Those flying women of the island revealed by the Palmese writer Marta Lamalfa


By John

The archetypal charm of the island, a lump of volcanic rock thrown into the sea like Alicudithe furthest of the Aeolianthat's what inspired it Marta Lamalfa (in the picture), author of «The island where females fly» (Neri Pozza, among the notables of the 36th edition of the Calvino Prize). A debut with a powerful story, that of the young Marta (born in 1990), Calabrian from Palmi, graduated in Middle Eastern languages, musician and resident in Rome, where she works in the press office of a humanitarian organization. A novel born due to some happy coincidences: the fact of seeing the Aeolian islands (but not Alicudi) from the Calabrian house, the reading of ethnological studies on an island legend of flying mahares, a true story of the island and attending the school of creative writing Bottega di Narrazione by Giulio Mozzi and Giorgia Tribuiani, to which she had applied with a project born precisely from those suggestions.
It is the early 1900s, on the island where “the years are counted with troubles: the time of cholera, hunger, tuberculosis, smallpox”, the inhabitants have strange hallucinations, probably caused, according to the anthropologist Paolo Lorenzi , from bread made from ergot contaminated with a hallucinogenic mushroom. And the novel follows the story of a family, in particular of the very young Caterina, who expands into a backward human and socio-economic condition of poverty, submission and resignation, especially among women. But also of hope, in a context of immobility in which “flying females” represent a dream of freedom.
Marta, why an island, why Alicudi?
«Islands are always somewhat magical territories, Alicudi in particular. I love the Aeolian Islands, which since I was a child were my panorama, the edge of my world. From which, however, I could not see Alicudi or Filicudi, and Alicudi attracted me, also because I had never been there.”
A suggestion that became a novel…
«After the first pages of the first draft I noticed that there was a slightly different voice compared to what I had written up to that point, mainly short stories, never something so long and detailed; it was as if I heard a voice, as if I heard some of the characters speaking to me.”
Did you go to Alicudi then?
«At the beginning I tried to understand it from afar, I was looking for images, and among other things I used the drawings-sketches from the late nineteenth century by an Archduke of Tuscany, Luigi Salvatore Asburgo Lorena, very useful for imagining the geography of the islands. Then, however, I realized that the island was missing, the landscape was missing. And so I went to Alicudi. When the book was finished, the volume doubled because before there were too many characters in too little space and therefore no one got what he deserved, as if I hadn't given justice to so many stories.”
On Alicudi, at the same time as your novel there were other publications, including the study by a man from Messina, Tommaso Ragonese, on ergot. In your opinion, is it the geographical-literary-ethnological exoticism of the island that attracts?
«It's actually an island that once you've seen it you won't forget, far away from other more “urban” islands like Lipari which was then experiencing a sort of “belle époque”. Alicudi with its shape is a little scary, but a fear that you want to discover; there is so much mystery around this island known to few (there are those who don't know how to place it in the Aeolian Islands) that perhaps it was time to talk about it. A nice coincidence that there are other publications on Alicudi at the same time.”
The women who fly, a legend that belongs to the island's imagination, are therefore a metaphor for the search for freedom.
«I was struck by these oral stories, also widespread in the other Aeolian islands, and collected by the anthropologist Macrina Marilena Maffei. These “witches” (this is ultimately the women who fly), are different, less scary, uninhibited compared to the time; in fact they flew naked, they sang, they danced, they could see other territories. It is not probable that this legend was linked to the hallucinations caused by ergot, but perhaps these figures in the imagination could have been custodians of women's dreams and represented the hopes and hidden aspirations of the inhabitants.”
But were the hallucinations really there?
«In his essay Ragonese claims that the cause was not the rye, because it must be processed to become a psychotropic substance, but in reality there have been theories about ergot since ancient times that link it to witchcraft phenomena. Ragonese himself does not deny the fact that there may have been hallucinations in that period, a theory supported by the many oral stories. Lorenzi then states that the fact that the inhabitants had a name for this type of rye, namely the “tizzonare”, as I remember in the novel, due to the black color like the embers of the ears, means that it was present on the island . But I think it's all part of the mystery, and therefore even more interesting.”
And how was the character of Caterina born? Through her you explore the theme of the body which can be a cage, a barrier, but also a dream and self-awareness.
«Caterina was the first image I had: on the other side of the sea I thought of a girl looking at me and that girl could be me in a different historical context, in a different place and with a different family. And so I tried to assimilate with her and immerse myself in that reality and in that time. Yes, I was very intrigued by the theme of the body, first of all that of naked mahares, with the rediscovery of a body that was taboo at the time. And then that of Caterina, a girl in the developing stage who is trying to discover herself, ready to become a woman. Caterina is attracted but also a little scared by her own body, as by the bodies of others in which she tries to mirror herself, of which she seeks the hugs that are missing, the physical warmth that is never there.”