The Island Where Women Fly

Original title: L’isola dove volano le femmine

Author: Lamalfa, Marta

Publication Date:

May 2024



Original language and publisher

Italian | Neri Pozza

Territories Handled

France, Netherlands, Scandinavia, World English

Territories Sold

France (Phebus, in a preempt)


Literary Fiction

The Island Where Women Fly

Original title: L’isola dove volano le femmine

Author: Lamalfa, Marta


In Alicudi, at the beginning of the 20th century, people live on hunger, mourning, and bread that fills the stomach but causes hallucinations; young Caterina, to provide for her family, is forced to grow up fast: she convinces herself that she is a ‘flying woman’, a witch of Sicilian tradition and that she can make it across the sea, to Palermo, to the land where the stories are.

The Island Where Women Fly is the tale of a family, the Iatti family, in the early 1900s, living on the island of Alicudi, one of the Sicilian Aeolian Islands. The privileged point of view of this third-person narrative is that of Caterina, 16 years old, the daughter, together with her three brothers and her twin sister Maria, of Onofrio and Palmira.

The story begins with the mourning that struck the Iatti family: Maria, Caterina’s twin sister, died and the island community attended the Iatti’s funeral rituals. The events that follow encompass the complex relationship between the many members of the family and the island community, or the simple perception of its social order, in the succession of months following the mourning; difficult months because of the hard work required of everyone to obtain essential sustenance, to work the master’s land in exchange for part of the harvest and to bring some bread home, a black bread called tizzonara, because of a rye that suddenly turned the color of coals.

To the hard life of the land, punctuated by the duties assigned to even the smallest and weakest of Onofrio and Palmira’s children, we see superimposed and intertwined the island’s magic, strange stories that families tend to keep at home like dirty laundry, that nevertheless leak out like stories that everybody knows but from which a person must not be persuaded.

Among them, that of the Majare, females who would meet at night, when the sky and sea look the same, and would be able to fly, leave the island and go there, where the stories exist, to Palermo.

From the author’s letter

From the balcony of the house where I grew up, in Calabria, you can see almost all the Aeolian islands.

Every time my parents point them out, either to me or to visitors, something like a nursery rhyme starts, always with its verse recited in a different order. Sometimes they disagree among themselves on the sequence, an argument then begins about which is Lipari or Salina, which Vulcano and which Stromboli. Stromboli has the shape of a volcano, Vulcano has the shape of a saltpan and Lipari and Salina have the shape of one big island which is Lipari alone.

But two islands always remain out of this tune, the ones with the strangest names: Filicudi and Alicudi, the islands I can only imagine.

They are, in fact, behind the others. And rarely do they come to the fore in my parents’ chaotic list, replacing Panarea or Vulcanello or in an imaginary shadow.

Filicudi and Alicudi are my invisible cities. They stand before me, but I cannot see them. And, there, all stories can happen.

A few years ago, I read an article that reported on the anthropological studies of Paolo Lorenzi. According to the anthropologist, between 1903 and 1905, the Alicudi rye was infested by a parasitic fungus, claviceps purpurea, better known as ergot. Lysergic acid, the basic ingredient of LSD, is present in ergot.

Lorenzi’s theories seem to be confirmed by the fact that the island’s inhabitants had even coined a name for this rye (which we commonly call ‘horned’): tizzonara, because of its black outgrowths like coal cinders.

According to Lorenzi, something really happened in Alicudi: black rye was abundantly used by the inhabitants to make bread, the basis of the diet at the time. By eating black tizzonara bread, the island would experience a collective hallucination.

The hallucinations lasted for several years, so much so that numerous legends spread among the inhabitants that persist, such as that of the majare.

The inhabitants saw ghosts, heard the sounds of chains, and spoke of pumice stones raining down from the sky.

Around the 1960s, the local church declared black bread ‘the Devil’s bread’ and, in time, the horned rye disappeared from the island, along with these stories.

But sometimes, on Alicudi, some still see women flying in the sky.

Marketing Information

  • English sample available