“Motherhood,” writes Jacqueline Rose in her book Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, “is … the place in our culture where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our conflicts, of what it means to be fully human” (1). More than one century of Italian literature has grappled precisely with this view of motherhood as the repository of our sense of self. Many Italian women have used their writing to first enshrine and later defy what it means to be and to have a mother: if at first writers like Neera celebrated motherhood as a necessary and holy sacrifice required from every woman, it wasn’t long before others began to challenge the presumption of a woman’s inherent duty to self-immolation. In fact, as early as 1906, Sibilla Alermo wrote in her novel A Woman at Bay (translated by Maria H. Lansdale) that motherhood is a “hideous chain” that is passed from mother to daughter (343).
Mothers are central to Donatella di Pietrantonio’s A Girl Returned, translated by Ann Goldstein. At the age of thirteen, our nameless narrator, at first completely unaware of her origins, is retuned by her adoptive parents to her biological family. Unsettled and unmoored by this sudden change, she spends the length of the narrative trying to piece together the causes of her dual abandonment–first as a baby by her biological mother and later, by her adoptive mother, who had shown no signs of faltering in her love for her adoptive daughter.
But the set-up of this story allows Di Pietrantonio to explore the role of mothers from a framework that departs from more traditional tales about motherhood that have permeated Italian literature. Indeed, as Laura Benedetti has explained in The Tigress in the Snow, much of Italian writing about motherhood is told from the perspective of daughters, daughters who feared that motherhood, as a practice unfolding under a deeply patriarchal society, would erase who they were beyond motherhood. But Di Pietrantonio does not seem preoccupied with a daughter’s rebellion about her perceived fate as a potential mother. On the contrary, the main concern of A Girl Returned is precisely on how essential the figure of the mother is to our own sense of identity.
Looking at mothers as the figures that determine and define who we are allows us to think about A Girl Returned as a novel about exile and dislocation, rather than simply motherhood. The Arminuta (a word that in the language of the Abruzzo region of Italy means “the returned”) is unexpectedly forced to leave her maternal home, or what she considers her maternal home, and exiled to a place whose customs, and even the language, are almost foreign to her. As a matter of fact, a good portion of the dialogues in A Girl Returned are written in an adapted dialect that would be easily understandable by Italian readers. Yet, in her translation Goldstein has decided to forgo the use of dialect which, while natural in Italian, would have perhaps encumbered a novel which uses a sharp, unadorned language to elucidate the main character’s thoughts. Goldstein’s decision omits nothing to the story, but it does serve to preserve the narrative brisk pace which mimics the narrator’s ever-evolving emotional state from denial to anger and, finally, to acceptance.
So, from her only-child existence in a beach-front house in the city, the Arminuta is relocated to a run-down town, forced to share a room with four of her siblings and a bed with her sister. Her brothers are cruel, her biological mother is distant, her only companion is her fierce sister whose tenacity and ability to adapt the Arminuta sees as evidence of the importance of a stable mother figure in her life (Chapter 22). And, as is often typical in tales about exile, whenever she returns to the city where she grew up, she feels just as much a foreigner as in her new home.
In Reflections on Exile, Edward Said explains that exile “is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.” Of course, there is a material dimension to the Arminuta’s exile. She has lost a physical native place. But the true home that the girl yearns for, the one that has separated her from her true sense of self is not a geographical location:
[T]oday I really don’t know what place a mother is. It’s absent from my life the way good health, shelter, certainty can be absent. It’s an enduring emptiness, which I know but can’t get past. My head whirls if I look inside it. A desolate landscape that keeps you from sleeping at night and constructs nightmares in the little sleep it allows. The only mother I never lost is the one of my fears. (Chapter 23)
In A Girl Returned, the figure of the mother is equated to the very idea of home. It is not surprising then to see a vocabulary about space used in describing her. So, the mother is a “place,” in the narrator’s case she is also “an enduring emptiness” and “a desolated landscape.” What having a mother could offer is the certainty of a singular point of origin and a continuous and cohesive idea of who one is. But the Arminuta, twice abandoned, is no longer able to construct a stable narrative around which to define herself or giver her life meaning.
I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now. (Chapter 25)
Said also argues that it is only logical to see exiles turned so often into artists and writers, for their reality is often deeply unnatural. And the narrator of A Girl Returned, contemplating her past as an adult, does describe the many ways in which her true story would sound implausible (Chapter 29). But the push to write this story, though never truly addressed in the text itself, is not about separating fact from fiction. Its impetus can be found in Di Pietrantonio’s choice to open the book with a quote from Elsa Morante’s House of Liars (partially translated by Adrienne Foulke). In this novel, the narrator Elisa, the daughter of two careless parents who died and left her to be raised by an acquaintance, spends the entirety of the book trying to untangle the knot of lies that had defined her family’s history and led to her misfortunes. But the lies she is trying to dispel are not just her family’s: they are the lies Elisa tells herself to create a wall that will protect her from others and their ability to hurt her. For Elisa, the book is an exorcism, and perhaps A Girl Returned, is a story about exorcism as well.
Does the exorcism work? It is hard to say. As the story wraps up, we begin to see that the narrator understands the pressures that led to her dual abandonment, pressures that are very much patriarchal in nature. Despite her understanding, there is little textual evidence that she has quite forgiven either of them. And is still interesting to contemplate the reasons why it is only the mothers who are punished with silence and contempt by the narrator, despite the existence of two father figures as well. Why is that the burden to define the narrator’s identity belongs to mothers? In a sense, Di Pietrantonio is still contributing and is defined by the struggle that has characterized much of Italian literature for decades: the struggle to not just understand, but to accept mothers as human beings with all the complexities that entails.
Di Pietrantonio, Donatella. A Girl Returned. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2019.