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Looking with the mind elsewhere

· ​Interview with Cassar Scalia ·

“Sprawling in a hammock in a tent put up to shelter her from the rain of volcanic sand, the Assistant Commissioner Giovanna Guarasi was enjoying the natural fireworks display which had been going on for hours [...]. She had never seen anything like it. The summit of Etna resembled a brazier that was vomiting fire, dominated by a column of ash and fragments of rock […]. She buttoned up her jacket and stretched out her hand towards the garden chair on which she had left her vital necessities: her Iphone, a paper cone of roast chestnuts, a packet of Gauloises bleues, an ashtray and an anti-mosquito spray”.

Cinzia Corvo, “Etna”

This is how on page 13 the reader makes the acquaintance of Vanina, the protagonist of the highly successful detective story Sabbia nera [black sand](Einaudi, 2018). The detective – whose name “was the work of her mother, who had saddled her with it right from the beginning, boasting that she had taken it from Stendhal’s Vanina Vanini, of which however she did not even know the plot” – is first seen while she watches a natural spectacle, to which, not being a native of Catania, she is unaccustomed. And yet this woman is looking without paying real attention to what is happening before her. Her mind, in fact, is elsewhere. This dynamic of looking without seeing acquires an evocative value in view of the fact that Cristina Cassar Scalia, the author of Sabbia nera, is an ophthalmologist. And it is precisely because of this dual capacity as writer and as ophthalmologist that we decided to discuss with her the subject of the female way of seeing things.

Born in Noto in 1977, Cassar Scalia began writing very early: “I was 12 years old! In my last year at secondary school too I took part in a literary competition set up by Mondadori and I won it with a story based on an incipit by Gina Lagorio. I then chose to study medicine and inevitably had to stop writing. But I was always aware that this was only a temporary pause, and that I would go back to it as soon as I had completed my specialization. And that is what happened. Of course I could not have imagined that my first novel would be published by a great publisher!”. Sabbia nera is in fact Cassar Scalia’s third work, after La seconda estate [the second summer] and Le stanze dello scirocco [the rooms of the sirocco](which came out respectively in 2014 and in 2015, published by Sperling & Kupfer), all of them having female protagonists. “My Assistant Commissioner could not but be a woman. Nor did the question even arise for me in my first two books. However the story I wrote at the age of 17 had a man as its protagonist”.

There are quite a few doctors who are also writers in the Western tradition. Nor is there any lack of women writers with particular specializations; let us think, for example, of Donatella Di Pietrantonio, a children’s dentist and a successful novelist. Are there specific aspects between creating fiction and being a doctor? “I believe there are many points of contact between being a doctor and being a writer. To make a diagnosis, the doctor must become an acute observer. The writer does the same thing, scrutinizes, takes notes and stores information. In any case for various reasons they must both study the people they meet: the former to treat them and the latter to find in them some feature useful for creating a character. For this reason, in my opinion, a doctor who writes, especially narrative, has a something of a head start”.

And so we come to Assistant Commissioner Vanina, a native of Palermo, stubborn, moody, a lover of old films and good food (but she can’t cook!), tormented by her father’s murder and by the ending of a thorny relationship. When we meet her, although she is only 39 years old, Vanina already has a curriculum vitae glittering with brilliantly resolved cases in the course of her long career: 12 years in the police force, the first half of which she spent in the Anti-Mafia branch, then three years in Milan as Chief of Police and now 11 months as Assistant Commissioner, heading the Offenses against the Person Section of the Flying Squad of Catania.

When we meet her, therefore – in a novel destined to become a series (of which Cassar Scalia is now writing the second book) and whose cinema and TV rights have already been optioned – Vanina has made a name for herself professionally: as a woman she does not seem to have to fight to get her authority recognized. “Exactly. I wanted to create a female character who had overcome the phase of professional assertion and already had indisputable authority!”. The problems, if anything, are on the personal level. “Yes, this is her weak point”. Yet the author denies that this aspect has anything to do with being a woman: “It is a weak point for her as it is for many people, regardless of whether they are men or women”. Nevertheless it seems to us that there are a few differences. Whether or not we like it, in our society it is not the same when a woman reaches the age of 40 with an excellent job but without having created a family or had children as when a man does.

This difference in views is an interesting aspect of our conversation: although Vanina the detective also impressed us by the feminine approach with which she carries out her work, Cassar Scalia seems to lead everything back to a more neutral ground. Thus when we ask her what is the Assistant Commissioner’s view of the crime, she answers “Vanina has the inflexible eye on crime of those who do not tolerate it going unpunished. I don’t think that this has much to do with being a woman”. And yet her ability to look at facts while taking into account all the facets of reality is an indication of the female ability, especially in emergencies and in difficulties, to keep hold of all the threads of which life is made.

As an ophthalmologist and a writer, that is, as a person who is doubly competent in the field of observation, where should sight come among the five senses? “Perhaps conditioned by my profession, I tend to consider it the most important”. Let’s not give up, just as Vanina did not give up in the face of a mysterious murder that had happened more than half a century earlier. Let us insist: but in your opinion is there a feminine view of the world? “Possibly”.

Giulia Galeotti




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 29, 2020