Claudia Durastanti’s Strangers I Know, published in Italy as La straniera (The Stranger, or The Foreigner), is a nonfiction novel about her parents, who hate fiction. “Whenever we watch something,” she says of her mother,
there’s always a moment when she says, “But is it a true story?”—even if we’re watching a horror movie—and I have to lie because if I told her it’s completely made up, she’d lose interest and we’d never be able to do anything together again.
Words, if not literal, are a waste of time. For her father,
movies like Scarface and Evil Dead are documentaries, real-life stories. Every time I tried to explain that “this never happened,” to introduce him to the subtleties of fiction, he’d protest and wave me off, sometimes enraged.
Durastanti’s parents—now divorced—are drinkers, gamblers, and dissemblers. They are also profoundly deaf. It was not love that drew them together but likeness, because, her mother explains, “there’s no love between deaf people—it’s a fantasy of hearing. There’s sex, intimacy, but not the need for love. Being alike is everything.”
As narrators, they are therefore unreliable, and Durastanti begins with their conflicting and coalescing mythologies. In her mother’s version of how they met, her father was about to jump off the parapet of the Sisto Bridge in Rome and she talked him out of it. In her father’s version, he saved her mother from being assaulted and robbed outside a railway station. Either way, “they spoke the same language, composed of gasps and words pronounced too loudly…. They shoved past people as they walked, not turning to apologize.” The day after they met, her mother says, he turned up outside her boarding school, leaning against his car in jeans and a blue shirt with his arms crossed and a Marlboro Red between his lips. From that moment on, Durastanti writes, repeating the language of the Harlequin romances that her mother reads as real-life stories, “she was doomed.”
Strangers I Know is Durastanti’s fourth novel, and the second to be translated into English. It is composed of forty-one nonchronological chapters with titles like “Mythology,” “Bones of Molasses,” and “Office Clothes,” grouped into six thematic sections whose titles—“Family,” “Travels,” “Health,” “Work and Money,” “Love,” and “What’s Your Sign”—are borrowed from the horoscopes her mother consumes. A hard book to get inside, and harder to get out of, it needs to be taken slowly and then reread; Durastanti sets out to disorient but also displays her own disorientation.
This is a weakness but equally a strength. While the book is principally about her family, it is also a bildungsroman about the struggle of a young writer named Claudia Durastanti to find a story of her own when her parents have a monopoly on stories. In an interview with The Paris Review, Durastanti said that once she revealed to people that her parents were deaf artists who split up, she feared they “would lose interest in me and my voice and what I do—instead they would be hooked on my parents’ story.” How can the child of such a couple live up to their feral glamour without either “dying or going mad”?
Durastanti’s mother, who is not named in the book, even has her own nativity scene: she was born during a snowstorm in 1956, in the stall of a half-ruined farm in Basilicata filled with cats and bony animals. When she was four years old meningitis damaged her cochlea, but for a few years, before entering the “hyperbaric chamber of silence,” she retained some residual hearing. “Sounds came and went,” writes Durastanti, “and the world was a place of nightmarish ghosts and sudden howls…. It’s like she lived with someone behind her, always trying to scare her.” Today, with no hearing at all, her mother is disturbed by manic-persecutory delusions in the form of hissing, vibrations, and ringing noises that she believes are the voices of the dead making contact. It’s a wonder, her doctor says, that she doesn’t kill herself.
When Durastanti’s mother was twelve, her parents immigrated to Brooklyn, leaving her in a school for the deaf in Rome where the nuns taught her to scream by holding a knife on her tongue and making her touch live wires. She disappeared for days at a time, hanging out with street people and runaways, walking the borders of the city and sleeping in the Borghese Gardens or some other park. “I just wanted to feel free,” she tells her daughter. She continued these excursions even after her two children were born, going by foot from town to town while Durastanti and her older brother waited at home, wondering if she would ever return. Sometimes she took Claudia with her as a “hostage,” the two of them seen as “destitute” by people driving by.
Her mother learned sign language at school but used it only within the deaf community; she did not want her parents, or later her children, to sign, because the theatricality of the gestures drew attention to her disability. Instead she chose to lip-read “until her eyes and nerves were shot,” and to talk in her too-loud voice with her inconsistent accent so that she “seemed like an immigrant with bad grammar.”
