Reflecting on the subject matter of this issue’s editorial, we couldn’t find a stronger voice to guide us through the mists of all of the proudly rainbowed colors that are about to shine under the Manhattan’s sky: Michael Cunningham. The internationally acclaimed American writer, has in fact the exceptional ability to depict human beings within all of their shades of diversity, making diversity not just a subject to analyze, but a matter of beauty. And he is also a proud gay man living in NYC and… a passionate Italophile: “I love Italy, I spend more time there each year than I do anywhere other than the US, I feel a particular affinity with Italy and Italians.”
by Tommaso Cartia
With one of the of the strongest voices in contemporary literature, Michael Cunningham’s books helped redefine some stale conceptualizations about gender identity, freeing and inspiring the diverse minds of an entire generation, including mine. I remember being young and feeling lost and confused about my own identity, when one night I went to see a movie that literally changed my life. It was The Hours, the cinematographic adaptation by Stephen Daldry of Cunningham’s masterpiece, starring a sublime trio of actresses: Nicole Kidman (who won the Oscar for her audacious interpretation of Virginia Woolf); Julianne Moore; and last but certainly not least… Meryl Streep.
The poetical tone; the elegance and the beauty of the cinematography; the mystical musical commentary by Philip Glass harmoniously intertwined with the complex layers of the narration; the honesty with which the protagonists would swim in the waters of their own diversity, some surviving, some drowning… all of this, and much more, changed my life. Then I read Michael Cunningham’s book, and my life turned around, my journey to discover who I was started there. I never expected that the author who inspired so much of my adolescence was as inspired himself by my own country. And that when I met him at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, on the occasion of the presentation of an ode that he wrote for the Italian city of Matera, I would have discovered how deeply rooted his ties with Italy are. I then had the honor to converse with him and now to offer you through these pages his thoughts about the relationship between Italy and the U.S. and the differences and similarities with which the two sisterhood countries live their LGBTQIA+ community, as well as a deep insight on his poetical world.
Cunningham’s Tie with Italy
The relationship between Cunningham and Italy is a long lasting one. His books, especially The Hours (Le ore), have become big successes in our country, translated by Italian writer and director Ivan Cotroneo. The American author travels every year to Tuscany as guest of his dear friend, the Baroness Beatrice Monti von Rezzori, who created a unique international writers’ retreat there, and he is often invited to cultural festivals and events to give lectures, like La Milanesiana. Also, he is the recipient of the Fernanda Pivano Award for American Literature – an Italian literary award for American authors named after Fernanda Pivano, the Italian writer, journalist, translator and critic, whose work was instrumental in spreading American Literature in Italy. Michael Cunningham is not only in love with Italy, but he also seems to acknowledge that sort of sisterhood relationship Italy has always had with America, for historical and political reasons and certainly because of the massive Italian migration to the US. “One time in Milan I was asked about the U.S. government, and I did say something about how I love Italy because Americans elected Bush more than once, and Italy elected Berlusconi more than once, which makes us, in some mysterious way, sister nations (although not a sisterhood one would particularly want).”
We know how much America has been a ground breaking model and an example for Italy and many other countries in terms of liberal thinking. Specifically, if we think about what the U.S. LGBTQIA+ community was able to achieve starting with the Stonewall riots, paving the way for other communities in the world that continue to fight for their civil rights. And the fact that the biggest World Pride ever produced is taking place in New York is more than an evidence of this. Though a lot seems to have been conquered, it looks like we are living in involutive times where everything once achieved can vanish in a blink of an eye.
The Importance of Being Out
Cunningham seems particularly sensitive about this subject matter, and he underlines how much the LGBTQIA+ community’s battles are definitely far from over. “The rise of neo-conservative politics is an enormous threat to our community, everywhere. Which means that it’s more important now than ever before for every LGBTQIA+ person to be out. To family members. To bosses and co-workers. To everyone. Much of our power resides in our numbers. Being closeted, even being “discreet,” helps to support those who’d deny us our rights.” Education on such themes is fundamental; there are still too many taboos and blurry areas of understanding, for young kids growing up feeling different, for parents trying to educate them, and for society that should make them feel integrated. Being out but not an outsider still is a utopian goal. Of course, discrimination is the downfall, education’s ultimate defeat.
