On International Migrants Day (18 December), Megan Farr interviews the Italian writer Fabio Geda, author of the bestselling novel Nel mare ci sono i coccodrilli (In the Sea there are Crocodiles, translated into English by Howard Curtis), the real life story of Hazara boy Enaiatollah Akbari’s remarkable journey to escape the Taliban, travelling alone from Afghanistan age ten, to Italy, where he arrives five years later, via Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Greece.
The sequel, Storia di un figlio: andata e ritorno (Story of a Son: There and Back) was published in Italian this summer, ten years after In the Sea there are Crocodiles was first published. This story picks up from where the previous one ends, when Enaiatollah speaks to his mother on the phone for the first time, eight years after she leaves him to make the journey to safety alone to protect him from the Taliban. The story is one of pain and forgiveness, of what it is to leave your family and country, and what happens to those left behind.
Megan Farr: Tell us about your writing process with Enaiatollah for In the Sea there are Crocodiles and Storia di un figlio. Did this process change for the second book?
Fabio Geda: The creative process was the same as the previous book. First of all it was necessary to wait for Enaiatollah to feel the need to work on his own story: which is why there are ten years between the two books. And from the moment we started to work, the routine was similar to that of 2009. Hours and hours of chatting and reflecting. Whole afternoons of free storytelling by Enaiat – like a stream of consciousness that I tried to interrupt as little as possible. And as many afternoons of questions from me. I recorded everything. I transcribed. I rewrote. Enaiatollah re-read and corrected. And both the truth of the facts and their poetry emerged slowly, page after page.
MF: How has the success of In the Sea there are Crocodiles affected your writing career, both in Italy and internationally, and Enaiat’s? Is Enaiat interested in developing his own writing?
FG: The success of In the Sea there are Crocodiles was important to both of us. It gave me the opportunity to spend more time writing. It gave Enaiat the opportunity to study and help his family. In addition to Italy, the book’s greatest success was in Germany and France. As in Italy, Enaiatollah and I often went to meet young readers in those two countries, visiting many many schools. At the moment Enaiatollah doesn’t seem interested in writing himself. I am happy and honored that he has faith in my ability to turn his life into literature.
MF: Were you involved in any of the translation processes for both books, especially into English? If so, can you let us know your experience.
FG: At the time of translating In the Sea there are Crocodiles into English, the translator Howard Curtis and I wrote to each other a few times and I also happened to meet him at a presentation in London. I know Howard’s translation is magnificent, I have often heard this from English readers. My experience with translators varies a lot from country to country. Some have never written to me. Others filled me with questions and curiosities.
MF: Are there any plans to translate Storia di un figlio into English? (Readers, see here for a synopsis of the book in the Translate This! section).
FG: Translation rights have been sold in French, Spanish and German so far, but not in English yet. The UK and US editors of In the Sea there are Crocodiles know about the publication of Storia di un figlio, but have not shown interest yet. We are waiting.
MF: Today is International Migrants Day. What do you hope both books bring to readers around the world?
FG: Each book is a window on worlds that we often don’t know, on lives that the media tell us only in a superficial way. Enaiatollah’s life is a special life and at the same time common to many migrants. It helps us understand the complexity of the world. This is why we will go on telling his story: in ten years maybe we will do a third book and in twenty a fourth and in thirty a fifth. I find it interesting and useful to try to record a life as it unfolds over time, not just at the end, when everything has already happened.
MF: Tell us about your latest writing projects.
FG: As you know, I write novels for adults and young readers. The last adult novel I published is Una domenica (Einaudi 2019). The story takes place over one single day in Turin, and is about the passage of time, with aging parents and children leaving home, with the ability to distinguish important things from urgent ones. My latest novel for young readers is a noir set in Berlin in 1974 called The Dark Side of the Moon, written with another Italian author, Marco Magnone. This is a spin-off from Berlin, a six-book saga we collaborated on between 2015 and 2018, a long post-apocalyptic story for young readers set in 1970s Berlin during a pandemic (yes!). Now we are working on a detective series for children set near a lake in northern Italy. It’s very nice for me to have projects with someone else. I love the solitary dimension of writing, being immersed in one’s imagination for months, but also working with another author is a very fertile and enriching experience.
Fabio Geda was born in 1972 in Turin, where he still lives. He writes for several Italian magazines and newspapers and teaches creative writing at Scuola Holden, the Italian school of storytelling in Turin. He is the author of a number of novels for adults and young people including Per il resto del viaggio ho sparato agli indiani (2007 and 2009), L’esatta sequenza dei gesti (2008), Nel mare ci sono i coccodrilli (2010, translated in 32 countries), Anime scalze (2017 and 2019), Una domenica (2019) and a series of books for children, Berlin (2015-18).