Durastanti, who was taught to speak properly by her brother (whose own Italian came from television shows), communicates with her parents in a “half-hearing, half-mute pidgin,” but everyone in her family has a private language whose meanings circulate in a “black market.” Her American grandmother says “Bruklì” instead of Brooklyn, “porchecciapp” for pork chops, and “aranò” rather than I don’t know, and her mother, when she goes on Facebook, will post a solitary letter of the alphabet like Q, X, M, or Z. Asked by Durastanti what these letters mean, she replies that they mean nothing at all: “What’re you supposed to say on Facebook then?”
Durastanti’s father, who is also not named in the book, was born deaf. A poor boy who looked like a rich boy, he was handsome enough to be an actor, but his life itself was a performance. He too signed only within the deaf community; otherwise he slammed the table, stomped the floor, and read lips.
As a teenager he was having sex with the local widows, and at eighteen he discovered how movies invite you to cross a threshold and become someone else. He turned into Marlon Brando when he saw Last Tango in Paris and Travis Bickle after watching Taxi Driver. Convinced at one point that he was a mercenary soldier, he showed his daughter the collection of knives he kept in the glove compartment of the car. A “wizard who could capture us anytime, anywhere,” he had a capacity for shapeshifting such that he never seemed quite real to Durastanti: “I’ve seen my father throw himself into the fury and mania of certain fictional characters to the point of being a piece of celluloid, burnt along the edges.” Told by her older brother that their parents were actors pretending to be deaf to get into their parts, Durastanti had no difficulty believing the story. She remembers kicking her mother and screaming, “Speak, speak,” until both of them were crying.
One of the many family fictions is that Durastanti’s mother is not really deaf; instead she is “a foreigner,” “an incomprehensible girl.” Her brothers still speak to her in dialect, their mouths barely opening, and one brother bought her a Walkman that she hooked to the belt of her jeans so she could pretend to listen to songs while cleaning the house. “Aren’t you crazy about this band?” she’d ask, perplexing houseguests. She likes Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, and has collections of their lyrics; until Durastanti’s first visit to a record shop, she didn’t realize that they sang as well.
Every year her mother watches all five days of the Sanremo music festival on television, following the words as subtitles. It is, for her, a competition for the best true story; she takes literally the suggestion that people are prepared to kill or die for love. “Both my parents,” says Durastanti, “cling to words for what they are, but they’re also suspicious, like many deaf people, always afraid there are those conspiring about meanings behind their back.” While her parents “interpret life as fact,” they also, Durastanti told The Paris Review, “embod[y] the non-distinction between fiction and nonfiction.” Embodying a non-distinction is typical of Durastanti’s own lingo, which is a tough wave band to tune in to.
One way of understanding what Durastanti is up to in Strangers I Know is to compare her to Annie Ernaux, a writer she admires and who is similarly interested in problems of language, life-writing, and genre. In A Man’s Place, Ernaux’s account of her own father, the son of Normandy peasants who eventually had his own small shop, she describes how her book started out as a novel but “halfway through the book I began to experience feelings of disgust…. In order to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something ‘moving’ or ‘gripping.’” Dispensing with “lyrical reminiscences” and “triumphant displays of irony,” she tells the story “neutrally.” At its core is the language divide between Ernaux, a Parisian intellectual, and her subject, who stayed rooted to the linguistic idiosyncrasies of his class: his particular turns of phrase, writes Ernaux, “define the nature and the limits of the world where my father lived.” When she was a child, expressing herself was “like walking down a dark tunnel.” “How do you expect me to speak properly,” she cried to her father, “if you keep on making mistakes?”
Durastanti is separated from her parents less by class than by “inflections and inaccessible figures of speech; every irony separates us, every metaphor puts some distance between us.” As a teenager she tried to explain figurative language to them, but she also tried to inhabit their literalism. Once, when her father was having nightmares after the divorce, Durastanti gave him a small white eraser with which to “erase bad memories.”
These are lives that are also governed by necessity, but there is nothing “neutral” in Durastanti’s narrative strategy. While her parents do not like novels, they would clearly like to be in one, and Strangers I Know makes every attempt to cross the threshold into “moving” and “gripping”; the artful approach, with its lyricism and irony, is fully embraced. Durastanti depends on metaphor because metaphor is the only tool she has to describe her subjects’ opulent unknowability: her mother is a “nebula,” her father is “the blackest of galaxies that neutralized any theoretical physics.” Together they are “the king and queen of thaumaturgy,” and when Durastanti leaves home and her parents disappear, the book loses its magic because they are no longer there to provide it.
