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How Do I Keep Alive The Memory Of All Those Women Who Had No Voice?

How do I keep alive the memory of all those women who had no voice?

Elianda Cazzorla Tela di taranta (Taranta’s web) (Iacobellieditore, 2021)
A review by Claudia Mazzilli

Imagine a lonely, oppressed woman in a peasant society in the mid-twentieth century. Imagine a woman who, in a rural and patriarchal South, didn’t want children. Or a woman forced to an unwanted wedding. Imagine a poor woman. And a woman who discovers to love another woman. Imagine women with other types of frustrations, traumas, pain or unprocessed mourning, or material deprivation and erotism dream. How could these women express their ache of living? What socially accepted channel to give voice to what would inevitably meet with censorship? What expression to reassert the denied body?

In the summer of 1959, Ernesto De Martino and his multidisciplinary team explored the tarantate world, in Salento, before the mass society and consumerist standardisation swept away this and other worlds. As an ethnologist, De Martino studied their language, their imagery, the entire symbolic system that revolves around the taranta bite, whose dance is not a response to the bite of a real spider (real crises of latrodectism, i.e. intoxication caused by the poisonous bite, are very rare), but a ritual linked to a ‘symbolic bite’, whose syndrome is repeated according to the cadences of the agricultural year and the calendar of Christian saints, in which the feast days dedicated to St. Paul play a central role. De Martino was able to refute the thesis of a direct derivation of tarantism from the initiation and orgiastic rites of the ancient world, identifying it as a medieval neo-formation articulated in composite threads, within a layered ritual, imaginative and semantic weave, plural and syncretistic but irreducible to anything else.

Tarantism is a phenomenon far more widespread between women rather than between men. It involved pubescent maidens, spinsters, unhappy brides, widows, women with inaccessible loves. Everyone manifested paroxysmal symptoms: falling to the ground, exhaustion and anxiety, difficulty in standing, nausea and vomiting, paresthesias and muscle pain, hallucinations, motor disorder. So this is not a mere medical (bug bite intoxication) or physical phenomenon (psychiatric illness) but a culturally conditioned symbolic institution in which a neurotic crisis also culturally shaped, cured with the exorcism of dance, music and colours (with coloured ribbons), was solved. This crisis manifested itself during warm season (from May to August, the most intense period of agricultural work: harvesting, gleaning, threshing, vegetable picking, grape harvesting…), we come to terms with the economical and existential level.

The tarantism symbol configures a critical episode from the past as the ‘first bite’ and as the cyclical ‘remorse’ of the taranta: it gives ciphered language to a conflict left without choice. Through this periodic ritual, which ensured the evocation, outflow and resolution of psychic drives and unresolved conflicts, primarily eros precluded by the socio-familiar order, women freed themselves from the risk of crisis during the other seasons of the year. This is who the tarantate women are, described by Ernesto De Martino in the now classic The land of remorse (1961), which gives an account of his field investigation and interprets the literary sources on the subject that have come down to us through the centuries.

More than fifty years later, in the Tela di taranta (Taranta’s web) novel (Iacobellieditore, 2021), Elianda Cazzorla retraces the story of that research in Salento, identifying a gap, a fault, painful for the history of women dedicated to study, often destined to oblivion in an academic world that is still baronial and male. This is the story of the researcher Annabella Rossi, never acknowledged by Ernesto De Martino. This story is told by a mild and ironic pen, within the framework of a thoughtful narrative structure, which nevertheless resists classification into a precise sub-genre: historical novel (without revealing the doses of ‘true’, ‘useful’ and ‘interesting’, as in a secret recipe), fantastic tale, detective story a little surreal and philological. We are certainly dealing with a novel that has digested obstinate research, long and assiduous reading (as documented by the rich bibliography in the appendix) to distil all this preparatory work into a short narrative endowed with Calvinian lightness, despite the content of atavistic pain (the one of our ancestors) from which it takes its cue.

At Ada’s home (the author’s alter-ego), Apulian transplanted in Padua for years, a bag arrives containing some object, which his father’ second wife wanted to throw away. There were little things belonging to Ada’s mother (a teacher who gave work and volunteering a militant meaning, reinforced by reading, including the books of Danilo Dolci). Between little objects and newspaper clipping, in a wooden box, there are twenty rolled up pieces of paper, containing fragmentary and ungrammatical sentences like this one: ‘E sono rimasta come lisolo a mezzo a mare’ (‘And I was left like the island in the middle of the sea’). Who wrote them? For whom? For what purpose?

