Lit Sensation, Italian Style
25-year-old Viola di Grado is making waves with her stateside debut
When we asked the Sicilian-born author Viola Di Grado if she identifies herself as a rebel among her literary peers, she responded, “Of course. I don’t like to follow the well-known paths.” The 25-year-old writer, who recently earned a master’s degree in East Asian languages from the University of London, has long been attuned to the symbolic power of the written word. At the age of five she wrote her first short story. “It was about a bear that kept trying to kill himself but never succeeded,” she says.
That impulse toward dark themes is evident in her first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (the English translation is now out from Europa Editions). The plot follows Camelia, a troubled young Italian woman who is more likely to cut apart flowers “without mercy” than admire them. She lives in Leeds with her mother, a famous concert flute player. After the sudden death of Camelia’s father, their lives spiral downward; she drops out of college, and her mother becomes depressed and mute. But Camelia meets Wen, a Chinese shopkeeper, and as their relationship unfolds, she has the opportunity to start her life afresh—it’s just a matter of her actually choosing to do so.
We recently caught up with Di Grado, who is currently in Rome teaching English to soldiers, just as her novel was making its American debut.
When and how did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I never decided to be a writer. It was something that always felt necessary and implied, like being a human. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough to serve my writing. Like when I was 8 years old, I signed a pact with myself that I would not talk until I was 17; I would only write until then. Fortunately I did not follow it.
What is your creative process like?
It’s very chaotic. I feel like a shaman making himself ready to host the dreams and nightmares of other people. But it’s also very mathematical. I’m strict with myself: I want every tiny detail in the story to mirror the story’s totality, as in the Buddhist Indra’s net, where every single jewel reflects the light of all the others.
What makes you stand out from other published writers at your age?
I believe writing is about what fourth-century-B.C. Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi called “forgetting language.” That is, using words as if they are firsthand, virgin matter, without falling in the “fish traps” of convention. Literature has to be about destroying language and then reinventing it, and studying Chinese and Japanese—their being ideographic—helped me build a space where I can see language more clearly, where I can “forget.”
Your sense of style is really interesting. I’ve read that you’ve always dressed this way—and even raised eyebrows in your hometown—but what exactly inspires your fashion choices?
My style is just a way to put my body at my writing’s service. I wear my novels, that’s what I do, which basically means I always choose what to wear according to what I am writing at the moment. For example, during the [European] book tours for 70% Acrylic 30% Wool , I wore a parrot on my head to recall the one in the novel, and a pendant with an old painting showing a father and a daughter walking in the snow, as in the novel.