Photo by Sarah Lucas Agutoli.
Claudia Durastanti has spent years interrogating the limits of language, first out of necessity and later by choice. Born in the U.S. in 1984 to Italian parents, both deaf, who never taught her sign language, she grew up between Brooklyn and Basilicata, a region in southern Italy. The frustrations, silences, and miscommunications that marked her childhood—and the corresponding impulse to fill in those lacunae via the imagination—can be felt in her work as a writer, and as a translator determined to leave some room for “poetic imprecision.” Durastanti translated the latest Italian edition of The Great Gatsby and is also the translator for Donna Haraway, Joshua Cohen, and Ocean Vuong—which might give you a sense of her range. Her own fiction has been translated into twenty-one languages. La Straniera, her fourth novel, was a finalist for the Premio Strega in 2019, and its English translation by Elizabeth Harris, Strangers I Know, received a PEN award.
Strangers I Know lies at the intersection of memoir, literary criticism, and bildungsroman, bleeding fiction into fact in order to explore the mythologies that have shaped Durastanti’s life and sensibility. Roaming backward and forward in time—between the stories of Durastanti’s parents, her adored brother, and her own often jagged attempts to forge a path into adulthood—the book interrogates the relationship between an individual and a family, with its conflicting layers of fable and self-invention. In Durastanti’s portrayal, her parents emerge as romantic but unreliable characters, in the vein of Joan Didion’s California pioneers and gamblers. The novel’s form is likewise playful, with forty-one short, often self-contained chapters collected in horoscope-like sections titled “Family,” “Love,” “Work & Money,” and so on. After reading it for the first time, I had the strange sense that it could be arranged in an entirely different order and lose none of its power. I experimented accordingly, rereading the chapters more or less at random, and found that the symphonic effect of the whole remained intact.
When we spoke on Zoom, I was in London and Durastanti was in an apartment on the south side of Rome—next to the nineteenth-century Iron Bridge that burned down in October 2021—where she has been living for the past two years, after a brief spell in New York during the early days of the pandemic. “When we die,” she writes in Strangers I Know, “maybe on our tombstone they’ll write a loved one’s name, what profession we had, a line from our favorite book. What won’t be written on our tombstones is our distance from home.”
Is this the first time you’ve written about your family history? And why did you decide to publish Strangers I Know as a work of fiction when there is so much in it that actually happened?
I did handle aspects of my family in my earlier fiction. For example, my father kidnapped me when I was a child. The way I write about this in Strangers I Know is rather picaresque, while a similar episode in my second novel—where a father kidnaps a little girl—was angrier, more visceral in tone. I felt that I had already discharged my family history and childhood in my fiction, so I could now be freer and more experimental in my handling of them.
For a long time, I was not interested in my parents’ life. Everything exceptional becomes exceptionally boring if you’re with it every day. I was very suspicious of my parents as subjects, because when I was a little girl, people would always ask first, “What language do you speak?” and then, “Who do you belong to? Who are your parents?” I would say, “My mum and dad are deaf artists who split up,” and everybody would lose interest in me and my voice and what I do—instead they would be hooked on my parents’ story. I thought that was the opposite of literature. I was aware that there was no talent in blood. The talent is in manipulating the facts and, until I realized that, I didn’t have the right key to use the biographical material.
I insisted on a novel from life, because I was aware that if I went to a publisher and presented my parents’ story as fiction, they would say it’s highly unrealistic. What are the chances that they meet, both deaf, my father jumping from a bridge, you know, and they go on to have this very empowered life? Because my parents were pretty anarchic and empowered in their own way, even if they were rejected by the world. Their rejection was due to their rebellion against the expectations around what it means to be a “good” deaf person, or migrant, or poor person. My parents instinctively showed that disability might be just one layer in their fabric, not the whole plot. That was pretty disconcerting, especially within their small-town communities. Disability, to the outsider’s gaze, often sucks up the whole person who lives it. But my parents were fighting back. One thing that wouldn’t be believable in nonfiction is my grandfather buying headphones for my mother, his deaf daughter. If you write that in fiction, people think, Oh, he’s a funny, demented character in denial. But that’s a real person. That was my grandfather. I asked myself, How can I land in an in-between space, where the accounts are real but I’m handling them, in tone, as if they were fiction?
The book was also a tribute. A lot of people in my family didn’t read novels, but I think they had the ambition of being in a novel. They lived that way. My parents embodied the non-distinction between fiction and nonfiction.
What do you think of other portrayals of families like yours? Were there any books that inspired Strangers I Know?
I’ve never been much of a fan of unconventional family portraits in nonfiction, unless we’re talking about, say, the mother-daughter relationship in Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick, which was fundamental for me in finding a tone for this book, or La Place, by Annie Ernaux, where she writes about her relationship with her father and the working-class environment she was raised in and left. These books happen as meditations and recollections, not as bildungsroman.
