From “La Straniera” to “Strangers I know”: Claudia Durastanti’s Journey through Languages, Cultures, Genres, and Genders

By Francesco Chianese

First published in Italy in February 2019, in late January 2022 Claudia Durastanti’s La straniera landed in the two countries of which the author is a bilingual citizen––the United Kingdom and the United States. The journey across the waters of the pandemic was not an easy one. In the United States, where the author was born, the book was taken over by a major publishing brand, Riverhead, an imprint of the Penguin group. In the UK, Durastanti’s chosen residence for ten years of her adult life, the volume was published by the independent but fierce Fitzcarraldo, which has churned out great successes such as the Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk.

A shapeshifter, as the author likes to call it, La straniera has changed its genre classification––originally a memoir, it is now presented as a novel––in both the editions which feature Elizabeth Harris’ translation. Notably, Harris’ smooth and dense prose seems to bring together, through Durastanti’s writing connecting the UK and the US by way of Italy, the two countries traditionally separated by the same idiom, as George Bernard Shaw’s famously remarked.

Not without some regret from the author, in its English translation Durastanti’s book also underwent a profound transformation of the Italian title La straniera, literally “The Female Stranger.” Since English does not have a feminine form of the noun “stranger,” the title would have had closely reminded us of Albert Camus’ classic, which Durastanti adores. Nonetheless, the karma found its way to connect them. At one of the presentations of the book in the US, at the bookshop I AM Books in Boston, a voice from the audience shared the information that Camus’ mother was affected by hearing issues like Durastanti’s “stranger.” The title La straniera thus became Strangers I know, a phrase that takes into account the long journey of this significant work through countries and languages. Along the way, the book has gathered passionate readers who have learned to recognize the voice of the author through its numerous interpreters, expanding the audience of a story that, from one language to another, has preserved the universal value of the author’s diasporic story as a global condition that crosses cultures and migrations.

The story told by Durastanti echoes that of the unresolved and dislocated characters of her preceding volumes of fiction in which we recognize traits of a diasporic identity constantly suspended between different worlds: Un giorno verrò a lanciare i sassi alla tua finestra (2010); A Chloe, per le ragioni sbagliate (2013); Cleopatra va in prigione (2016), the latter translated into English among other languages (2020). Only in Strangers I Know, however, do we connect all the pieces of the diasporic puzzle of the author and her multiple migrations between Brooklyn, where she was born in the early 1980s to Italian parents in Bensonhurst, a neighborhood characterized by “thick ethnicity”; Italy, where she returned when her parents separated, moving between Basilicata and Rome; and London, where she lived until the publication of La straniera, before settling back in Rome where she currently resides. A marvelous way of connecting in a single story the complexity of the experiences of Italian emigration, La straniera wraps itself around a multiplicity of centers and experiences, resulting in a mosaic that is difficult to contain in a linear narrative.

The metadiscourse on translation carried out by Durastanti, who recognizes herself as both translator and writer, together with the history of the book’s translation, makes La straniera a significant case in translation studies. In the year following its publication in Italy, Durastanti’s La straniera became La extranjera in Spanish, translated by Pilar González Rodríguez for Anagrama, and L’estrangera in Catalan, translated by Martí Sales for L’Altra Editorial: hence before becoming “known” in the Anglophone world, the book facilitated the dialogue between two languages coexisting and identifying two communities within the borders officially defining one country. Shortly afterwards, the book received two translations into Portuguese: Sempre Estrangeira in Portugal by Vasco Gato for Publicações Dom Quixote; and A Estrangeira in Brazil, translated by Francesca Cricelli for Todavia a few months later. Meanwhile, it became De vreemdelinge in Nederland, translated by Manon Smits for De Bezige Bij; Strankinja in Croatia, by Marko Kovačić for OceanMore; Tujka in Slovenia, by Vera Troha for Beletrina; L’Étrangere in France – there, the feminine distinction still held some importance – translated by Lise Chapuis for Buchet/Chastel; Die Fremde in Germany, for Zsolnay and translated by Annette Kopetzki. More recently, Johanna Hedenberg adopted the same title used in the UK and the US for the Swedish edition, Främlingar jag känner. This choice seems to suggest that we know now slightly better this foreigner, after the multiplication of palimpsests and public appearances that have guaranteed the book a global overexposure which at the time of its release nobody could have suspected.

The history of the translations of this book speaks to Durastanti’s story as a translator as well. While conversing with her at the Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles, where she presented her book a few weeks ago, the first question I asked her was what it meant for her to continue discussing a book that has involved her so deeply, on a personal level, for three years and in the language which she perfectly speaks but into which she preferred not to translate herself. At the subsequent event at the Clorinda Donato Center for Global Romance Languages and Translation Studies at California State University Long Beach, her English translator Elizabeth Harris was invited to comment on her translating choices alongside the author herself. Harris’ meditation on her efforts to maintain her translation “strange” demonstrated how the monologue of a writer becomes a dialogue when her subjectivity is projected onto the subjectivity of another person called to interpret it. In their case, translation was the negotiation of linguistic choices suspended between two bilingual speakers who exchange information in both languages through a written text.

The ambivalence of Durastanti’s approach to memory acquires a further shade of ambiguity in the English title, which prompts us to question how much it is possible to know about strangers, but also to investigate the limits of our knowledge of the people we think we know and to what extent they remain foreign to us. From this viewpoint, the author’s reflection reminds us of Julia Kristeva’s Etrangers à nous-mêmes (1988) rather than Camus, a book translating the concept of “foreigner,” usually associated to the outsider in a country and a society which are not their own, towards the perception of a foreignness that is internal to the self and in its dissociation from its external projection. Consequently, the fictional worlds described by the author contribute, alongside her autobiographical narrative, to make her portrait more complex through the projection of her multitudes, emerging from their overlapping and at the same time distancing themselves.

In the preponderant narration of the family dimension with which the search for the narrator’s individual voice dialogues, we also recognize Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare (Family Lexicon), whose legacy this book picks up, for it also presents itself as a reflection on the nature of the language spoken in the family context. In reality, however, and here lies another aspect of the book’s originality, the language described by Durastanti is characterized as an unspoken language. In the very first pages the author introduces her parents who are both affected by hearing impairment. The subject of impaired hearing emerges as crucial in the reflection on the hybrid language of the author’s extended family which, suspended between the two sides of the Ocean, oscillates between English and Italian and between saying and not saying. From this viewpoint as well, Durastanti’s experience stands out as original in the fresco of the Italian diaspora, pointing out the need of it being represented in its multiplicity, and questions translation in its multiple modalities by posing the problem of translating the experience of migration of a person who cannot describe it verbally.

Since the publication of La straniera in 2019, Durastanti has defended her choice of having her book translated by somebody else despite her bilingual ability which would have allowed her to do so herself. She has defended the variety of possibilities her narrative would accommodate in the process of rewriting and reinvention into other languages and voices. Every time I listen to her explaining why this possibility is so enriching for the book, all of a sudden, I start wondering why one would ever consider self-translating their writing just because one can, depriving a book of potential new voices and further possibilities of establishing a dialogue within languages and cultures.

Francesco Chianese currently holds a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellowship to develop his project TransIT – Many Diasporas from One Transnational Italy at Cardiff University and California State University, Long Beach (2021-23). He has published widely on Italian literature and culture, on Italian American literature and culture and on representations of the Italian diaspora. He is also the author of the book “Mio padre si sta facendo un individuo problematico”: Padri e figli nell’ultimo Pasolini1966-75 (Mimesis Edizioni, 2018).

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