INTERVIEW WITH RACHELE SALVINI
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: The phrase “Strike Your Enemy Pretty, Crow” comes up repeatedly throughout the story, and it’s eventually revealed to carry a completely different meaning than initially thought. What inspired you to use this real life painting, and turn it into a symbol and namesake for this piece?
Rachele Salvini: I remember seeing the painting by Joseph Henry Sharp at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site in Taos, NM, where I went for a summer class. Sharp was fascinated with the Native American culture in Taos and often represented it in his paintings. When I saw the painting and read its title, I was dumbstruck. It just sounded extremely cool, and I wanted to use it in a story. Now, I knew this wasn’t the noblest intention, so I decided to make the title significant on more levels in my story. I hope it acts as a counter-symbol of the oppression and appropriation that my main character Priscilla tries to understand, rebel to, and eventually succumbs to. While my story barely touches on New Mexico and Native American culture, Priscilla listens to SEP’s stories of America and faraway lands and sees them as exotic and fascinating, just like I felt in Taos. When I saw the painting, I initially thought that its title was an imperative, a battle encouragement line: “strike your enemy pretty, crow,” and I thought that “Crow” was actually the name of the Native American represented in the painting. But it turned out that the guy’s name was “Strike your Enemy Pretty,” and “Crow” was the name of his tribe. Like Priscilla, I was ignorant, and I definitely felt like an outsider in a land where I had to learn a lot about its complex cultural and political layers. SEP, who’s been to Taos for a ski trip with his rich white family, uses the title of the painting as his own name to pretend to be someone he’s not: the name gives him a cool edge, and it is, indeed, pretty “punk.” SEP appropriates several cultures that he doesn’t belong to: not only Native American culture, but also punk culture, and working class culture. Priscilla can’t really see SEP’s reality until the end of the story, but the appropriated title of the painting remains a symbol of the manipulation and oppression that SEP perpetuates throughout their relationship. Interestingly enough, when I did research on the painting as I wrote the story, I never found the exact version I saw in Taos, but I found another version, here. I wonder whether it’s a portrait of the same guy, and if I would have been struck by its title anyway, if I’d seen this version instead—without the “imperative,” without the “Crow.” I wonder if this story would have existed, without that painting.
RR: This piece weaves back and forth seamlessly through time. How do you go about writing a story that follows such a non-linear progression?
RS: This is a story about borders across countries, classes, and cultures. I remember writing it in summer 2019, when I was traveling to the Italian Alps with my family. The only vivid image I had initially was the concert that older Priscilla attends, the same I had seen myself only a few days before writing the story. I write about music a lot, and seeing The Good, The Bad and The Queen, and specifically Paul Simonon, was an awakening, an out-of-body experience (I know this is cliché and new age, but I don’t care: it totally was). I didn’t know what would happen to Priscilla at the concert, but I had an idea of what could have happened in her past in London. I started with adult Priscilla at the concert, the most recent and vivid memory I had, but then I found myself stuck. I hadn’t been in London in a while, hadn’t lived there for two years, so I had to dig deeper into my memories of the city. It seemed a harder process, but I knew that in order to know what would matter to adult Priscilla, what could happen to really shake her, I’d have to know what had happened to her in her past. So I wrote the flashbacks first, and then, as I moved on, I started sketching more scenes at the concert. I had started with a scene that seemed to be only about getting old, but then the story started going in many different directions—concerns of class privileges, gender privileges, and cultural clashes.
RR: As a writer who is fluent in both Italian and English and who writes in both, how do you decide which language to write a given story in?
RS: Unless I write a story for a specific assignment, contest or submission call, I don’t decide whether to write in Italian or English; it just happens organically. I’ve written Italian stories set in Oklahoma, and vice versa. I’ve been living in the US for three years and a half now, and I mostly read in English, so I’d say that writing in English comes more naturally these days, but I have a very tight connection with my Italian family, friends, and my hometown in general (Livorno is Priscilla’s hometown, and mine too). I have no doubt there’s some substantial difference between writing in my native language and in English, but writing always requires a deep research of the right word no matter which language you’re writing in, no matter how close you want your writing to be to spoken language. Writing is always hard.
RR: After spending most of your life in Italy, you are currently based in the US. How does your environment influence what you write about?
RS: I always say that I’m a split writer: I’ll never be home anywhere, but I also feel home in multiple places. My characters belong to different cultures and places; they have misunderstandings, they try to run away from their homes, and themselves. In Italian we use a very interesting expression (I’m not entirely sure it is regional, though, so it may be something we only say in Tuscany): someone who looks a little rough, on edge, a little bit of a freak, is a scappato di casa, someone who ran away from home. I like to think of my characters as such. Being on the run from one’s culture and lifestyle means escape and encounter, but also, often, a Clash (HA!). So, to answer your question, I’d say that being a “split writer” gives me the opportunity to write about the conflicts and discoveries that come with crossing borders of place and language, and it helps me deepen my inquiry into what feeling “other” and being othered means.
RR: Do you share the connection to punk rock, and bands such as The Clash, that Priscilla does in the piece, or is there a different style of music that you connect with?
RS: I was about to say that the environment also influences writers in terms of cultural references. I discovered American and British punk bands when I was a lame twelve-year-old growing up in a town on the west coast of Italy, and when I moved to London, and then Oklahoma, I realized how limited my knowledge was, how basic, how filtered. I write about rock music a lot, but I connect with a lot of genres, including pop, hip hop, electronic music. Punk will always stay with me for many reasons—first, because it was my first love, second, because of its class implications, its rebellious and political spirit, its essential principle of never taking itself too seriously. When I saw Paul Simonon, a 65-year-old legend in classic punk, jumping on stage like a little boy, his cigarette tucked behind his ear and this red handkerchief dangling from his back pocket, he looked like he was still the young, dashing, recalcitrant guy playing in The Clash, and I knew I was experiencing a punk rock dream. It was my first concert completely by myself, no boyfriends or friends. I immediately wanted to write about it. Writer Nick Hornby says that he writes books because he can’t write songs, and I feel exactly the same. If I could write songs—whether rock songs, punk songs, pop songs, hip hop songs—I probably wouldn’t be here, answering these questions. I’m glad I am, though.
Rachele Salvini’s work in Issue 8.1: