The Festival of Italian Literature in London, also known as FILL, is a festival of literature and ideas, bringing together Italian, British and International writers and thinkers to discuss literature, politics, migration, contemporary culture and other big issues of our time. Started in 2017 in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum by a group of London-based Italian writers and academics, FILL has now reached its third edition, taking place in the spaces of the beautiful Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill on 2 and 3 November 2019.
As an Italian-Londoner who places a great deal of importance on cultural engagement and constructive conversation — which is always needed, and even more so in the current political climate — I was curious to learn more about how FILL came about, what it stands for, and get an insight into the upcoming edition; so I have interviewed translator, editor and publicist Maddalena Vatti, one of the festival's organisers (note: this interview was conducted via email).
CA: I would like to start this conversation from the political context in which FILL started. The first edition was in 2017, soon after the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. These two major events in international politics seemed to be deeply rooted in exclusion narratives, encouraging the rise of xenophobia and protectionism. The Festival of Italian Literature in London seems to stand for entirely opposite values, such as cultural exchange, collaboration and dialogue. How did the political context influence the festival and how did it come about — did you have a particular goal in mind?
MV: After the referendum we found ourselves extremely discouraged, asking ourselves what we could do to fight against what was happening. As part of a relatively large diaspora community living in London we felt naturally responsible to do something to oppose the threat of disenfranchisement toward minorities. FILL was born as a reaction to Brexit: in the festival we saw an opportunity to create and support intellectual debate capable of including and understanding diversity.
CA: Can you tell me a bit about your role with FILL? How did you first get involved in the festival?
MV: At the time of FILL’s first edition I had just started collaborating with the bilingual literary magazine FLR (Florentine Literary Review). I knew part of the team at FILL already and got in touch to see if we — the magazine — could feature at the festival’s bookshop. I volunteered and felt very close to the project, so I decided to get a more hands-on role with the overall programming and organisation, which naturally grew during these three years.
CA: Let’s take a closer look at the upcoming edition. The programme features very impressive names of both established and emerging authors, translators, journalists, directors, and tackles a variety of themes. Could you talk me through it? What should people expect from FILL 2019, and how is it different from the previous editions?
MV: The programme is consistent [with previous editions] as it continues to present FILL as having intellectual research at its core. Whilst the festival is a platform to address existing debates, themes, and conversations which are shaping Italian, British and European culture and politics, we see it as an opportunity to find a new spin for these conversations. This year, for instance, we chose to speak about Brexit in an unconventional way, introducing a new feature to FILL: a stand-up comedy performance by Francesco De Carlo, who is at the forefront of a new generation of European stand-up comedians performing in English. Art is another new entry in the programme, this year featuring the curator of the Ecology department at the Serpentine Galleries Lucia Pietroiusti, and the artist and writer based in Paris Alex Cecchetti. Again, we chose to discuss the ‘hot topic’ of climate change by looking at the ways in which it impacts our ability for aesthetic discourse. A feature that was new to the second edition and which will be continued again this year due to its success is the translation workshop. Led by Vincenzo Latronico in its first year, this year will be guided by Livia Franchini, who came out with her debut novel Shelf Life last month.
CA: On the second and last day of the festival, you’re going to be chair of an event called “Journeys to the end of the world”, with photographer and journalist Alberto Giuliani and writer Joanna Pocock. Could you tell me a bit about that?
MV: I am particularly excited about this panel as it pairs two books starting from a similar fundamental, existential question, which is tackled in a very different way. Giuliani’s book is a journey starting in India and moving across scientific communities researching the future of life, whilst Joanna’s is a road trip across America’s pagan communities which have rejected both science and society. Both journeys explore different ways of living on the fringe or diverse responses to the looming threat of the end of the world; particularly, in both books encounters with strangeness and otherness are seen as potentially instrumental to forming an alternative idea of selfhood in a decaying planet. I’m fascinated by the way in which the memoir-form has been used by Pocock and Giuliani in their respective works, and excited to put such different narrative selves — a woman going through menopause, a man seeking immortality — in conversation with each other.
CA: After the phenomenon of Elena Ferrante, some argue this is a particularly good moment for women in literature (Italian literature, specifically). Do you think this is the case? Is FILL particularly committed to providing a platform for women?
MV: There are many talented female writers and thinkers at the moment in our radar and some of them will be speaking at this year’s edition. Novelist Laura Pugno will be in conversation with French writer Olivia Rosenthal discussing untameable women, and writer Loredana Lipperini will be doing a performance with the poet Rebecca Tamás. We’ll also have the philosopher Donatella Di Cesare who will be speaking about the future of democracy with Turkish political commentator Ece Temelkuran. Furthermore, the researcher Dia Kayyali with be discussing the politics of online content moderation, and the curator of the Ecology department of the Serpentine Galleries Lucia Pietroiusti will be speaking of the implications of making art in a dying planet. Finally, we have the novelist Rachel Cusk in conversation with Edoardo Albinati, chaired by Claudia Durastanti, discussing the future of the novel.
CA: What do you think Italian literature — perhaps mainstream literature in general — is lacking? What are, in your opinion, important topics that aren’t being tackled, or voices that aren’t being heard?
MV: There’s isn’t that much literature tackling climate change yet as widely and extensively as we see in American or British fiction. I’m thinking of figures such as Amitav Ghosh, Richard Powers, or even Margaret Atwood. Toxic masculinity is definitely another topic which hasn’t entered the mainstream sphere in Italian literature either yet — again, if we compare it to how much popular literature has been produced on the subject in the UK, Italy doesn’t even come close.
CA: What is the most rewarding aspect of being part of FILL?
MV: We might have touched on this briefly already when talking about the programme. Being able to straddle research and pop culture is rewarding and instrumental to us reaching a variety of audiences, which, ultimately, is the aim of FILL. Being a diaspora festival, we have strived since the beginning to constitute a platform to voice Italian culture abroad and also become a point of reference for Italians in London. We have organically grown into something more international and it’s been incredibly rewarding to see that our experience at FILL has inspired others to create similar formats elsewhere. Bordeaux, Boston, and Munich are three of the new cities where, since last year, festivals of Italian literature have started based on what we created here in London.
CA: I imagine that because of its nature, FILL attracts numerous Italian attendees. Are you satisfied with the international reach of the festival’s audience?
MV: We have a great Italian following and good international following too. We have an equal split of Italian and European guest speakers, our international network has widened since we first launched and are very proud of where we are right now in terms of reach.
CA: What would you say to someone who hasn’t been to FILL yet — why should one attend?
MV: Why not?
CA: What are you reading at the moment? Any contemporary Italian authors that you would recommend?
MV: Some of our authors at FILL have written books which I would definitely count amongst my 2019 favourites: both Claudia Durastanti’s La Straniera and Livia Franchini’s debut novel Shelf Life have been an absolute pleasure to read. Walter Siti and Michela Murgia, who we were pleased to have as last year’s guests, are two of Italy’s most significant writers. I’m a fan of Tommaso Pincio’s writing and would definitely recommend reading him. I’m just about to dig into Veronica Raimo’s latest project Le Bambinacce, just published by Feltrinelli and which she co-authored with Marco Rosselli: the book is an unconventional and irreverent collection of erotic rhymes about discovering one’s sexuality for young girls, and I can’t wait to see what they have come up with!
Find out more about the upcoming pre-festival events across London and in Scotland here.