undefin­able figures, indicating unexplored life paths. Women and south­erners, they were somehow the darkest part of me, of my origins. Stand-ins. Shadows who emerged from a sinister kingdom of Hades and replicated, on a modern scene, the Sicilian tragedy of Persephone, perennially divided between the solar world of the mother and an attraction for the gloomy god of darkness.

Perhaps it was then that I began to feel tempted by the desire to explore. It was then that I welcomed inside me the first germ of another book and the seed of a different story began to grow, the seed of a narration that would juxtapose the light and the darkness, which would find a seam or, conversely, break the thread, between the inside and the outside of one plot.

My desire to go beyond critical analysis and to narrate the subterraneans of the feminine world was born in those years.



Unlike essay writing—analytical, logical even when pas­sionate—the novel, creative writing, enters with empathetic participation into the hearts of individuals, seeks to capture the vital essence of things: this was the writing that I needed to ap­proach the disquieting universe of the women who have chosen the route of perverse emancipation and believe (delude them­selves into believing?) that power can exist without freedom.

A universe in expansion, claim the statistics, the investiga­tors, the experience of this social reality. There is a growth of feminine subjectivity that cannot be contained, which violently impacts the sharp rocks of discrimination, of denied develop­ment, of the distorted mechanisms of a violent market, of a soci­ety that obstructs, instead of encouraging, self-affirmation and the search for a complete existence.

No wonder there is a “feminine machismo,” which, in the submerged world of illegality, replaces the desire to exist, that hunger for citizenship which is by now common to all women. With their active complicity, or with autonomous gestures of violence or adherence to criminal models of life, these women sanction a paradoxical “right to cruelty.”

Song to the Desert: Story of Tina, Mafia Soldier is the novel with which I have attempted the juxtaposition. Two feminine lives, two diametrically opposed destinies, an identical anxiety to impress upon the world one’s own mark, a powerful desire to exist that renders dangerously thin the line between good and evil. For my narration I have drawn from the news of the last few years, which tells us of women in leadership positions in the mafia, women who become the bosses of criminal bands (not of mafia organizations except indirectly, as “substitutes” for the men in jail or killed), women—more and more often, girls—who, armed and with cruel determination, impose their authority on the margins of the empire of Cosa Nostra.

One of them especially, immediately, attracted my attention. Because of the melancholic awareness of her eyes, because of her defiant, childish knavery.

The process of creation of a fictional character is perhaps unfathomable. A thousand elements mix, amalgamate, and then converge towards a center that catalyzes everything—fantasy, observation of reality, sudden epiphany born from a gesture snatched away, a distracted word, the hard labor of interpreta­tion—and there emerges from this magma the unique and unre­peatable character, the shadow that yet pulsates with life and blood, that demands the same attention paid to a living per­son, that should be approached with the same caution. But as it is in love, the relationship between the writer and her character is something passionate, something that refuses distance and does not tolerate barriers.

With this passion I created the character of Tina, the young mafiosa of Song to the Desert. And while I was creating her—arrogant and defenseless, desperate and inflexible—I was mixing news and invention, social data and bursts of fantasy, until I reached that unmistakable color: the color of Tina, character and person. Persona and person. Tina, who lived only thanks to me, through me. And yet from her eyes the powerless rage of a real girl, in flesh and blood, continued to emanate. Or was I only imagining it? Was it I who modeled, to my liking, the brutish matter of narration? Or was it reality that was beginning to pos­sess my imagination?

A question that I could have never solved by myself. Tina would have remained only Tina—the exemplary figure of an impossible emancipation—if this girl with rebellious and sad eyes had not come forward to proclaim her existence as “pro­tagonist.”

And she claimed it in her own way, by her own ways and means. With arrogance she wanted to enter the world I had built on paper, to bring it back to a dimension that was more convenient for her. When I saw her coming towards me, in front of the dese­crated church of Saint Biagio in Gela, where the first official presentation of my novel was to take place, when I saw her pale and insolent in her combat fatigues (pants and heavy shoes, as the carabinieri told me later), even before she struck me and threw me on the ground with the precise blows of a professional, I understood what I had always been afraid of while I was writ­ing.

Not of the violent reaction of the little mafiosa in flesh and blood. The aggression. The threats. No, it was not these I was really afraid of. But of the superimposition of reality and fan­tasy. Of the splitting, mine and hers. Of the materialization of a ghost created in this back-and-forth game of exchange with reality. A ghost that would have tied me and her, the “real” “girl,” in a Gordian knot of emotions that could not be untied.

