‘New Italians’, ‘blended Italians’, ‘migrant literature’ – quite rightly, these categories are rejected by writers placed within them. There is no one-size-fits-all definition for a remarkable array of authors who, for one reason or another, have intersected with Italian culture and write in Italian.
In her ‘non-preface’ to the novel È la vita, dolcezza, by the Indian-Italian writer Gabriella Kuruvilla, the Somali-Italian writer Igiaba Scego states her position clearly (my translation):
‘We’ve always been pigeonholed under that hateful label “migrant literature”. But, listen up folks, “migrant literature” doesn’t exist. Literature exists. We exist within it, with our writing in Italian that needn’t necessarily reflect our back-and-forth existence.’
Nevertheless, for Igiaba Scego and Cristina Ali Farah, the two authors I will be looking at, the impact on second- and third-generation Somali-Italians of Italy’s disastrous colonial past has become a central issue. Simone Bruni, quoted by Kelsey McFaul in the Los Angeles Review of Books, puts it well:
‘Hyphenated identities like Somali-Italian do not link two comparable entities but rather define a specific cultural encounter shaped by uneven power relations brought about by colonialism
The power relationship is inescapable, as Scego describes in an article in World Literature Today (‘Not One Less’, tr. Aaron Robertson):
‘As the Italian-born daughter of Somalis, my country’s colonial endeavour is a burden I’ve always shouldered … There was no way I could ignore this history. I bore its scars on my skin, including that species of Italian racism born of colonialist thinking.’
In a conversation with Cristina Ali Farah for BBC Africa, Ismail Einashe examines how adopting another language has given voice and agency to Somali women authors in the diaspora:
‘It is unusual for Somali women to be the primary storytellers, yet they are now the ones taking on that mantle in the diaspora. … This is because they have “more space” outside Somalia to pursue their literary ambitions – unshackled as they are from the cultural expectations placed upon them in a male-dominated society. Their freedom to write comes from fact that they are finding their voice in a colonial language, such as Italian and English, that they have made their own.’
Ali Farah’s Little Mother (Indiana University Press, 2011, tr. Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi and Victoria Offredi Poletto) tells the story of two cousins who are forced to flee their homeland and who find one another in Europe. The style mimics the predominantly oral and sensory tradition of poetry and storytelling. The protagonist of her The River Captain (seeking a publisher in English) is a troubled teenage boy who grew up a misfit in Italy and yearns for an absent father who takes on almost mythical qualities in his imagination. In her new book, Le stazioni della luna (‘Phases of the Moon’) a rural nomadic shepherd teaches his young daughter the traditional art – forbidden to women – of reading stars and divining the future, but this knowledge doesn’t help her avoid an arranged marriage. Escape, first to the capital, where she ends up equally subjugated to men, and then further afield, is her only alternative.
Igiaba Scego’s first novel, La mia case è dove sono (‘My Home Is Where I Am’ – the quotes here are from Aaron Robertson’s translation, published in 2021 in Words without Borders) – is recommended reading in Italian middle schools. It is a memoir of sorts, a hymn to her origins, where:
‘When evening fell at my aunt’s, stories were told about wild hyenas and ingenious women, brave men and magic tricks. Adults and children sat together listening to and recounting tales. The word itself occupied the seat of honour. We practised using it wisely.’
It also describes the universal process of linguistic assimilation imposed by every education system across the world:
‘This changed when I had to go to school, where they told me, “You’re not talking, it’s monkey babble. You don’t know anything. You’re all freaks, gorillas.” … That’s not what I wanted to be. After checking that my black skin couldn’t be changed, now I had to deal with this. At least language was something I could work on. … I wanted to assimilate, to become one with the snow-white masses. Renouncing my mother tongue became my unorthodox way of saying, Love me. No one did.’
In Adua, (tr. Jamie Richards, New Vessel Press, 2017), Scego highlights the cultural alienation and split identities of Somalis living in Italy. Adua’s perhaps naïve dream of becoming a film star in Italy takes an ugly turn when she is trafficked to an Italian film-producer couple and exploited for pornography. In a brutal scene, the husband rips open her infibulated vagina with scissors in order to rape her, while the wife watches. Scego explores African sexual clichés and how they appeal to Western Oriental fantasies. And yet, unsettlingly for the reader, knowledge of the harrowing rape makes the jungle-inspired porn scenes seem mild in comparison.
In Scego’s Beyond Babylon (tr. Aaron Robertson, Two Lines Press, 2019), as Ali Farah points out: ‘the writing mimics the melodic, syncopated rhythms of jazz, Bossa nova, Somali hello, and salsa … High Italian and slang are deftly interspersed with Somali, Spanish, Arabic, and English’. Mar, Zuhra and Miranda head out to Tunisia to study Arabic and thus reverse the typical migrant path, leaving behind the country so many lose their lives at sea to reach. In her review of the book, Kelsey McFaul says,
‘Part of this discovery is her own blackness, or how that blackness is coded differently in Italy and on the continent of her father’s birth. Scego complicates the ways racialisation is mapped onto geography: the sisters are hyperaware of their positionality as black Italians who have voluntarily left a country many aspire to enter. But they also feel out of place on the continent: ‘“I’m not familiar with Africa,” Zuhra says. “And to think that black blood courses through my veins, that I was born there. It’s not like knowing it, fundamentally. It really isn’t the same thing.”’
The good news, and much of it is down to the efforts of these and many other writers with ‘hyphenated-identities’, is that a virtuous cycle has been set in motion (following a typical pattern of global power relations): more of their work is translated into English, the language of the dominant culture, which triggers increased interest in the Italian publishing world for their stories, which creates greater cultural awareness in Italy. An awareness that, until very recently, has been sorely lacking.
By Clarissa Botsford
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