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The Festival of Italian Literature Celebrates Places, Bodies, and the Hybridity of Form

After a three-year-long hiatus, the Festival of Italian Literature in London (FILL) has made an exciting comeback on Saturday 22nd of April, at the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill, where every edition, since the festival’s inaugural one in 2017, has taken place.

The title of this year's event was SAFE WORD, a play on the big issues of our time: from the need to establish rules and boundaries within language, to the healing, expressive, and transgressive possibilities words can afford us. In keeping with this, each event was signposted by a word around which the conversation revolved.

I have been a part of the team behind the organisation and curation of FILL since its first edition in 2017 and was genuinely thrilled to see it back in full swing this year. As a literary scout (my main job), I look for exciting new voices that can transcend borders and speak to large audiences in translation, so it was a real honour to be in the presence of so many of these on Saturday, April 22nd.

My friend Antonella Lettieri last week published a piece on the Festival where she explored the ways in which translation plays a significant role in helping us to cross borders. Here, I would like to zoom in on a few of the conversations that happened on the day, and insist on a fil rouge that runs through them all: place.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

Something that’s always been a key feature of the festival is to broaden the scope of what literature means, not just in terms of voices, but also in terms of forms. This year we gave the floor to novelists, poets, critics, journalists, scholars, and performers. Conversations were held on a range of wide and diverse subjects, taking often surprising routes and breaking new ground. Several authors brought up the importance of talking about mental health, and what creativity can do to improve it. It’s a subject dear to us at FILL and we were glad to have ITM as a partner this year.


We opened the day by hosting a creative writing workshop, led by the icon that is Rossana Campo, which had a wonderful response from the public. Called "The Body I Live In", Campo worked on the ways in which it is possible to write the body and its lived experience into a text. We closed, aptly, with a performance tribute to the poet Patrizia Cavalli, one of Italy’s most popular contemporary authors who passed away in 2022. The scholar Alberica Bazzoni guided the audience through Patrizia Cavalli’s life and work, accompanied by readings performed by actor Amelia Donkor.

The body has been a theme at the centre of this edition, and it is no coincidence these two events bookended it: from writing the body into a text, to a text that is being embodied. And central to the experience of the body is place, and how the two exist only in relation to each other — a subject that’s been dear to FILL since its inception, given it was born outside of the wound from body and place that Brexit caused.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

What does it mean to write a place? Writers Philip Hoare and Marco Belpoliti discuss this with author Gianluca Didino.

Belpoliti’s last book, Pianura, is a journey through a section of Italy often forgotten because "flat", static, and uneventful, but which has enjoyed the love of titular Italian artists such as photographer Luigi Ghirri, filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, and author Gianni Celati — figures that Belpoliti "encounters" through his journey. Hoare’s obsession, on the other hand, is with the ever-transforming sea (5 out of 10 of his books are about the sea). On the day, the authors discussed their approach to the writing of a place, which often starts from memory (collective and individual), and segues into the history and culture inscribed in those places. What emerged from this conversation is that, for these authors, it was impossible to embark on this project without keeping in mind their personal relation to the Italian flatlands or the sea, and that separating body and place is impossible.

I had the pleasure of hosting one of the events in the auditorium, ROOTS, with authors Thea Lenarduzzi and Yara Rodrigues Fowler, in which we asked ourselves similar questions about the entanglements of body, place, history, and memory when writing. Dandelions is Lenarduzzi’s debut work of narrative nonfiction, in which she traces back four generations of the history of her family, Italian migrants who moved back and forth between the north of Italy and the north of England. There Are More Things is Rodrigues Fowler's second novel, a sweeping intergenerational story about the friendship between two young women in London, both of Brazilian ancestry, set between London in the 2000s (up until the present day) and the Brazil of dictatorship.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

In both novels, the authors use the fragment and non-linear narrative structures as devices to mimic the wandering nature of memory itself: where a face or a moment in time emerges inconsequentially from the past as we are thinking about something else entirely.

There are things we simply don’t remember and things we choose to black out. Much like in Belpoliti’s and Hoare’s work, it is memory that dictates the pace of the narrative, with its flaws and gaps, conceptual jumps and free associations. In Dandelions, Italy doesn’t emerge as a coherent country: it’s a feeling, a mood that’s constantly shifting; sometimes, it’s something missed and beloved, others, it’s a place to escape. For Thea’s grandmother Dirce, the protagonist and repository of all of these memories, Manchester is an appendix of Italy itself, because when she lived there she was immersed within a community of Italian immigrants who spoke the same language, but different dialects, to each other. The same goes for London and Brazil in There Are More Things: places and people are never neutral but a nexus of personal and collective experiences, a layer of official historical records and personal mythology.

FILL has always wanted to create conversations between different perspectives (historically between Italian and foreign authors: British, French, Spanish, Turkish...), but this edition, in particular I think, has seen on-stage authors who embody this duality within themselves.

In DISTANCE, Paolo Nelli spoke to writer and artist Ornela Vorpsi and writer and scholar Lea Ypi, who both left Albania for Italy before moving to France and the United Kingdom respectively. In this conversation, they discussed what it meant for them to grow up in Albania and then live across different countries, often ending up in a state of what Ypi called "linguistic illiteracy": the lack of fluency in English, Albanian, or Italian encountered when approaching the writing of her memoir Free for the first time. Both authors, who have written books that entangle family and personal events with the larger events of history, discuss their "in-betweenness", and how it is possible to welcome that inside a text.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

In general, throughout this edition, we have seen the necessity to welcome more fluid, hybrid, forms of writing, ones that mix the personal with the historical (lower case "history" with capital "H" history), that disseminates facts with fiction.

In THE END, authors Luke Williams (Diego Garcia), and Paolo Giordano (Tasmania), discussed this in conversation with Marco Magini, whilst they reckoned with the shifting role of the narrator in the present day. Whilst in the 19th century narrators were god-like figures endowed with bringing history forward and shining a light on events, the contemporary narrator is often drowning in history and struggling to make sense of it all. In Diego Garcia, the two protagonists Damaris and Pablo come across the story of the Chagos Archipelago through the poet Diego Garcia, whose mother and her community were forced to leave by British soldiers in 1973. Damaris and Oliver Pablo become obsessed with this notorious episode and the continuing resistance of the Chagossian people, and want to write in solidarity. But how to share a story that is not theirs to tell?

Photo by Anna Castaldi

During ROOTS, we spoke about the concept of "world-building", a term often used in the fantasy genre but, I believe, wrongly not used often enough for other kinds of literature. Every time we open a book we step into something someone else has created for us and, for a while, suspend disbelief. In this sense, authors should be mindful of the opportunity they have for world-making and for giving readers an opportunity to re-imagining current structures

FILL started as a reaction to the Brexit referendum, at the time we thought it more important than ever to bring together authors from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Seeing that, 6 years later, with a lot of water under the bridge, including a 2-year long pandemic and an ongoing financial crisis, we’re still here to discuss what can literature and art do to help us reimagine our world, all I can say is that I’m very proud, and excited to do it all over again next year.

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