The Premio Strega, the most important Italian literary award, and the Italian Cultural Institutes form a network to promote Italian literature in the world.
The Italian Cultural Institutes and the ‘Premio Strega’. Interview with Giovanni Solimine
edited by Laura Pugno
In this interview, Giovanni Solimine, President of the Bellonci Foundation which organises the Premio Strega, talks about the past, present and future of this partnership.
How did the relationship between the Italian Cultural Institutes and the Premio Strega begin and how has it developed over time?
In 2009, we expanded the panel judging the prize, including collective votes expressed by reading groups set up at various institutions, such as Italian and foreign universities and schools, and indeed the Italian Cultural Institutes. In the beginning, we established contacts with a dozen institutes all over the world, but the number has gradually grown thanks to word-of-mouth among the directors, reaching 30 Institutes in 2021. Each institute has involved reading groups, choosing in each country from among the lovers and connoisseurs of Italian culture and literature: writers, publishers, translators, Italianists and scholars in general. We wanted to broaden the panel of voters, but maintain a very high level of readership. We are very aware of the responsibility of the ‘showcase’ function that the Premio Strega plays and we sought to increase the opportunities to promote even abroad the best of Italian literature, making it known to those who follow with interest Italian culture.
In 2017, we felt it was time to vest our voters abroad with greater responsibility, giving every person an individual vote and thus significantly increasing (by 50%) the panel of judges, who join the four hundred ‘Amici della Domenica’. So, now we receive 240 votes, cast by 30 Institutes, which we try to work in rotation because the number of people who would like to take part is in fact much higher; we also invite the directors to rotate the eight judges who are involved year by year as far as is possible.
What added value do the Italian Cultural Institutes bring to the prize? Any anecdotes to tell to the readers of Italiana?
We are very happy with this partnership. In fact, the evaluation of the participating books has been enriched by a new, often unpredictable, perspective. The figures involved are indeed of significant authority: there are famous translators such as the American Ann Goldstein, the English voice of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi, the Russian Evgenij Solonovic, who translates Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli and Andrea Camilleri, or the Spanish Carlos Gumpert, a personal friend of Tabucchi and translator of the most recent Premio Strega winners for various publishers. There are also notable figures in publishing, such as Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar Strauss and Giroux, and writers, such as André Aciman, famous throughout the world for ‘Call Me by Your Name’. In the years preceding the pandemic, our collaboration with the Institutes was enriched by a tour of the five finalists in June. Over time, we have visited various European locations: Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Strasbourg, Vilnius, Madrid, St Petersburg, Paris and Lyon. These tours were important occasions, in which the many lovers of Italian literature got to know the authors, thanks in part to the extracts of the novels in the competition, which were specially translated for the events. At some of these events, there were even entertaining and unusal moments, such as the reading in Lithuanian of the winning work by Francesco Piccolo, which made the audience laugh in exactly the place where Italian readers would have laughed. Thanks to the quality of the translation, no doubt. We hope to be able to resume this great tradition soon.
The Strega Prize is a great observatory of public tastes in literature. What are the strongest trends in Italian fiction, and what works best around the world?
The Premio Strega could be defined as ‘inclusive’, because it is based solely on quality and imposes no other limitations. Year after year, we have seen a great variety of writers and genres in the competition: established authors and first-time authors, men and women, historical novels and fantastic stories, biographies and crime fiction, memoirs and training guides. There are no taboos: any good book is welcome. Experience shows that to go all the way and win, a book has to appeal to the different segments of the readership found within our judging panel for the prize. Our panel is very representative, which is in part, we believe, why the voter’s opinions often correspond to the opinions of the readers shopping in the bookshops: every year, the books competing for the Premio Strega climb high on the sales charts.
Can I also add something on the foreign success of the competing Italian authors and books? For some years now, we have been seeing the increasing attention of foreign readers towards Italian fiction. The global success of Elena Ferrante has opened many doors, but the authors awarded the Premio Strega are also enjoying ever greater success. For example, Giordano and Cognetti have been bestsellers in countries like the Netherlands and Norway. Italian books are also increasingly popular in Denmark. For this success, we must also thank the Italian Institutes with whom we collaborate, and which over the years have worked with us to create Italian literary festivals.
With regard to current trends, novels are enjoying vibrant success, as a tool for interpreting modern and past times. Great novels, including in terms of number of pages, recently awarded the Premio Strega, such as works by Albinati, Lagioia, Scurati, Veronesi, are proof of this. In general, I see a prevailing sort of hybrid literature, in which narrative imagination is combined with investigation and historiographical reflection.
2021 will be the year of Dante, the father of our language. Will there be a Premio Strega for poetry one day?
Dante is undoubtedly the father of all Italian writers; it would be fun to compare the authors competing in the next edition with his linguistic teaching. We will organise something in this area: we have not yet decided what to do, in part because a lot depends on the logistical situation and on the risk of an extended lockdown.
As far as poetry is concerned, it is experiencing a very positive publishing season: series are reappearing among the big publishers and influential authors are achieving success within a vast audience. It would therefore seem to be a good time to launch a new initiative in this field as well. We will see; certainly, we will have to come back to this idea too when the pandemic has loosened its hold.