Book presentation: Italian writer Clara Sereni’s novel ‘Keeping House’

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Clara Sereni, Italian writer, journalist, translator and former Deputy Mayor of the City of Perugia, read from her book Casalinghitudine at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago in early November 2009.  Casalinghitudine, (Keeping House: A Novel in Recipes), was recently translated into English by Giovanna Miceli-Jeffries and Susan Briziarelli, and published by the SUNY University Press Women Writers in Translation Series.

As Miceli-Jeffries writes in her introduction, “There is at least one recipe for every significant character that takes hold of the memory and the imagination of both the narrator and reader…”

Sereni’s novel was published in Italy in 1987 and hasn’t gone out of print since then. The book’s narrative is constructed around recipes associated with major events in the author’s life, and while it’s autobiographical, Sereni categorizes the work as fiction rather than memoir. In her opinion the very act of writing about an experience changes and reshapes that experience, transforming it into fiction.

Sereni, a politically committed activist and feminist who lived the cultural revolution of the 1960s firsthand, believed in the late 1980s that women, in giving up their connection to cooking and food, had given up a powerful source of pleasure in their lives, and were cutting themselves off from a tradition that should have been a source of strength and creativity. Her writing was inspired partly by this insight and desire to reclaim what had been lost.

The night of the reading, Sereni was asked if she had any idea that Casalinghitudine would become a best seller when she wrote it. Sereni responded that she was indeed surprised by the book’s commercial success. In retrospect, she realizes that her book tapped into the beginning wave of a re-appreciation of cooking and food preparation in women’s lives, and was an affirmation of an aspect of their identity that they’d become alienated from during the previous fifteen years, when women shifted their focus from the private sphere to the public. She noted that shortly after Keeping House was published, the enormously popular Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate were also released.

Sereni closed her remarks by telling of a young woman she’d met who bought Keeping House as a gift for her mother, thinking that her mother would identify with the protagonist. She read the book before giving it away, however, and came away convinced that it had been written for her. Keeping House shows that women’s connections to one another span generations and also oceans, while sharing some very good  recipes.

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