In her new collection of short stories, Louisa Ermelino (PW's reviews director) returns to some of the materials that have engaged her imagination across her three earlier novels. The 16 stories in Malafemmena, which will be published by Sarabande Books in August, invoke a range of experiential material: seat of the pants bohemian travel through Asia, India and Australia; love affairs; all manner of illicit drugs; and the vividly articulated street bio of New York Italian Americans in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s and 1960s.
Her prose recreates the tough talk, dysfunctional families, and bleakly comic small time wise guys that drift along the periphery of street life. But it's really the lives and antics of women as they deal with other women—be they older women on the stoops of Sullivan and Thompson Streets, or devil-may-care female drifters meandering from country to country, from one soon-to-be discarded man to another —that animate her intricately emotional stories. She talked to PW about writing short fiction, her relationship to her subjects, and more.
Can you describe your stories?
I think of these stories as women breaking the rules, the title—Malafemmena—means bad woman. What's a bad women? Is she bad, is she evil? Women are often cast that way. So these stories are about women who are just doing what they want. They're not following the prescribed rules, or the behavior that they're supposed to be following. A lot them are about older women. Some stories are set in the forties, and the fifties; a lot of them are set in the sixties. The story "Death Becomes Her" is about a women losing her husband. But instead of going into this horrible grief place, she actually feels more alive.
These stories capture a range of women asserting their independence, no matter the consequences. You could say they're about the right of women to negotiate their own social misfortune.
That's right; that's a good way to put it. Though that wasn't the theme when I set out to write the book. These stories were written over a long period of time. They were all over the place. When they all came together, I realized that they all involved women stepping outside the lines. There's always something going on that even the characters didn't expect.
Even the men can seem feminine—in the story "Marguerite" it's a man that's raped.
That's true, there is a man that's raped, a feminine man, a very pretty man. Well, the Italian American society I grew up in was very restrictive and women behaved a certain way and men behaved a certain way, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to get out of it. And it worked both ways. It's very comforting to know how to behave, it's very comforting to belong to a certain group, and it can make life very easy. But at a certain point, for me it was adolescence, now the rules get very strict. Which was when I thought "I can't make it here."
There's a lot a travel, a lot of drugs and drug dealing, but they also feature unusual episodes involving, marriage, childbirth and sex. Are you looking in particular for fictional situations where women are forced to rely on their own wits?
There are two defining parts of my life. One was my upbringing in the Italian American neighborhood of New York City and the other was the years I spent traveling after college. Somehow those years and those experiences are more vivid to me than anything that's happened to me in the last 30 years. So that's where the stories come from. There are germs of truth in them—not necessarily about me—things that resonated with me. And like any fiction writer, I just blew it up.
You could describe some of these stories as, "New York Italian Do or Die." They feature wise guys, petty criminals on the periphery of that culture who act as a source of bleak comedy. "Sister in Law" is the story of a women hilariously narrating her own whacking-to-come, so to speak.
Well I like death [laughing], death is a big deal to me. There are a lot of funerals in my stories. I believe that there are three defining episodes in life: birth, marriage and then, there's death.
The physical layout of New York City neighborhoods, especially the Village, also seems important to you. The story you mentioned, "Death Becomes Her," is as much about the landscape of Greenwich Village, specifically the South Village, where you grew up, as it is about grief and loss.
What I think fiction does is create a world. In fiction we can actually experience someone else's world. That's what I love about reading fiction and that's what I hope I can do in my stories, bring a world to the reader and make it real.
What can you tell us about the title-story "Malfemmena," a tale about a mysterious, women, Lucia, and the man who is ultimately sucked into the morbidly funny complications of her life.
"Malfemmena" is the name of a song that was popular in the 1950s made famous by an Italian actor called Toto. It's about his wife, the woman who broke his heart. There are heartbreakers, there really are. Women have this tremendous power, which I think frightens men because they really have no control in the face of it. Men are physically stronger, they're often physically bigger but basically they're reduced to nothing for the love of a woman and that's fascinating to me.
So are the women in these stories, "bad" women, or, as we used to say, are they just, "badass mothers"?
I like that [laughing], that's the title of the next book.