Award-winning Italian writer Marco Balzano’s most recent novel is Resto qui (2018), translated into English as I’m Staying Here by Jill Foulston, and now available in North America. His other works include Le parole sono importanti (2019), Il figlio del figlio (2016), L’ultimo arrivato (2014), and Pronti a tutte le partenze (2013). I’m Staying Here interweaves historical events with the lives of the people in the town of Curon, South Tyrol, before and during World War II. The story begins in 1923, when the main character Trina qualifies as a German teacher, just as Mussolini’s regime abolishes the teaching of German in the territory that was newly-annexed from Austria. Trina risks her life by working for a clandestine network of schools.
In 1939, Hitler’s “Option for Germany” invited native German speakers living in South Tyrol to leave Italy and immigrate to the Reich. The inhabitants of Curon are split. Those who choose to stay, like Trina and her family, are considered traitors and spies. Trina, now a wife and mother, narrates her life story to a daughter who has disappeared, as people are torn between Italian Fascism and German Nazism. Resto qui was inspired by the image of a half-submerged bell tower rising from Lake Resia in South Tyrol after the town was intentionally inundated in 1950 for the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Marco Balzano spoke to us from his home in Milan.
Thank you for speaking to Accenti Magazine about your latest novel I’m Staying Here.
I’m very pleased that the book is available in North America. It was recently released in England and in 20 other countries. The book came about by chance. I was on vacation with my family five years ago and, at one point, I took the wrong turn and ended up in the small town of Curon. It was a summer’s day. And I saw this bell tower which appeared to be floating on the lake. That’s the image on the cover of the book. I was struck by the evocative power of that landscape. It appears to be a natural lake, but it is actually man made. People were on vacation there: tanning on the beach, playing ball, riding pedal boats around the tower. That bell tower in the water, that looked like a vacation spot, was really evidence of destruction, a tragedy. Because a bell tower is not supposed to rise out of the water; it should be overlooking a piazza. So beneath the water is a place that was completely destroyed. I’ve always thought that the writer’s role is to find stories and bring them to the surface, to open closets and let out the skeletons, to force us to look where we do not want to. It seemed to me that the destruction of a town brings out many other stories: the story of how dictatorships transformed a very rich setting, a spot on the border between Italy and Austria, into a conflict zone of walls and war. That‘s a very powerful metaphor especially in today’s reality. That is, the border is a meeting place, but bad politics, violence and war changes it into a conflict zone.
It is, in fact, a very powerful image. How much time did you devote to research before writing the novel?
A writer has to be able to listen to a story before writing it. So the ability to listen, to interview, to ask, to dig – that’s a very important phase in writing all my books. Once that is done, then the actual research or “studying” begins. Because when we tell a story, inevitably we are doing two things: on the one hand we reconstruct and on the other we invent characters, we invent humanity, situations, dialogue, words. And this has to be really credible. We need to know a lot more than what we’re going to recount in the story. And that’s a very complicated phase which lasted about a year and a half. It takes me about three years to write a book. After my visit to Curon, I read everything I could find, and then I interviewed the locals. These are the “eyewitnesses” of what transpired in a given place. I didn’t have to report their words. I’m not a historian, I’m a writer. I need to invent stories, human stories, and bring them to our present reality, the real world that we live in or have lived in. I went to listen to the words of survivors, the last remaining people who lived during that time, those who witnessed that very difficult period. They were elderly. Every time we are able to listen to a lived experience, we are less likely to fall into the common or the cliché. I think that writing is not solitary, only one aspect is so. The rest is about curiosity and meeting people, and that’s absolutely necessary.
What inspired you to create Trina, the main character? Did she actually exist?
Writing is about telling lies, and about never telling only lies. That’s the mystery of writing. We need to invent stories to better understand our reality. And Trina is a good example of this. I invented the character: her words, her life experiences, her husband, daughter and parents. I invented her way of fighting. But she’s inspired by facts. When I interviewed one of the five witnesses, a woman named Barbara, she showed me the photo (from 1950) of a woman who was over 80. It was a photo of Trina, which is the diminutive of Caterina (and also my daughter’s name). Trina was an elderly peasant. The photo was taken after the town was destroyed. The houses had been torn down and the water had risen to make the dam. There were only a few houses left to destroy. And the elderly peasant had hidden in one of these. The employees of Montecatini, the company that built the dam, went to get the woman. In the photo, Trina is kneeling on the table in her house, her hands clutching the windowsill, and she’s screaming at the men coming towards her. The water had risen to the height of the table and her dress and legs were wet. This is an elderly woman; 86 years old. So hers is an even stronger gesture. When I saw that photo, I understood that I wanted a character with that strength, who doesn’t give up even when she knows she has lost. She knows they’ll come get her and take her away. I changed her from a peasant to a teacher. And we follow her whole life, from when she is young and becomes a teacher at 18, to old age, when she looks at her submerged town from a mountaintop. That’s what I saw that day, a tourist spot, where the tragedy and ruins and a part of our history ended up under water.
