Welcome to Alex Valente, the European Literature Network’s new Italianist.
Taking over from Katherine Gregor, our pioneering columnist for two years, Alex will be writing regular columns introducing us to Riveting Italian Books You Need To Know About – the new, the (as yet) untranslated, the forgotten. Alex is half Tuscan, half Yorkshire, born in Prato, and works as a translator of poetry and prose, from Italian and French into English, and English and French into Italian. He’s translated an impressive range of Italian authors and is himself a contributor to our upcoming Italian Riveter magazine (published April 2022). Read more about Alex here on his website. So, without further ado we hand you over to Alex Valente who, for his first Italianist column, is introducing us to
Nadeesha Uyangoda, and her book
L’unica Persona Nera Nella Stanza (The Only Black Person in the Room)
‘I had found myself the only black person in a group of white people about to discuss politics and multiculturalism. The Only Black Person in the Room, in Italy, is destined to represent everything which is considered minority. You gain nothing by trying to explain that a Black Italian whose heritage is rooted in an African country is different from one whose heritage is Indian, or South American, or Chinese (yes, even Chinese, because in a world made of black and white, East Asian people are most definitely not white). A non-white person in a group of Caucasian people is purely and simply A Black Person.’
L’unica persona nera nella stanza is a hybrid memoir by Nadeesha Uyangoda, a freelance journalist who writes in both Italian and English. I call it a hybrid memoir because while it does follow major and minor events in her life, these also form the starting point for discussions, conversations, and provocations about how ‘race’ is talked about in Italian arts and media – at times becoming full-on critical essays and interviews with other minority writers, artists, people in the author’s life. The passage above is the origin of the book itself, initially an essay for an online publication, but the start of the text is Uyangoda’s arrival in Italy from Sri Lanka, at the age of six.
‘When my mother decided that I should move to Italy because she would never return to live in her homeland and couldn’t stand knowing I was so far away, I had already turned six. I was born in Sri Lanka, in what was then the capital, Colombo, and during what was probably a warm and intensely humid night in March. I grew up barefoot, climbing on roofs with my cousin, who would stick a sucked-on finger into the air to figure out what direction the wind was blowing before we could manoeuvre our kites between the best currents. He used to build them so big and so colourful that I am not surprised, today, as I look at the photos of the chocolate sculptures he creates for a living in Dubai. I wonder if he remembers we grew up almost joined at the hip on a street that we thought was the entire world, that could have remained the only thing we knew in the entire world.’
Two pages later Uyangoda, after fast forwarding through more early biographical details, writes about the inception point of the text. When I interviewed her for this column and asked her about her argument – in that opening passage – that all racialised, non-Caucasian people in a European setting can be semantically classified as ‘black’, I was specifically interested in finding out if this is a classification that only works in Italy, or whether she had encountered it elsewhere. Her answer, precise as always about terminology, makes reference to the different histories of the US and the various colonial powers in Europe, including Italy: ‘I feel that it can apply in all those geographical areas where the concept of black cannot be translated from the US, and in which, therefore, racialisation is tied to a specific colonial and migration history. It is a concept I find perhaps in those communities in which the perceived identity is always uncertain.’
Uyangoda uses the example of the Kaffir community (as it’s known) in Sri Lanka to illustrate this outside of a European and US-based setting. She also argues at several points in the text that the reliance on anglophone terminology, especially when it comes to Italy – a country which has its own, regularly unacknowledged, history of violent colonialism – can lead to playing catch-up, instances of mistranslation, and eventual misunderstandings of otherwise clearer concepts in, say, a Black US, or even UK, community. (The capitalisation of Black is intentional here, as the adjective denotes a political identity)
Her other point, which she makes often, is about the presence (or absence) of black people in front of an audience, whether at arts, media, or other public events. In her view they are usually relegated to a minority appointed to represent minorities, and when talking about them it’s as passive objects, rather that recognising their active and subjective participation.
‘Those few times in Italy when people of colour are seen in the media, we can be certain that their presence is tied to the topic being discussed on the show. Have you ever switched on the TV, the radio or opened up a newspaper to see, listen to or read a person of colour presenting – let’s see – a travel programme or the new financial reform? No? Exactly. In the best of cases, they will be talking about racism, immigration, and Salvini. In the worst cases, they’re just not there.’
I asked Uyangoda about this too, and whether she believes it is something worth reforming, or possible to reform, from within the existing system, or, if new forms of media are needed instead? Her answer, yet again, is pretty comprehensive: ‘I think of independent platforms as safe spaces for racialised people – and as such, they are important spaces for organisation, reflection and the sharing of knowledge. Inclusion in society on a wider scale, however, necessarily implies a doubled effort: those within [media spaces] need to become aware of the whiteness of these rooms, and actively reform their line-up and access mechanisms along with those who have historically been excluded from them.’
Despite the above, there is a note of pessimism in the final chapters of her book, one that it only justified: these conversations tend to happen in the wake of social media activism as opposed to societal and policy-based change; they latch on to trends and conversations imported from the US, instead of seeing what is happening on a daily basis within our own country and communities. As I asked her about this pessimism, Uyangoda points out that even these grassroots efforts can, and have, led to actual, tangible changes. Active subjects, shared conversations, inclusion within higher levels of decision-making and creativity; Uyangoda has not been simply carving out a space for herself, but rather working alongside those who, like her, do not see themselves reflected in any facet of society, and who have placed themselves closer to ‘key roles of production – in fashion, cinema, literature – [which is] crucial for a society that not only appears multicultural, but is actually, truly inclusive.’
Nadeesha Uyangoda’s book offers us an insight into what those key roles are, who those people are working so hard to find space for themselves in the ‘whiteness of those rooms’, and into the way forward. All that written in a style that is clear, intelligent, and in the form of an active conversation with all of us. After all, the personal is political, especially when there is only one person in the room.
By Alex Valente
With thanks to Nadeesha Uyangoda.
And you can read more from her, and from Alex Valente in The Italian Riveter – coming soon!
L’UNICA PERSONA NERA NELLA STANZA
(The Only Black Person in the Room)
by Nadeesha Uyangoda
Published in Italian by 66thand2nd (2021)
Translations from Italian by Alex Valente
Nadeesha Uyangoda is a freelance journalist based in Milan. Her work focuses on identity, migration and second generations. Her stories have appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Telegraph and Vice Italy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @nadeeshauy.
Alex Valente (he/him) is a white European currently living on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ land. He is a literary translator from Italian into English, though he also dabbles with French and RPGs, and is co-editor of The Norwich Radical. His work has been published in NYT Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The Short Story Project, and PEN Transmissions.
Read previous posts in The Italianist series: