Head Above Water
Head Above Water
Translated by Anne Milano Appel

Interview with Stefano Bortolussi
Interview With
Stefano Bortolussi, Author of Head Above Water

You are an Italian writer who lives primarily in Italy, but you stay very often in the U.S. Where would you prefer to live?

This is the most frequent question that people ask me —as if I were fifteeen years old and still had all the time in the world to decide, make mistakes, and possibly redeem myself. Nonetheless it's a justifiable question, if only for the fact that my wife is American, and we tend to spend as much time as we can in the United States. So, the answer is that we prefer to be bi-national. What could be better than to transcend the idea of just one home, one country, one language? And it gives me the chance to pursue the American dream in my own way.

American dream?

I was born in 1959. My generation in Italy lived and breathed a particular American dream. Our vision of the U.S. was a compound of projections, illusions and engaging dioramas that came from Beat poetry, rock music, free jazz and the New Hollywood of Coppola, Scorsese, Cassavetes, Bodganovich and company. I guess you could say that we felt a sort of ragged yearning for what seemed to be happening there.

Then, too, by the mid-Seventies Italian politics were already compromised by the insurgence of terrorist activity. So, our disappointment in what was happening in Italy created confusion, and we saw the States from a distance as a dreamland where everything was possible.

In another sense, it seems like a dream that my first novel, Head Above Water, is being published by City Lights, a beacon of that American counterculture. And the book is not even published in my country yet.

City Lights is publishing another book this season, Joe’s Word by American writer Elizabeth Stromme. This and another of her books were first published by Gallimard in France, in French translation. What does this say about the state of literature today?

Recent years have seen a progressive erosion of borders and nationalities, at least on a cultural level. For example, great works by authors who write in English about realities that our parents knew only as exotic projections of the Empires have accustomed us to a new vision of the world. Rushdie, Naipaul, Coetzee, Walcott (and many, many others) tell stories that enrich our vision of ourselves and our relationship with the Other. These expanding views of the world help break down psychological and cultural barriers.

And we turn into a global village?

That’s an expression that I don't particularly like. Unfortunately, it all too often projects an image of everyone surviving on the same barren plateau, reduced to consumers by heartless global commerce.

In a perfect world, the word globalization would mean free exchange and consequently freedom and independence; unfortunately, we live in a far-from-perfect world where the global economy is synonymous with concentration of riches in the same corporate hands.

Fortunately, in the cultural sphere, the international dissemination of literature offers a profound way to learn other people's ways, beliefs, customs, and passions. I am interested in you because you are different, yet I am able to read about you because we possess a common language.

In Head Above Water, your protagonist is an urban guy from Milan and his lover is the daughter of a fisherman in the Lofoten Islands in far north of Norway. Doesn’t this relationship exemplify the kinds of cultural encounters you refer to?

Absolutely, even if theirs is a private relationship. But they are certainly symbolic of a larger phenomenon. I don't want to sound corny, but the fact that they love and especially respect each other seems to play a major role in the equation.

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, where people of different races, cultures, religions, and languages have had to work things out. Not without severe stress, to be sure. How has the political and cultural situation changed now that refugees are arriving in Italy and other European countries from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Arab East?

In most ways it's wonderful: you literally see our cities becoming more and more culturally varied, less provincial than in the past. At the same time these infusions of people have brought to surface all the hidden contradictions of the European mind. The unfortunate consequences are racisms old and new, xenophobia, defensiveness. It’s idiotic, of course: the narrow-mindedness that doesn't comprehend that we in Europe (as elsewhere) need cultural and human exchange in order to survive and progress.

Do Italians read much literature in translation?

It's pretty much all they do – when they read, which is not too often. There aren't a lot of Italian books that break the barrier of general indifference nowadays. Which I guess helps to explain why I'm being published in the U.S. and not in my own country.

Earlier you spoke of a common language

To me it's the language of books, the enduring dialogue among readers and writers. The language of cultural exchange, if you like. The problem is that the world outside, the political world, is speaking an altogether different language. The language of war. The language of hate. The language of repression. We live and read and write in a world that is definitely a post-9/11 world. And by that I mean a world where every day even the simple idea of peace is under attack by those in power.

What do you think about the place we’re in right now?

