Comparatively Speaking Interview with

Alessia Zinnari


Lecturer in Italian


University of Glasgow


Alessia Zinnari is Lecturer in Italian at the University of Glasgow, where she has also taught Spanish and Comparative Literature. She obtained her PhD at the University of Glasgow in August 2020. Her thesis, entitled ‘Mental Illness, Women’s Writing and Liminality: A Comparative Study of Leonora Carrington and Alda Merini’, is grounded in feminist theory and focuses on the works that the two authors produced as a result of their experiences of hospitalisation in psychiatric institutions. In 2020, Alessia contributed to the edited collection Leonora Carrington: Living Legacies (Vernon Press) with a chapter on Carrington’s liminal journey in Down Below. Her most recent publication is an article titled ‘Alda Merini’s Memoir: Psychiatric Hospitalisation, Institutional Violence and the Politicization of Illness in 20th Century Italy’ (Journal of Trauma & Dissociation). Alessia's research interests include women's writing and art, life writing studies, trauma studies and the medical humanities.


Can you tell us a little about your current research and/or your most recent publication?

My most recent publication is an article for the special issue ‘Trauma, Narratives, Institutions: Transdisciplinary Dialogues’, edited by Michael Salter and Iro Filippaki for the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. The title of my paper is ‘Alda Merini’s Memoir: Psychiatric Hospitalisation, Institutional Violence and the Politicization of Illness in 20th Century Italy’, and in this work, which stems from my PhD research, I explore Alda Merini’s memoir of illness through a trauma studies and feminist lens. Merini was an Italian poet who experienced hospitalisation in a psychiatric institution during the 1970s, a decade that was crucial for the history of Italian psychiatry. These were the years of the Basaglia Law, also known as the law that closed mental asylums. And these were also, of course, the years of the students’ revolts and of the so-called ‘second wave’ of the feminist movement. Through an analysis of some crucial passages in the memoir, this article seeks to demonstrate that Merini’s work is charged with both literary and historical value, and that it deserves more scholarly attention. I ultimately argue that the political intent that lies at the core of this memoir, in which Merini denounces psychiatry and the patriarchal system more at large, is key to the author’s process of recovery after the trauma of hospitalisation.

In what sense do you think of your work as “comparative”?

This is an interesting question! I think of Comparative Literature as a discipline that operates transnationally, interdisciplinary, and multilingually, and that is not afraid of challenging the canon. My work is grounded in feminist theory and is conscious of the dynamics of power and marginalisation that characterise our society. I am interested in exploring how people, and especially women, reconstruct their self (or selves) through literature and art after experiencing trauma, abuse and/or illness. My PhD, for instance, was entitled ‘Mental Illness, Women’s Writing and Liminality: A Comparative Study of Leonora Carrington and Alda Merini’, and explored the connections between storytelling, space, the construction of the self, and gender-based trauma in the autobiographical works of Carrington and Merini. My thesis showed that women’s oppression in a patriarchal society has been a key factor in contributing to the mental breakdowns narrated by these authors, and demonstrated how the production of life narratives, as well as drawings and paintings, constitutes an empowering and healing act that allows these authors to work through their trauma and reclaim agency. I really enjoy working on authors and artists who come from different cultures, who speak different languages, and who work across media producing literature, poetry, visual art, and film. Comparative research can be challenging, but it always leads to amazing discoveries!

What challenges have you faced while pursuing your career in comparative literature, and do you have any advice for comparatists at the early career stage?

The challenges I have encountered are perhaps common to those faced by many other junior researchers across the world, especially when it comes to the humanities. When we look at the situation in the UK, academia seems to have reached a tipping point. The system is saturated, and universities are operating more and more like businesses. This means that it is more difficult to find a job, especially one that pays for research. Postdoc funding is oversubscribed, which means that a project can be rejected for lack of funding even if it is a great project. This is unfortunately leading to stagnation of the sector, and many ECRs are – understandably – making the difficult choice to leave academia for good. We have also seen how Modern Languages departments continue to be threatened to close across the country. Yet, there seems to be a growing awareness of the importance of interdisciplinarity, to the point that this has almost become a buzzword in funding applications. I would say that comparatists can use this as an advantage to further their research. Part of what has always made Comparative Literature attractive to me is that it defies definitions, meaning that as a researcher you can really take your curiosity anywhere, as the field is so vast and porous. Furthermore, events like Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement have demonstrated that cultural studies are still very much needed to navigate the present moment. I am deeply convinced that the openness of our discipline, and its ability to formulate the so-called ‘big questions’ (i.e. Who am I? Who is the ‘other’?) can and should help Comparative Literature to thrive in the next few years. I do hope that those who are ‘at the top’ will be able to see it too. This is a very long-winded answer to say: keep at it! Although it is a tough industry, the work that we do is really important.

Who is one person in your field whose work you admire?

Okay, if I must choose one, I will go with Catriona McAra. She is a curator and art historian working internationally, and her work is particularly concerned with revisionary historiography and the exploration of feminist-surrealist legacies. I simply love how she pushes the boundaries of art history and literary criticism using innovative feminist methodologies, always remaining very faithful to the work of the artists she researches. Another scholar whom I admire is Sara Ahmed. I often use her work with my students, as it is accessible but it also challenges us to look at reality through a different lens.

What have you read recently that you would recommend to other comparatists?

This is another hard one to choose! My most recent read was Elisa Segnini’s article ‘From Scampia to Rione Luzzati: Marginality and its Language in the Age of Convergence’, hot off the press for Comparative Critical Studies. Segnini focuses on transmedia adaptations of the two novels, which are great examples of contemporary global novels. The article argues that while the novels tend to render the plurilingual experience implicitly, to ensure translatability, screen adaptations use dialect to represent marginality, thus inviting us to reconsider the paradigm of multilingualism in translation. Other interesting recent publications I have read include: Eamon McCarthy’s book Norah Borges: A Smaller, More Perfect World (University of Wales Press, 2020), which offers a unique contribution to visual culture studies by repositioning the forgotten figure the painter Norah Borges (yes, she was Jorge Luis Borges’ sister) from the periphery to the centre; and, finally, Francesco Ventrella’s and Giovanna Zapperi’s edited collection Feminism and Art in Postwar Italy: The Legacy of Carla Lonzi (Bloomsbury, 2020) – an important point of reference for scholars interested in feminist avant-garde art of the 1970s.
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