Battles, Recollections, Etc.
This piece was submitted by Alta L. Price as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Alta L. Price’s event: Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation: Women’s Voices
Joyce Lussu Salvadori (1912–1998) was an Italian partisan, translator, and author. She was born in Florence to progressive, anti-Fascist parents of Italian, French, and English descent. Her family lived in exile for much of her childhood, and she attended a Quaker fellowship high school in Switzerland. She went on to study philosophy with Karl Jaspers at the University of Heidelberg until the Nazis rose to power; she then went underground, left Germany, and earned degrees in literature from the Sorbonne and the University of Lisbon. She spent the mid-to-late 1930s in Kenya and Tanganyika, sparking a lifelong interest in environmentalism as well as issues related to imperialism and colonialism.
While living in Paris in 1938 she met Emilio Lussu, a partisan leader in the Giustizia e Libertà (“Justice and Liberty”) movement, and they were both actively involved in the Resistance. After Liberation, the Italian government awarded her a silver medal of honor for military valor.
Her literary career began with a 1939 book of poetry edited by Benedetto Croce, whom she had met through her father, and they remained long-term friends despite deep philosophical differences. She spent the 1960s translating the work of several politically engaged poets—including the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, the Angolan poet and politician Agostinho Neto, and the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh—and also edited Italian-language anthologies of Albanian, Eskimo, and Black Power poetry.
Her many books include Liriche; Fronti e frontiere, published in English as Freedom Has No Frontier; Tradurre poesia; Le inglesi in Italia; L’uomo che voleva nascere donna; and Padre, padrone, padreterno. The last was partially reprinted in Lotte, ricordi e altro, from which the following excerpt is drawn. —Alta L. Price
I’ve always insisted on doing the same things men do, but that doesn’t mean I aspire to become a man. I simply refuse to be excluded when it’s based solely on the grounds that I’m a woman. What I like most is acting as a woman, more fully inhabiting my role as a woman, and gaining a greater appreciation for the differences between the sexes and how they complement each other. Someone once said that a complete human being is a man and a woman who fully understand one another. Eroticism, which turns bodies into mere objects, stripped of any tenderness or sense of friendship, is a poor and dehumanizing exercise. Homosexuality—which doesn’t draw upon the richness of complete human relationships that comes precisely from the sexes’ diversity—was something I never understood the allure of; although I must say that, having studied the classics and Plato’s Symposium, I’d never heard it spoken of as a crime or disease.
With women, whom I’ve found similar and therefore more predictable, I’ve always felt a deep solidarity, the possibility of friendship without any filters—as long as they aren’t reactionary, frivolously bourgeois, or dense, of course. And although I hadn’t been subjected to the kinds of repression most women still endure, I was well aware that there’s no such thing as individual liberation: either we’re all freed, or none of us are. Having faith in myself, I had faith in other women. But why should I have taken particular issue with men—as the feminists did back then, especially in Northern Europe—blaming them for all the world’s evils?
Anger against injustice, violence, and exploitation found an outlet in the rising opposition to Fascism, which my entire family and I took part in. Both men and women, here and there, joined the struggle. Vast swaths of women from the petit bourgeois and upper classes stoked a ferocious hatred of the labor movement and contributed to the rise of Fascism. There were women in the Fascist party leadership, like the famous Marquise Casagrande; there were women in the thuggish Fascist squads and even women-only squads, complete with black shirts and leaded clubs, and ladies quick to applaud the squads’ attacks on workers’ assemblies and labor-league headquarters, drawing their hairsticks and using them to gouge out the eyes of the “Reds.” There was Margherita Sarfatti, author, intellectual, and the Duce’s Egerian nymph, who invented the myths that helped shape Fascism. And then there were the Mothers, the Widows, the Orphaned Girls of World War I’s fallen, who carved out honors and stipends from the cadavers of their murdered men (“What she’s really mourning,” my mother once said of a Nazi grande dame who fawned over every Altar to the Fatherland, “is the fact that she didn’t lose a son in battle.”). There were the teachers (a field where women heavily outnumbered men, especially at the elementary level) who turned their Fascist schools into the most effective centers of civil corruption; there were the women who organized groups of farmers’ wives and the madams running the whorehouses that catered to the glorious fighters; there were the sanctimonious snitches who informed the local priests of the “moral and political conduct” of their neighbors so they would in turn inform the police commissioner who would in turn inform the federal commissioner. (As a fairly new phenomenon, Fascism didn’t yet have a widespread capillary system for keeping its citizens under surveillance, so it immediately resorted to the oldest, best-informed surveillance network available in Italy—the Church. And in order to more thoroughly infiltrate local families, parish priests relied primarily upon the women.) The D’Annunzian mythos that reserved eroticism for the idle young men of the ruling class and relegated family values to the suckers and simpletons (i.e., the masses charged with providing harvests of grain and a steady stream of soldiers) was comforting to both Fascist leaders and their ladies. Laws enacted in 1927 to reduce women’s salaries to half of what men earned didn’t apply to the regime’s kept women, who heartily supported such measures both in public and in private.
