Manuela Salvi is the author of over 20 books for children and young people in Italy and after the original version of Girl Detached and her picture book Nei Panni di Zaff were banned in Italy due to ‘strong’ and ‘gay’ content, she determined to study censorship and self-censorship in children’s and young adult fiction. She was awarded the Jacqueline Wilson scholarship to study at Roehampton and is working on her PhD thesis and new English-language fiction.
Interview with Manuela Salvi
Why did you want to write Girl Detached?
Sometimes writers choose their stories, sometimes stories choose their writers. In my case, Girl Detached chose me through a series of fortunate coincidences. I welcomed the challenge because I was interested in understanding, at least partially, why and how girls today are still preoccupied with male approval, to the point that seduction is often seen not only as compulsory, but also as the only source of power a girl can have.
Diversity in books is something that is talked about a lot now in publishing here in the UK. Based on your personal experience how does this differ from Italy?
Italy is experiencing a severe and upsetting cultural crisis, and the reactionary wave is not being firmly opposed by our institutions. In children’s publishing pre-censorship is an effective tool to limit the range of topics a writer can deal with, and at the moment we have a huge issue with gender roles: the Pope has just declared that children’s books promoting a gender-free attitude are a specific attack to marriage and traditional family. My librarian friend told me that if a book displays the word “diversity” on the back cover, many parents wouldn’t buy it, no matter the topic. I saw a book proposal rejected by publishers because one of my characters is a Drag Queen.
It’s not a good time to be a children’s writer in Italy. Or even a child, I dare say.
‘Girl Detached’ and also your picture book ‘Princesses have no willy!’ (First published 10 years ago) are banned in Italy. If I may ask; what is it like when a wall is placed between you and readers?
I’m not a good enough writer to be able to really share what I felt and feel when I think about my banned books. It was devastating. I cried a lot when Girl Detached was opposed and then recalled form bookshops. I fume when I still see my picture book on local authority and regional government blacklists. But I’m sure I’m on the Good side because whenever I read the first line to children – Princesses have no willy! – they laugh and understand. Children understand. Teenagers understand too, if their adultisation is not at too advanced a stage (lol). What I really don’t understand is why gatekeepers claim the right to be repositories of absolute truths, and why children and teenagers are never consulted about what is or isn’t suitable for them.
Do you sometimes think it would be easier to just write what the gatekeepers wanted? Which leads to “Why don’t you?”
The problem here is defining what gatekeepers really want. Do they want us writers to sugarcoat reality? To lie? To avoid “tough” topics entirely? And how can we define “tough”, then? Isn’t it a subjective term that changes according to historical period, country, personal beliefs and experiences? I don’t write my stories because I think they are tough, actually I don’t see how exploring sexuality through a YA novel could be considered tough at all.
Someone may say: gatekeepers just want to protect children.
Right, but from what? Conflict? Life itself? And did they ask children if they want to be protected from something that they will have to tackle sooner or later?
No, I couldn’t just write what the gatekeepers ask for. Conflict is the living matter of writing, and children’s literature is Literature, therefore honesty, responsibility and vision are required.
Ok, let’s pretend the magic is there and you can have exactly what you want. How would you like diversity in publishing to be?
I would start from readers. I’m doing a PhD at Roheampton University about the role of age banding in content control because I’m more and more convinced that the first mistake we make is to cage children and teenagers into age groups. Young people respond to adults’ and society’s expectations, so if we all think that 7-year-olds must have these tastes, level of maturity and knowledge, and grade of access to content, they will adapt to this – with sporadic exceptions that are usually labelled as “rebellious”. In the same way, if we say that picture books are childish, teenagers (and adults!) will never read them and that’s a shame, because they’re going to miss out on unbelievable and inspiring masterpieces just for the sake of an age label.
We establish “standards of normality” and what doesn’t fit them is considered “diverse”: in itself embarassing proof that those standards are misleading. As a consequence, we are not so good at managing diversity, because it questions our certainties. In my opinion, a way to overcome this is to consider Susan Stewart’s words: “Process may be seen as the order of things and change may be seen as a way in which we interpret that process, indeed, go about categorizing, typifing, evaluating, and making relevance of that process”. If we embrace change as the order of things and consider diversity our normality, avoiding labels and allowing kids to be more in charge of their development and decisions – giving them tools and not cages – I’m sure that children’s literature will flourish with more amazing stories, and normal-diverse characters to be remembered forever.
When you were growing up were there did you find the books you wanted/needed?
The truth is that my childhood was marked by a not-so-joyful financial situation and I couldn’t rely on a library, since libraries in Italy are not such a strong institution as in the UK. I received books at Christmas and for my birthday, nothing more, so I had two sources for stories. The first one: I went to the local bookshop, choose a book and read it one bit a time, hidden behind the shelves. The owner pretended not to see me. The second one: japanese cartoons. Despite all the attacks on television at that time (70s and 80s), the endless stream of popular anime coming from Japan was for me inspiring and necessary. In particular, since I was called a tomboy, “The Rose of Versailles” was absolutely life-changing: seeing Lady Oscar, a girl who’s educated like a boy in France before the Revolution, allowed me to explore different aspects of women’s identity and sexuality. Cartoons back then were very explicit and straightforward, an incredible source of information for children.
Are there any books you want to recommend?
I’ve just read a proof copy of “We come apart” by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, out in February 2017 – absolutely brilliant, it’s moving and the language is very inventive. So get ready for it!
And since I’m an author in translation, at the moment, I’d like to see Guus Kuijer’s Polleke’s series and Marie-Aude Murail’s “Oh Boy!” translated into English. I think that stories from different cultures can offer us a wider range of ideas about diversity in children’s literature.
And finally, what is the question you wish people would ask and never do?
Oh, well, there are many important questions I’m never asked. Like, what is your secret superpower? As a kid, did you write letters to influential people because you really believed that it was the best way to change the world? What was the most embarassing book you crafted when you were a young girl? Who were you in your previous life? Who will you be in the next one?
Note them down for the next interview!
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Then, when Aleksandra befriends her new neighbour Megan, and through her meets charming, handsome Ruben, it seems she has discovered a doorway into a different world, and a different Alek. But Ruben wants Aleksandra to play a particular role for him, and it is one that will come close to destroying her.