Diversity and Gender Identity
In Cunningham’s book A Home at The End of the World we read, “I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful,” and in By Nightfall: “Accept that, like many men, you have a streak of the homoerotic in you. Why would you, why would anyone, want to be that straight?” Probably one of the most debated issues today is gender identity. There is a tendency, and almost a necessity, to categorize it. For the American author, it is a matter of freedom: “I’m so glad that we as a culture are finally questioning gender identity. Like any revolution in our thinking and our perceptions, it can be confusing, it can be difficult. But freedom – in this case, the freedom to be true to our own sexual identities, whatever they may be – is always worth the trouble it takes.”
Gender identity is a matter of diversity, a subject so well analyzed in Cunningham’s body of work. “My books are as diverse as I’m able to make them. I write about various sexualities, I write about people of different races. That said, I’d like my books to be more diverse than they are a writer, if he’s any good, writes about the most diverse possible world. I believe that writers write not only individually but collectively as well, in an attempt to do the greatest possible justice to the largest possible world.”
That’s a writer’s quest, from the individual to the universal, and that’s the personal experience with diversity and discrimination that I ask Cunningham to share with me: “Like many gay men, I struggled with shame when I was younger. Like many gay men, I’ve been called “faggot.” And yet, when I think about what’s happening to the people of Somalia, just to name one example, the idea of applying the word “discrimination” to myself seems slightly ridiculous.”
The Role of Religions
Religions have an active role in all of these matters, and they can’t be dissociated from politics and education issues. “On one hand it would be naïve not to imagine that a great deal of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment originates from various religions, very much (but not restricted to) Catholicism. Pope Francis once seemed like the most enlightened of all popes on the subject, but lately it’s been harder to tell about his true acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ population. At the same time, I feel that religion is too easy to blame, that not every religious person is anti-LGBTQIA+. There are religious people who believe in human rights for everyone.”
The Current State of Affairs
The LGBTQIA+ community is still fighting for those rights. Even more now that they can be threatened by the current state of affairs; and again, this World Pride and the Stonewall 50th anniversary falls in the lines of this urgent emergency. There’s a direct frankness in Cunningham’s words: “We’ve made real advances in LGBTQIA+ rights, though it’s been made clear, certainly since Trump was inaugurated, that we can’t count on anything anymore. We have to keep demonstrating, we have to keep writing letters to members of government, the battle is far from over. That said, recent polls in the US indicate that the majority of the population favors LGBTQ+ rights.”
There’s definitely a concrete threat that things can change after the recent federal elections. “Most ominous are the facts that Betsy DeVos, the recently-confirmed Secretary of Education, has supported anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in the past, as has Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s successful nomination to fill the seat on the Supreme Court. A justice on the Supreme Court who’s on the record as an opponent of LGBTQIA+ rights is especially disastrous since Supreme Court justices serve for life and can’t be removed.” Cunningham vehemently opposed Gorsuch’s nomination.
What Does the Future Hold?
“More than anything, we have our numbers,” affirms the American author, and certainly phenomenon like the World Pride, the Million Woman on 2017 and other massive events in favor of the human and civil rights are a demonstration of those numbers. “Seeing so many people, on every continent, coming out in favor of human rights did help me to feel like no government, no religion, nobody in any position of power can overwhelm the will of so many people.”
Cunningham’s most recent effort:
The writer is currently serving as consulting producer for a revival of the “Tales of the City” limited series based on Armistead Maupin’s books. The story, set in the 1970s San Francisco follows the lives of different characters, many of the from the LGBTQIA+ community.
Coincidentally with Pride Month, the series just premiered on June 7, 2019.