Nannina by Stefania Spanò: the stories of Naples

Noyears of trade is a “cuntastropole”. Give words to the people of Secondigliano and if she recites exaggerated plots, stories and legends that mix the living and the dead, it will be her niece Stephanie who brings into her “cunti” the evils of a city that has grown decomposed, the suburbs of Naples, the daughter of the 1980 earthquake. A neighborhood of ugly apartment buildings because «beauty is a privilege of the rich, for those who have nothing, a toilet, a bed and a stove are enough» and where even as little girls we imagine ourselves crying under a prison. «For females all things are more difficult» says Nannina to her niece, the only defense against the world is words.

Stefania Spanò is a storyteller and carries around the cunti of the family tradition and the written ones
from her. You lead theatre, creative writing and visual poetry workshops in the turbulent suburbs of the Neapolitan hinterland.

And one must always have the courage to speak up. In a city where confusion is fear and magic, Stephanie runs towards the place to take when she grows up, which also contemplates the legacy of an ancient craft. She goes from grandmother to granddaughter in the author’s fiction and also in reality because after her beginnings as an experimental actress, Stefania Spanò is now a cantastroppole.

From grandmother to granddaughter

Do you use your grandmother Nannina’s repertoire?
That repertoire was designed for a different audience in which people were not in a hurry and stopped in the squares to listen to the storyteller. The challenge was to adapt it also using the techniques of street artists to push people to stop.

How do you attract the audience?
It depends on the situation. I work a lot in festivals and there is a program where people are informed of where and when the stroppola will be. On the other hand, in the street, one looks for the right place, a cozy square, away from the noise, but above all I use a shoulder with which, as was the old-fashioned way, I have a fake quarrel.

Nannina by Stefania Spanò, Garzanti224 pages, €16.80

As, in the book, Nannina did with the widow…
…the widow Cula Chiatta who from the balcony was swearing with Nannina down in the courtyard: «Nannina de Gennaro is sticking together with Cula Chiatta, let’s go and listen o’ cunto…». She also flew some shoes. And people flocked…

In Nannina’s cunto at the funeral of Peppino ‘o Stuorto, who died in poverty but in reality very rich, amidst the astonishment of his children who had abandoned him and are now arguing over his inheritance, there is a small apologue on poverty that never dies. Is there a moral implication in the cunti? And how has it changed over time?
Stroppole are a sub-genre of the cunti, even if we often believe them to be synonyms. Cunti are fairy tales or fantastic narratives. Like Giambattista Basile’s Cunto, which gave literary value to an oral heritage. The stroppole are minor stories and precisely because they were not given too much importance, even women could “cuntare” them. At home, with children and relatives, in front of bass. Nannina is almost unique, because she, like men, makes it a profession, investing in a certain number of chairs to be placed in a courtyard and getting paid. She tells funny stories, or even ad hoc on the occasion of weddings or funerals. But the moral is almost never explicit, always very open, based on who is listening and on the occasions of use. Everyone can give the meaning he needs, almost a catharsis, a moment of community growth.


The degradation of Secondigliano

In the passage from Nannina to Stephanie, contemporary themes enter: the girl looks around and wonders about drug addicts, lace…
Stephanie is a bit like the sum of many girls I’ve known and had the opportunity to work with in what are called at-risk neighborhoods. In this change however, the character is autobiographical, in my effort to adapt the cunti to reality. If you want to perpetuate a tradition you need to re-read it. Initially the “outside” world was closed to Stephanie; the moment she meets him and begins to haunt the neighborhood she grasps the possibility and the difficulty of finding a story that is as beautiful as her grandmother’s.

The characters speak to each other in a vivid, almost musical language that intersperses cheeky dialectal expressions with affectionate ties. Offenses and caresses together, that unique way of communicating that the Neapolitan soul reserves for humans and saints.
The challenge was to bring this peculiarity without stiffening it into a stereotype. I love folklore very much but sometimes it is the bogeyman of us Neapolitans. I also wanted to let Secondigliano know that before being a suburb of big blocks it was a very cohesive community. I have heard every word that I have chosen at least three or four times in different contexts, I have a physical memory of it, and in my opinion this helps to build a language that evokes images.

At a certain point Nannina ends up in Leonardo Bianchi, the asylum…
In reality she never went there, but when we passed in front of the Bianchi, a horrible place, the largest in Europe (What are we building in Naples? Well, let’s make ourselves a huge asylum…), also called the City of the Dead, my grandmother ran , he was terrified and so to exorcise his fear I wanted to put it there. She ends up in it because she beats up two doctors but there have been women locked up for much less. I tell one of her in a story: Titina, locked up in a mental hospital by her husband who wants to enjoy her lover.

What is in his latest “stroppola”?
Now I’m carrying around a show called “Females, beasts and husbands” and collects slightly subversive cunts in which the woman somehow gets rid of the man. I do a lot of the “Vecchiarella e il suricillo”, a classic which, however, in my version ends with the old woman burying her husband.

Are you also interested in weddings?
They’ve been calling me lately to celebrate little girls becoming little ladies.

And how?
With the story of the menarche or of the “mixed mixture”. A girl cries because she’s seen her blood for the first time, a change she doesn’t know what to do with. One at a time various characters pass her by and to console her they give her various things: the mouse gives her hair, the sailor the smell of the sea… Basically it’s just an anatomical description, but she still doesn’t know what this miserable miserable is for. Finally the moon appears, which regulates the flows and tides, and explains to her the mystery of femininity, the great one that includes motherhood as a welcome and growth of the world, of self-care and of those around her.

At funerals do they call you to cuntare?
They called Nannina, now we have a different relationship with death, we have closed her in the despair-cry box. But I’m working on it.