In the opening lines of Viola Di Grado's second book, The Hollow Heart, 25-year-old Dorotea Giglio lies with slit wrists in a bathtub, "a grim mojito of mint bubble bath and blood". Dorotea killed herself. And that's only the beginning. What follows is a trip through Dorotea's past and mental state towards suicide, but also what has happened since, in unflinching biological detail. Di Grado doesn't see death as an end. It's part of a process.
Di Grado is what commentators love to call a rising star. The awards have something to do with that. Hollow Heart was a finalist in the PEN America Literary Awards. Her debut novel, which came out when she was 23, won Italy's Premio Campiello Opera Prima. Really it's the way that she writes about the important things in life—the things that people are scared of, like death, and mental illness, and how fucked up our parents make us—with precision, a dark appreciation for the macabre as well as the everyday, and biting humour that make you take notice. We talked to Di Grado about Janet Frame, her weirdo cat and how writing eclipses being.
VICE: Hi Viola. Hollow Heart has such a brutal opening I'm just going to jump right in. In New Zealand we're very restricted about how suicide is reported in the media. Method is particularly off limits because of fear that it'll prompt copycats. Did you have any ethical concerns about writing gruesome details?
Viola Di Grado: I don't think literature is meant to make people comfortable, or point to the "right thing to do". I think it has to show truth or like in ancient Chinese thought to reveal what's hidden— like the hidden part of a plant that is meant to grow eventually. Dorotea regrets her decision to kill herself and, through her life as a non-living being, she actually finds the meaning in life she couldn't find when she was alive. Also, I don't believe in the life/death dichotomy that our culture makes us eager to believe and nurture. We have this urgent need to separate life and death and so we ritualise them and I think the very fact of being afraid that people would commit suicide because of the portrayal of suicide is connected to this global cultural fear of making contact with death.
I really wanted to break this unhealthy wall we constantly build: the wall that separates life from death.
We've had a few knocks at it here recently. There was a controversy with the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which covers similar subject matter. Some mental health workers endorsed it while the censor's office slapped a restricted rating on it, which is useless considering teens would watch it at home alone anyway. What are your thoughts on censorship?
I hate censorship. It's never the right answer. All the worst things that a teenager or anyone else could do don't come from knowing or seeing too much. On the contrary it's not knowing that leads to terrible decisions. Knowledge, any kind of knowledge, feeds our humanity and our ability to see the other and oneself. After all, all kinds of discrimination come from an inability to understand the person/group of people you're discriminating. The "different" only scares when you don't have the emotional instruments and language to decode it.
I really enjoyed the way you write about mental health—depression, medication, etc—do you think grappling with mental health is a key issue of this generation in particular? Or are we just more aware of it?
Both. For example, technology and social media have deepened the distance between the self and the others, creating this bodiless contact that may deepen feelings of loneliness. Can you believe in Japan some 30-somethings date virtual women? My third novel—out in Italy, not yet translated—is precisely about these issues. It's set in a near future where gestures of affections have become obsolete and children are raised by robotic mothers who are programmed to give perfect maternal care, so that they can become healthy and productive adults—or that's what it's supposed to happen.
Is writing therapy for you?
Hard to say. I've been writing since I was four, so I don't really know what would my life be without it—like a fish without water?—and what writing does to me. It's not something I "do", it's more something I am. Like I am a woman or a human being. Even when I'm not writing I am writing inside my head, nothing happens in my life outside writing, writing is always there, that's why I usually say I'm more a writer than a person.
Where are you living now and where do you see yourself living in 10 years?
Right now I'm in the woods of Sardinia, with deer and lakes and my cats. I only feel good when I'm surrounded by trees. In 10 years I see myself on Mars, I have a feeling I would feel more home there than I feel here on Earth, but sadly it's just a fantasy, civilians are not allowed to move there yet.
Who knows. The world is changing quickly. Who would you take to Mars with you?
My cat Ada. She's a cat who doesn't feel like a cat. Born in the wrong body. She doesn't like cat food or being naked, she enjoys being dressed.
Brilliant. Coming back to another theme in your work, this idea of inheritance, and I'd be interested to see how it manifests in your latest book when that bond is distanced or even severed, but I'm thinking of how trauma and love are passed down through generations – do you find comfort or pain in that?
Yes, my latest book is precisely about that, because robot mothers are eventually infected by a virus and that is what always happens—you pass down the love you have, it can never perfect, it's filled with your traumas and longings and experiences. I think it gives me both comfort and pain. Like, I inherited writing from my mother, who is a writer too and a journalist, and writing itself is built with everything you experience including what you subconsciously inherit.
I read you are a fan of Katherine Mansfield. What do you like about her?
Actually I like Janet Frame even more. I wanted to translate her precious book of short stories into Italian, You Are Now Entering the Human Heart, but her Italian publisher told me they don't intend to publish more of her because she doesn't sell well in Italy, isn't that ridiculous?
Great idea. What a shame! Most of your own work has been translated. Would you ever write in English?
I don't know. Italian, as my mother tongue, is obviously the language of my childhood and my most primitive emotions, so I feel that should be the language of my writing. But who knows. I wrote a couple of things for Auckland Writers' Festival and Sydney Writers' Festival and I enjoyed it a lot. It's a different side of myself, I am different in every language.
What's it like reading your own work translated in another language, say English?
It's quite traumatic. The translations are good, it's not about that, but they're…different books. Probably because I experiment a lot with language, so it can either get completely lost or become a translator's experiment, not mine.
I worked with Anthony [Shugaar] with Hollow Heart's translation, he was super kind, he would let me edit words and we had long conversation about how I wanted a sentence to sound and what a single word should evoke and so on. I was very stubborn and fussy about everything. Because I needed every sentence to be as self-sufficient and powerful as they were originally meant to be.
I think that says a lot about your writing process. What scares you the most over all?
Not taking things seriously?
No. Banality. People who are completely lacking in originality. Who only think in boxes. After all, that's what society has accustomed us to do, but luckily some people escape the banality prison and forget boxes and labels. Or as 4th century BC Chinese philosopher said, they don't fall in fish traps.