Truth, metaphor and female perspective in Italian literature
People often disagree about what is true; but what is true is not always as obvious as we might expect it should be. Sometimes artists, writers, filmmakers and other creatives use imaginative ways to show people truths they might not see otherwise.
One such person was Anna Maria Ortese (1914-1998)—an author from Rome raised in Naples—whose father, an impoverished government employee, had to move his family often because of his job. Thus, Ortese grew up feeling like a stranger in her own country, which led her to create a unique adaptation of the Italian neorealism style of writing with which she expressed truths that were otherwise hard to explain. She used imaginative fantasy to present reality in a powerful, gripping manner.
Italian neorealism (a literary movement that became popular in Italy after World War II) “tried to present Italy as the way it was,” said Cosetta Seno, associate professor of Italian at the University of Colorado Boulder. Mussolini’s fascist regime presented a perfected portrait of Italy, and the neorealist movement wanted to offer an authentic portrait or the country. “(They) were hoping that, by doing so, Italy would have a real chance of becoming a better country for all the Italians; a country where equality and justice could be shared by all.”
Seno—who is originally from the small coastal town of Rimini in the Emilia-Romagna region of central Italy and was raised in the Verona area west of Venice—was especially touched by the writings of Ortese while she was in graduate school. In 2013, she wrote a book about Ortese titled Anna Maria Ortese Unavventuroso realismo (Anna Maria Ortese: An Adventurous Realism) which demonstrated how Ortese used fantasy to offer a better and deeper understanding of reality, rather than escape it.
Seno initially got interested in Ortese after one of her short stories captured her heart. “Un paio di occhiali” (A Pair of Glasses), part of the collection, il mare non bagna Napoli (Neapolitan Chronicles), tells the story of a little girl in Naples who was almost completely blind.
Seno brings her Italian values of community and cooperation to her teaching."
“She was too poor for a pair of glasses,” she said. “Her aunt saved money to buy her glasses. When she used them for the first time, she realized that she lived on an impoverished street instead of the beautiful boulevard she had always imagined. She became painfully aware of her social condition and of the poverty of her family. She got nauseous and she had to take the glasses off. She couldn’t stand to look at the reality she lived in.
“In this story, Ortese offered a very unique interpretation of neorealism by juxtaposing reality and fantasy in a very special way; which made her an eccentric and difficult writer to classify within the Italian literary canon.”
Another profound story that drew Seno to Ortese was, The Iguana, written in 1965, in which a young rich nobleman from Milan falls in love with an iguana on a fictional island.
“After World War II, people were tuned into re-building and expanding the devastated cities,” she said. “Many parks and forests were destroyed in this process, and cities were rebuilt without taking into account any environmental issues. There was no respect for nature or animals. Ortese made people reflect on the idea that animals deserved equal care, love and respect because they were sharing the planet Earth with us and needed to be understood and respected if we wanted a chance to survive. She was one of the first to talk about these problems in Italy when nobody was discussing ecology. She was ahead of her time. About her 1965 novel, Ortese said that it was almost an autobiography—the story of a human being that was half woman and half reptile. She put herself in the skin of an animal to express how she felt different. It was a metaphor for the life of a woman.
“The point of view of women is difficult to explain. When a woman talks about her reality, she often takes into account the diversity of human beings and other creatures who do not belong. It is often a more inclusive perspective. Women intrinsically know what it means to be different, and therefore are more prone to be inclusive of all other different creatures.”
Women’s studies is another passion of Seno’s. She is the former elected president of the AAIS (American Association of Italian Studies) Women’s Studies Caucus and continues to work in the field of women’s studies through her research on women writers and gender theories. In spring 2019, she received the departmental teaching award. She specializes in 19th and 20th century Italian literature and culture.
Seno came to America when she was about 25 years old after having received a degree in English and Russian literature in Italy. She had been working in Russia with a non-profit American organization when American friends encouraged her to embrace an opportunity to apply to graduate school in the United States. She was accepted and completed her master’s degree in Italian studies at the University of Virginia. From there she went to University of California at Berkeley, where she received her doctorate in Italian studies.
“It’s important to maintain connections to the homeland in Italy,” she said. “I wanted to continue to understand my culture more. You re-discover it when you go abroad. I became more interested in it every day when living in the United States than when living in Italy.”
After her graduation, she taught Italian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and at the Catholic University of America. She moved to Colorado in 2007 when she was offered a tenure track job teaching Italian literature and culture at CU Boulder and received tenure there in 2014.
Her first book, co-authored by Professor Paolo Cherchi, l’italiano nell'America del nord (The Italians and the Italian Language in North America) was published in 2010. She is currently working on her new book length project, tentatively titled Mediterranean Spaces and Places within Narrative Reportage, in which she analyzes the evolution of the narrative genre of reportage with particular reference to the representation of the city of Naples. In 2019, she was invited to be guest-editor for a special issue of Italian literary journal Il Lettore di Provincia, devoted to the education of young women in post-unification Italy. It was published in April 2020.
Seno brings her Italian values of community and cooperation to her teaching. “Like most people, my values are mixed now,” she said. “I bring the best of both cultures to teaching. It’s important to embrace communication—direct communication. I get to know my students personally. The classes in my department are smaller, so I have the privilege of getting to know them well. ... And thanks to my American education, I learned to see teaching as a way to constantly challenge my views and opinions in order to embrace and understand my students’ perspectives,” she said. “It is a growing experience for everyone in the class.”
This article was republished with permission from Colorado's Italian community newspaper, Andiamo!