Annie Ernaux: ‘The time when I was a young girl remains in my memory as the time of nameless things. These nameless things are terrible.’*
Simonetta Greggio

Based on a passage from her interview with French writer Annie Ernaux (awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022) for a magazine in 2021, the Italian novelist, translator and journalist Simonetta Greggio talks about the fundamental contribution of Ernaux’s work and public position in giving names to nameless things, as their existence was denied, hidden or ignored.

louise bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois, Le lit, gros édredon (with lips), 1997 © The Easton Foundation / VAGA, New York


When you make a person disappear, when you annihilate a country, you are murdering a language. These words spoken by Pinar Selek – a Turkish writer, imprisoned and tortured in her country for her pro-Armenian activities, now exiled in France – particularly resonated with me. They reminded me of the words my father used to say when he ran out of threats, before giving me a beating, ‘Shut up, or I’ll cut your tongue out’.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tereus cloisters away Philomela and cuts out her tongue after abusing her, so that she cannot denounce him to her sister Procne, Tereus’ wife. But Philomela sends Procne a tapestry on which she has embroidered Tereus’ face, depicting him specifically. In retaliation, Procne kills, cuts up and cooks her youngest child and serves him to her husband for dinner.

The links between violence, silence and death have always been woven into the myths of humankind.

Ma era solo un modo di dire – ‘It was just a figure of speech’, is what my family usually says when we talk about what happened to me as a teenager. I was forced to leave my childhood home and go into exile from my country in order to escape my father’s violence. A modo di dire? What I hear in this expression is that, when words fail, beatings take their place.

A twofold observation: the one who speaks is dangerous. Those who don’t have words hit. The word spoken exposes. The word kills – it kills.

"Words are monstrous. They uncover secrets. They force us to look, to see. They create a barrier between a before and an after. "

I remember the fierce discussions with a dear friend – the same discussions that keep coming up when I am with my mother: what you are doing – they say – is obscene. Saying things, worse, writing them, is indecent. The obscene – ob-scene, not in the scene – of my writing was at best indelicate, or immodest, at worst disgusting, even pornographic. The ob-scene necessarily refers to the one who shows. Che mostra. It is not the acts that are monstrous, but the words that denounce these acts. The messenger is chased away so that they don’t have to hear the message.

Words are monstrous therefore. They uncover secrets. They force us to look, to see. They create a barrier between a before and an after.

Calling things by their name means naming the stages of consciousness, pointing out realities to our heart, our mind, our very memory; it is a terrifying and invigorating adventure, where thought and heart participate in the same movement, where emotions and reflections challenge each other – tear each other apart. Because finding words means making them emerge from oneself. The words are already there, as if written in friendly ink: they reveal themselves by setting fire to the material that makes us who we are.

* Interview with Annie Ernaux by Simonetta Greggio, Marie Claire, 08 March, 2021.