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Banned in Italy: ‘A Girl of No Importance’

15th May 2015

Banned in Italy: 'A Girl of No Importance'
It's an issue that can affect teenaged girls anywhere, so why was a book about it banned? Translator Denise Muir introduces Manuela Salvi's YA novel 'A Girl of No Importance', and explains why publishing it is an issue of the utmost importance for girls and women everywhere.

A Girl of No Importance is a story of teenage conflict and self-destructive love. It is also a story of voice: both the protagonist’s and the author’s.

Aleksandra stutters, is shy, and has trouble making her voice heard.

Manuela Salvi, a successful children’s and YA author published in Italy, France, Spain and Germany, had her voice silenced when this book was withdrawn from the market in Italy.

Why?

Because A Girl of No Importance is a tale of teenage prostitution. Italian booksellers, libraries, teachers, and parents didn’t want to hear it and wouldn’t let young people read it either, despite the grooming of teenaged girls being a situation many young girls face; a 13-year-old Italian school girl wrote to Manuela to tell her it’s happening to 8 out of 10 girls at her school, and a teenage reviewer said, this book… shows the subtle mechanisms that can drag you down into a living hell, but also that you can decide to get out of hell, if you realize that everything happens for a reason. It just depends how you react to it.”

So, on to the story.

Aleksandra’s just an ordinary girl. Or is she? Aleksandra has two identities: sexy stripper Alek and shy, stammering Sandra. Two identities mean two different lives. But in each she’s just a girl of no importance.

There’s Sandra, the painfully shy, sixteen-year-old brought up by a strict grandmother and living with an estranged mum and her new husband, in a world in which everyone else around her seems to know what they’re doing and who they are. Everyone except her.

Feeling alone and struggling to make her voice heard, she lets new friend Mandy and suave, sophisticated Ruben entice her into another world, a place that offers glamour, attention, friends, and the promise of a prince charming. But what she gets is a cruel betrayal of her trust and the demand that she repay their favours, not just by stripping for money, but by selling her body.

So, Sandra, the girl who dresses in oversize shirts and acts in an amateur drama club is now Alek, playing the biggest role of her life: the gorgeous girl with the perfect body, admired by women and desired by men.

Hungry for attention and desperate to please her new friends, she falls into a downward spiral of drink, drugs and selling herself, body and soul. Still with no voice, and still a girl of no importance.

So will it destroy her?

Let’s hear from Alessandra.

My eyes hunt for Ruben’s.

I hear the other man’s voice.

I feel his hands all over me, pushing and pulling at me like a ragdoll. His mouth is slimy, he’s devouring me, biting me, it hurts, I try to push against his shoulders to get him off but it’s useless, he doesn’t even notice. He just squeezes me tighter, using me like I’m not human, grunting like an animal.

I look at his body descending onto mine.

There is a scream and then darkness.

Will Aleksandra become Oscar Wilde's fallen woman with the world against her? Will she meet the same fate as 'The Woman of No Importance' that her drama club is rehearsing? Or will she use the voice she finds on stage and in character to fight back? Italian readers weren't allowed to find out. Will Aleksandra become Oscar Wilde’s fallen woman with the world against her? Will she meet the same fate as ‘The Woman of No Importance’ that her drama club is rehearsing? Or will she use the voice she finds on stage and in character to fight back?

Italian readers weren’t allowed to find out. The book was “killed” (literally, it was sent to the shredder) and Manuela’s career was severely damaged. She has come back even stronger from the experience and is now busy writing, touring Italian schools, and heading up creative writing projects and also the Italian Children’s Writers Association (ICWA) to promote the work of Italian authors in Anglophone markets.

Luckily, English-speaking readers can find out what happens to Alek. Manuela decided to give her story another chance, and commissioned an English translation from me, a fledgling Italian to English literary translator. We worked together to carry the dramatic, realistic narrative, complete with clever plot twists, safely into English, so that a wider readership could learn about how Aleksandra got in then out of a destructive relationship.

A Girl of No Importance is therefore the full English version – as yet unpublished – of Manuela’s story about an awkward, often-ignored issue. We spent a lot of time making sure we developed it in English in the same eloquent and compelling way. The aim was to keep the power and the punch, and to convey they in a universal, non-context specific way. Alek could be from anywhere; her city could be Leeds as easily as Latina.

Reviewers recommend it for teens and adults, especially parents and teachers, as a way of opening their eyes to a world that is kept at the edge of society. Readers say it’s a book that shows you that others may be struggling with the same problems but it’s okay to speak up about them. I say it tackles a difficult issue with the same honesty as YA author Melvin Burgess while revealing the same vulnerability, dependence and tenderness as Emma Jane Unsworth in her story about thirty-something female friendship and love.

So, for all these reasons and more, A Girl of No Importance would be a worthy publication in English. Undoubtedly, it already has a readership. The story and the protagonists reflect a reality that we already know exists, and by capturing it in a powerful, page-turning narrative, we would be offering an insight into the dynamics at work in this reality and the suggestion that there can be a way out of it. A second and equally important reason is that this book addresses a female issue, it stars a female protagonist, and was written by a female author. And all three have been silenced, their story never heard. An English translation would not only bring it back on the agenda, it would also give readers the chance to hear Manuela Salvi’s unique voice.

Any other reason?

Well, it’s just a really good book. Filled with powerful writing. A good plot. Real, feisty characters. It’s never preachy or mawkish. Or rude.

Just real. And real literature with real people makes for a really good read.

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Denise Muir is a seasoned commercial and budding literary translator.  She is also an advocate of Italy’s indy publishing sector and promoter of strong female voices tackling big issues, as well as working in schools to champion diversity in children’s literature.