Durastanti told The Paris Review that having already written about her family and childhood in her earlier novels, she felt she could be “freer and more experimental” in her handling of the same material here. For example, she is kidnapped by her father in Strangers I Know, and in her second novel, A Chloe, per le ragioni sbagliate (To Chloe, for the Wrong Reasons), a girl is also kidnapped by her father, but the version in Strangers I Know is the more “picaresque.” She fictionalizes her family story because, she says, it would not be believable as nonfiction. Take the time her grandfather bought headphones for his deaf daughter:
If you write that in fiction, people think, Oh, he’s a funny, demented character in denial. But that’s a real person. That was my grandfather. I asked myself, How can I land in an in-between space, where the accounts are real but I’m handling them, in tone, as if they were fiction?
Durastanti’s tutor at college coined the term “finction” to “define something that wasn’t false but built up,” and finction is a good enough description of this extraordinary book.
It is hard to think what form Strangers I Know might have taken if not one in which the borders between fiction and nonfiction are crossed, because crossing borders is Durastanti’s subject. A translator as well as a writer, she has been moving words from one language to another all her life; she is at home with semantic instability because “everything I think and everything I say suffers in the migration between different countries.” There are cultural and geographical border-crossings too, because her parents moved to New York City in the 1970s, and Durastanti, who was born in Brooklyn in 1984, lived there for her first six years and returned annually for holidays. And there are psychological borders because, she reveals three quarters of the way through the book,
of the ten signs of borderline personality disorder, there was a time when I exhibited eight. The border, in me, was already drawn, and I’ve always been asked to cross it: every time I walked out my mother’s door, I entered a different world, and I had to learn its tricks and codes, its beauty and systems, only to trade them in for something confusing and approximate every time I stepped back inside.
Durastanti’s attempts to bridge the gap between herself and her family are at the center of Strangers I Know. These sections of the book break new ground and are the reason why it has been translated into twenty-one languages and is being made into a television series. The account she gives of being the child of deaf parents is richer and far more disturbing than the one presented in the award-winning film CODA (2021), a coming-of-age comedy with a happy ending. To hear the world as her parents do, Durastanti listens to Sounds of Silence—The Most Intriguing Silences in Recording History!, an anthology of silent music by Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Robert Wyatt, and others. She becomes interested in the composer John Cage, whose three-movement work 4’33” consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
Cage once visited a semi-anechoic chamber at Harvard—a kind of anti-echo chamber in which he could hear only the high-pitched sound of his nervous system and the deep thrumming of his blood. The artist Doug Wheeler made a similar room for his exhibition “PSAD Synthetic Desert III” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2017. Entering the installation, says Durastanti, was like sinking down “a deep hole…. I heard my own saliva, my stomach rumbling, my eyelashes beating.” It was a spatial and temporal as well as aural experience, in which she returned to her past, “with my parents, who’d always lived in a room like this one.” Her parents, in their soundproof room, have an enviable self-sufficiency, and Durastanti will always be the child kicking her mother, screaming, “Speak, speak.”
The neatness of the book’s structure barely contains the excess of the content: the problem of genre, the glamour of strangeness, the expansiveness of silence, the limits of language. The themes are so vast and so daunting that the prose bends beneath their weight, and certain passages feel as though Durastanti were trying to put the ocean in a chest of drawers. She is more at ease with her parent’s unknowability than her own, and the chapters where she describes her life as a young adult, moving to London to find punk rockers, attending raves by herself, and being fired from jobs, read as misery memoir. The intellectual curiosity that animates her childhood gives way to a barren interior landscape in which we get little traction; the tone is bleak and despairing, and Durastanti’s desire to disappear, which begins as a childhood game, becomes part of her mental collapse.
Her parents’ ahistorical world is replaced by a city rooted in dates and facts—it is 2011, “six years before the Grenfell Tower fire”—but Durastanti is disengaged from historical progress. Unhappy with her partner, she becomes “an accurate imitation of a ghost,” but it is her parents she is impersonating. Walking for miles as her mother once did, Durastanti has a similar sense of threat; appropriating identities as her father liked to do, she compares her “city anxiety” to those of Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Sylvia Plath. Living in Newington Green, the former habitat of a lover of Anne Boleyn and, later, of the young Mary Wollstonecraft, she is “caught between a suffragette and a queen who lost her head.”
Durastanti’s self-mythologies strike an uncomfortable note. Her parents never asked for the sympathy that she now demands of her readers; her grandmother, Durastanti recognizes, translated herself to Brooklyn with fewer resources and a good deal more success than she had in London. What is striking about these sections of the book is how uncertain Durastanti is in her autobiographical voice, which is either too far away to be audible or else comes at us with exaggerated volume. Ill at ease in a real-life story, she would sooner be a character in a novel.