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Mermaid Without a Tale: Disability, Sexuality, and the Limits of Discourse in Italian Narrative (1975-2009)

  • Author(s): Noson, Katherine Jeanne
  • Advisor(s): Spackman, Barbara
  • et al.

Disability as a category of critical discourse and literary critique is only just beginning to find its way to Italian literary and cultural studies. As such, the depths of the newly forming field of Italian disability studies are as yet largely unplumbed – a vast and uncharted sea of hermeneutic possibilities. Rather than offer a diachronic survey of texts, however, this dissertation seeks to untie a series of theoretical knots that characterize representations of the disabled body in recent and contemporary Italian literature, with regards to the relationship between disability, gender, sexuality, and discursive practices. Drawing from Robert McRuer’s “crip theory” and the notion that the disabled body is always already to a certain extent a queer body, I argue that instances of disability in modern Italian narratives inherently act to challenge normative conventions of gender and sexuality. At the same time, alternative embodiments lead to unconventional reading, writing, and speaking practices, a fact which has profound implications for the study of narrative more broadly. The material quality of such practices, so often disavowed or forgotten, is undeniable in the case of the texts examined here, causing the relationships between reader, text, character, and author to be reconfigured. At the same time, the role of voice in narrative undergoes a series of transformations throughout the dissertation, at times problematic and at others liberatory.

In Chapter One, I argue that by writing in the place of speech, the deaf protagonist of Dacia Maraini’s La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa (1990) challenges the primacy of the spoken over the written word in Western culture, representing a “language of the body” that is profoundly different from the female symbolic theorized by feminist critics and philosophers. Where scholarship on Maraini’s novel has interpreted Marianna’s deafness and muteness as a metaphor for the silencing of women in a patriarchal order, I maintain that such readings close down fruitful possibilities for interpretation on the basis of disability. Through an exploration of Marianna’s alternative modes of communication, I contend that silence need not be synonymous with an absence of communication, just as text need not signify bodily absence.

Chapter Two draws on the shared history of disabled and gendered others, reminding readers that the disabled body and the female body are often discursively rendered as similarly “lacking,” linking them in reciprocal relation. To illustrate the point, I read Maraini’s Donna in guerra (1975) alongside Gabriele Pedullà’s short story, “Miranda” (2009), proposing “literary transability” as an interpretive frame by which to understand instances where “able-bodied” characters simulate disability as a means to escape gendered norms: here, the disabled body is made use of as an icon of deviance that opens the way towards other corporeal transgressions. In both cases, such transgressions are made possible vis-à-vis non-normative discursive practices that are inseparable from disabled corporeal difference, though in the final instance, the disabled bodies and subjects themselves are removed from the scene. Chapter Three argues that the practice of collaborative writing in Stefano Benni’s Achille piè veloce (2003) simultaneously both allows for and appropriates Achille’s authority as a disabled writer, suggesting a more reciprocal relationship than those explored in Chapter Two. Achille’s writing favors process over product, a view that parallels his emphasis on sexual enjoyment over completion, short-circuiting conventions of writing, publishing, and masculine sexuality. He, too, is erased from the final pages of the novel, however, in an example of what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have termed “narrative prosthesis.”

Finally, in Chapter Four, I turn to a reading of autobiographical texts by disabled women authors, each of whom use the figure of the sirena – the siren or mermaid – in order to represent themselves. The subjects analyzed in this chapter each grapple in different ways with the relationship between mind and body, 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. While the first two texts discussed in this chapter confirm a conception of disability and feminine sexuality as incompatible, Barbara Garlaschelli’s Sirena: Mezzo pesante in movimento (2001) suggests an integration of the two categories that is effected through the writing of the text itself.

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