Ada leaves for a trip looking for the truth, but fist of all looking for his own origins (between familiar and symbolic genealogies which is better not to reveal with easy spoilers). A trip that, in 2014, leads her to Rome (at the National Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions) and then to Apulia, between ancient houses, alleys and cemeteries, along the diaphanous trail of photos, documents, books and oral testimonies to help her navigate the mystery and unravel it.

This is how the story of Annabella Rossi takes form. She was part of Ernesto De Martino’s team without being officially included in it: in fact, she wasn’t mentioned in his most famous book and she didn’t receive any particular recognition. A photographer with an anthropological background, she published Lettere da una tarantata (Letters from a tarantata): these are the letters sent to her by Michela Margiotta, a tarantata from Ruffano, whose name was changed to Anna in both the 1970 and 1994 editions. Ada compares the two editions (the older one is accompanied by photographs) and other archive materials, experiencing at first hand the hard work that was Annabella Rossi’s and encountering at first hand a thousand difficulties in accessing documents for those who do independent research without a mandate from the Academy. These people, only driven by intuition or personal curiosity or literary inspiration, amidst the constant stumbling blocks caused by patriarchal bureaucracy (photographing is forbidden, photocopying is forbidden, lending books is forbidden.. for this you need a disclaimer, for this one a written authorisation…): ‘A mask, I could propose it for the commedia dell’arte. Next to Colombina, Pulcinella, Brighella, there is Ricerchella. A female mask born in Italian museums and archives. The character in free research, unable to reproduce any document in any form, comes up with mischief and practices subterfuge to circumvent the restrictive rules of page reproduction’ (p. 81).

Ada, as Annabella, has some methodological perplexities about the detachment of the researcher to guarantee the objectivity of the investigation. Ada imagines, or rather ‘entertains’ real dialogues with the dead Annabella and with Anna/Michela, amidst various hallucinations and a fainting spell, which perhaps wink, in an amused way, precisely at the delirium of the tarantate and their hallucinated dialogues with St. Paul, St. Donato or other saints or with the taranta. As the distinguished linguist Tullio De Mauro recognised, the letters sent to Annabella Rossi by the tarantata Michela Margiotta (a peasant woman who hoes by the day, mistreated by her father, subjected to her seven brothers, obstinate in her choice not to marry and not to have children) are a precious testimony to the popular language written by a person with minimal schooling (elementary).

And this is also a writing about love: the words of an analphabet woman who, with every effort, tries to keep awake the loved “Good Girl” attention, asking her gifts, answers, reciprocity, appreciation, despite the social differences between the peasant and the researcher. Ada sieves through the correspondence: letters of reply to Annabella and spontaneous letters, letters written in her own hand, with thoughts given on paper as they come, and letters dictated to occasional scribes, with emotions transformed ‘into words within sentences endowed with meaning, but less alive and true than the original experience. And it is already translation’ (p. 142).

The chapters succession is built in order to ‘make us Ada’ as we read: through intuitions and deductions, the reader becomes the protagonist of the investigation. A thread as thin as that spun by a spider holds together all the female figures in the book: Ada, her mother Laura, the tarantata Anna/Michela, the researcher Annabella Rossi. Each one struggles with the limits of a difficult emancipation, each one follows her own path doing only a little piece of the way but, in a continuous and supportive relay, what remains unfinished for one is destined to be completed by another. Paths and projects left half-finished but also small conquests to leave to ‘ancestresses’ to the ‘daughters’ (not necessarily daughters by blood). Even before it is explicitly formulated in the last pages of the book, the question that runs through it is: How do I keep alive the memory of all those women who had no voice? There is no answer. What is important is to somehow weave a thread of taranta that holds together the lives of both ordinary and extraordinary women. Some threads will remain invisible, imperceptible, but sooner or later a ray of sun will come to illuminate them, to reveal the silent work of those who wove the thread.

*Elianda Cazzorla is from Monopoli, she’s born in Bari and she lives in Padua. A journalist, graduated in philosophy, she’s an Italian literature teacher. She is an expert in language education and author of anthologies for high schools; she writes for newspapers and monthly magazines and collaborates with the blog Cartesensibili, with Leggendaria and Letterate Magazine. She is among the authors of ‘Un anno di storie’ (A year of stories), Cleup Editions, for the year 2019, 2020, 2021. One of her short stories is in Le stanze del grano (The grain rooms), Laurana editore, 2020. Isolina, un martedì (Isolina, a Tuesday) (Iacobelli, 2019) is her debut novel.

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