Claudia Durastanti’s luminous novel, Strangers I Know, traverses multiple identities, migrations and languages, and considers how ‘art can free an individual from difference, and difference from solitude’, writes Vartika Rastogi.
I occupy a disconcerting position when it comes to language and family, in that my first are not necessarily the ones I feel most comfortable with. In fact, I often feel like a stranger to both, and this feeling of foreignness – of being an outsider and therefore ill-equipped to communicate a self through and to them – has settled like a chip upon my shoulder. It tends to colour most things I do and seeps into the way I tell my story. Something similar troubles the narrator of Claudia Durastanti’s autofictional masterpiece: her deaf parents are strangers she must claim to know as she traverses the multiple migrations innate to the story of her family – “more like a map than a novel” – to grasp at the contours of the “original and irreplaceable landscape called I.”
First published as La Straniera and translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris, Strangers I Know (Fitzcarraldo Editions) begins with two startlingly different accounts of how the narrator’s parents met: her mother claims she stopped the man who was to be her father from jumping off a bridge; her father remembers making the mother’s acquaintance when he rescued her from a band of thieves. Discrepancies of memory thus set the tone for the unusual family mythology that the author here attempts to tell; one where the parents serve both as characters and real people depending on how we read the narrator who carries her name. She moves through the narrative wondering if it even is a true story, a question further complicated by how both parents hate – can neither stand nor understand – works of fiction. They detest, too, the exhibitionism and vulnerability inherent in sign language, choosing to read lips instead, so that Claudia grows up alien to her own family lexicon, a child reared on miscommunication (she often hears her neighbours referring to her as “the daughter of the mute,” and though her mother can talk she has no desire to correct them).
Language then, like love, is here conceived as “a fantasy of the hearing”. Strangers I Know brandishes language as a tool against itself – and against the manifold gaps that exist between fantasy and verity. In tracing her non-belonging through the unorthodox upbringing – marked by her parents’ disability, by their experiences as Italian immigrants in America and their eventual divorce from each other and everyone else, and by her own displacement from Brooklyn to Basilicata – Claudia reveals the small fictions that come together to form lived experience, the observable past, and their synthesis into ‘reality’. Such a reality is also composed of the books she reads, the TV she watches, and the ways in which they move and mould her. The self lies, suspended, somewhere in between.
The self is, too, a child of identity, and Claudia’s is formed in the shadow of renegade parents who treat disability as a superpower, facing their deafness not with passivity or conformism but “with recklessness and oblivion.” The narrator’s account shows that disability neither consumes nor makes (them) noble, and it is by sieving through their doings and wrongdoings that she arrives at her own: her mother spends her youth in the company of street urchins, her father ‘works’ as a card shark, and she skips school to read on the rooftop. Yet this is not a story of simple cause and effect; the story of the narrator’s likeness with her parents is woven through testaments to how unlike they can be. And how distant: their deafness does not make her more dutiful or pliant; even when it is attendant to mental illness and physical shattering it does not lend itself to a sense of closeness with them but stands between their lives like a wall. Two-thirds into the book, with her now estranged father lying in the ICU, Claudia finally articulates this lingering unease as a question: “How can we suffer for someone when all we really share is a biological intimacy?”
The answer may be this: through memory, in the manner of a haunting. Claudia is both mirror and mirage to her parents; even when carving her own trajectory against such a grain, she cannot detach herself from the context of her origin. She cannot overlook the ableism inherent to movie subtitles, or forget the complex poverty of her early years in Southern Italy when she subsisted on cereal and water but wore Nikes paid for by relatives in America. These observations and deprivations are coded into her body; they remain there when she stops being poor. Similarly, her syntax in both languages continues to leak inflections of her mother’s rebellious pidgin long after she has embarked on a professional journey as a literary translator – the further away she moves from her family and her past, the more of them she sees in herself.
Like her parents, and theirs before them, Claudia is shaped by an ongoing experience of migration. She knows that there are cultural borders beyond national ones: pouring herself to and fro the soundless world of her progenitors and the ‘other’ of which she herself is part, she understands just how much is garbled – and lost – in translation. She also learns how much is staked on it when her dual citizenship presents a passport to a high-paid job; a move from the literal domain preferred by her parents to the literary, whose dependence on irony and metaphor is lost on them. Trying to navigate this new world populated by an upper-class elite to whom she cannot give her origins away – and who see her only with pity and excitement when she does – brings her back to reflect on that other stream into which thoughts and emotions flow: the language of behaviours and gestures, a language that relies heavily on one’s class and upbringing, and the only one she can really claim to have shared with her family. Incidentally, gestures have nothing literal about them: they are “translations of a deeper language,” and like all translations, full of “poetic imprecision.” It is this that makes them so capable of restoring dignity – something she believes she must have known as a child when she dared to taste ice-cream from the spoon of an uncle shamed and stigmatised by AIDS, and snuffed those feelings out from his eyes.
The comfort of gestures is what she craves when she emigrates to London, further removing herself from the world her parents had known. This is something I have also done not too recently, and I am, like Claudia, still straddling two worlds and constantly translating between them. However, I have been able to find some hope and relief in how this move is written as the juncture where Strangers I Know starts to become the narrator’s own story. It is in London, enveloped by its loneliness, that she realises her parents’ story is no longer hers; that it may never have been hers to begin with. Their deafness was first pointed out to her by others, and in her retelling of it she was this other – the true stranger. From this point on, the narrative, like the narrator, begins to branch out and move in different directions, full of “departure upon departure: tears, sutures, and cuts” and an idea of identity as “a story someone tells you about yourself.” In thus choosing to explore her adulthood through personality and selfhood, and carving desire paths across the mythology built so far, Claudia is also liberated from the conventions of language and narrative and the assumption of their adequacy in communication. The story hereon is all gesture – a comforting embracing of what remains left unheard and unsaid.
In the afterword, Claudia – now the author, though perhaps still a character – talks about her original vision for the book as one meant to be read in a non-linear fashion, “susceptible to variations and second-guessing, as if you were reading a horoscope that’s applicable to anyone and yet unique to every single person.” Though ultimately arranged in six chronological sections that respectively circle around family, emigration, health, work and money, love, and – as it happens – astrology, Strangers I Know manages to retain this proposed fluidity, and – if I may – stylistic realism. Dwelling on the necessity of the incommunicable, it builds a sort of anthology of self that allows the writing 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.”
Reading about Claudia’s sense of separateness as a child, her location in the slippages of language and family history, and her sense of anxiety in a new city from my own tiny room in an unremarkable corner of London, I felt the slightest bit easier amidst my own discomfort and foreignness. Strangers I Know is thus for me a luminous thing, a dazzling consideration and demonstration of how “art can free an individual from difference, and difference from solitude.” Is it a true story? Perhaps not. But it has truth to it, and a rhythm that even those without a taste for fiction would be able to get behind.
Claudia Durastanti’s Strangers I Know is translated by Elizabeth Harris and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.