Something Spurious, Borrowed, Or Just Made Up

by Maddalena Vatti

Claudia Durastanti, trans. Elizabeth Harris, Strangers I Know
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 272pp, ISBN 9781913097837, £12.99

‘Who is allowed to tell the story of the self?’ asks Claudia Durastanti in Strangers I Know, a work of creative nonfiction masquerading as a novel. For the longest time, autobiography was the form in which great men immortalised their great lives, those which had been important on a historic scale, back when grandeur and the way of recording historical memory was a pre-set genre. In 1977, Serge Doubrovsky coined the term autofiction to challenge the anti-democratic nature of autobiography. Since the 1980s, according to critic Ben Yagoda, memoirs started ‘flooding’ the literary scene, escalating in the 1990s, that most ‘confessional age’. In 2010, in the author Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in the New Yorker that ‘now the flood feels like a tsunami’: the writing of the self has reached unprecedented popularity, especially amongst those whom the genre had previously excluded.

Today, writes Durastanti, ‘autobiography is the bastard genre of literature’, something accessible, the spurious form through which marginalised voices — ‘refugees, women, people with disabilities. . .’ — can express themselves. It has become the genre of ‘survivors of all kinds’. Even though the literary establishment might once have looked down on the memoir for its deliberately self-centred, confessional perspective, to seize and regain control over one’s own narrative has been an act both rebellious and necessary for many, allowing for a reinvention of the genre itself. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Camen Maria Machado In the Dream House, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous are amongst the most exciting (and less opportunistic) examples of memoirs, striving to queer the genre, pushing for it to encompass freedom and novelty both in the subject matter and in the form. ‘Reader I’ve / plagiarized my life / to give you the best /of me,’ writes Vuong in his latest collection of poems, Time is a Mother.

For most of these works, autobiography is a point of departure to venture further into more hybrid literary forms. Strangers I Know, a book about Durastanti’s family history and upbringing between Brooklyn and a small village in the south of Italy, similarly starts off as an autobiography — or, rather, as a reflection on autobiography as a literary form itself — to transform into a shape-shifting text where the work on form and language is an ongoing, deliberate effort. Perhaps precisely because it is from a linguistic rupture that the author’s memories (and this book) originate: being born to deaf parents whilst also having to straddle two languages and places of origin. Navigating their Anglo-Italian bilingualism and the ‘language composed of gasps and words pronounced too loudly,’ as well as the often-indecipherable codes of foreign cultures on either side of the Atlantic, Strangers I Know registers the fuzziness of the line between life and invention, conjuring a space — parallel, anarchic — where you ‘can no longer recognise the language spoken’.

This text might be described as a shape shifter not only because events described therein aren’t represented in chronological order — ‘I don’t trust memoirs with a linear narrative,’ says the author — but also because you can feel its generic form mutating as you move through it. Especially when narratives are concerned and built around an account of traumatic past experiences, what Durastanti calls ‘the breach that can’t be filled’. The idea that ‘trauma stands outside representation altogether’, a theory expressed by Cathy Caruth and validated by many other scholars within the broader field of Trauma Studies, forces the writer who attempts representation to work around the wound, observing, if not the wound itself, at least how its circumference modifies its surroundings. In a text like Strangers I Know, characters emerge like luminous crests in a map dotted with gaps, making the land disappear and fold onto itself. The force of this book is transformative and its slow labouring isn’t dissimilar to the work of time, ‘carr[ying] dust and weeds [. . .] until that crevice is covered over and transformed into a different landscape.’

This territory is playground and battleground shared between characters just as much as they are their stories — the ‘I’ more or less pared back to let another mythology resurface through its ripples. The book is divided in four large sections (Family, Travels, Health, and Love), each in turn organised into a series of shorter chapters standing as their own narrative units, many with a title reminiscent of the brutal efficiency of a short story. Stories never belong to us alone, the chapters seem to suggest: we are constantly implicated into other people’s lives. Whilst most autobiographical ‘Is’ would try to disentangle themselves in order to stand out, Durastanti blends shared memories and weaves in connections, draws parallels, especially on the experience of migration: hers, that of her parents, and that of her grandparents. After a few years in London, the author realises that her grandmother, who ‘moved to Brooklyn in the 60s, [had] adapted better than [her]’. ‘The lexicon of migration is made up of words referring to victory or failure’: to have made it or not, to have assimilated the culture or not, etc. Her grandparents, who ‘had to conquer another language without even speaking their own,’ somehow found a way into becoming accidental Americans more than Durastanti ever did. Durastanti, who reflects that she had moved to the UK as an expat and, after Brexit, was transformed into an ‘immigrant like all the rest,’ feels ‘stuck on the other side of the glass’, rejected by the city. ‘Stranger is a beautiful word, if you’re not forced to be one,’ the narrator concludes in this chapter tellingly titled ‘The exact replica’.

