Language and Myth: Carmen Bugan interviews Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

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Wallis Wilde-Menozzi (WWM): Carmen, I am responding in writing to your questions as if we were talking, but I am in Italy, and you are in Long Island. This time it’s not an intense conversation after teaching in Geneva or over lunch in NYC. Let’s reveal a few factual overlaps. We both live outside of our native countries. We both studied at the University of Michigan and did further work at Oxford in England. We both married Italian scientists. Although we have more than twenty-five years difference in age, and your deep formation has been shaped by the consequences of your father’s protest and imprisonment in Ceausescu’s Romania, our real links are our passions for writing. Let’s see where your written questions take us.

Carmen Bugan (CB): Perhaps you remember how Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness evokes the boat journey up the river with a stunning description of silence as a stillness that is foreboding.  Marlow speaks:

“And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”

You finished revising your book Silence and Silences almost entirely during the Lockdown in Italy. How did the silence of the pandemic affect the original exploration of silence in your book, and how did it shape your writing?

WWM: You open our conversation with a quote from Joseph Conrad on stillness as foreboding. In terms of characterizing the pandemic, at least in Italy, as the months drag on, the dread, which was dramatic when large numbers of people were dying, has gradually moved toward “brooding” and “inscrutable intention.”  But I can’t say much more without commenting on the current reading of Conrad. That additional perception of Conrad touches on one element of silence I wrote about in my book. Lots of silences are being identified and imagined leaving us all with a sense that stillness, too, is filled with forces needing voice.

As you know, Heart of Darkness has been placed in a different context, most powerfully by Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian Nobel prize-winning novelist, and poet. This opening is a new complexity that adds to a new brooding about the book’s impact. Achebe calls out the habits of Conrad’s European mind that fail to bring Africans and their particularity to view. Within our limited space, this discussion, which is of great importance to both of us, must be postponed for another occasion.  So let me respond to the pandemic, “this stillness of life,” and how it shaped my book.

I finished my revision of Silence and Silences (FSG 2021)  during the lockdown in Parma. The response to the pandemic was an experience that I absorbed culturally from the Italian side, and I will explain this a bit further on. 

Psychologically as the months of isolation continued, I began to feel quarantine as an insurmountable distance defined by the Atlantic Ocean. In Parma, while I had been intensely involved working with immigrant women from Nigeria who had risked their lives at sea and I had taken to heart lots of nineteenth-century immigration literature, I had never perceived the ocean as an ultimate barrier for myself. As I realized that my passport (such an arbitrary piece of destiny) was no longer the powerful privilege that let me come and go at will, a kind of mini enlightenment overtook me.  I felt new pain: I saw that I might not be able to cross the ocean for a few years to be with my family. When we reserve ideas of privilege and liberty for ourselves, even though we think we are sympathetic or advocates for people without our choices, there are always silences where we lack imagination. 

Maybe that was what Achebe wanted to say about Conrad for all his unquestionable sincere sympathies. Maybe that is what you sometimes feel Carmen when others talk about “totalitarianism,” and instead, you have lived it. I like Emmanuel Carrère’s discussions about empathy and its unexplored illusions. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, where do we think they are standing?

Personally, once my husband and I were physically confined in Parma, since I had my book to finish for FSG, I found quite a bit more freedom in my days because outings were regulated or forbidden. I could write for six or seven hours at a time.  I realized by being shut in, I had never, in all my life, faced such an open door. Of course, most of our family obligations were in NYC and, thus, didn’t affect our daily routines. And my mentoring work continued online. The transcendent aspect of silence, while challenging to put into words, had always been present. What was easier to pull from silence in the pandemic were new images for power and powerlessness in the system that had grown up around us.

The responses to threat and danger were quite different in the two cultures. Americans bought two million more guns in the first month of the pandemic. Italians called for collective controls: we could not go more than 200 meters from home without a permit that the police could check. As glaciers melted and bears nosed into cities because they sensed quiet and space (three times as many flamingoes were born this spring in Italy), we discovered relationships among things, including economic ones, that we’d barely noticed. Perhaps because Italy covered all its citizens for health care, and guaranteed some support for loss of income, and, because the family structure, on the whole, is more coherent, in the first months and, even now, (although young people are restless and harder to convince without using legal penalties) a fraying willingness to accept government decisions necessary to save lives still works. We could scream all we wanted, but we began to accept new meanings beyond our control. 

As death became everyday news (an element that had been quite removed from middle-class concerns), a societal focus on life exposed suffering and inequality. Especially in the United States, people without means, without access to justice, were often those vulnerable workers in the front lines making systems stay open. Daily commerce began to look partly obsolete. In Italy, economists are beginning to discuss how the old model will never return and that we must look for something different, a new system, if young people are to have a future.

 To answer your question, the pandemic did enter into my revision. Alessandro Manzoni, whose nineteenth-century novel is one of the foundations of Italy’s literature, set his novel, The Betrothed, in the seventeenth century during which a plague breaks out in Milan. The 2020 pandemic entered my book in that way. Michael Moore (a fine scholar but not the filmmaker) sent me his soon-to-be-published translation of Manzoni’s classic. I used the arrival of his PDF to announce the pandemic in my narrative. The conflicts of interest and weaknesses in leadership in 2020 were reinforced by showing how Manzoni dramatized the same issues in the Milan cataclysm when, in the 1630s, it killed one-quarter of the population. A flow of silences enlarged to accommodate the role of scientific knowledge and government. The earlier plague (historical and literary), also helped me to augment the definition of human life as biological life in my book, and to place us as a species among other animals and nature. 

 The year before the lockdown, I heard Amitav Ghosh speak in Parma about the difficulty of bringing climate change into fiction. I thought of him as the pandemic indifferently refuted his concerns about writers not having contexts on the subject to use in western fiction. The pandemic exposed the future of our planet and our economies as both frail and interconnected in ways we generally do not experience.

CB: Tell us more about the various silences you evoke in your book: artistic, civic, spiritual, literary.

WWM: As a writer, you know what it’s like to feel an unwritten book’s urgency as something new and a bit terrifying. I had considered a book on silence for several years.  Outside of words (silence by definition defies language), it was too variegated to understand how to approach it artistically. 

Many books on silence have hypotheses; often men claim a single focus or gurus do, or religious figures outline a theological focus, or silences compose collections—like Tillie Olsen’s book of silences around women or Mario Brunello’s on music.  I wanted to make a series of tapestries that were movable and partial and yet could counter old habits and systems of power. I celebrated women painters, some writers, and, with juxtapositions, showed how old ideas limit every perception we have. Many books written on silence offer it as a solution or describe it as missing in modern life with its cell phones and constant connection. I wanted it to be a shifting presence—as enormous as political oppression, as deep as prayer, as fluid as love, as small as a child’s pet toad, as mysterious as a tree’s roots administering to another tree, as seductive as interstices among broken pieces of our personal lives. I wanted every reader to think for herself about the importance and varieties of silence, as well as the importance of distinguishing them.

My editor Jonathan Galassi at FSG gave me priceless, steady support.  And he didn’t back away when the pieces about women and culture and the meaning of knowledge had a strong pulse but still were fighting for a form.  He encouraged me to go forward even into darkness. The book will be published in September 2021. 

Carmen, I confess I miss the exchange of a back and forth conversation. The long-term effects of the virus here have surfaced as a feeling of profound isolation. This feeling often leads people, when they finally encounter another human being face to face, to deliver unwitting and interminable monologues. I’ll try to let air in, but I wish there were ways I could invent more feelings of back and forth in this piece.

CB: Gabriel Josipovici argues in his essay in “Raritan (summer 2019)” compellingly entitled “The Myth of the Native Language” that there is no such thing as “native language” but rather a language that we speak. He was born in Nice in the south of France, moved to Egypt with his mother, then was educated in England, where he remained to teach for his working career. He explains:

“To me, then, the idea of maternal language, learned at the mother’s knee and as life-giving as the Eucharist is to the Christian, is completely alien.”

You have lived in Parma, Italy, more than you have lived in the United States, the country of your birth. How do you see yourself in the context of the Italian language and literature? How “at home” do you feel in the English literature and language, where you continue to work since you have left? 

WWM: Let’s start from what I learned from writing my memoir Mother Tongue, an American Life in Italy. Language and identity are central themes. The book has recently been reissued (FSG 2020) with a foreword by Patricia Hampl. In it, I discover that Thoreau called the language we learn at our mother’s knee, “almost brutish.” He disavows women of possessing the language of “maturity and experience,” i.e., the language of power and men.  I’m not certain that Josipovici meant what I am suggesting, but I agree maternal language is often a myth.  In the Anglo-Saxon world, it was seen negatively, not understood, since women’s voices were not heard behind mountains of circumscribed diminishment.  Perhaps because of Italian’s ancient roots in Latin, the battle does not make these bourgeois distinctions. The Italian language gives each noun a gender and thus evens things out with back and forth play. But, really, the point of women and language and mother tongue is another.

