The Truth behind appearances – An interview with Silvia Accorrà

Silvia Accorrà, writer, poet, translator, and photographer, is the author of “Tokyo Love” (published by Enrico Damiani Editore), an extremely innovative novel. We have been talking to her, and tracing her artistic pathway.

You made your debut as an author in 1991, barely in your twenties, with the poetry collection Mezzoforte. The next collection, Pesce di terra (Ground fish), was published four years later, while Città non nostre (Towns that are not ours, 2007), your last one to date, was brought out after another 12 years. What’s the reason for such a long time span between these works?
A: Maybe it’s because the Italian publishing industry is not so inclined to publish unknown poets. Usually it’s a risky business.

You started as a prose writer in 2008, with the collection Rosso nucleare (Nuclear Red). Forty short stories, each quite different from the other, whose theme seems to be Truth. The Truth hidden behind appearances, that often emerges as a sudden, decisive revelation, or is disclosed by apparently trifling elements. Is that your way of looking at reality?
A: Yes. You have grasped exactly the sense of something that apparently has no sense at all. As you said, Rosso is quite a varied, mixed collection. To me, it was difficult to describe in a single organic, explanatory text all the complexity and the fragmentation of reality. Reality for me is another word for Truth. The Truth is always the second glance, the still unread page, the almost unseized opportunity. Anyway, in my own experience, the Truth is never evident.

This approach can be found again in your first novel, Tokyo Love (2014), where the fantastic slowly and naturally creeps into the story. It’s a universe within us that we are barely able to realize is there, where everything is possible. Is it a literary or a personal approach?
A: It’s absolutely personal. It’s an opening onto the World of Dreams, as I like to call it. A World that can come and go whenever it wants to, just like the Unconscious. Learning from the Unconscious is really… interesting.

In 2012 one of your short stories, Il colore giallo (The colour yellow), appeared in the collection Schitarrate!. What do you think of this coexistence alongside texts which are very different from your own?
A: It’s like when you’re published in a poetry collection – with a prose collection it’s the same. You are read for what you are, in your unique, peculiar relationship with the title of the collection: I think this happens to me and also to the other authors.

All writers have a pathway behind them. Your pathway starts with the poetic word and photography. Then they both merge in your prose. Would you like to tell us about your pathway?
A: Poetry, just like photography, is quick, and often, to be effective, it requires only one glance, an instant intuition. I didn’t imagine I would write more than twenty lines… Writing teaches you to write, to articulate, to adapt to complexity. Step by step I realized that I needed more ground to give voice to the other reality, to the unperceivable one.

You are also a translator. How useful was your translating expertise – and therefore your familiarity with other authors’ texts – in becoming a narrator?
A: It was of the utmost importance. Everything concerning the words of others is essential, because it represents a different point of view that is often very far from your own and hard to perceive. Actually it’s more visible in translation, perhaps.

Your prose is strongly marked by rhythm and harmony, which are features typical of music.
A: … and of image. And of poetry (even free verse has a sort of metre). This is Beauty to me: rhythm and harmony. However, not in what I do: it’s in what I like watching, listening to, reading. I learn to use the instruments to create what I love.

Your approach to reality is often fantastical. Your characters live side by side with the Extraordinary, as if it were Ordinary. This happens very often in Japanese literature, but is very rare in Western writing.
A: Quite so. The Western fantastic is often mystical, or connected to fairy tales or sci-fi stories. However, I am sure of the existence of a daily, down-to-earth fantastic that the Japanese know very well.

I have noticed that the tone of your writings is realistic even when you deal with fantastic subjects.
A: Exactly. That’s because the fantastic as a category doesn’t exist!

What do you mean?
A: Undoubtedly it exists as a literary category. But in my experience nothing is unreal/fantastic/irrational. The fantastic is an everyday situation. That’s why it’s not surprising.

Where does your love of Japan and its culture come from?
A: From my childhood, actually. My first best friend was a Japanese boy. I spent all my afternoons with him. The bitter tea his mom made and the vegetal aroma in their house naturalized me. And after that, the books I read, the journeys I made, the art and language of the country.

Would you like to tell us something more about these books, these journeys of yours? In other words, about this fascination with Japan?
A: As far as literature is concerned, it’s precisely what you have noticed: the relationship between the Real and the Unreal, the Dream and Daily Life is very intense. There is no dividing line between these two sides. And in Japan life is just like that. Isn’t it surprising to find mysterious underground temples next to gaudy soft-porn advertising hoardings? The Immaterial and the tremendously Material. The conscious and the unconscious. It’s a land with no limits.

Besides writing and translating, you’re also interested in photography. Therefore it’s no coincidence that the protagonist of “Tokyo Love” is a photographer…
A: This is a very curious thing. In no part of the book do I state that clearly, but it emerges anyway. I cannot describe a character – and, for instance, her attention to light and spaces – without having a tolerably good knowledge of what is in her mind.