In the London passages of the book it's easy to feel a longing for something buried, lost, which is in the process of becoming invisible. The life in the city moves so fast it sweeps up the traces of a collective or personal past, a personal history one might have tried to build. Her favourite cinema, the RIO in Dalston, now doesn’t do late night shows of 90s classics or slasher movies, it sells merch in order to survive. And the desire paths in Clissold park are something different from what the word had once promised her: ‘what people imagined as they walked through the city at all hours, the places they liked to get lost in, or slip into, lit spots on a private map.’ But this kind of desire, to own a private map, today in London is almost unattainable, the whole city being completely mapped out on GPS, and us moving through it guided by the tracking devices of our phones, lending us their fool-proof assuredness over the city geography. By staying in this fast-gentrifying area of London — ‘caught between a suffragette and a queen who’s lost her head’ — was she also becoming an immigrant in reverse, ‘[one] who had abandoned the future to disintegrate into the past?’

Durastanti also probes intergenerational gaps through which trauma has been passed down in her transatlantic family, and she does so by relaying the oral or written testimonies of its participants, collecting not just the stories, but the ways in which they have chosen to remember, and then reassembling them. In other words, in this book she never forgets that everyone, including herself, is a character. One thinks of the reaction Durastanti’s mother had to Strangers I Know once she finally read it. ‘A great novel,’ she called it, denying the clearly autobiographical elements in it, refusing (or perhaps just failing) to see herself in what her daughter had painted. This is ludicrous, confessed the author during her book launch in early March — but it’s also incredibly telling of the type of book this is, of how easy the slip into fiction can be.

Quite aptly, the book opens with the conflicting story of how the author’s parents met. Whilst her mother claims they met the day she saved her father’s life (he was about to jump into the river Tiber), he, in turn, sustains it was him who saved her from two thieves who were kicking her and trying to yank away her purse.

Creative storytelling is a family affair. As much as her parents believed each in their own, private mythology, so the author, as a child, made up all sorts of stories about who she was at the time, or was supposed to be. Her mother, reading her diary, had a real shock thinking she was really smoking cigarettes and kissing boys at the young age of 10, but these were only the experiences the narrator wished she had been living.

Durastanti talks of her mother as someone with a true and burning passion for non-fiction: whenever they watch things on TV together, she wants to know if it’s a ‘true story’; if it isn’t, the interest fizzles away quickly. The mother, a rebel, working class deaf girl who grew up in the 1970s is, without any doubt, the most memorable character in the novel. Durastanti goes against the grain when talking about the disability of her mother: we see her recklessness — ‘deaf girls are funny, they are wild’ — and objection to be labelled by her disability by refusing to use sign language. ‘Sign language is theatrical, visible,’ she says, ‘and you’re always exposed. You’re immediately disabled.’

Durastanti, like her mother, is aware that self-expression is always a performative act: both women resorted to fostering a language of their own to try and assert their individuality beyond labels. Re-reading Strangers I Know in its English translation, I realise that this book is more than an autobiography, or a memoir. This book is a coming-of-age novel, where the author resorts to storytelling to become something other than a stranger, or, rather, to accept being a stranger as a place of privilege: those margins she inhabits and from which it is possible to uproot deep seated stereotypes, invent new languages, develop inclusive narratives. Those margins where it is possible to dissimulate, to become other: when they moved to America, people didn’t know her mother was deaf, they thought she was foreign, and in this linguistic and cultural miscommunication, there is freedom for the character who can choose who to be.

‘It takes only a little misstep to slip out of a novel, to fall into an autobiography and resurface again as an essay, all in the short span of a sentence,’ writes Durastanti. A margin of error is also what this novel gracefully makes room for. For the small mistakes one carries with herself like debris from travelling through many languages and cultures. ‘Everything I think and everything I say suffers in the migration between different countries,’ says Durastanti, a linguistic traveller by birth and profession, ‘bleeding the same way astronauts bleed when they’ve spent too much time in space and come home to constant nosebleeds in the light of day, back on earth.’ To me this movement resembles that of a ball being rolled around and gathering mass as it touches things, the core of something spurious, borrowed, or just made up.