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The Festival of Italian Literature in London: Cultures across borders

A festival of literature and ideas bringing together writers and thinkers from different backgrounds


After a three-year break due to COVID, FILL, the Festival of Italian Literature in London, was back on Saturday 22 April at The Coronet Theatre, in Notting Hill.

As a long-standing friend of the festival and a member of the wider network of volunteers who help organise and run the event, I was thrilled to be back at The Coronet – and in its beautifully quirky bar – to see in person faces old and new. As a translator, I was delighted at the prospect of taking part, once again, in an event first launched in 2017 by an independent group of London-based Italian authors, journalists, translators, and academics as a response to the Brexit referendum and in an attempt to bridge the two cultures and literature that we inhabit every day, that is English and Italian.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

The day’s events kicked off with an autobiographical writing workshop led by novelist and writing coach, Rossana Campo and organised in partnership with Inspire the Mind. The participants were invited to dig deep into their memories to look for a meaningful image that could be reshaped into a short story. By the end of the workshop, the writers were ready to share their stories with each other, testing their literary voices and receiving Campo’s useful feedback.

After the workshop, it was time for the panels. The theme for this fourth iteration of FILL was Safe Words and all panels focused on a safe word representing a shared thread in the work of the Italian and international writers invited to take part in the discussion. I was particularly interested in four of the eight panels: Violence, Distance, Ties, and Irony. Next week, my friend and fellow FILL organiser, Maddalena Vatti, will publish a second piece in Inspire the Mind to discuss other topics that were presented at the Festival.

Violence

The panel, chaired by Emiliano Zappalà, brought together novelists Fabio Bacà and Andrea Tarabbia. The authors’ most recent novels both focus on the titular theme. Bacà’s book tells of a ‘normal,’ meek man dealing with the possibility of violence suddenly upending his life, while Tarabbia’s novel focuses on the violence of a fictional – though not too unlikely – neo-fascist organisation. Both authors readily agreed that, when speaking of violence, fiction offers an extraordinary tool to explore extreme issues from the relatively safe point of view of our ‘boring,’ ordinary existences.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

The point that I found most interesting in the discussion, and I was quick to raise my hand during the Q&A session, was the fact that both panellists seemed to consider violence as a specifically male phenomenon – an opinion that, at least at face value, is hard to disagree with. That said, it was interesting to hear from Tarabbia how he strives to bring a female perspective into his writing, especially when dealing with complex and potentially triggering issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.

Distance

During the panel on distance chaired by Paolo Nelli, writers Lea Ypi and Ornela Vorpsi opened up on their extraordinarily similar life experiences: both born in Albania, the last communist outpost in Europe, they emigrated to Italy during the nineties to then move again, Ypi to the UK and Vorpsi to France. Their books, a memoir in English for Ypi and several novels in Italian and then French for Vorpsi, all chronicle their experiences of living across different countries and languages.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

Distance touched on many topics that are key to my own experience and reflection on emigration and literature, including writing in a second (or third) language, translation, and self-translation. Ypi’s extreme intellectual rigour (although she was discussing her memoir, she is primarily an academic at the London School of Economics) and Vorpsi’s explosive and irresistible personality proved to be a match made in heaven: the audience laughed out loud throughout the panel and – even when the discussion moved onto heavier topics such as discrimination, Marxism, and personal struggles with mental health – light-heartedness and humour remained the constant notes.

Ties

The panel Ties with poets Maria Grazia Calandrone and Hannah Lowe, chaired by Giorgia Tolfo, was the event I was looking forward to the most: a short excerpt of my translation from Calandrone would be featured during the event, but the reason for my excitement was not purely self-interested. Despite the different contexts in which their parents lived and then ceased to live, it was clear to me that Calandrone’s and Howe’s memoirs would resonate with each other in the most perfect and interesting ways.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

And so it was: Calandrone and Howe both took to their historical reconstruction of their lost parents with a two-fold approach. On the one hand, a meticulous investigation into the archives, into any trace that still exists of lives that “few cared about.” On the other hand, poetry as a means to fill the gaps otherwise destined to remain unfilled by history.

As Calandrone put it during the panel, “Poetry is the translation of an invisible language.” This was echoed powerfully by Howe’s discussion of ‘diasporic imagination’ and intergenerational trauma. Calandrone and Howe charmed the audience, who several times let out unwitting ‘aws’ and ‘uh-huhs’ of agreement.

Irony

The final panel that I attended on this rewarding day of intense literary conversations followed a slightly different format. This event was a tribute to Patrizia Cavalli, one of Italy’s most important contemporary poets who sadly passed away in June 2022. The tribute, led by scholar Alberica Bazzoni, was an intimate and heartfelt exploration of Cavalli’s life and work: Bazzoni skilfully guided the audience through the discovery and rediscovery of Cavalli’s highly ironic and yet profoundly earnest voice. The readings in Italian by Bazzoni were followed by actor Amelia Donkor’s joyous recitation of the English translations.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

It was during this event that FILL’s truly international nature became evident to me, in a delightful moment when, having stifled a chuckle after the reading of the poem Bene, vediamo un po’ come fiorisci, the Italian speakers were all waiting with bated breath for the reaction of the other half of the audience to its English translation. Needless to say, it did not disappoint!

It is precisely in this suspended moment between languages that FILL exists: far from being a festival by Italians and for Italians, its purpose is to foster dialogue and exchange across cultures, bringing together voices and ideas that thrive across borders rather than be stopped by them.

I, for one, will be looking forward to seeing how FILL will continue to break down these borders in its next iterations.

Photo by Anna Castaldi

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