Roberto Saviano is an Italian author and screenwriter. In 2006, he published his novel Gomorrah and exposed actions of the Italian mafia in Naples, Italy. The novel gained international attention and made Saviano a recognizable figure in Italian and American households. Dickinson College has honored Saviano with the 2020 Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program Award. The Dickinsonian sat down with Saviano on Tuesday, March 3 to talk more about his work and legacy.
The Dickinsonian: What are your thoughts on Gomorrah 14 years after its publication?
Robert Saviano: It’s a long time but it feels like it never really went away. I haven’t really gone out of the situation I was in 14 years ago—it’s as if I was still right there. It’s been a long time, but to me it’s as if only a few days passed right after [the book] came out.
TD: Do you wish you wrote or depicted things differently in Gomorrah?
RS: I just wanted to be a writer, but I became something else—I became a martyr and an activist. I’m also considered a writer, but what happened with Gomorrah changed everything.
TD: Why did you decide to write this book?
RS: Revenge towards everything that was surrounding me, and the ambition of trying to change things through my words. I wasn’t caring about selling copies or making money, it was really the act of saying things and [committing] revolutionary acts to change things. It was an unforgivable ambition.
TD: Did you expect Gomorrah to become an international success?
RS: No, and if someone had told me that this success would have caused me such anxiety and problems, I would’ve never believed that. So, success in general is overestimated, because at least what happened to me, your life becomes a nightmare, and I never imagined it would happen.
TD: Do you feel famous inside and outside Italy?
RS: When people ask you to take selfies all the time, and you have millions of followers on Facebook, that’s probably what makes you famous, technically. But, it’s great to have a lot of readers, this is the goal of every writer, but I’m not sure that fame equals the number of readers.
TD: You are often compared to American celebrities so that Americans can understand the scope of your fame. How does this make you feel?
RS: Obviously, some of the comparisons are hyperboles, but there are some things that are harder for Americans to understand. In some countries, intellectuals are the real opposition. It’s hard to believe that here [the United States] a writer could be the opponent of [President] Trump. In many countries, Chile, France, the ex-Soviet Union, Turkey, sometimes writers take the place of the real opposition. I don’t know how it works here, but sometimes the relationship between writers, intellectuals and politicians is just commentary. These characters were part of the political debate, they had a big role. Right now, it’s much less. Trump would never attack or go against a writer—he does it sometimes, but they’re not his number one enemy. [Matteo] Salvini (a far-right Italian politician), for two years did his whole campaign against me. It’s really hard to understand for the American democracy.
TD: Were there any criticisms from Italian citizens about Gomorrah?
RS: Millions. I wouldn’t know where to start, but I’ll tell you the one that hurt the most—that I was actually defaming my city, I was giving a bad image to my city but it was actually opposite. I was talking about the wound of my city, and if you talk about what’s wrong and problems about your city, it means that you are trying to heal your city. One way to delegitimize my work is by saying “we all knew all of these things.” I’m using this criticism to my theory. In our time, the piece of news itself that is important but how you get to that piece of news. I think Gomorrah in that case gave an overall picture that was missing.
TD: Why did you decide to write with a strong voice in Gomorrah?
RS: I wanted to reverse, in a way, the journalistic principle of keeping a distance—the right distance. I wanted to have the right approach and be near in a good way. By following the principle that belonged to the greatest photographer, which is Robert Capa. He says that the best picture is the one that’s a little out of focus because if the focus is too good, then you were keeping a distance and not close enough to see the subject. So, I didn’t want the book to be in focus. I wanted everything to go through me. The information, the names and the feelings—hoping that the reader would get what I was feeling.
TD: Recently, you have been vocal about the immigration situation in Italy and have criticized the government for closing Italy’s border to African migrants. Can you talk about your position on this issue?
RS: At some point in Italy, the enemy becomes the migrant. Which is weird because Italy is the place for migrants. But, at some point the person who is migrating is considered an evader. Matteo Salvini based his whole political campaign on this. According to the Northern League (Salvini’s party), the enemy are the boats that physically take the migrants from the north of Africa to the south of Italy, so that’s the target. You might wonder, why should Italy welcome everyone on its land? Because, Italy signed the Treaty of Dublin which says that the country has to welcome the person […] In exchange of that, let’s say that Europe negotiates Italy on its debts, and the Northern League party never tried to renegotiate on this treaty, and this tells a lot, which means that this party needs this issue of migrants. Not only that, the south of Italy is basically empty, so we need people to repopulate and restart the economy of Italy with these new Italians.
TD: What is the importance of your Jewish heritage as an Italian?
RS: My upbringing and education is a little weird because I have this Catholic and Neapolitan part and also a family in Liguria, which is my Jewish part. So, the Jewish literature and culture deeply inspired me. What is typical of the Jewish culture is trying to reinterpret and elaborate on reality and the truth, and that made a real difference in my life. This continuous effort to try and fix the world and by saying, “maybe something we could do might fix things in the world.” I’m not religious, but I loved and I absorbed a lot of this religious and mythological information—probably trusting the writing comes from my Jewish culture.
TD: You’ve been under police escort and protection for over ten years, how has this affected your life?
RS: Imagine you’re constantly living in a glass cube, so sometimes you are protected and feel safe like in a shelter. But many times, it feels like you’re in a fishbowl. With some of the police officers that escort me, I have a very deep relationship with them now. But, it’s like a death sentence. You don’t know when it’s going to end, how it’s going to end. When they assigned the police protection to me, they said it would only be a couple of days. But it’s been 15 years.
TD: I think it’s hard for Americans to understand police protection of writers because we only seen police protection for high profile politicians. How do you explain your situation?
RS: Writers in Europe have an important political role, probably also in Africa and South America. As I’m saying this, I’m also thinking in the Middle East that writers have a very strong political voice. American writers decided to hold back a little bit, it’s mostly just cultural role, like a little more detached position. People will tell me that it’s not true and American writers are fighting the government, but it’s a matter of role, not just position. This leads many countries to have culture as a form of resistance.
TD: How does it feel to be honored by Dickinson College for the Stellfox prize award?
RS: I would love to move here because I like it so much. I was welcomed with a lot of generosity, and this campus feels a little like a bubble. Yesterday, it looked like real Heaven. This place is exactly what I imagine of where to study and where to teach. And, I like that it’s open to having an international teaching and interest. Usually, it’s much more limited, so you study America with American professors who might be foreign, but you don’t really study foreign issues or cultures. This school is very open to that, so I am happy, and I wasn’t expecting this.