Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Women's Fiction Festival at Matera: Wow!

Come September the 23rd those of us writers who are fortunate enough to have the time and the money make the annual trek to Matera, the sublime city of stones. Since I live in the Italian Riviera the costs are minimal regarding transportation and lodgings. Matera has some of the most delighful ateliers and antigue shops. I cannot resist admiring them, entering the shop, falling in love with an object such as a unique Murano chandelier and acquiring it.

My husband often tells me with a straight face because he means what he says,'' The best present I could give you for your birthday is a warehouse."

The City: Matera is enchanting. There is something magical about the stones. The ancient Greeks thought so too because they built temples and oracles atop the mountains and hills. Historians and archeologists calculate that pilgrims and those seeking counsel from the God and Goddess( Apollo and Minerva ) must have walked perilously close to the edge of many a precipice to reach their destination.
Matera remained inaccessible for centuries. This rendered Matera less prone to attacks from the Carthaginians and much later, from the Barbarians themselves. The other side of the coin is that this very isolation kept the Materani from civilization and culture.

Negligence and indifference was the quality most often displayed by the authorities in Rome after the unification of Italy. Indeed, the House of Savoy plundered the South and then despised the very people they had deprived of everything.

The people of Matera seem to have dragged themselves step by painful step out of their stone caverns and caves and created the modern and chic city it is today. To be sure, a proud and elegant austerity remains. It should be so. I continue to be impressed by their quiet dignity and their gaiety.

The Women's Festival: This is the fifth edition and I would consider it a blockbuster. The Pythoness of this festival is Elizabeth Jennings, a most extraordinary woman and writer. She brought American ingenuity, grit to sell at any auction and a determination that would have withered Hannibal, the Carthaginian Conqueror and Hannibal the Cannibal.

Bien sure, she did not accomplish this by herself. Two whirlwinds called Maria Grazia Romei and Maria Teresa Cascino have been part of the festival since its inception.

Hurrah for this Trio of Fates/Women!

Le Monacelle: I would come to Matera just for this Nunnery turned into a hotel with eclat and verve by Antonella Salvatore Ambrosecchia, who is another force of nature.

My suite of rooms is separated from the rest of the hotel. I always request these rooms and Antonella graciously grants my wish. From my salon I can gaze at the columns of what clearly must have been the altar to Pallas Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. In Roman times she became Minerva. That is how the Romans and much of the world refer to her today.

Even in India, Krishnamurti who had lived in Rome and in Florence declared Minerva was the Hindu version of Sarasvati, Goddess of Wisdom.

The oil lit torches and the lamps surrounding the Doric columns give the place an other wordly feeling. In the darkness of the night, I walked slowly and silently and stood in the midst of these columns. I closed my eyes and allowed the vibrations of the Goddess and of the breeze they brought to envelop me. Then I realized that centuries before Pallas Athena was invoked another Mother Wisdom was worshipped here. Astarte, Yebel, Isis, Demetra, did it really matter? I could feel them all caress my spirit and my soul. Women all. They understood me and I was thankful.

Human sacrifices ? I perceived that too. More than likely a beautiful kouros or young man would have been sacrificed. Male and female power is older than Creation.

In more modern times, young women without a dowry to offer a man in marriage came to the Nunnery to serve Jesus. There are worse things that can happen to a young woman than living in a convent. They looked after the children of the rich and taught them as well as they could. I presume that those born out of wedlock had places in the convent as well. The boys became artisans, carpenters, farmers or priests. The girls made exquisite embroidered bedsheets, tablecloths, gowns and other finery. I don't think it is beyond the realm of the imagination to teleport some of those boys running away and turning into vicious bandits and a few pretty dansels running off with them and becoming courtesans in Lecce or Brindisi or even Naples.

My bedroom overlooks a steep and rugged hill. This would be a piece of cake for a lithe and able climber. But I am protected by the Cosmic Forces and by Minerva and need I remind you Our Lady herself so I leave the window ajar to allow the cool night air to seep into my bedroom. I position my heat pad covered in vicuna inside the bed. Antonella has added another plump quilt. Heaven!

My bathroom faces cliffs on all it sides although a plain which looks like terrain on the moon lies far away. The early morning light of Helios gives the plain a golden patina. There is no curtain. I fear not the dead nor the spirits. Living voyeur's eyes? Perhaps. They would have to use powerful binoculars indeed. I have brought one of my own. Alas the dark screen prevents me from scrutinizing the dark birds encircling the plain. Crows? Ravens? One of them swoops down and swiftly tears up. That one might be a falcon. Then I hear the acute cry of triumph. It is a falcon! Where did he or she come from? Never mind. I am reassured. I feel only Light so I strip naked in front of the curtainless window and enter the shower.

