Born in 1946 in, Maria Rosa Cutrufelli obtained her doctorate at the University of Bologna with a dissertation on aesthetics in the Russian Formalists, directed by Luciano Anceschi. She then moved to Rome and began her career as a journalist and a writer of fiction.
The versatility and skill of the novelist have their roots in a rich apprenticeship. In 1974, Cutrufelli traced a history of the way society constructs that version of human being called ‘woman’. It was clear from that essay, ‘L’invenzione della donna’ (‘The invention of woman’), that her thinking was formed by 20th-century reflections on the ‘woman question’, from Virginia Woolf’s writings to those of Simone de Beauvoir. In keeping with the new feminism’s commitment to a direct knowledge of the world as a first step toward changing it, Cutrufelli began researching the world of salaried work in Italy in the early 1970s. She turned to the little-explored universe of women’s working lives, of which she was not only a perceptive observer, but an analyst not bound by traditional perspectives and interpretations.
In Disoccupata con onore (Women Unemployed with Honour), she argued convincingly that the concept of ‘honour’ in contemporary Southern Italian society, particularly Sicilian, was an essential corollary of the practices and needs of the capitalism it served, rather than a survival of archaic customs. In Operaie senza fabbrica (Women Workers without a Factory), an exploration of home-based piece work, Cutrufelli stated that, while proposing to do a ‘scientific’ study of social realities, she was aware of the potential sterility of a supposedly objective sociological approach. Therefore, she prefaced her research by stating that her book was going to speak not of the characteristics of piece work, but of the women who do piece work at home.
The inquiry focuses on the concrete details of people’s lives; the language is current, clear, and agile, and the researcher chooses to alternate between an analytical part that uses sociological techniques and the voices of the women interviewed. Those voices are not recorded mechanically in a subtly patronizing citation of naive speech that would make the reader conscious of its contrast with the articulateness of the researcher. The women’s speech is filtered through the written medium of the interviewer, who manages at the same time to maintain the flavour of life in her ‘translation’, and insure equal dignity and weight to both parties in the dialogue. Her record reveals the interviewer’s sensitivity to the specificities of human communication, particularly to the quality of women’s voices, and a keen understanding of social and economic situations.
In 1989, Cutrufelli writes an innovative essay entitled ‘Il cliente’ (‘The Client’). The study is intriguing because of its analysis of some curious and disturbing aspects of today’s trends in the practice of sexual commerce. The phenomenon of prostitution is viewed from the perspective of the user rather than from the point of view of the provider, who has traditionally excited the curiosity (often voyeuristic, or self-serving) of past observers. Beyond the timeliness of the topic, due to the changes that have taken place in that branch of commercial activities as in all others, there is also an important development in Cutrufelli’s writing. The eye of the writer focuses on the universe of male desire, which is usually defined as ‘natural’, and shows it to be part of an entire social construction of male/female relationships. Facing the conventional portrayal of female sexuality as a ‘dark continent’, Cutrufelli’s metaphor for male sexuality is the iceberg, a hidden and mute presence.
The writer’s task to explore that secret realm and give it a voice is not easy, as customs and values have changed. Men and women today have greater access to mutually agreed sexual activity than was formerly possible; because of that there is no pride on the part of many men in confessing that they pay to have access to the so-called ‘favours’ of a woman. Reticences and embarassment cause the writer’s interlocutors to generalize and avoid the personal. The writer challenges that pattern of silence, a sort of cultural omertà, by persuading her reticent interlocutors to look at what has remained unsaid and find the words to say it. Cutrufelli’s analysis is followed by ten interviews, or rather monologues, that she calls ‘testimonials’. Disclosure is made in the first person, the inquiry becomes discovery, a step in the process of breaking the silence (male silence, this time), and for the writer a step toward the creation of characters.
In the mid-1970s, Cutrufelli had her first encounter with the African continent, which − as we increasingly realize − was and is a permanent presence in Italy’s life. Two books emerged from that experience, Donna perché piangi, a factual essay, and Mama Africa. Storia di donne e di utopie (Mama Africa. A Story of Women and Utopias), a diary written in the first person and re-elaborated over a decade later. Cutrufelli took notes when she went to Zaire and Angola as a journalist, planning to use them to write an essay on the region’s unending wars. She later felt that an essay would be too removed from her emotionally complex encounter with African reality and she turned instead to the journal she had kept intermittently.
When she resolved to write a more subjective narrative about her African days, she acknowledged the difficulty of narrating a story held together by memory’s thread. But ‘to remember is not to suffer any more. It has become a necessity. A need and a duty’ (10). The volume’s composite origin is made more complex by a personal motivation, the writer’s debt of gratitude toward places and individuals that had taught her fundamental lessons about diversity, oppression, liberation, and the contradictions and pain involved in them. The narrator is included in the narrative because of her physical interaction with the people and the environment with its atmosphere and landscape: ‘Il sole è alto e le ombre troppo brevi. Il calore libera nugoli di moscerini. L’intero mercato fermenta. Ma dalle erbe, dai cesti d’igname, dai frutti ammucchiati su panni o su stuoie ancora si sprigiona l’alito umido del Mayombe ricco di mille risorse, impenetrabile rifugio del gorilla, inesauribile riserva di essenze, di legni pregiati. Di cibo’ [The sun is high and the shadows too short. The heat breeds clouds of gnats. The entire marketplace is fermenting. But from the vegetables, the baskets of yams, and the fruit piled up on cloth and mats the humid breath of the Mayombe still rises. The Mayombe, rich with a thousand resources, impenetrable refuge of the gorilla, and inexhaustible reserve of essences and precious woods. And of food’] (131).
The universe of women is portrayed by means of continuous attention to the detail of their daily lives, an attention at the same time involved and detached that gives immediacy to the experiences described. Situations, actions, and gestures are always accompanied by the voices of the women, who speak about their present dilemmas and their ideas for the future. Their talk, quoted directly, forms a sort of chorus that clearly belongs to a culturally definable universe in a specific moment of its history. The narrator listens to the many voices of the market women who address her ‘interrompendosi, accavallandosi....Con una foga che sembra incontenibile’ [interrupting each other and overlapping…with a seemingly uncontainable impetuosity’] (132). She defines herself as not a participant but an observer and a scribe. Her pen records the women’s words and the context of their lives. Yet, when she is invited to participate, and is asked questions about her own culture and the situation of women in Italy, she is moved and willingly enters the dialogue.
In spite of Cutrufelli’s misgivings about the task of the writer in a culture that privileges orality, she elaborates a prose that passionately evokes emotions and images and constructs the writer’s own Africa, as in the final paragraph of the volume: ‘In un’alba priva di colori sorvoliamo distese di sabbia che rimandano, duna dopo duna, un monotono chiarore. Poi ad un tratto si alzano le fiamme dei pozzi di petrolio spezzando l’angosciante, vuota malinconia del primo mattino sul deserto. Una vampata di vita, illusoria e pericolosa, subito spenta’ [‘In the colourless dawn, we fly over expanses of sand that reflect, dune after dune, a monotonous radiance. Then, suddenly, the flames of the oil wells rise up breaking the sorrowful, empty melancholy of the desert’s early morning. A blast of life, dangerous and illusory, that swiftly dies’] (173). The contrast between two moments in African life, and between two opposing reactions vis-à-vis the chaotic modernization of the continent, is evoked by the contrast in colours and movement in the scene described.
By 1990 Cutrufelli had written a number of volumes that explored a world of experience in which gender and human diversities interacted. She had also developed her own vision of a writerly universe, where having a personal style meant elaborating a clear and direct prose, rich in elliptical sentences, anchored in the factual but discreetly highlighted by colour, images, and rhetorical devices. While she continued her work of a sociological character, she was ready to turn to fiction.
Sicily was the setting of her first novel, La briganta (1990), at the time right after Garibaldi’s expedition. Although brigandage is usually believed to be a solely male preserve, it often included women. Cutrufelli could not rely on conventional documents for her research on women outlaws, such as journals, essays, or historical narratives. The illiterate brigands, particularly the women, left no written testimony of their lives, apart from what can be gleaned from court documents pertaining to their trials. Based on those elusively dry records, Cutrufelli imagined the lives of women outlaws, the ambiguities of their position inside emphatically masculine societies, and the hardships they endured in their efforts to define their own identities. She returned to a Sicilian environment in her third novel, Canto al deserto. Storia di Tina, soldato di mafia [Song to the Desert. The Story of Tina, a Mafia Soldier] (1994). Organized crime also conveys an image of unalloyed masculinity, yet − as has become clear in recent times −women are part of it, usually passive but at times also active. Tina, the story’s protagonist, is a modern and enterprising girl who finds a way to become part of the the world of the mafia foot-soldiers; but when she attempts to enter the bosses’ ranks she is faced with an impenetrable wall. In both novels a woman leaves the place she is conventionally assigned to take and manages to achieve a measure of freedom and self-awareness, but each time she is crushed in the end. In both instances, however, a written record insures their memory’s survival. The narrative that speaks of them is fictional, it is only a tenuous connection to their experiences of living at the margins, yet lends them a voice they would not otherwise have been granted.
In Complice il dubbio [With the Complicity of Doubt] (1992), Cutrufelli moved to a new setting, providing a fascinating glimpse into contemporary Roman life and the complexities of the psychology and experiences of today’s women. The novel speaks of a violent death, the solitude of women’s lives in a European metropolis, and the mystery of human relationships. Fear and suspense are made palpable by the incandescent heat and light of the Roman summer. The atmosphere charged with ominous signs and the season’s suffocating heat are forebodings of the tragedies that involve not just human beings but the entire environment. Cutrufelli’s Rome is a compenetration of urban and natural that belongs to a decaying planet, where death threatens everyone and everything. Yet, that same city environment, with its mutability, ultimately provides relief and the promise of a connection with another human being for the woman protagonist.
Il paese dei figli perduti [The Land of Lost Children] (1999) explores a familiar experience: that of a grown child’s sudden impulse to find out more about her or his parents. It is at the same time the story of a young woman’s discovery of a far-away continent, Australia, and her journey of self-discovery.
Giorni d’ acqua corrente [The Days of Flowing Water] (2002), Cutrufelli’s latest work, takes the narrator to a number of locations where people struggle against injustice and manage to survive against terrible odds. Cutrufelli has perfected her own genre that blends the work of her imagination with travel narrative, biography, autobiography, historical data, and social commentary. While remaining close to factual data, this collection of stories brings to life not only the faraway realities of people, landscapes and atmospheres, but also the intense emotions they evoke. It is especially the women caught in complex socio-historical situations who are vividly portrayed in their feminine strength. They are the protagonists in the dramatic stories gathered by the narrator in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
All through the years Cutrufelli continued to be a contributor to the Italian daily press. In 1990, her experience in journalism and her passion for literature prompted her to found a periodical focusing on women’s writing entitled Tuttestorie. Several issues have become staple texts in women’s literature: Il pozzo segreto [The Secret Well] (1993); Nella città proibita (1997) [In the Forbidden City, (2000)]; and the June 2000 issue, entirely devoted to Italian-American women’s writing.
Compiled by Angela M. Jeannet