a true anecdote from my forthcoming book, My Life Without Me
Dario Fo honoring his wife and lifelong collaborater Franca
It is a literary party, in Iowa, inside a big house which resembles a barn. It is an event for foreign writers thrown by the sponsors of the Writers Program at the Iowa University, in 1997. I am one of these foreign writers, and our hosts have prepared such a huge amount of food and drink that I am expecting a crowd from the streets to show up and join us.
But no, it is all our business, and it is actually businesslike. Very “what’s in it for me.”
– So, you are a writer! A huge American woman, dressed with Midwestern bad taste, approaches me in her wheelchair.
– No, no, I am a woman who sometimes writes.
A Polish poetess intervenes. – Oh come on, don’t be so modest, this is our hostess! The Polish poetess beams violently at our benefactor.
– Where do you come from, asks the hostess, edging her wheelchair closer to me.
– Serbia, I say, apologetically.
She stares at me blankly. Gosh, I dote on Americans, because they just don’t know so many embarrassing things. Such as where Serbia is, and what it means to be Serb.
– Europe, bounces in my lively Polish translator. ( She was married to a much older Polish poet, and during the Cold War she had learned all the survival tricks of the East-West literary life).
– And you write poetry? relentlessly goes on the hostess.
– No, no, I just write whatever comes to me, God forbid poetry, I say modestly.
– My ex husband was a poet. I add.
– He said that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky could not live under the same roof.
Why is this hostess picking on me? There are 11 other foreign writers with their spouses from the same program in this house. Did I dress badly? Am I not eating enough of her food, or drinking enough?
– My friend is very modest! crows the Polish poet. She writes incredible stuff! She is a Nobel prize winner.
– Oh my God! my hostess exclaims startled and puts her hand over her mouth.
– Oh my God, I cry, startled too.
The Polish poet takes another glass of wine, looking at me ready to kill if I stop her performance.
– She is a feminist writer.
I feel relieved: at least that part was true.
My hostess seems relieved too. Her face lightens up and she spreads her arms up towards me.
– I am so glad to hear this! I want you to give a speech to this crowd here. I worked all day to make this feast happen, and not only me, all the women from the family worked while the men played cards.
I look at the idle men of the family, who are not in wheelchairs.
– Play cards and drink! And besides that Nobel, that’ s no good! We had a writer in our family who got a Nobel. He just drank, and he never raised a finger in the household. This is a big farm, this Iowa land needs to be taken care of, the cattle and the weather are unpredictable. The whole family needs to be alert to survive and feed the country.
– I know, I say with full understanding, my granddad had farmlands and was always like that. He never let my mom study opera because of the farm work..
The Polish poet stood up: Let’s make a toast to my feminist friend who will give us a speech!
By now I was toast myself. I stood up and gave a short but effective speech on families, duties, crops, women and poets.
My hostess was in tears while my host was in deep shame.
After I crushed down on my chair, staring blankly in front of myself from the shame of such public exposure, the host came to me:
– Thank you so much for your wonderful insight! You made my wife and daughters so happy. All these years in this family, it was all about men writers and politics, and women did the hard work.
– Not only here in Iowa, I promptly answer, now ready to lead Iowa from the US Middle Ages, if possible.
My hostess struggles to stand from her wheelchair. I wonder if this is some miracle. Shall I witness a miraculous cure by words?
– You see, my dear guest, she says. I am in this wheelchair because of food. My limbs have grown weak and my joints loose. I have been eating all these years while cooking. Instead I should have been writing, just like you.
– But… I try to intervene.
– Never mind the Nobel Prize! chirps the Polish poet, taking over the conversation – Let’s all sing a nice song together!
– Oh let’s! The hostess is delighted.
She stands up, holds onto me on one side and the Polish poet on the other and begins, with tottering steps and a tiny voice:
-Siiiiiinging in the rain…
That’s how I got my Nobel prize for Literature.
This is how I lost my Nobel prize: I was in this hotel where the prize winners for literature stay when they come to Stockholm. I was keenly interested in talking to the waiters there.
I was there with my Swedish friend: she was getting really drunk at the table, where we sat with the wives of the Nobel Prize committee. That table had far more information than the official one. We seemed a random company but still a happy one.
My Swedish author friend was desperate that night. Her long-term partner was quitting her, after betraying her for many years, and infesting her with some sexual disease. Only now had she found this out. Only now did she realized how dominant she was in their relationship, and how dependent he was. Now that he was splitting, she saw it all.
– I gave him everything! The best roles in my plays! He even played women’s roles if I decided they were better for him!
The wives of the Nobel prize committee seemed really interested in this confession. Some were teachers, some were publishers, some housewives. But they certainly never dressed their men in women’ s clothes for the stage. On the contrary, often they had to wear men’ s clothes to perform when their husbands were absent.
Tonight, they had to hear the stories behind the curtains: who really wrote those fantastic plays and who deserved the Nobel prize.
– I am very unhappy that Franca Rame didn’t win the Nobel prize along with Dario Fo, I commented. After all, they always worked and wrote and performed together.
– Oh I know that, said my Swedish friend, he was such a womanizer too, gosh like mine…I can even understand that part, but why didn’t he tell about the disease? Why do I have to have a disease now?
– Franca Rame did a great feminist play on abortion.
– Oooooooh, there was a sigh around me.
I wondered: what was the Nobel prize committee’s stand on abortion?
– Personally, I think a hot Mexican chili hurts worse than an abortion.
After saying that, bravely and drunkenly, I emptied my wine glass and my last drops of credibility.