Terrorism is a real threat, to be sure; and it’s also an absurd, life-negating answer to complicated questions. But it would be better to remember that it's an answer. It would be better to go back in time and ask not only what and who, but also and especially why. The forest of responsibility and cause is so tangled and ultimately frightening that it's easier to resort to force and repression. But the only possible solution is political and cultural.
America is the only superpower left in the world (if you don't count China, but that's another story), and right now it's like a dog that’s chasing its own tail, biting out Constitutional rights like tufts of fur.

Did you, as a young European, think of American in its mythic projection of itself as naïve, generous, but full of good will? That catastrophes like Vietnam were the result of unintentional bumbling?

Well, not really. We had contradictory notions and feelings. The Vietnam War was long over then, and we were focused on and rallying against American imperialism in South America. Still, in spite of U.S. foreign policy, we thought that there were still viable progressive forces in America that would reshape it and that new forms of social and cultural life would evolve.

What exactly did you hope for?

Of course, the US I dreamed of never really existed. But it seemed the mostfruitful place for progress. American citizens communicate with their elected representatives directly, writing letters and e-mails and things like that. In Europe we have a more mediated way of getting our opinions known: we organize and strike, and take to the streets, which works when the issues are general and a lot of people get involved. But this doesn't always work. In the American system, failed as it obviously is, the individual has a better chance to be an active political subject and therefore democracy has a better chance to develop and evolve, as long as those in power respect the concept..

When I come to the States now, I'm surprised at the paucity of international news in the major newspapers (let alone television). We live in a world where information has gained a speed that even 50 years ago would have been unthinkable. It’s a shame not to take advantage of it.

I’d like to see the American people given better opportunities to engage in civic life, to be allowed more information about their own country and also about what happens around the world.

How do you compare political life in Italy today with that in the US? Are Berlusconi and Bush brothers under the skin?

Berlusconi is a bad leader with a very strong personal agenda. He is a man of limited horizons with a strong bent for demagoguery, which probably explains his hopefully short-lived popularity. He is also in constant need of validation, and he will do anything to obtain it. From his point of view, playing buddy-buddy with Bush is a good way to go.

So, tell us what you think of the US today?

I am dumbfounded by the narrow-minded arrogance of its leaders. By the fundamentalist reasoning that kidnaps every political debate and plunges it into the fake clarity of the distinction between "Good" and "Evil". Bush speaking at the United Nations as if it were a by-product of American world dominance; "The Weekly Standard" indicating United Europe as the Enemy to defeat; and behind all this, Wolfowitz and the "New American Century" clique theorizing about preemptive strike and targets of opportunity… it's terrifying. The smoke and ashes of Ground Zero seem to have ossified open debate and the clear direction.

On the other hand, these are perceptions from the outskirts of the Empire, where we tend to identify the country with its rulers. Thankfully, it's never entirely like that. At the end of the day, in a democracy it's the people that count, because it's the people that vote. George W. Bush is dropping steadily in the polls, and hopefully this drop will continue straight to November 2004.

What are you working on now?

One of my current projects is an album of songs for a wonderful Italian jazz singer, Lucia Minetti. The concept is the America we loved, the America we love to hate, our "mental America." It will have some covers taken from a kind of American songbook that's different from what you usually find in a jazz album (we're thinking Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne…) and a few original songs written by me (lyrics) and Ms. Minetti (music).

Can you give us some examples?

There is a song that I think perfectly exemplifies the spirit of our work, "Highway of the Mind", and here are the first two stanzas:

Remember when we first met / At that long forgotten crossroads / I was painless and wide-eyed / You were cocky and self-assured / I was driving from the Old Land / You were painting your new signs.
You gave me your directions / You said you just keep going / At every turn you make / From every dream you wake /You'll always find yourself / On this highway of the mind

Have you written other fiction?

I’ve just finished a second novel, The Soloist. I wrote it in English, and it's been very exciting. I discovered a new voice that I didn't even know I had, a whole new set of codes, which gave me this sense of being between two worlds, of not belonging here or there, but here and there.

As Frederick the Great said, "Two languages, two souls."

Exactly. The main character is an Italian-American jazz drummer who lives in New York City. One summer he goes to Italy, and it is only here that he discovers a new, unsettling side of himself. The rest of the story takes place in Manhattan, but it's in Italy that he faces for the first time this facet he didn't even suspect he had.

So, where do you see yourself a few years from now?

I see myself in my books. You might think it's neither here nor there, but I believe it's a good way of being here and there. Which is a great place to be.