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That Hateful Tail: The Sirena as Figure for Disability in Italian Literature and Beyond

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Abstract

This paper traces the appearance of the siren-mermaid figure throughout Italian literature, arguing that the figure has been used – from Dante to the present day – to represent disabled female subjects, while also acting as a figure for narrative itself. I begin with a survey of examples from the classical, medieval and early modern periods before turning to recent autobiographical texts by disabled women authors. I focus on Mirella Santamato’s Io, sirena fuor d’acqua, showing the way the author grapples with the relationship between mind and disabled body, as staged upon the partially human body of the mermaid. The mermaid’s coda, as stand-in for both the phallus and the writing pen, reveals a hybridity that bridges gender categories, as well as those of human and animal, oral and written, disabled and non-disabled. Drawing parallels to medical literature on the surgical treatment of the condition “sirenomelia” (fused legs), I argue that the insistence upon the separation of the mermaid's legs combines heteronormative fantasies of controlling the monstrous female body with the normalizing imperatives of medical cure, illustrating the extent to which ableist ideologies undergird and reinforce normative expectations regarding gender and sexuality, and vice versa. Finally, drawing from Agamben’s L’Aperto, I argue for an understanding of the sirena in disability narratives as a figure for the inseparability of body and narrative, and thus for an understanding of the materiality of disability as inherent to self-expression and disabled identity.

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