On the other side, there were the women of the proletariat who, despite the humiliations and shakedowns they’d endured, never once during Fascism’s twenty-year reign forgot that the regime had been propped up and paid for by their bosses, in order to violently destroy the strength embodied by the organized famers and laborers. And the women of the intellectual middle class, who were economically precarious and particularly hard-hit by the decrees requiring female high-school and university students to pay twice the tuition that their male counterparts did; additional decrees banned them from teaching literature and philosophy, forbade them from presiding over their educational institutions, and drastically reduced their presence in public service positions. There were the avant-garde women of the organized labor movements, who—even after their union halls and cooperatives had been destroyed and the secretariat of Italy’s largest trade-union federation went Fascist—staged the last major women’s strikes under the tight repression of the regime: in 1924, farmhands in Molinella; in 1925, textile workers in Piedmont; in 1927, rice farmers in Vercelli; and in 1931, 180,000 rice weeders in the Lombardy, Emilia, and Veneto regions.
Within the women’s world, the terms of this class struggle were crystal clear. It was women against women, men against men. It made no sense to draw further divisions according to sex, since both classes consisted of men and women. Indeed, faced with Fascism, feminism was ultimately incapable of issuing any dependable political analysis, and it was drowned out by the seriousness and sheer bitterness of the broader struggle.
I have to say that, in both the active underground struggle against Fascism and during the full-blown armed battle, I encountered more or less equal numbers of men and women. The major moral tension of those movements, which required everyone to take one fundamental stance, had a particularly freeing effect on the female laborers, impoverished housewives, and female farmhands who’d all been run through the wringer of demographic offensives, economic depression, and the absence of their now militarized men, who’d been recruited to the imperial enterprise. People who joined the Resistance usually joined alongside their entire family, everyone from grandparents to women to children; cases where anti-Fascist militants had to break from their families due to political differences were fairly frequent among the bourgeois but quite rare among farmers and laborers. Of course, families involved in the Resistance immediately ceased to function as traditional patriarchal families; their new relationships with the outside world ruptured their old internal ones, turning them into a democratic collective.
I must add that, even at war, the mere fact of being a woman never caused me any particular difficulties or vulnerabilities. On a physical level, even though social and historical circumstances have generally led women’s musculature to be less developed than men’s, women nevertheless have an endurance under stress and prolonged exertion that is at least on par with men’s, even when they’re pregnant (I spent much of the war with a child growing inside me). On a moral level, the climate of absolute equality and mutual respect between militants is obviously quite different from what you find in bourgeois society. My companion and I had a very exclusive, very complete relationship, which gave us a sense of balance and trust, enabling us to more fully develop our autonomy thanks to an unwavering, reassuring, shared point of reference. Sex was one key aspect, but not the most intense one; and although we were separated for both long and short periods of time, it was never hard to set the sexual question aside in order to focus our energies on the more difficult and inspiring activities that we continued pursuing together despite our physical separation, a situation sweetened by the knowledge that we’d be able to recount our experiences and share them with one another.
Emilio had taught me a lot. I’d inherited anti-colonialism from my father and anti-militarism from my mother, plus a strong conscience regarding the equality of men and women, and to all that Emilio added a more precise analysis of class struggle and the role of the proletariat (both male and female, be they industrialized, agricultural, or colonized) in transforming society and creating a new ruling class. He was from Sardinia, Italy’s most depressed region, and came from an extremely poor village of farmers and shepherds. During World War I, he’d fought in a special brigade of Sardinian proletarians who spoke a language quite different from Italian, and who’d been exposed to all the massacres on the front lines, fighting in the name of a government that had only ever exploited them. That was where he became convinced that the enemy wasn’t the proletariat in its white uniforms, stationed on the front lines, but rather the generals, the government, the industrialists, the merchants manufacturing the cannons, and the monarchist, Catholic landowners standing right behind. The Sassari Brigade was to Sardinians what the factory was to workers—it brought them together to debate their conditions. And from that factory pumping out death, destruction, and mutilation there arose a common political conscience, a proposal for the transformation of Sardinian and Italian society as a whole.
