It all started over a soya milk cappuccino
I really need to stop reading the (Italian) newspapers… there’s a limit to how incensed a person can get in public over a lovingly-prepared and meticulously crafted organic coffee and soya milk cappuccino. That’s why blogs are quite useful: they give you a place to vent frustration and rant about all the shocking things going on in the world. The world out there, that is, not our part of it. Because we all know that the nasty things happening in the papers, or “over there”, certainly don’t happen here.
Or could they?
Misogyny: here, there, everywhere
Today’s offending articles started with the 15-year-old girl who was gang-raped and burned alive in India. That she was more than just a body, a possession, a vessel didn’t seem to occur to her rapists, who may also have been her relatives. Then there was a piece about a female taxi driver in Italy (that’s here, not there) who was raped by a male passenger. Bizarrely, he was just some poor guy who’d split from his wife, had had a tough childhood and was in a bit of a rut. Not a rapist. Just a nice boy having a hard time and a crazy five minutes. Not a word about the woman whose life was ruined.
Then, I turned the page and there was more. Not just episodic violence, but widespread and systematic acts of cruelty and aggression against women and girls in the Islamic State. The story talked about how women and girls are stripped naked and categorised before being traded in “slave bazaars”. Now while I was imagining the horror, my mind was also automatically retrieving images of a young adult novel I recently translated.
But what’s a book got to do with anything?
The real story’s often in the fictionalized one
Nemmeno un bacio prima di andare a letto / A Girl of No Importance is an Italian novel for young adults about destructive teenage love and underage prostitution.
Its author, Manuela Salvi, is a hugely successful Italian writer of children’s literature, with more than 25 books to her credit. Back in 2011, when her publisher, Mondadori, asked her to follow up her first bestselling teenage love story set in the mafia world, Manuela was already reading in the local Italian news about young girls being groomed into prostitution rings. She was even more alarmed when she heard from girls who confirmed that, yes, it was happening in their schools. But what inspired her to use it as the theme for her novel was a book by a Canadian journalist, Sharlene Azam, Oral sex is the new goodnight kiss.
She had some real information about real events, and she decided to make it accessible by writing a fictionalized account of it.
So where’s the connection, you might be asking, between slave bazaars in the Middle East and underage prostitution rings in Italy?
No sex please, we’re p.c.
Well, I wish I could tell you to read the book to find out. But unfortunately, the book was culled before it could reach a wider audience. Before you could read for yourself how young women are often lined up with hardly any clothes on, even in the civilised west, and sold to men. How young women generally end up in those lines because of men. How young women end up believing that they don’t have any choice. And how it’s all passed off as a bit of teenage fun.
Manuela’s story about Aleksandra, a shy teenager with massive boobs, desperate to find some friends and who ends up as a piece of meat at a sex party, was deemed too sexy for Italian society. Which is strange in itself, considering the hypersexual place that Italy became under Berlusconi.
How could this happen in a western democratic country? Censorship, really? A female voice silenced? A female issue considered too taboo to be in print?
Well, maybe parents and teachers were afraid young people would read about how girls were encouraged to parade their “wares” in front of men and immediately want to throw off all their clothes and join in. Or perhaps they thought that by repressing the story, they could pretend it wasn’t actually happening in the real world. Or worse still, that they could preserve the dominant Catholic narrative and continue to pretend Italy is a pristine and pure, bourgeois place of child-centered perfection. Whatever the reason, a story about sexual desire and promiscuity in girls, manipulated by a handsome casanova and written by a woman was not desirable reading in Catholic schools and libraries.
Does it really matter if a book disappears?
I think it does. It robs young readers of an opportunity to explore issues. It removes them from a non-threatening context and denies young people an important way of addressing them. It forces writers to stultify and sugarcoat their stories. But more than anything else, it matters because censorship of our literature is wrong. So, yes, it does matter.
George Orwell thought so too. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” And maybe also the right to tell others what they want to hear but aren’t allowed to hear it.
Philip Pullman thinks it matters. “No one has the right to live without being shocked.”
Ian McEwan is definitely a champion of free speech. “Free speech is the freedom that underpins all others. The only way we have of obtaining freedom is to start with speech.”
And while we’re on the subject of speech and voice.. .I think it’s time to hear Manuela’s.
Aleksandra teeters on the edge of an abyss. But what’s great about a good story is we never know where it’s going to take us next and how it’s going to end. That’s where fiction comes in. It opens up new possibilities. It shows us that it doesn’t always have to be like Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance:
“You talk of atonement for a wrong done. What atonement can be made for me? There is no atonement possible. I am disgraced: he is not. That is all. It is the usual history of a man and a woman as it usually happens. And the ending is the ordinary ending. The woman suffers. The man goes free.”
I hope Manuela’s book finds a new home in English. One it was denied in Italy. That way, if you’ve been patient enough to read this far, you can also get the whole story and make up your mind up for yourself. That’s what freedom is all about.