Nadine Gordimer, in her book An Essential Gesture, describes how she often ran away from the confinement of school.  As a rebellious and unsystematic student, she was not considered “university material.”  In her early twenties, she enrolled anyway but still lived in the enclosed value systems of her town, Springs.  An established editor and poet accepted one of her stories and invited her to lunch in Johannesburg. Her village friend urged her not to go.  When questioned, he explained: because you will never come back, if you taste that other level and intensity of human life. 

“Taste” has been a controversial verb since the first sin.  It’s deceptive—seemingly small but with outsized effects, should one decide to taste another level. The costs of breaking with the past—loss and gain, consciousness and sovereignty–still are particularly weighted for any person or group of people who are oppressed. In some ways, Carmen, because of your father’s imprisonment, you were called as a witness early on. Your father paid a high price for his words of protest, and the realities of the experience for you and your family would not allow you to do less than explore the costs and definitions of liberty.  My early search for the larger world was much less certain about what I had to define. But I knew that to justify a life of writing, I needed subjects that mattered. Living in Europe and most specifically in Italy, I found history, not as a distant study, but all around in stones and paintings and artifacts. The prehistoric, the ancient, the sacred, women as pagan goddesses, religious mystics opened horizons to how I could become a writer and also fully develop a language that was still half-buried for me. I moved into Italian and that intense life. 

Yet once I lived in Parma, English was not spoken daily outside our home. Books in English were not available as references, even in the library. If I wanted to read Louise Glück’s poetry or Toni Morrison’s fiction, I had to have it sent (and there was no Amazon then). And books and postage and time were all expenses.  Day to day, I perceived literary American English as a cultural reality that was unknown by people in Parma. There was Hemingway and Harper Lee. A language I had unconsciously assumed I possessed became foreign, in a new way, to me and my relationship to it. I could not let it go because my impulse to write lay inside it.

Jhumpa Lahiri, late in her education, decided to take up Italian, for its beauty and the freedom it offered her. Without the cultural baggage of a language inherited (Bengali) or imposed (English), it provided a fresh way of finding authenticity.  I needed to find my own language, not in Lahiri’s sense, but the silence I felt in language was deepened by living in another place. I migrated, to use Primo Levi’s phrase, inside of my own language, and the unspoken became a subject.

Tim Parks and I agree that even though we live in Italy and are fluent in Italian, English is the language root of our identity; it is the reference from which everything enlarged. There is no way to quantify what has entered my consciousness fed by Italian culture: Giotto, Leonardo, Artemisia Gentileschi, Saint Francis, Elena Ferrante, land reform, Galileo, Giuseppe Verdi, Etna, Natalia Ginzburg, Roman law.  Over time, the fact that I live in Italian, and watch television in Italian and follow Italian politics, and know only a handful of English speakers in Parma, means my mother tongue opened and turned and changed, bringing in viewpoints that are original because they simply are not American viewpoints or words or history. 

Italian contemporary poets, Elisa Biagini, Antonella Anedda, Maria Angela Gualtieri, are poets, who because I translated them, brought me into whole fields of new language and subjects. Just as Czeslaw Milosz, W.G. Sebald, Zadie Smith created new subjects from living in different cultures, all of us who write as emigrants find old language and new language and different relationships to it. Voices from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Ann Carson to Kenzaburō Ōe are also migrants into unwritten subjects and new lands.  Translation, at this moment, does not have a singular meaning. 

 CB: Do you feel like a transplant in Parma or in New York? I am trying to get your sense of the larger sense of exile, emigration, and the effects it has on cultures.  

WWM: Parma is a fascinating, easy place to continue living with an inner life that seemingly over decades, has been coaxed into the light. The integration of dissatisfactions and dreams was what I was looking for when I first left my midwestern family. I needed to articulate an ache of imperfection and struggle that was not just mine but was endemic to the human condition. This life in a larger world with human stories has blurred the sense that my identity is a nationality. From decades of dialogue, I hear my voice as one that must hold its part in something becoming. We are all in it. This something is a composition I can write about for others: a polyphonic composition (not stream of consciousness), where other voices, with their parts, are also becoming. 

And now, Carmen, so as not to become too grand in my narration, in this very moment, Paolo, my biologist husband, is cooking peaches that he scraped to empty and then fill with chocolate, almonds, and peach pulp.  I can smell their sweetness in the oven. That too must be brought to the larger picture of whatever culture and change, and exchange mean. It is another example of where tasting leads us. We have a small oven here in Parma and another in New York.