For this reason, perhaps, I had imagined, at first, a different conclusion for my novel. The two women would never meet. Never. I did not want the unfolding of what I nevertheless con­sidered necessary and inevitable. I could not tell that story. But then my publisher, to whom I tried to explain this dilemma (the literary necessity of the encounter and the desire to place it at a distance), asked: Why? What are you afraid of? Do you want to avoid immediate communication? Are you afraid of the direct glance? the labor? the pain? No matter what, your search is tak­ing you there, to the short-circuit of the encounter.

And then it was clear to me that I could not avoid it. I was inside the spider’s web of my own writing.

But in the ordered threads of that labyrinth I was no longer the only fly writhing, trapped, in the web. She was also there, the girl who had entered with aggressive force into a story as much mine as hers.

Illiterate, she had no direct knowledge of the book. But she had someone else tell her about it and that was enough. A book, for her, could never assume the dimension of a concrete object, of a finished work. When it is published, a text escapes the tyranny of its author. Even if it assumes diverse colorings in the souls of diverse readers, it maintains its own coherence, a truth that must be sought, page after page. But for her, for the little, illiterate mafiosa, all of this did not make sense. What is a book, what else can it be if not a switch necessary to ignite the imagination, a small lever that anybody can pull up or press down, turn on or flip off.

And then she had attempted an incursion, a gesture dictated by the will to erase “my” sign and to impress hers. She believed that this “sign” would be sufficient to break the plot and bend the written word to the laws of oral narrative. Laws that ignore the fixity of writing and open up to every external intervention, every unforeseen event, to every change dictated by the necessity of the real.

She thought that it was all right to intervene because her code of life dictated it, but especially because she liked to recog­nize herself in Tina. She became angry and did not understand when later, after the aggression, I explained that no, it was not exactly that way. For me, at most, she represented a distant model to whom I was pleased to be unfaithful. (But up to what point? And up to what point was I now sincere?) Tina, in any case, was not her image on paper. This is what I told her at the table in the restaurant where she continued to recite her part and I tried to escape mine. At most, a reflection—quick, partial, incomplete—in the distorting mirror of writing: to this I stub­bornly reduced her role, her function. Knitting her brow, with a simple reproach, she erased my sophisticated, abstruse explana­tion, while she candidly revealed her deepest resentment.

“With the two beautiful names that I have, just Tina, you had to call me?

Emanuela: the true name. Daniela: the combat name. Ema­nuela-Daniela had come forward. She asked for attention: not with words, but with her body. Not through verbal mediation, but with the gestures of violence. Those she was used to. Those she knew.

In order to assert her right to be present, in flesh and blood, in “our” story, she had neglected any caution. She was on probation, and, had I reported her aggression, she would have gone back to jail. But could I report her? Perhaps she had counted on this “complicity.” I also, in any case, had not been cautious. I was playing a dangerous game, and I knew it at every moment of the writing, when the imagination sent me back to the reality, when my fantasy saturated itself with living images. Just as I knew that it was a challenge to present that book in Gela, in “her” ter­ritory. I knew she would have answered the challenge. She had to. These were the rules of her world. Because, perhaps, she desired the encounter, face to face. I also, perhaps, wished for it: exactly like the protagonist in my book, at the end, wishes for the encounter with “her” Tina.

Fiction and reality. Gestures and writing. Events and words. Emotions born on the thread of a fantastic imaginary. Emotions born from the harsh encounter with a different truth: the truth of the real. Everything became confused while I crossed this thresh­old of the impossible. I had descended to the subterranean kingdom of Persephone and I had brought her back with me to the light of the world. Here ended my function. My responsibil­ity.




A year has passed since then. Emanuela-Daniela is in jail again. Tina lives in the unsettled minds of her readers. I contin­ued to go back and forth: life on the run, nomadic feelings. But I think I have finally identified a point of arrival, of land­ing, because even when I do not write about the island, it is in its imaginary harbors that my writing—a place of eternal cross­ings—is solidly anchored.


Maria Rosa Cutrufelli

Rome, Italy

Translated from Italian by Edvige Giunta*





*I wish to acknowledge Joshua Fausty for his assistance in this translation.