By Iole Fontana
“This bookshop does not order or sell books by Salvatore Riina.” This is the firm message that shines through the colourful windows of the Vicolo Stretto bookshop, a little independent shop in the agreeable and very central Via Santa Filomena in Catania. After Bruno Vespa’s TV interview with Salvatore Riina Jr., Maria Carmela and Angelica Sciacca were quick to make their voices heard and to take a clear position against selling the book authored by the son of mafia chief Totò Riina. Their message had a strong and immediate impact, and was welcomed and shared by many. But this is not simply a bookshop that embraces anti-mafia rhetoric; above all, it is the company of two young women who “were taught to always say what they think.”
F Come met Maria and Angelica, who described their courageous initiative and recounted their experiences as women entrepreneurs in Sicily.
Your bookshop was the first to promote activism against Riina Jr.’s book. Can you explain the circumstances that led you to take a stand?
That evening, while the Vespa program was being aired, my sister Angelica rang and told me to switch onto channel Rai1. We immediately agreed that we would put up a sign in the bookshop the next morning to announce that we would not order or sell Riina Jr.’s book. We hung the sign outside, and it just a photo posted on our Facebook profile that kicked it all off. For us it was a very simple and natural thing. Whenever we disagree with something our usual response is to put up a sign in the shop. It’s a part of our way of communicating with the outside world.
What was the specific motivation behind putting up the sign outside the shop?
First of all, it was a matter of national citizenship that goes beyond any political party or any religious ideal. It’s above all a matter of respect for the victims of the Mafia; we were also thinking about those young people who might come across Riina’s son on TV telling the world how good and loving his father was and who may not even know the history there. The state should take a clear position on such a sensitive subject and disallow something like this from being shown on a public television channel. Moreover, Riina Jr. gave his approval only after having rewatched his interview, not before giving it. The interview was actually shot a week before it was aired. So we can assume that he wanted to watch it again to see if he’d “messed up” in any way.
Second, it’s important to remember that Riina Jr. was convicted for criminal association with the mafia, with a sentence of 8 years and 10 months in prison followed by probation. Generally speaking, every time someone buys a book, 8% of that purchase goes to the author. That means everyone who plans to buy Riina Jr.’s book knows that their 8% will end up lining his pockets.
Finally, our choice was motivated by the fact that we are a small and totally independent bookstore, and as such do not depend on anyone but ourselves. The freedom of being independent often has an economic cost, but also allows you the luxury - which should not really be a luxury - to say what you think freely. And customers are free to come and buy from us or not. It’s a mutual freedom. After we put up the sign, people started referring to us an anti-mafia bookshop. Ours is definitely a shop that supports and embraces the anti-mafia idea, but above all, it’s simply a shop owned by two women who were taught to always say what they think.
You are both young women and young entrepreneurs. What does it mean to you to be both of these at once in an area like Sicily?
It’s difficult. If you’re a woman who fits into the social categories of mother, wife, or fiancée, maybe you have a chance of living peacefully. But as soon as you become an academic, an entrepreneur, or anything else, it’s incredibly difficult to make yourself heard. Above all you find, and far too often, the unacceptable idea that to get to where you are you must have done someone some “favours”, even sexual ones. Not to mention being an entrepreneur and a mother at the same time. In that case, even your peers often push you to quit work and dedicate yourself completely to your family. The sphere of ‘women’s work’ is still too often understood as that of the home, and that’s a stereotype we still haven’t managed to break out of. For example, in the publishing world, the editing and press office sector is very female-dominated, whereas the sector of distribution and sales is mostly make up of men, who – some very efficient ones excepted – make appointments with other clients first and only then eventually come to us, without prior notice. Time and time again, we also notice an attitude of “yes, you’re working, but when it comes down to it it’s not a serious job… You’re only in a bookshop!”. Our shop is a company in its own right; we have to look after our income, our expenses, our accounts, our communicatory activities. We manage all this between the two of us because, unfortunately, we don’t have the economic resources to delegate, and it’s work that takes a lot of time.