In its present transformation Antonella whips up the most delicious breakfasts. She bakes the brioche and croissants from scratch. They are the yummiest. It is the perfect way to start the literary day.

Most of the activities and the cocktail parties take place at Le Monacelle so everything is a piece of cake. It is easy to be punctual for the talks given by the agents and editors.

The Agents: I was not brought up to keep quiet if one had nothing positive to say about an individual particularly if what that individual did or said affected the lives of many people. In this particular case, I am referring to writers.

Without a doubt many writers attended the Women's Fiction Festival at great personal sacrifice and, I might add, with the approval and shared hardship of their families.

I can think of a couple of agents and editors whose attitude could use some tweaking here and there. One was a male, I will not dignify this creature by referring to him as a man. The other was a youngish female with a bit of an arrogant attitude. I watched her spend 20 minutes with a writer who had jumped over someone else's time - don't doubt it because I timed it with my Patek Philippe timepiece inherited from my grandmother. I studied the schedule and she was due to sit in on a panel discussion in less than ten minutes.

The next writer was dismissed with " I don't have time, I'm due at a panel. Tell me in a few minutes."

Let's just say this editor's tone was on the ''Really this is all a drag but what the devil, neither my company nor I coughed up any lolly for this."

Shrug. Shrug. This broad has problems dear readers.

There was the pleasant enough editor who said that henceforth what with the financial meldown ( he neglected to say it was centered on the Anglo- Saxon world) new writers should not expect to receive any sort of advance if their work was even accepted due to the Yes - banking and financial crack-ups.

I will give him a 10 with lode for displaying this kind of cheek and uncalled for brutal frankness.

Thankfully Elizabeth Jennings asked him a pointed question" How are writers supposed to survive ? Many of these women would like to make a decent living out of writing."

Cardinal Mazzarino - Mazarin to the French, who almost singlehandedly created the French sovereign state and advised and counseled Le Roi Soleil Louis XIV often said. "When one speaks clearly, there is a danger that one will be understood."

Sadly, Elizabeth Jennings crystalline question was not answered as clearly as she had presented it.

Some garrulous agents talked themselves into a hole. So did a few editors. Sigh! Patience and Tolerance is called for in these moments.

The outstanding ones in fact made up for the negative ones. Allow me to ask this question. Just how much influence and respect do most of these editors have with their superiors?

Never forget the case of Judith Regan and her own imprint Regan Books. She made millions for Harper Collins. no one brought in more megabucks than she. She had her own television show. Yet a little humility might have saved her job and her reputation. I might add she could have been less obnoxious to her staff and to would be writers who did not happen to be notorious, famous or infamous. The BIG BOSS, Rupert Murdoch fired her within days if not hours. Sure, someone else carried out the well deserved work but the hand and the voice and might one say the imprint of Murdoch was all over it.

Even publishers are employees, do keep that in mind.Unless Daddy is the major and perhaps the one and only shareholder as in the case of Berlusconi who owns Mondadori lock, stock and paper. In most other cases, the shareholders as well as the members of the Board can fire them at a moment's notice.

The onerus is on THEM to keep producing new and good authors. Todays dwindling reading public in America, U.K. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are a fickle and hungry lot. They want ever new twists and unique plot lines. Are the agents, editors ad publishers giving the public what it wants?

I think not. They are feeding them the same cac and pab that sold big years ago, or even last year.

The Da Vinci Code held my attention for ten pages. if that. So why was it a blockbuster? There are many reasons, one of them is that it was all about CATHOLIC BASHING.
Does ayone really think it would have sold millons if it had tackled Judaism? Or say Evengelism? Islam? I doubt the author would even be alive today.

Dan Brown got everything wrong. For starters Leonardo NEVER wrote on parchment. He used linen. Leonardo was a loner. He was contemptuous of Humanity. He never, but never would have founded a secret society. True he was an Illuminatus but he stayed away from Hoomans. Get the picture?

The Women's Fiction Festival is the only festival which concentrates on women. God knows, most women writers need all the help they can get. So don't give up. Hang in there and continue attending the Festival, if your money and your sanity permits it. I am betting on them.

