May is Wyrd and Wonder month, and the prompt for today is nothing other than “Fantasy from around the world“.
I thought about writing a recommendation list: authors writing in English from non-English speaking countries get very little visibility, but my blog can’t provide much of it anyway, and I imagine that most names I have in mind would show up on a lot of lists already. So I’m going to talk about Fantasy in Italy instead: my thoughts on my country’s overall perspective on this genre, and what that means for me as a mostly-SFF blogger in the English booksphere.
I’m going to talk about my experience with what’s accessible in bookstores to an average reader; I actually know the behind-the-scenes of writing fantasy in Italy very little, and I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know about Italian fantasy literature because it’s not easy to find unless you already know where to look for. And there are reasons for that, mostly tied two main Italian assumptions: Fantasy is an English genre and Fantasy is a kid’s genre.
Italy, Fantasy, and Acqua
My feeling has always been that Italy and fantasy don’t really get along. I don’t know whether this is just a coincidence, but we don’t have a widely-used word for the fantasy genre the same way we do for science fiction (“fantascienza”), as if it were always inherently an outsider. That’s not to say that the concept of magic, in one way or another, hasn’t been a significant part of our culture – it has, in Italian literature and legends and even historical events – but it’s not really the same thing.
What I can say is that true fantasy, fantasy-as-the-English-know-it, is perceived as something for children.
We all know that in the English-speaking book world there are people turning up their nose at genre fiction; it happens all the time, even though it might not happen as often or with as little pushback as it did before social media was a thing. It’s not what I’m talking about here, even though this happens in Italy too. I’m saying that fantasy is specifically perceived as “for children” in a way science fiction is not, in a way that doesn’t match the common stereotypes I see in the English book world (“genre fiction is commercial and therefore valueless” and “adult fantasy written by women must actually be YA”).
No, all fantasy is specifically for kids, including fantasy written by men. The first Italian translator of The Lord of the Rings, Vittoria Alliata, was only 17, and given how I’ve heard people talk about fantasy for most of my life I can imagine why that choice was made. (Probably not because they valued the abilities and thoughts of teen girls, I’m saying.)
Some relatives also gifted me a copy of A Game of Thrones when I was 13, and I guess that their thought process wasn’t “this is appropriate young teen reading material”, “my niece can handle it”, but “everyone talks about this series these days, so it must be good, and it’s fantasy, so it must be ok for kids”. The Average Middle Aged Italian Person who doesn’t really follow SFF in any form still thinks “ah yes. Kid books” when they see fantasy. With the Game of Thrones TV show becoming more well-known for its violence through the years, this might be changing; it’s definitely changing with younger generations, because few of us are that detached from the Anglosphere anymore.
This is the main reason, outside of the queerness, I rarely mentioned what I read to any adult as an older teen. This is one of the main reasons, outside of queerness, I started reading in English: sometimes the translations, even by major Italian publishing houses, were terrible (“would a kid notice?”) and series were often left unfinished (“oh, this wasn’t successful, and clearly not because we didn’t put any thought or money into it! Let’s try with the first book in another random fantasy series. Kids have a fish’ attention span anyway”). I don’t have a high opinion of Italian publishing in general, but I could be wrong about their reasoning: maybe they are this thoughtless with every genre and age range.
This might be one of the reasons fantasy books written by Italians shine in the pre-teen age range. One of my favorite and formative series was Fairy Oak by Elisabetta Gnone, a series about twin witches living in an enchanted town. It’s very Italian in its being way more concerned with atmosphere than with plot; very Ligurian (this author is from my region) in its values and culture; very English because it’s fantasy. It’s not a coincidence that the setting is a hybrid between Liguria and an English small town; it’s not a coincidence that the characters have a mix of English and Italian names. Also, just look at the title.
I consider the Fairy Oak series to be several steps above most English middle grade I’ve read, and not just because of how important and close it is to me, but I don’t feel similarly about any Italian fantasy book aimed at an older audience. That’s also because I don’t know it very well and a lot of it doesn’t appeal to me for homogeneity (male and/or heterosexual) reasons. That’s not to say I’ve never read any of it, but… almost, because if the kind of stories that appeal to me are being written, they’re not easily found, and that’s a problem in itself.
As for what I read that wasn’t written for middle schoolers: I read all Licia Troisi books up until 2015, and while the stories of the Mondo Emerso wouldn’t look in any way out of place among Throne of Glass-type fantasy (though it predates Throne of Glass by almost a decade) I wouldn’t put the best ones anywhere near a “best YA books I’ve read” list, despite the nostalgia. What some of them do have is better covers:
The main problem is, most Italian fantasy isn’t well-known even in Italy, and outside the middle grade age range, “big authors” like Licia Troisi are the exception to the rule. It never feels like publishers are trying to make it a thing. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy: fantasy is an English genre, and so we’re only going to spend money on translated works we know were successful in the US if we’re to spend money on any fantasy book at all.
And that’s how I ended up on the other side of this language barrier. I’m sure there are people who specifically look for hobbies that require them to be fluent in languages they wouldn’t otherwise use as much, but I’m not one of them! If I could have been an SFF book blogger by reading Italian books, I probably would have: at heart, I’m a lazy person. A dragon who would have happily slept on its pile of Italian fantasy books. (When I think of fantasy my mind always goes back to the cover of the first fantasy book I read, The Hobbit, with Smaug sleeping on a pile of gold on the cover.)
I’m here instead, and this place changed me a lot; I didn’t even realize how much until I wasn’t here very much anymore. It gave me the language to describe some of my experiences, for how much it shouldn’t have had to; it helped me interact with many people who have a perspective completely different from mine, and certain things are invaluable for someone who for various reason can’t travel much. (English social media also exposed me to a significant amount of nonsense that is culturally different from the usual nonsense I’d encounter in my everyday life: there’s value in that too!)
The underlying reasons I ended up in this place might not be the best, but I’m glad to be here.
What are some misconceptions about fantasy people around you have? I’m curious about what everyone encounters more often; maybe we’re more similar than I realize.