It’s a very moving story with very strong characters. Everyone would learn something from their struggles. Who is the ideal reader for this novel? Who was the book written for?
I’m going to try to give you an honest answer. When I write, I don’t have the reader in mind. When I write, I hope that everyone will read it. Not for sales reasons. When the stories are real and when the author knows how to write, stories have to be for everyone. I would never write for a specific audience. When Homer went to the agora to recount stories of Ulysses or Achilles, everyone came to listen – women, men, children and old people. Maybe no one will actually read the book, but when we write we have to dream big.
What have you – the author, the man, the teacher – learned by writing this book, by creating these characters, by writing Trina’s story?
This is not an easy question to answer. I can say that through writing, rather than learning something, I realize more and more that it’s my way of inhabiting the world, my way of living. Each one of us must find a way, find a space, find meaning in our lived experience; but also find what in life gives rise to wrath, indignity, suffering, and much needed reflection. For me writing is coming to terms with facts, people, and times which need to be challenged and reflected upon. And stories have this extra weapon compared to history and science. They are seductive and therefore accessible to everyone. So with this specific story, Trina’s, I think I learned from the readers’ responses. So many readers, many more than I could ever imagine. There’s a huge need to hear about important topics, those we see on a daily basis in the aggressive language of social media, television and newspapers. There’s a need to speak about it at a slower pace, as is possible in literature, which allows for a reflection and a chance to catch our breath. And so this book has themes like national boundaries and the role of women, which is very timely today – women’s role in history. The role of landscape. This landscape was destroyed to build a dam, the largest in Europe for ten years. And then, after a few years, it was no longer useful because energy became transportable. Nuclear energy costs less. An entire valley was destroyed for nothing. And so I think this book questions what we often call “progress.” Sometimes they call progress what is in the interest of only a few and not what is progress for many.
I want to talk about the English translation by Jill Foulston published in North America. What was your experience with the English translation? Did you have a chance to speak with the translator? Have you read it?
I had exchanges with the translator via the publisher. In some languages it happens more often, because I know some of the languages, but others I don’t. It also depends on how the translator works. For instance, I have a very close rapport with my German translator, and with the translators in Israel and France. With the English translator, we exchanged a few jokes and commented specific excerpts. I am fascinated by, and I have a lot of respect for, the translator’s work. Translator and traitor have the same root word in Italian, and most of all I need to trust and respect my translator’s freedom, risks and choices. When the translator reaches out to me, I am always really happy.
You are a writer, you are very busy, you have a family, you’re also a teacher. How do you manage all of this? What inspired you to become a writer? What advice do you have for a young or not so young person who aspires to become a writer? I’m guessing that it isn’t easy to do.
Yes, I have a family. I have two children. I’m still teaching, but for the last five or six years I’ve been teaching part-time because I can’t do it all. I don’t want to be a prisoner of my own words. I want the freedom to not write when I have nothing to say. Teaching allows me to work with words and to feel useful socially, and it gives me that intellectual honesty, the freedom to write only when I have something to say. Otherwise, I prefer to read and study. For those who want to become writers, the best advice I can give is not to listen to anyone’s advice because there are no recipes, no specific paths. Everyone gets there in their own way, as in a relationship, or starting a family, or discovering one’s talent. The same goes for writing a story. The only thing I can say is that it could be useful to keep a diary because it’s a form of writing that allows us the greatest freedom. When you keep a diary you are both the writer and the reader. You are free to write what you please, say anything at all, however outrageous. When you reread a page of your diary you discover that it is only of interest to you. But it still gives you the possibility of looking at life from the outside looking in – at yourself. On the other hand, if you discover that what you wrote is also someone else’s story, of interest to others, that may be an important indicator to try to put it out there.
Thank you so much, Marco, for this interview. I hope we’ll be able to do an interview in person in the future.
Thank you, Licia. See you soon.