MARIA ROSE CUTRUFELLI: WOMAN OUTLAW
I’ve recently corresponded with Maria Rose Cutrufelli, one of Italy’s most important living writers. Born in Messina, Sicily, Curtrufelli now lives in Rome. I wrote to Curtrufelli after reading her powerful book The Woman Outlaw, now translated into English. Below are excerpts from our correspondence.
Q: Do you consider yourself a Sicilian writer?
A: I am proud to be a Sicilian woman, but I am a ‘global’ writer. In the sense that I write for everyone.
Q: What are the most important themes in your writing?
A: I like to tell historical facts, especially from the South (but not only). At the center of my novels there are often stories of strong women who have left their mark in my imagination.
Q: Who are your favorite writers?
A: The list would be long. But I consider my masters three great Sicilian writers, Stefano D’Arrigo, Vincenzo Consolo and Leonardo Sciascia. I was lucky to meet the last two and enjoy their friendship. I also learned a lot from Maria Messina, who wrote Behind Closed Doors and other books. Messina is still unfortunately too little known
Q: Have you read any Italian American writers?
A: Of course! I admire John Fante very much. I’ve also enjoyed the work of Louise DeSalvo. Her memoir Vertigo deeply touched me.
Q: I’ve read La Briganta (The Woman Outlaw) in English. Are other translations of your books into English in progress?
A: Not yet, but I hope soon, with the next novel.
Q: What are you working on currently?
A: My new novel, a dystopian story, will be released next March. For the moment I am working on its review and on the last ‘tweaks’.
THE WOMAN OUTLAW
The Woman Outlaw, written in 1990, is set in the aftermath of Italian unification. Drawing from court documents, Cutrufelli imagines the lives of women outlaws and the challenges they endure in trying to assert and define their identities.
The main character, Margherita, is a young woman of nobility. As was the tradition in Southern Italy during that time, Margherita is married off to a man she doesn’t know. While she is being carted off to marriage, her brother Cosimo is sent off to university.
Having been raised in an educated and genteel home, Margherita only knows decency and kindness. But Margherita soon learns that her new husband is dismissive and violent. Threatened by her education, he gives away Margherita’s vast library of rare books and documents. This library, accumulated by her mother’s family, is prized by Margherita. The entire library is then used for fireworks and destroyed: letters, missives, out of print books and rare books ravaged by flames.
Her husband’s continued abuse drives Margherita to the edge. In a sudden explosive act, Margherita stabs her husband in the throat. She doesn’t stab him with a knife, or a shard of glass. She stabs him with a hairpin, piercing his masculinity with an instrument her femininity.
Margherita then escapes to the mountains and, finding herself in the company of brigands, becomes one. There she undergoes a metamorphosis, blurring the boundaries of her sexual identity. She begins wearing men’s clothing and ties her hair up in a bun. She explores a relationship with another woman.
The Woman Outlaw is written in the first person and reads like a memoir or a letter. Margherita tells us that she’s writing her story in a prison cell, echoing Cutrufelli’s theme of female liberation. Cutrufelli has said that women “even in their own land, even in their own home, can feel exiled, foreign and enemy, experiencing in this way directly – and sometimes harshly – the need for change, for a cultural fracture, of a dialogue with the others.” Margherita writes that only men will read her letter because women are relegated to read religious books only.
Cutrufelli has been writing on women’s issues related to equality in work and women’s emancipation since the seventies. She’s also investigated the phenomenon of prostitution and pornography in Sicily.
Cutrufelli has written many novels, travel books, essays and short stories. Though her books are translated into twenty-five languages, I am hoping that there will soon be more English translations of Cutrufelli’s important work.