From this perspective, being a woman in Italy can be extremely difficult. Having lived in the Basque Country for two years, where conditions for women are very different, I couldn’t help but notice the gap between the two countries on returning to an Italy where we still have female quotas…
Do you think it’s worse still in Sicily?
I’m not sure, because I’ve never worked in the North so I have no direct comparison. But I don’t doubt that it’s more complicated here.
This July, your bookshop will have been running for five years. Has being a woman had a positive or negative effect on the development of your business? And if so, how?
Everything this shop revolves around is feminine. A good 80% of our clientele are women. So perhaps yes, being two sisters and two young women has positively influenced our activities, to the extent that it has attracted a specific clientele, selective, proud of the places they shop. Our average customers are women who know that they won’t always find a discount here, but will certainly find a careful selection made conscientiously by the two of us. They are customers who come here and choose to buy from us with knowledge of the facts. Being women does not have much of a negative impact on our business. Although I must say that the male clientele is very small and perhaps sometimes a little ‘suspicious’.
What factors socialise or push young boys into organised crime?
Easy money, and above all the way you see others, the fear it enables you to induce in another person. The mafia is not only Toto Riina or Santapaolas. The mafia is when you become superior to others, with the idea of being stronger than them and having power over them. Today the line between legality and illegality is very thin. Bauman predicted long ago the idea of a liquid society, a society without form which can be everything and nothing. This metaphor holds true today more than ever, when we ask, where is the absence of the mafia today?
The mafia, and organized crime in general, tend to be founded in a sexist culture that focuses on the role of the man as leader and breadwinner. How important are women in organized crime?
Very. When someone important is arrested, the women are always given an indemnity of an economic nature or an assurance of a job for their children. So, even if indirectly, women have a role. If seeking power is one of the factors that encourage men to approach the world of organized crime, for women, however, it’s a different matter. In the world of organized crime, women are always “women… [emphasis added]”. They are somebody’s woman, they are women who accept certain conditions because they do not or cannot go to work, or often because they have been raised with the idea that being a woman is just having lots of children. It’s a different socialization process, but a mirror image of the mechanism that acts on young men.
How important is civilian activism and women’s activism in the fight against the mafia, or in the context of gender issues?
Incredibly important. Civilians count and must always have a voice, from the fight against the mafia to that against gendered violence. Women in particular have a very important role in both cases, even if direct action is extremely complicated.
In the case of the fight against the mafia, there is a pervasive system of misogyny to navigate, especially in cities. It’s an issue of mindset and of education founded on the idea of the subordination of women. Leaving the world of crime, especially for a woman, is not easy because in most cases this implies not only a risk to their lives, but also having to give up their children. Bringing children out from that world is extremely complicated, especially if you are alone.
In the case of gendered violence, the most common cliché is “what did you do to cause it” – the idea that the violence women suffer must be in some way provoked. It’s an idea that not only belittles women who are victims of violence, but causes them a strong sense of unjustified guilt.
Women have the right and the need to talk. Schools, culture, education have a great responsibility in this regard.
Is it possible to promote gender equality through literature and culture?
Yes. Elisabeth Brami’s "The declaration of the rights of women" and "The declaration of the rights of men" come to mind, two books supported by Amnesty International and aimed at children aged 3 years and older. They are books that show children their rights beyond the traditional clichés, that teach that boys have the right to cry just as girls have the right to wear trousers or to become President.
In many bookshops in the UK and the USA, there are specific departments or shelves dedicated to women, feminism and gender issues. Do you think it would be appropriate to adopt the same approach in Italy? And if so, could another important step be to dedicate shelves specifically to, for example, organised crime?
Yes, even though this approach is still not very developed. The prevailing idea is that if you designate specific shelves, you attribute labels that categorize your bookshop. I agree with the idea of creating shelves for example on organized crime. I like it because it creates a commercial identity, whilst at the same time providing a useful service. But in truth, I supply a specific clientele who already know my political position very well. To be effective, this should be done in standard bookshops open to the public, where you can really send a message to less informed citizens.
In the photo: Maria Carmela and Angelica Sciacca in their library Vicolo Stretto