In Tokyo Love, one of your main themes seems to be Choice. Even waiting just to see what is going to happen is a precise choice.
A: Yes, we are always forced to make choices. And if we have made the right choice, one of the rewards is our access to Truth. Or, at least, to a part of it.

In the novel, your immersion as an author in the character of the anonymous protagonist is total. Is it a process of identification or is it your ability to enter into the characters deeply enough to let you be the characters, while you’re writing?
A: I just let them talk. I can’t count the nights when I had to wake up and rush to write what this or that character was saying or doing. They have an independent life. I just tell their story.

I would almost define Tokyo Love a tragedy, because, as in the classical tragedy, the ending is announced from the moment the fantastic is inserted into the narration. Nevertheless the final section is different from the classical tragedy. In fact, it’s baffling, very different from anything that, as a reader, I would ever have expected.
A: Really? The classical tragedy had a well-defined style, whether or not the fantastic was present. In this case I wanted to be sure that no component gave the idea of a pre-ordained plan. Because it was the choice you mentioned before that was the driving force that determined the ending.

What do you mean?
A: The choice of the co-protagonist was made in spite of myself. It was unavoidable – or ineluctable, in the sense of the Greek tragedy – but I didn’t impose it on the narration.

When you start writing a new work, do you have the plot well defined in your mind or does it gradually form while you are writing?
A: What is very clear to me even at the beginning are the characters’ peculiarities. The story develops according to their behaviour. I just try not to force them.

In your works it’s easy to see a precise choice of words. Words have a real weight and substance, and are never out of place. It seems that you chisel your expression. How important is the rewriting process for you?
A: Thank you very much. However, I have to say that I hate rewriting, and sometimes even rereading. When a story, or a character, or a situation are down on paper, that’s it. They live independently. I can’t and don’t want to influence them.

Not even in retrospect? Are you telling me that “Tokyo Love” is a first draft book?
A: It’s a first draft with some partial rereading and editing, particularly of verb tenses. Anyway, there were really very few corrections.

Even though your language is rich and precise, you’re very clear and accessible to readers. Do you think it is important that a literary work be able to reach all its potential readers?
A: Of course. Actually, I think it’s absolutely necessary. Depending on the work, everyone should be able to comment on and reflect upon the small or big truths expressed by the author.

In your opinion should literature produce consciousness in its readers?
A: Yes. Every art form should produce consciousness, be it consciousness of self, or social, family, political, school, or work consciousness. It depends on what the author wants to communicate. If the work has a meaning that goes beyond the purely aesthetic, then its meaning is precisely the consciousness of whoever acknowledges it. And when I say consciousness I mean awareness.

In a time of cultural homogenization like ours, your novel, extremely original from the very first pages, stands out from the current canons. Is being far from average a victory or a defeat for you?
A: “Being far from average” is a notion I just don’t understand. Homogenization and the canons you’re talking about sound completely meaningless to me. I neither acknowledge nor know them.

Your novel has been much talked about and much written about. What’s your opinion of all this attention given to your latest work?
A: I’m really glad when somebody I would have never expected – a shopkeeper in my district or a distant relative – tells me: I’ve read your book. That’s it! I think: I have a connection with them too.

Are you one of those who believe that literature is in crisis?
A: I think that, for a number of ridiculous reasons, many people who have something to say are not given access to publication. In this sense, I do believe that literature is in crisis.

… so you believe that mediocre authors are published on purpose?
A: Mediocrity is easy to manage.

Good writers are also careful readers. Who, in your opinion, are the contemporary writers that are absolutely essential reading?
A: Haruki Murakami’s first novels. And Georges Simenon, if we can call him a contemporary writer.

Which authors have contributed most to your formation as a writer?
A: I’m going to go overboard now. T.S. Eliot, Aragon, Borges for poetry. Borges again, Virginia Woolf, Cocteau, Simenon and, of course, Haruki Murakami for prose. Among Italian writers, Italo Calvino is an example of “a writing that couldn’t be different”.

Not Cortàzar?
A: Cortàzar too, of course! I’m neglecting too many shining writers.

Tokyo Love has been announced as the first novel in a trilogy. Would you give us a short comment on those to come?
A: I would prefer not to.

Why do you write?
A: If you’ll excuse the cliché, I write because I can’t live without it. Because writing is a part of me, just like a personal taste, an attitude; above all, a necessity. I like doing the things that make me feel good, and – as everyone does – I do my best to create a situation that helps me to be that way. I don’t think I can get along without a part of me that makes me feel so complete.

Translation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)

Our review of the novel by Silvia Accorrà “Tokyo Love

Our review of the anthology by Silvia Accorrà “Nucelar Red