Francesca Marciano is living in Rome... for now. She’s just come back from a month in India, and when you read The Other Language, out in April, her fourth book (all of them published by Pantheon) and first story collection, you will understand that Marciano is a citizen of the world. We arrange to meet in Piazza San Cosimato in Trastevere near where she lives and it’s a little bit of love at first sight. She’s delicate, animated, and unassumingly beautiful. We eat lunch at a new neighborhood place, Cantina Ripagrande, and she convinces me to order Strozzapreti con pesto di broccolo Sicilano. She points out the best place to get salami and cheese and pizza and rice balls and we talk about her life and her work, which seem intricately related.
Right now, Marciano, who in addition to her fiction, writes for film and TV, is working on three scripts, but she says that the stories in The Other Language were “living for many years in my brain.” In every story, there’s a woman at the forefront, and the locations range from New York to India to Kenya to southern Italy, all places she has lived. All the stories, too, explore, in intense and unexpected ways, relationships between men and women: a father and daughter in “The Other Language”; husband and wife in “An Indian Soiree”; strangers on a plane in “Big Island, Small Island.”
Marciano says that she “likes to live out of her comfort zone.” She left Rome at 21 and came to New York City as a young woman in the ’70s and stayed for a decade, which explains her perfect English. She lived in Kenya for another decade. “I took a trip there in 1986,” she says. “I was living in Italy and won a ticket to anywhere in a competition related to a TV advertisement I had worked on. It was January and I wanted to go somewhere warm. The holidays were over; no one was available to come with me so I left by myself for Zanzibar.” Marciano stayed at the Africa House, which used to be a British club. “It looked abandoned,” she says, but there was a lending library left over from the colonial days and she stole a copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “I put my foot on this continent and thought, ‘I have to come back.’ ”
Moving to Nairobi, she became a member of “the herd of baboons,” her name for the group of ex-pats she bitingly observes in her first novel, Rules of the Wild (1998). The geography, she says, was inspiring, and she captures the beauty of Africa as well as the life of the Europeans, Americans and young journalists who arrived to follow the conflicts in Rwanda and Somalia, “the war tourists,” as she calls them. This first novel was started in Italian but Marciano felt it wasn’t working until a friend suggested she write in English. “It made sense to me then. The characters were speaking English,” and she switched languages. Interestingly, since then, she has written all her books in English. She says that writing in English frees her—“there are no witnesses if you write in another language.” As for English, she adds, “I grabbed the language. I wanted it.”
In her second novel, Casa Rossa (2002), the setting is Puglia, with a woman returning to her grandparents’ house to figure out the past. Marciano visited the province, wanting to write about her parents’ generation, to draw a parallel between the history of a family and the history of Italy. “Italians live in denial,” she says. “There’s a lack of clarity about the country’s role in WWII. Despite our partisans, the Allies saved us.”
The next novel, The End of Manners (2008), takes place in Afghanistan, where she went in 2004 to get material for a film script for an Englishman who was doing a film about the country from the end of the 19th century, about the influence of the British, the Soviets and the Americans. “I felt I needed to see Afghanistan to work on the script but I never felt safe there. I never saw a woman, and the Westerners were aggressive; social forms had no meaning.” Marciano grew up with women; her father died when she was 11. Her mother, Paola Angioletti, produced a radio show called Midnight Tale in which an actor read a story she selected. The show’s following related to the midnight hour when the show aired: “They were bakers, truck drivers, people who were working at night.” Marciano says, acknowledging that she did not have a traditional life, but one which she appreciated later.
She’s excited about The Other Language, and is coming to the U.S. in April to promote it. She’s pleased to have her editor, Robin Desser, be so passionate about her work; and also for the support for short stories in the U.S. And up next? Marciano mentions India, where she goes every year to a writer’s colony near Bangalore. “There’s always something to learn in India,” she says. “Act I was New York; Act II, Africa; Act III?” There’s a good chance that India could be Act III.