by Josephine Condemi
Carolina De Robertis is one of the three winners of the 2010 Seminara Debut Prize, organized by Circolo Culturale Rhegium Julii in Reggio Calabria. After reading and appreciating “La bambina nata due volte”, I went to her hotel to meet and interview her.
The original title of your novel is “The invisible mountain”, the Italian one is “La bambina nata due volte” (“The girl who was born twice”)…I know you won a lot of prizes as a translator…did you take part in this translation?
I am passionate about translation but I did not take part in the translation into Italian. I didn’t know about the change in title until a friend of mine sent me an e-mail; so it was a nice surprise for me because I really like the Italian title.
So, you think that the meaning of the novel is easy to understand also with this title…
Yes. They are very different titles but I think they both fit the book well. The more obvious meaning for “La bambina nata due volte” is the first character Pajarita, who is a legendary baby born twice: once, like everybody else, and then once again from a tree. But, if you look more deeply, all three main characters are born more than once: they are born into the world and then they are reborn by finding their true selves despite obstacles.
I’m happy you say this, because I wrote a little article about your book underlining that “The invisible mountain” is a sort of “Purgatorio” (I read the quotations at the beginning of the novel) which all the three main characters have to climb in order to be born again…Is it a correct interpretation?
Well, Dante’s quote says: “Why do you return to much sorrow, why you don’t climb the mountain, that is the source of happiness?”. So, the mountain is happiness. But we are humans, we are here, in the world, with all of its problems and challenges and pain and everything else…and the mountain can represent our dreams, what we want to move towards, but it’s invisible. We can’t see it but we have to trust that it’s there.
But your characters try to climb this mountain…
Yes, they always try to climb the mountain, which is like being reborn, so the two are connected!
I read you cooperated with an organization about women rights. Can you explain your activity and your experience in this field?
For many years, for six years, I worked in a centre dedicated to counseling women and men (mostly women) who were raped, and I founded and organized a group expecially for women from Latin America, who speak Spanish. Because I live in California, there are many immigrants who speak only Spanish and not English. It’s hard for them to find services, because they are very poor, they are discriminated against, and so I created a counseling service to meet their needs. I listened to over a thousand people about their personal and private experience with rape, with child abuse… listening to all these stories I was able to witness so much of the worst pain that a human being can experience, but also the most incredible strength that human beings have, inside of them. So I feel that the people I counseled gave me so much, they taught me so much, about the human spirit. The things that they taught me have been very important to me as a writer, for the book.
What do you think about the nomination of Plaza de Mayo women to the Nobel in Argentina?
I think it’s fantastic and very well deserved. I feel very glad that the Madres of Plaza de Mayo are now well known around the world and I know they have inspired many groups around the world. But we always have to remember that, when they began, there was a dictatorship in Argentina and it was incredibly dangerous for them to come out to the Plaza. Everybody said: “These middle-aged women are crazy, are so stupid”. And we have to remember that they were outsiders, so brave. My second book is about the disappeared of Argentina, and about the Abuelas (the grandmothers ) of Plaza de Mayo, who went looking for the pregnant women who disappeared and the children who were born in captivity in Argentina and stolen. So, that’s my project right now, I’ve been researching about that…and I think the nomination is fantastic!
Turning back to the mountain: the mountain forms also the name of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. There is a sort of romantic connection between the places and the feelings of the characters…isn’t it?
Yes, very much so. I think that the title of the book in English is about what we talked about before, this invisible thing that everyone fights for, but it’s also a tip of the hat to Montevideo, because of the way it got that name, Monte-vide-eu, but we have no mountains…It’s a national joke in Uruguay: everybody says “Monte-vide-eu, but we have no mountains!”. So, it symbolizes how Uruguayans feel about themselves…Uruguayans often feel invisible, unseen. We have big neighbours : Brazil, Argentina, and we are so small, and nobody sees us, and everybody forgets us, we have so much history but nobody knows about it…so, “The invisible mountain” in that sense, the culture of Montevideo, of Uruguay. This is my song to Uruguay, my love letter!
Can you explain your Italian origins?
Well, five of my eight great-grandparents were Italian, from the North on my mother’s side and from the South on my father’s side. Some emigrated to Uruguay and some to Argentina. I was born in England because my parents left South-America when my mother was pregnant. Now I live in San Francisco and they live in Los Angeles, in the other part of California. In California we also have the North and the South and these parts are very different.
What do you think about this difference, also related to North America and South America? Because, for your personal story, you can make a comparison between the two parts. What about the way of living of the people?
It’s a very big question. For me, when I visited my family in Uruguay it’s like going back to my roots, like going home. For example, the relationship to time: people are not rushed in Uruguay, it’s more like in Italy, more Mediterranean style. It’s a generalization, but often Latin Americans are more relaxed about time, you have a very long lunch and everybody talks to each other…Instead, in the United States, everybody moves very fast, people have 15 minutes for you and then they have to go. Whenever I come home from Uruguay and return to the United States, it’s a shock, again, how quickly everybody moves. And also relationship with family is different: the family connections are much deeper in Latin America; in the United States there is often, I think, a culture of forgetting history. People are disconnected from their own history, people don’t know the names of their great-grand-parents. In Latin America people are more likely to care about that. So, it was very important for me to write this book.. I wanted to go back and connect.
Do you think there is an analogy between the Uruguay and the South of Italy? Not just about the way of living but also about the relationship with history: here there is a big sense of family too, but, like Uruguay, we can’t, maybe we are not able, to export our culture and our history… Until your book, we didn’t know so much about Uruguay…
Yes, so somebody needs to write a book about three generations in Reggio Calabria!
How was your first impression about Reggio Calabria?
Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. I’ve been so moved by the warmth and the generosity of people here. Even being met at the airport warmly by a group of people… that’s not something that happens everywhere. It’s very welcoming. And I think it’s so fantastic that Rhegium Julii supports and has created this prize and this opportunity not only for writers but for readers to be able to connect to books . I’m also very inspired by the beauty of Reggio Calabria: the sea, the people, the city…The city reminds me Montevideo, in some ways, so it feels a little bit like home.