Stories from La Notte by Ascolta Women Write
Stories from La Notte
By Ascolta Women Write
In this third anthology, the writers of Ascolta Women explore, deconstruct, and destabilize the stereotypes imposed on women and their activities traditionally associated with the night: witchcraft, prostitution, mysticism, healing, and death rituals. The anthology challenges the concepts of night and darkness as entities of fear and where women are vulnerable and powerless. Through prose, poetry, photos, and artwork, the oppressive binaries of women as virgin/whore, good/bad, witch/healer and hysteric/submissive are brought into stark relief. Instead, more complex, rich, nuanced and authentic lived experiences are offered.
Drawing on their diverse Italian and Italian-Australian heritages, the authors delve into folklore, family stories, critical research, and fantasy to bring narratives into, and out of, the imaginarium of the dark. In the process, we come to understand how light and dark have been pitted against each other as opposing forces of good and evil, safety and danger. Instead, motherly female deities representing night and Black Madonna’s of antiquity are reclaimed and celebrated as powerful figures of life, love and nurturing they were historically revered for. Madri, zie, and nonne are recalled for their power to both remove il malocchio, the evil eye and soothe troubled brows. Women’s sexuality is regained as integral to identity instead of commodified for objectification and consumption. Humour is used to crack the rigidity of death rituals.
Throughout Stories from La Notte, the night is reclaimed as a place of regeneration, mystery, veneration, protection, and care. A place for women.
There have been many tales written about Italian folklore but this book gives an alternative and interesting perspective. It is written by a collective of Australian women of Italian ancestry with the aim of giving a voice to women's stories that would otherwise be left untold. This makes the book a compelling read for several reasons. Strega Moments, The Amulet, Stregate ( Bewitched) are all titles you will find here.
The word strega (plural streghe), from the Latin strix, ‘screech-owl’, is often used in Italian to refer to the folkloric witch, and the word has ancient negative connotations. Pliny the Elder wrote about striges (plural of strix), women who could transform into birds of prey by means of magic, and who would fly at night looking for infants in their cradles to slaughter.
As early as 1428, a testimony by accused witch Matteuccia da Todi, was the first mention (anywhere in Europe) of witches flying to their sabbats — their gathering spot, in this case, being Benevento. Indeed, Benevento became known as a mecca for witches, mentioning a certain tree as the center of these gatherings, one later identified as a walnut.
Italian folklore, perhaps more than any other has left cultural legacies. The folkloric witch, generally appearing at night, still represents an embodiment of people’s worst fears. Creatures were used to explain unexplainable natural phenomena such as bad harvests or sleep paralysis or were used for educational purposes, for example, to keep children away from dangerous places or animals.
The more I researched the topic, the more I noticed how relevant it was to anyone with Italian ancestry. Witches with supernatural powers, rites, herbs, and magic healing are such big components of Italian folklore that many believe in them. Italian witchcraft or mysticism remains strong and still runs through families even today.
The poems, reflections and passages in Stories from La Notte, are particularly poignant. Sara Bavato reveals that the series of accidents and mishaps on a holiday to Italy in 2022, could only be down to one thing, the malocchio! A superstitious condition characterised by misfortune, unluckiness, negative energy and sometimes illness. The word 'mal' meaning bad and 'ochhio' eye can also be associated with the green eye or envy.
‘As a friend pointed out, not even the worst screenplay writer would have dared to put so many setbacks in a third-rate comedy. That must have been malocchio!’
Pina Marino’s piece on Stregheria (Witchcraft) makes for a chilling read.
‘The wind whistles in the fig tree outside my bedroom window, the tips of the branches tapping against the window panes as they rattle and shake in their loose aluminum frames. I lie wide awake in the early hours of the morning. What is it that people call this time of night? The witching hour?
I throw off my bedcovers and tiptoe into the kitchen, so as not to wake Mamma. As quietly as I can, I fill a glass with water, pour some olive oil into a small dish, and grab a pair of kitchen scissors and a knife from the kitchen drawer. Using my fingers, I anoint the hinges of my bedroom door with olive oil, then wipe my hands clean. I close the door and open the scissors into the shape of a cross. I then ram the blades into the gap under the door and place the heavy prayer book on top of the handles to weigh them down. I pick up the knife and edge my way around the bed to the window. Lifting the lace curtain, I stab the knife into the gap along the horizontal edge of the aluminium window frame.’
I really enjoyed this compilation. There is everything from pathos and compassion to humour and fear. Not all the stories by the Ascolta Women Write are connected to vernacular magic. Many contributions are reminiscences and thoughts about life, death, family or even abuse in the home. All are lessons learned, and key moments that shaped who they are. I can only imagine how empowering and rewarding it must have been to collectively bring their memories to life and share them in order to touch on an overarching message others can learn and grow from.
One particular story by Maria Fantasia is harrowing as she describes her nightmare childhood and her resolution not to let history repeat itself.
‘Why would my mother willingly aid and abet the patriarchal system of power and constraint that gave men the right to be seen, heard, and behave badly, while women were excluded, hidden, silenced, and forced into submission? It was the one and only thing we ever argued about. I didn’t understand it at 13 and I hated it at 38. My own children didn’t know, nor had ever seen, the power of the patriarchy that gave permission for my brothers to punch or slap or kick or verbally abuse me. “PERCHÉ??” (Why?) I resisted. “Perché tu si femmina,” my mother conceded. Because I was female. That meant resigning and sacrificing myself to the whims of violence, abuse, and oppression of the males in my father’s house, just as my mother had always done. No. I adored my mother, but No. I was not resigning myself to anything.’
Reading about superstitions, traditions and myths is fascinating and many are still rife in some regions of Italy. Throughout history, complex legends about evil witches with superpowers have been widely believed. As were reports from men about women’s powers to bind with potent love spells. Did this reflect the actual behaviour of women or was this about men’s fears and anxieties?
Italian folklore is much more than scary tales. Stories from La Notte serve as a window into Italy’s past, present, and culture. Women are keepers of the rituals, the superstitions and the remedies to survive. As such they are worthy of respect.
"The dark night of the soul comes just before revelation. When everything is lost, and all seems darkness, then comes the new life and all that is.”
Ascolta Women is a collective of creative, multigenerational, Italian Australian and Italian-affiliated women. The group was formed in 2019 to give voice to and listen to women's stories that would otherwise be left untold and unheard. 'Ascolta' in Italian means to listen.
'Stories from La Notte' is the group's third anthology, published in 2023.
A fourth anthology, 'Stories from La Terra', is currently being compiled, to be published in March next year.
The books are available by emailing email@example.com.
Books are $20 AUD (10.5 Pound sterling / 12 Euro) plus postage.
They can post overseas.