Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Nasty Women with Nowhere to Go: A review of Malafemmena

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by Louisa Ermelino
Sarabande Books, 2016. 192 pages, $15.95

Filled with tales from every corner of the globe, Malafemmena, Louisa Ermelino's first collection of short stories, feels worldly and free, and yet, her female characters are repeatedly tethered to the minutiae of motherhood and domesticity. Her legions of malafemmena (Italian for bad woman, the word reflecting the author’s heritage and the title story of the collection) can leave their motherlands and leap into unknown cities, but even while trying to explore new places, they are caught in the tribal rituals of the life they, and their mothers and grandmothers, have always known. Women are restricted by self-doubt and disgust around choices they have made and accepted, around motherhood and their decisions to become mothers or not, and their decisions to stay in the place where their mothers bore them or not. In her short stories, Ermelino beautifully captures, ponders, and shares women’s dilemmas and obstacles on the subject of where one belongs, both figuratively and literally.

The author of three previously published novels (Joey Dee Gets Wise, The Black Madonna, and The Sisters Malone), Ermelino lives in New York City but she's seen the world. Her desire to contrast her bus-taking, wander-lusting, free-wheeling knowledge of the world with a narrow focus on the everyday life of a woman and the dislocation from where she is and what is expected of her, is thought-provoking and challenging. There is no sense of meeting in a contact zone in these stories; there is no sense of people from these new places having an impact on a character's soul or beliefs. Places, in this collection, are merely backdrops, as superficial and interchangeable as a Hollywood soundstage, in which someone sets up a new home with the same old issues. Wherever one physically ends up, nobody can mentally escape what they are, Ermelino shows. If a woman is a malafemmena, full of sin and devoid of morals, or even if she just thinks she is, no matter how much she tries to dig herself a space, a new home, she is still a malafemmena, prepared to punish herself for flaws, imagined or real, self-flagellating over things she may have had no free will over.

"Where It Belongs" opens the collection and begins the questioning of the importance of place: a new mother, displaced from her home country to America, burying her dead husband alongside the afterbirth of their newborn baby, deep in a hole, underneath foreign soil. Everything seems strange and she wishes it would stop feeling so new. "This is America," she reminds herself constantly, a place she wants — deserves — to be. This story introduces readers to Ermelino’s brusque wit. The colloquial tone and sarcastic voice she uses across every page hilariously points a finger at characters too immersed in the rituals of their old land or too enamored with the excitement of their new one. When the immigrant mother tells her brother she suspects her husband is being unfaithful, they discuss a course of action. "Once she had gone to her brother, and her brother had said that he would kill Armando with a knife. But this was America." Ermelino’s sly mocking of the vicious masculinity of the siblings' Italian roots rubs against the idea of America as a non-violent place. Americans don’t like knife crime, she teases the reader to remember. Americans prefer guns. This first story tells the reader just what they have embarked on: a fierce, sharp study of the cultures her characters — and readers — find themselves among.

In "Mother Love" Ermelino depicts another missing husband and father, and another attack on the misguided notion that moving to a new location solves problems:

Piero and his mother were everything in the world to each other. The father had long gone away. "America ate him up," the mother said when Piero asked. "But you are my little man, and I don’t need another." When she said this, she would wet her fingers in her mouth and smooth down his hair. His hair was thick and black like his father's before he went to America.

The United States is to blame for the graying and balding of a husband and father, Ermelino's writing leads us to believe. Moving to America had depleted the man of what was once beautiful — his looks and his family. The wife wisely didn't travel. She found the world in the love of her son. People not places, Ermelino reminds readers.

Are these the stories of rebellion at relocation? People want to belong somewhere but in this collection Ermelino refuses to let diaspora provide an easy road to happiness. In Malafemmena, a person's native, genetic identity is sucked up and thrown away, particularly by New York City and the United States, but nothing replaces it. Holes in souls remain. Perhaps these stories which refuse to submerge themselves into a place are a last stand against losing one's self to the surroundings, a defiant stance about remaining one's self. As Ermelino writes in "The Ménage," about a young woman’s backpacking trip in Thailand to find herself:

The stories traveled on air, they appeared in mangoes, they wrapped themselves in sarongs and I took them in, swaying in my hammock on my porch overlooking the sea, but mostly I obsessed about Rosie and the English couple, watching Rosie bend over in front of her house with a broom of twigs and then step into the darkness of the open doorway.

Ermelino shows her readers how people can be touched by absolutely nothing, especially changing locations. The response to a new home or homeland can be shallow and fragmented, nothing solid or rooted. In these stories, women move, travel, and embed to try and feel something but can't; women move, travel, and embed to show others where they've been and what they've seen. But all are stuck with confused, meaningless selves.

Ermelino's collection emphasizes her belief that self-acceptance is more crucial to a woman's happiness than a physical home and sense of belonging, because self-doubt ignores borders and passport control. Through her characters, Ermelino pushes for mothers to work out what they are and who they want to be, regardless of where in the world they may find themselves.

Sarah Ivens Moffett is a Londoner who currently lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, and children William, 5, and Matilda, 3. She is a PhD student in Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville, focusing on artistic approaches to motherhood in postcolonial Britain.

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