UK/Palestine | 2014
Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer of fiction. Her short stories have been published by Granta, International PEN, Wasafiri and Telegram. Her first novel, Out of It (Bloomsbury, 2011), was a Guardian Book of the Year in 2011 and 2012. In January 2014, BBC Radio 4 broadcast her first play, The Brick. Selma lives in London and is currently working on her second novel, provisionally entitled, We Are Here Now.
To get to Santa Maddalena, I carved a space out of my life with a rough saw in front of an unimpressed audience. It is hard to convince outsiders as to the need to travel to a Tuscan villa and surround oneself with pug dogs and exquisitely chosen objets d’art. If my oeuvre was a series of Italian romances, it would have been one thing, but with a debut novel based around Palestinian resistance in Gaza, it was a tad hard to even persuade myself.
I was still, albeit subconsciously, determined to transport the chaos and obligations of my everyday life with me when I arrived and spent the first days agitated and feeling guilty, thinking up complicated plans to travel to Rome to see a friend’s opening in a gallery (I jettisoned this nonsense) and trying to sort out outstanding arrangements (I left a half gutted kitchen, two children and a part-time day job behind me) and had to stop myself flirting with the idea of taking on more obligations while I was there.
I slept strangely. There was a pattern of waking up at 3 and staying awake until 8, sleeping for 10 hour stretches as though drugged, going to bed at 5 and once sleeping for under five hours and getting to my desk by 6:30 with a clear head. I swam, almost every day, in a freezing pool. I walked to Donnini and heard a wild boar, thought of Asterix the Gaul and ran. I ate good food, drank wine, met vivid, well-read, thoughtful people who loved books as much as I do. I absorbed a flattering sun and began to feel that I wanted to stay forever.
Most of all however, I read and wrote, I looked, listened and I talked, I talked and listened and I wrote and I wrote.
What I gained from my stay is hard to measure. Easiest to quantify was the completion of the first draft of my second novel, which had been hanging over me for almost five years; planned, sketched, three quarters written but with no possible chance to gain the head space to pull it altogether and purge it out of me. At Santa Maddalena I did so in a rush, with scenes of eighties parties in Malawi, adultery in expatriate Gulf compounds and Ashoora processions dancing out in a flurry. There were days when they filled my head at mealtimes and it was hard to leave the troubled worlds I had created.
Before I arrived at the retreat, I felt it was optimistic to aim to finish the draft in the twenty or so days I was there, but the vibe was such that I managed to finish in ten. The ‘vibe’ was not only the space and the time, which in a way is a negative idea of a retreat – the idea of withdrawal – but it was also the positive, the push. This was what was added by Santa Maddalena, that makes it, to my mind, different from other retreats. It was being surrounded by the books and writings of previous writers, as well as the writings and legacy of Grisha (Gregor Von Rezzori), the standards of Beatrice in terms of style and taste, the Lectorio Magistralis of previous fellow writers who spoke less of the greatness of the profession, but of their own doubts: Zadie Smith on a sense of pointlessness, Von Rezzori on a fear of being second rate, Michael Cunningham on the fits of disappointment when he finishes his novels.
To know one does not doubt alone is a force indeed.
It was also the mere fact that I was surrounded by writers who viewed writing as work not play, who asked you how it was going at mealtimes, who introduced you to other writers and books. It was the sharing of doubts, enthusiasms and strategies.
Another personal push was the way that Santa Maddalena pulled me in. As someone of two nationalities, countless places of residence and no religion, I have conditioned myself into the role of outsider (living in counterpoint, as Edward Said describes it) to the extent where I sometimes think I bring it upon myself. We view migration and mixed marriages as modern phenomena, but Santa Maddalena provided a heritage and a tradition, to a growing swell of what Michael Ondaatje refers to as those with the “great gift of Mongrelism.”
If I have a place, it is in the place of no set place.
The sense at Santa Maddalena of the possibilities for those rendered stateless or of mixed marriages, where parents come from peoples’ who were massacred or dispossessed across borders is extremely personal here too. Grisha ended up stateless, Beatrice herself is Armenian-Italian with a heritage that crosses two continents, like my own. The house is filled with Persian paintings, Egyptian cushions, Turkish fabrics and Sicilian tiles. We come from borders closing behind us, from fallen grandeur, we made ourselves and created beauty, humour and love with the fruits of our labour is the message I carried from the house, its furnishings and my hostess.
What is not to inspire in that?