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by Maria Rosa Cutrufelli and Robin Pickering-Iazzi, trans.
Soho Crime, March 2023
336 pages
ISBN: 1641294248

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In the late 1980s, the Sicilian mafias were the object of considerable scrutiny in the Italian press. Even mafia wives and daughters were the subject of excited stories although traditionally women had never previously been seen to be participants in mafia crime. Of particular interest was Emanuela Azzarelli, sometimes called the Bonnie of Gela (think Bonnie & Clyde). Arrested at sixteen, she was charged with being the boss of a gang of teenaged boys who were honing their skills prior to climbing the ranks of the local mafia. Unlike other of the mafia-associated women who appeared in the weeklies of the time, Emanuela presented herself as a rebel. She cut her hair short, wore jeans, avoided feminine clothes, and asserted her authority over her all-male gang. In the early nineties she became the inspiration for the titular character of Maria Rosa Cutrufelli's feminist novel Canto al Deserto: Storia di Tina, soldato di mafia, which is now at last finally being published in its first English translation.

The author was herself born in Sicily but has spent most of her life elsewhere, particularly in Rome, where she established a reputation as a leading feminist writer and activist and where she is still active. TINA, MAFIA SOLDIER has been viewed as the first book to examine the relationship between women and the mafia, but it also appears to be a semi-autobiographical novel exploring the author's relationship to her native Sicily. Indeed Tina, the mafia soldier, does not make an actual appearance until the last few chapters of the book. Before that, the unnamed narrator recounts what she has learned and what she surmises about Tina but remains physically separate from her.

The narrator is, like the author, someone who has been absent for many years from Sicily and this is a fact that makes her an object of suspicion to some of the residents of Gela. Her Sicilian isn't perfect and that reminds some of her difference. Most people who left the area were thought by those who stayed either to be deserters or worse, betrayers of the mafia -pentiti- who risked death if they did not move to somewhere safe.

The narrator's return to the south has been prompted by newspaper coverage of a young woman - Tina, who, in unusual reversal of gender roles, had been leading a gang of boys. Tina was viewed as 'a masculidda - a tomboy. Christened Cettina, a name she found too "girly," she would accompany her father to the barber shop to have her hair cut short, like the boys. She wore boys' clothes and smoked cigarettes. Her father indulged her preferences, though how he might have acted when she was older is not known. He was shot down at his front door when Tina was eight years old. She was home at the time and refused to respond to Cettina thereafter. Today she would be identified as trans and, depending on what US state she was living in, be either supported or denied. In Gela, the consensus seems to have been not to interfere.

By the time she was sixteen, Tina was attracting public notice as the leader of a gang of adolescent boys that engaged in minor crimes. She herself had, like the boys, ambitions to formally enter the ranks of the local mafia, even though the mafia itself forbade women from joining up.

Most of Tina's story is told by the narrator before the two come face to face, which only occurs very close to the end of the book. Otherwise it is the narrator who is at the centre - interviewing people who had interviewed Tina, reflecting on her own reactions to the change or lack of change that had overtaken Sicily since her last visit, defending herself against misinterpretations of her presence in Gela.

In short, since this overdue translation of a remarkable book has been issued by Soho Crime, those readers who expect a conventional exposé of mafia crime or even an extended investigation of women's relationship to the mafia may not be altogether pleased. It is a book that first saw the light of day almost thirty years ago. It cannot be read as a commentary on contemporary Sicily, at least by the average North American reader of crime fiction. This is a book of historic significance in the annals of feminism and one that has never appeared in any translation, at least as far as I can discover. We should be grateful to Soho for bringing it out in English at last. The story of a young woman trying to establish agency in a world rigged to thwart her is moving, even if the power she sought to ally herself with was corrupt and criminal.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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