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13 February 2024

Destination Frankfurt 2024
Interview with Alessandra Ballesi-Hansen, founder and director of nonsolo Verlag

Maddalena Fingerle

Alessandra Ballesi-Hansen (1962) was born in Rome and adopted Freiburg as her home. She studied Italian literature, modern history and paleography at the Sapienza University of Rome. She taught Italian language and culture at the University of Freiburg. In 2017, she founded the publishing house nonsolo Verlag, which has given a German-language voice to Paolo Di Paolo, Lisa Ginzburg and Igiaba Scego.


When was nonsolo Verlag founded and why?


nonsolo Verlag, founded in 2017 in Freiburg, Baden-Württemberg, publishes exclusively texts of contemporary Italian literature that have not yet been published in German, with the specific aim of helping to increase their dissemination. Despite the undeniable work of excellent publishing houses in Germany, which have always given considerable space to Italian literature, it is a fact that only a fraction of contemporary Italian production manages to find an outlet on the German publishing market, while many interesting voices do not get the attention they deserve. Our programme focuses on authors who are well established in Italy, most of them winners or finalists of major literary prizes, but still unknown to the German public. A stand out example: Paolo Di Paolo, whose invaluable advice was decisive in the moment of reflection that preceded the founding of the publishing house, and whose novels, Una storia quasi solo d’amore and Lontano dagli occhi, and short story, Il porto dell’oblìo, we subsequently had the pleasure and honour of publishing, all translated by Christiane Burkhardt.


Has your vision of literature changed since then? If so, in what way?


Not really. I still get the same undeniable pleasure from discovering new books and new trends. And it’s comforting to see our commitment confirmed.


Do you also read for pleasure or just for work?


Both, but in different languages: for professional reasons and because of  a sort of “political neutrality”, I read Italian literature in Italian, of course, in anticipation of possible publication, and everything else in German.

During the holidays, I turn into a kind of compulsive reader; the real relaxation consists in being able to isolate myself with a book in my hand for several hours at a time. It’s hard to make a list of the books I’ve particularly enjoyed, I’d be too scared to forget any. But Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro is certainly the book I’ve talked about most and thought about most with my four children.


What does your typical day look like (if there is one)?


I wish I could say there was one, but unfortunately that’s not the case. nonsolo is a mini-publishing house, there are three of us, but I’m the only one who works full-time; my colleague Louisa Schwind, who is in charge of the Identity and Diversity in Contemporary Italian Literature project, co-funded by the EU as part of the Creative Europe programme, and the website and social services manager, Nils Bentlage, work part-time. This means that my working days are often as long as ten hours, and my commitments range from scouting to discussing textual problems with reader Irene Pacini and the translators, from organising events and fairs to working with editorial representatives and consultants, to name but a few. It’s a huge job, but a wonderful one.


What aspects do you take into consideration when you decide to buy the translation rights to an Italian novel? What must a book or an author have to attract you?


First of all, it has to appeal to me and our reader Irene Pacini, a dear friend and valued colleague. Another essential criterion is that it should contribute to “our cause”. The nonsolo team is perfectly bilingual and bicultural. Living between two worlds has taught us time and again that the public image of a foreign culture is often determined by clichés that have little to do with reality. Or, at best, it is rooted in idealisations of the past, as was the case for us with Goethe‘s Italienische Reise. For many Germans, Italy remains above all “the land of lemon trees”, the land of classical art and natural beauty: a vision that is clearly not sufficient to understand the Italy of today. Publishing texts that give an image of our country that is in tune with the times and outside the preconceived patterns, presumed ‘normality’ or clichés rooted in the collective imagination is our way of helping to break down the walls of misunderstanding and mistrust, building a bridge between the two cultures that we hold so dear. The Identity and Diversity in Contemporary Italian Literature project mentioned above, which includes five novels by Lorenzo Amurri, Lisa Ginzburg, Maurizio Fiorino, Alessandra Carati and Gaia Manzini, is a natural step in this direction. But also the new collection edited by Mario Desiati for our publishing house, which will be published from October 2024 and will be called, not coincidentally, nonsolo limoni. With this series, we will be focusing on women’s voices that are particularly attentive to the current dynamics of Italian society (naturally, not all of these voices have yet been published in Germany, as required by the principles of our publishing house). The first three volumes will be Il cuore non si vede by Chiara Valerio, Ragazze perbene by Olga Campofreda and Forse mio padre by Laura Forti.


Have you ever bought the translation rights to a book that didn’t appeal to you, but that you considered saleable?


In one case, yes, but the result didn’t live up to expectations. It’s as if a lack of conviction in the choice you made had a lot to do with your lack of success on the publishing market… I’m perfectly aware that this is an unrealistic hypothesis, but what is certain is that for our small publishing house, enthusiasm is a fundamental condition and an inescapable principle.


But that seems very realistic to me because publishing houses are ultimately made up of people and, with them, peaks of enthusiasm and desire.


I’m glad to hear that! We’re always afraid of appearing a little naive in our relationship with our work.


Is there a theme that works in the German-speaking world but not in the Italian-speaking world, and vice versa? If so, why do you think that is?


What I do know for sure is that some Italian fiction has found far greater interest and success in Germany than in its original language. Or vice versa. And it’s not always easy to understand why. I’m thinking of what is known as the “dynamics of space”, a concept that Nicola H. Cosentino, one of our youngest authors, uses to define the variables that, in certain contexts, lead to one result rather than another, according to logics that are not always easy to discern. Take, for example, Francesca Melandri‘s beautiful novel Sangue giusto, published by Wagenbach under the title Alle, außer mir, which spent many weeks in the top 20 bestsellers in Germany. There have been many interpretations of this enormous success, including the reading habits of the German public, the different format of the presentation evenings, and/or the fact that it was defined as a highly topical novel rather than a historical novel, as was the case in Italy. The fact remains that, in reality, it is not possible, or at least it has not been possible, to establish a precise reason for this phenomenon.


Is there a book that you would have liked to have published but which was published by another publishing house?


More than one! For economic reasons, we are forced to limit our publishing programme to three or even four titles a year. As a result, we have had to forego a number of opportunities. It also has to be said that we are often not in a position to compete with the big publishing houses, which can offer much larger sums for the purchase of licences. The winners of the Strega prize, to name but one example, are still beyond our reach. However, we are confident that we will be able to publish more titles in the future.