I was always attracted to big, ambitious novels about outsiders or people at the margins who formed radical friendships, unexpected bonds. I read The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French when I was ten—ditching school, in a fever—and that book taught me how you could build a collective or community (of women, in that case) specifically because you wanted to get out of your own family.
Is there a reason you chose not to write in English? Not to work on the translation of Strangers I Know yourself?
There are a lot of writers who at some point decide to make the switch, to experiment in a new language, something I always admire as an effort. The first part of that switch is mastering the landing language, which in this case is English. Being such a powerful, dominant language, English requires a standard that can be pretty suffocating. It’s no wonder that the experimenters within the English language right now come from undercurrent languages (Irish English speakers, for example), which bring something else. English itself is cracking up.
When I write in English, I’m making the reverse journey from the one I’m used to—English to Italian—so I’m obsessed with correctness. But then I don’t think it’s good writing. Usually, when you allow yourself impurities, the writing is actually stronger. I’m not interested in using English as an expressive language if it has to be the most polite and polished version. I think that is a sacrifice.
What other differences do you notice when writing in Italian as opposed to English?
Architecturally, Italian has a wider scenario for verbs and time. The tenses are more nuanced. The hardest thing for me to do is to structure action in time when going from Italian to English. I feel there is a loss there. There are fewer tenses for the past, for the present, and for the future in English, so certain things don’t make sense in translation. Since we have more possibilities in Italian, you have a wider set of hypotheses, of imaginable forms of experience. English is like a shrinking of time, by contrast.
In Strangers I Know, you write that “time’s not healing after all; there’s a breach that can’t be filled.” How did you approach reliving your memories while writing the novel?
There is nothing more real to me than the image of myself in the future. My present is constantly poisoned and polluted by it. From childhood, you’re often longing for the teenage or adult version of yourself. Originally, I wrote the whole section of the book that’s set in London in the future tense. But this didn’t work formally—that section of the book felt too dystopian in the future tense.
In Strangers I Know, the parts that should have been most fresh are in the last two chapters, but they are also muddy, in a way. The recent memory of myself is murky and opaque. This is why the book shifts—the first part of the book feels like a novel, and then it cracks and delves increasingly into experimental autobiography. The distant past felt more available, perhaps because I’d thought about it so much and treasured it.
We’re constantly reinventing our past self.
Exactly. I was exposed to my mother telling me the same stories over and over again. A lot of Strangers I Know is about tone and temperature rather than true or false.
I open the book with the Emily Dickinson line, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I am talking about form, not distance. What kind of form do you want to give to the things that happened to you?
Tone and temperature is really how we remember things, just like Maya Angelou said. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel.” We often graft ourselves to the narrative of the memory, but that’s not always an accurate representation of the inner experience.
And then, if you read your life as a novel, of course you’re worried about the main characters. I remember when Strangers I Know first came out in Italy, a lot of readers were quite upset when my mother suddenly disappeared from the book, because they thought she was the protagonist. But the book is about the legacy of mythology, and I knew there was going to be this gap when the mother is gone and then you just have the daughter, me. When we write novels and short stories, we often think we need to stick with the main character. Who will provide the drama, the action? I wanted to see what would happen if all of a sudden I decided to shift the focus.
That was something I never thought about before writing this book. Who is my mother without a daughter and who am I without a mother? I was trying to study my mother as an independent character, to see this woman before me and after me. This is something my mother involuntarily taught me, that it’s possible to delete or give up on the main character in our story.
It reminds me of Thomas l’Obscur, by Maurice Blanchot. Earlier you said that you couldn’t write Strangers I Know until you found the right key. What was that key?
I felt like a genealogical tree didn’t work as a structure for how I perceived belonging to my family, or to a country, or to a language. Belonging had more to do with constellations. Think about your family members like stars. You’re trying to see how you orbit around them, but their light is not always constant. They dim and they light up, then they dim and they light up again, so I wanted to write the book in intervals. I asked myself, When is my mother at her brightest and when is she at her darkest?
I was working with light, tone, and temperature, and I felt that a horoscope structure could convey that better than a linear structure that was similar to a family tree.
As I was writing Strangers I Know, I wanted to see where the self would shatter, where the I wouldn’t matter anymore, and somebody reading the book could plunge into it with their own story. I wanted to factor in any possible “label” that has been attached to me or that I have claimed for myself—female, southern, formerly working class, a CODA, you name it—and see how they would collapse into one another or stretch to their limits. This book was my own personal tool to deal with the fragments that remain when we interrogate identity and stereotype. I wanted my story to become simply an echo, echo, echo—until you could hear yourself in the book.
Mia Colleran is an editor who lives in London.
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