The post-World War I Sardinian movement was revolutionary and in many respects quite modern. Its demands focused on autonomy, not just as a simple administrative decentralization, but as a democratic management of power from the ground up—a grassroots effort calling for a reorganization of land use and production to fit local needs, a revitalization of the local language and cultural traditions, and an approach to law enforcement as an expression of the community itself, instead of one imposed from on high or from the outside like an occupying army. The anti-Fascist resistance (imported by the prefects and police commissioners after the Fascists seized power) actually lasted longer in Sardinia than in any other region, up until the end of 1926, when Emilio—Sardinian parliamentary representative at the time—was ambushed at home by a squad of hundreds of Fascists and staged an armed defense. It wasn’t an individual defense of his own dignity; he did it as the representative of the farmers, shepherds, and miners who’d elected him to battle the freedom-killing regime. The first assailant who’d climbed onto the balcony to shoot at him through the window took a bullet to the head and fell to the ground, whereupon his countless peers, armed to the teeth, ran off in all directions as their leader, Nurchis, fainted. The family of the assailant didn’t file for compensatory damages, and wrote Emilio a letter saying that even in their time of mourning they recognized that he’d acted out of legitimate self-defense. The magistrates absolved him during their preliminary investigation—an exemplary act of courage utterly unique in Italy at the time. The government imprisoned him anyway and then sent him into exile on Lipari, where he, Francesco Fausto Nitti, and Carlo Rosselli managed to escape in late 1929.
Emilio wasn’t a professionally trained revolutionary; he hadn’t enrolled in the Leninist school of thought, but as far as I’m concerned he was a full-blown revolutionary nonetheless. As a woman, I found the image of the revolutionary as embodied by militants of the Italian Communist Party rather limiting: the party offered a small stipend, allowing members to devote themselves full-time to their political struggle, with an almost militaristic, monastic sense of discipline. Such figures were generally austere, serious, sententious, respectful of hierarchy, and ready to relinquish their own humanity and personal feelings in the name of the great principles espoused from above, with no regard to different ways of being or of seeing reality. The Leninists and Stalinists had a degree of traditional authoritarian male chauvinism, a virile violence that saw risk and sacrifice—one’s own as well as that of others—not as an unfortunate accident necessitated by certain historical circumstances, something to get beyond as soon as possible, but as an almost immanent valor, a quasi-mystical catharsis. As a woman I rejected these aspects, even as I continued to have the utmost respect for their dedication and self-sacrifice.
A revolutionary like Emilio struck me as more well-rounded and more dependable, both as a man and as a politician. He had arrived at his own dialectical and historical materialism not through books or abstract personal inquiry, but through direct experience among Sardinia’s colonized proletariat. And although he could be quite uncompromising when it came to political and moral issues, he hadn’t lost his sense of humor and deeply human generosity toward others along the way.
During the ’30s, Emilio and I lived in Paris. All across Europe, war loomed on the horizon. The League of Nations had been cowardly in the face of Nazi aggression toward Spain, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, and the 1938 Munich Agreement had convinced German and Italian militants that it’d be much easier to bring the allies to their knees than it would be the Soviet Union, which France and England had planned to leave the Nazis to fight. By September 1939 Nazi troops had invaded Poland, followed by Norway and Holland, and then in June 1940 they and the Italian Fascists invaded France. They had encountered no resistance. Not a single sniper was there to shoot from the roof as Paris fell.
Paris was at the very center of the massive, monstrous Nazi gristmill that crushed nations and national armies one right after the other, invincible and triumphant. Not a single opposing force managed to resist it. The Germans’ pact with the Soviets proved that not even the Soviet Union felt capable of defanging the beast, and who’d ever have predicted in that gray and rainy Parisian June of 1940 that in just a short while it would manage to gather its strength and deal the final blow?
The Germans took Paris! After the defeat of 1870, after the defeat of 1918, the thundering heels of German boots echoed down the Champs-Élysées with great fanfare, their insignia everywhere, their Swastika banners unfurled, their pennants bearing the imperial eagle and laurel wreaths! The spectacular choreography of warmongering virility stormed in with impeccable symmetry, perfectly synchronized movements, splendidly styled uniforms—it was a Folies Bergère where the ones kicking their legs weren’t lithe, half-naked ballerinas, but rather robust men perfectly trained to perform the goose step, accompanied by the racket of tanks spitting out supermen clad in jumpsuits and strange helmets, giving off the impression of a fatal power.
Wielding their shining weapons with absolute certainty, their faces unmoving, their mouths clenched, their empty eyes all staring out to a single point as commanded by the shouts of an official, the stiff generals in convertibles, their steady gaze trained straight ahead—it was a sea of men, all men who’d fused with the weapons in their arms, ready to kill, to turn the defenseless over to the torturers, to round them up and herd them off to the death camps.
And a woman who finds herself in the eye of the storm—a terrible war rising up all around, a war organized and carried out by men, a war that’s razed all spaces for civil confrontation, leaving room only for armed confrontation—what does she do? Forced to decide between complicity and armed opposition, between slavery and life, what does she choose?