I am reminded of what the Master Gambler of Gamblers Nick the Greek said about Las Vegas. " I am not crazy about Vegas but it has the only real big time game in the country baby."


  1. Buona sera, Isabella,

    Beautiful and immediate descriptions of the lovely Basilicata atmosphere, together with historic perspective and wonderful photos, offer the reader a very beguiling view of Matera. Alas, the conference does not come off as well as its surroundings. The agents and editors are a boorish lot at best. Sad, also, that so many women in attendance, longing to make money from their honest literary efforts, have attached such hopes and dreams on this event, whereas those in the publishing world who should be encouraging them are merely scornful.

  2. "I timed it with my Patek Philippe timepiece"

    That's a very handsome watch, but I get almost equal precision from my 30 dollar Timex. And one reason why you can always trust the Timex brand is because no one bothers to counterfeit it. ;-)

    "what with the financial meldown (he neglected to say it was centered on the Anglo- Saxon world)"

    Don't you mean "Anglophone"? America isn't Anglo-Saxon anymore, and I'm reluctant to call today's popular American language "English". But perhaps America's language - the language especially of Hollywood and Madison Avenue - has become an ethnic corruption of English, analogous to how Yiddish evolved as a corruption of German.

    "Todays dwindling reading public in America, U.K. Canada, Australia and New Zealand...Are the agents, editors ad publishers giving the public what it wants?

    I think not. They are feeding them the same cac and pab that sold big years ago, or even last year."

    There are complex reasons for this,
    but I think the main one is what Tocqueville perceived over 150 years ago - one of his lesser-known observations - that contrary to common belief (including the common belief of elites), popular democracy actually SLOWS DOWN the transmission of new ideas! (This
    happens because in populist societies - of which America is one - ideas do not "sell" unless and until they become popular.) This is more true today than ever. The
    effect, evident all around us now, is that what the "intelligentsia" (an obnoxious Russian word, by the way) regard as "cutting edge" ideas, are really ideas which have already become widely accepted and old and stale. For example, most of what fashionably passes for "liberalism" is in this category; belief in the fundamentals of racial and gender equality became commonly accepted by the vast majority of Americans by no later than around 1980, including among the so-called "rednecks" whom Hollywood and Madison Avenue so unjustly excoriate and mock. Which leads to your next point:

    "The Da Vinci Code held my attention for ten pages. if that. So why was it a blockbuster? There are many reasons, one of them is that it was all about CATHOLIC BASHING.
    Does ayone really think it would have sold millons if it had tackled Judaism?"

    Hm, interesting question. And, a fortiori, the history of Judaism could be tackled with greater force than "The Da Vinci Code" used against Catholicism, because while "The Da Vinci Code" was UNhistorical, the dark side of Judaism is written in the Bible as sacred history, openly and proudly confessed. So let's imagine a blockbuster movie based upon the Biblical Book of Ezra, which recounts how, after the Jewish exiles returned in the circa 400s BC, many Jews who had remained in Judah had married Gentile wives - and the Jewish high priest was abhorred by this "miscegenation" which had corrupted God's Chosen Race, and he tore his beard in mourning for how his race had become tainted by Foreigners, and he reproached all of those Jewish men who had taken Gentile wives, and then those men sent their Gentile wives AND THEIR OWN CHILDREN away, as an act of "ethnic cleansing". And the "ethnic cleansing" of the Jewish nation, in circa 400s BC, included the rejection and ruin of many Jewish children who just had the misfortune of having Gentile mothers. Very much like - nay, identical to - what happened to many Germans of mixed Jewish/Gentile parentage in the 1930s.

    And that's not speculative. That's in the Book of Ezra, in the Jewish Bible, aka the Christians' Old Testament. It would certainly make a good movie, especially for any audience who really believe in "multiculturalism".

    As the Jewish rabbi, Yeshua bar Yusef (Jesus son of Joseph) said in reproach to those of his nation who revered bloodlines more than they revered the Holy Spirit: "Do not tell me you are sons of Abraham. God can turn these STONES into sons of Abraham!" Well, that sounds VERY "multicultural" and "anti-racist", doesn't it? So why doesn't Hollywood make a movie about the Book of Ezra and how it relates to "multiculturalism"?

    And for the sake of authenticity, any movie about the ancient Jews ought to hire a cast of ethnic Arabs to portray the Jews, because David and Solomon looked a lot more like Saddam Hussein than like Norman Podhoretz.


Isabel Van Fechtmann

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