January 2015

 

"I think my professional life is entirely coherent, but others might not see it that way," said Professor Beverly Allen in our recent interview. "First, I studied music, and this got me interested in how meaning is created. So I studied Italian, which is a very musical language. In fact, my first studies were in Italian poetry, so you can see the connection. This led me to doing a Ph.D. in Italian, teaching, and writing books and articles about Italian poets, filmmakers, and national identity. Then, in 1992, one of my former students at Stanford who was of Bosnian and Croatian heritage brought me translated testimonies of girls who had survived the Serbian nationalist rape camps. I had read nothing about this here in the U.S. and at first I didn't believe it. As I read more and more, something clicked in my mind, and I knew I had to do something. From there came more than a decade of investigative research and work on the rapes in Bosnia."

In 1996, Allen published Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, a book that is said to have influenced the U.N.'s creation of a new international law making rape a Crime Against Humanity. She served as consultant to the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and has worked as a consultant, expert, and adviser for various other organizations. She has done fundraising and organizing for international conferences, including two in Zagreb; one was on genocidal rape during the war in the Balkans and the other on postmodern perspectives on democracy.

A distinguished professor emerita at Syracuse University who has recently taught courses at the Graduate Theological Union and Stanford's Continuing Studies program, Allen has received numerous professional honors and has published books and articles on Italian literature, film, and culture. She is also a prize-winning literary translator and screenwriter. Two of her screenplays, His Name Is Daniel and The Bitter Chalice, are set in Bosnia. The Bitter Chalice won a prize in 2010 for the Best Feature-Length Screenplay at Rome's Independent Film Festival. She has written a stage play and is working with a friend, a renowned opera singer, on a romance.

She has also completed a memoir, entitled One Yarn: Memories of War, Peace and Knitting. "Knitting?" I ask. I find out that knitting is a theme and an activity dear to Allen's heart. She learned as a girl, "forgot it," and then started up again in 1999 after her mother's death. "I've met knitters who've inspired me in war zones, in upscale suburbs--all over the place. It's a wonderful thing to do," she says, regretting that when she works too much, her knitting suffers!

Allen's parents were Swedish immigrants. She loves Sweden, goes there often, and speaks "enough Swedish to get by." She says that Italy is "the antidote" to her Swedish background and upbringing and that her Swedish roots balance her Italian passion. She has lived in Italy for thirteen years and speaks fluent Italian.

Just before rushing off to buy a zipper for the sweater she's knitted for her son for Christmas, Allen tells me she's very much looking forward to teaching at OLLI but wants to stress that her course is not "a travelogue." Her goal is for students to learn as much as possible, so she will only take two or three short, non-anecdotal questions at the end of each lecture. But she encourages the class to get together on their own to share their experiences about their trips to her beloved Italy.