Today, when we look back and talk about the militarism of the Nazis and Fascists, we’re doing it after their defeat, with the certainty of those who fought and won. It’s hard to reconstruct the mood that existed back then, to imagine how people felt in the face of permanent, victorious, triumphant totalitarianism, immersed as we were in France amid the military and political disintegration of a nation that had seemed so stable, so set, for so many centuries. There weren’t any partisans yet, nor was there any organized opposition among the people. There were only the massacres in republican Spain and in the Warsaw ghetto, the invasion of Austria, of Czechoslovakia, of Holland, of Norway, the collapse of the French army, Fascist Italy’s occupation of Albania and southern France in preparation for the attack on Greece, the military triumph of the Japanese in the Far East, and the German-Soviet pact. The pride of victory and illusion of invincibility had cranked that brutal, bellicose machine up to maximum efficiency, and no one could imagine what might’ve been able to halt its advance. The atmosphere was thick with nightmares, as if we were experiencing a bloody sunset leading into an interminable, pitch-black night.
Society had exploded, and the systems that enabled people to live together had withered like cut grass: offices, stores, schools, courthouses, industries, transportation networks, cafés, restaurants, communication lines, everything had ground to a halt. Endless lines of refugees crossed France, coming from the north by train, bus, truck, car; men, women, the elderly, the young, all carrying whatever belongings and furniture they could. Then the trains had stopped running, the gas had run out, the furniture was abandoned, and their flight had become a slow, chaotic, meandering march, on foot, with a few hand-drawn carts and baby carriages, a few suitcases and sacks strung over the shoulder. Every now and then there would be a tank or military vehicle that had run out of fuel lying paralyzed on the side of the road, or a group of soldiers blocked by the flood tide of civilians—impotent, vanquished soldiers whose eyes brimmed with desperation. The occasional roar of dive bombers on patrol would clear the roads like an evil wind pushing over bowling pins: everyone would hit the ground, across fields and ditches, between brambles and stones. Then the massive procession would get back on its feet and fill the roads again with its slow march onward.
Emilio and I crossed France with the mass of refugees heading south, with the continuous hope that on some riverbank, behind the walls of some city, amid the forests of some rolling hills we might come across a team of armed resistance fighters we could join, thereby ending our prolonged flight. But there was nothing all the way down to Toulouse, and then we headed up to the Pyrenees, where we finally ran into some French and Italian companions. We had spent the war hand-in-hand, but we weren’t equals: Emilio was a man, I was a woman.
As soon as we’d reestablished contact with the underground and talk turned to forming the first armed resistance groups, it immediately became clear that our companions were addressing Emilio, thinking it more natural that in such a situation a male militant would be the one to take up arms; the idea that a female militant would feel the same need not only seemed unnatural to them, but they simply couldn’t conceive of such a thing.
I remember spending an entire afternoon at Silvio Trentin’s home in Toulouse, weeping with rage because someone had proposed that I hole up in a safe spot and just wait while Emilio did what needed to be done. “I’m a woman,” I shouted, “I’m not a little woman! If war has to be waged, I’ll wage it, too! I’m supposed to sit tight and send the others off to fight? We women are tired of leaving all the important decisions and actions to men, as if we were morally and mentally impaired.”
Emilio was the only one who wholeheartedly approved of my indignation and the demands I made. For him, being a couple meant being equals, and it would never have occurred to him to offer me a subordinate role or consider me incapable of running my own risks and pursuing my own initiatives. He liked my company because we did the same things; I’d have bored him had I simply stayed home awaiting his return. His ideology had an anti-colonialist component to it that was often absent from the supposedly pro-labor philosophies of our more orthodox Marxist-Leninist comrades, and in reality they often disrespected and underestimated women and the exploited masses of non-industrialized countries. Emilio’s philosophy was closer to the long march of the Chinese than to Stalin’s centralized bureaucracy. Rejecting all forms of colonialism both external and internal to society, he also rejected the most ancient, most deeply entrenched form of colonialism: that of men over women.
I was staunchly convinced that a woman’s place wasn’t at the rear of history, but rather on the front lines. I had great faith in my sisters and, during our underground opposition to Fascism, I had preferred to work alongside women. I considered the women of the Paris Commune, the farming women’s leagues, and the labor movement my forebears, not the feminists and the suffragettes who were anti-proletarian on principle, as their reactions to the October Revolution and the rise of Fascism had shown. Emmeline Pankhurst, historic head of European feminism, had run for British Parliament in 1926 as a Conservative Party candidate with an imperialist, anti-labor agenda. In the United States, Alice Paul had founded the National Woman’s Party in 1916, an organization with a racist and nationalist bent. In Italy, Teresa Labriola had supported Fascism with an indecent degree of fervor. I think that, had the feminists of 1971 been familiar with the history of the previous decades, they’d have chosen another name and other forebears.
This piece is excerpted from Lotte, ricordi e altro by Joyce Lussu, Biblioteca del Vascello (1992). English-language rights available; this translation copyright 2015 by Alta L. Price.