There is a common, even infamously used, trope in books written by and about teachers who end up in a class of often marginalised, racialised, underprivileged children and who ‘learn more from the kids’ than the kids from the teacher. Yet, very few books are successful in using such a trope, especially in established literary circles. There is only one I have found in recent years that uses and undercuts the trope at the same time. This book chips away at the ancient, flimsy bridges of the saviorism implicit in many of its peers, and at the same time is not afraid of being uncomfortable and devoid of answers: Espérance Hakuzwimana’s debut novel Tutta Intera.
Hakuzwimana, who entered the Italian literary scene through creative non-fiction, has finessed her writing into an – as she calls it – entirely fictional, completely made-up setting and story. The roots, to anyone reading between the lines, lie in very recognisable realities. The story: Sara is a young, Black woman, adopted at a very young age by a white Italian family in the well-off part of an unspecified Italian city. Her father is a teacher, her mother works as a lunch-lady, her uncle owns the peach grove that employs many of the less well-off people who live across the Sele river. Sara teaches afternoon language classes to under-resourced teenagers, from a full spectrum of national and ethnic backgrounds, who all live around a cluster of council estates. And teenagers, as many will know, can be very insightful, and savagely so: they soon put Sara in her place, point out how she is not one of them, but also not quite one of the sìsì, the yesyes, the wealthy, white folk who live in the City across the Sele river. They each speak their own individual languages, and together their own language, distinct from the ‘grown-ups’, the sìsì, and the City beyond the river. They deliberately talk over, about, and against her. As a result, Sara starts to learn more than she thought, perhaps more than she wanted, and definitely more than she realised. About herself, about the City, even about her adoptive family. In one exchange, after a student has gone missing, we see the children challenging Sara’s notions of what her role as a language teacher should be (my translation):
Language is a battlefield, I told pa’, who wasn’t listening; the pasta with meat sauce sitting on the good plates, the TV playing loud.
In Basilici, language is a playing field, and they are having fun while I struggle to keep up.
Dialects, accents, cadences, freshly minted or mangled languages, ancient. When I cross the Sele, what I thought was Arabic becomes Latin, Slavic, it never fits my expectations, never fits the faces I meet.
Adelina Moraru told me, We only speak Italian at home. Some of the others nodded. Mihai Kostenko, in shock, replied, Not us, my mum doesn’t allow us. Benjamin Oududu told us that his mother is afraid of pidgin coming from his mouth. I am the eldest, miss. I need to be a good example to my siblings.
What do you mean, afraid?
My mother always says ‘Proper Italian, say it in proper Italian!’. His hands were making scare quotes as he said it.
There are stories behind the lessons she attempts to deliver (with which she is, instead, regularly schooled), and there are encounters she has with the realities behind those stories: the council estate, her friends outside work, her boyfriend, her family and family friends, the students and their lives outside school. She starts to learn to navigate language made to include and to exclude, and which she has to reassess after a life of her father’s teachings. Her father had made sure that she knew how to use the precise word for every feeling, for every place, for every thing that had its own, defined place. Until she is shown that the language which makes up her world is building walls, not bridges; categories, not people. And, slowly, her world starts to unravel, as the one language no longer fits her, not entirely. Not even when her boyfriend says, ‘I love you.’
He still has this power. His eyes almost glassy and filled with wanting make me smile with embarrassment, with shame for my too available body. With the strength of the arms he uses to handle strangers’ muscles and set their bones back, he shakes me and his coffee-scented mouth now grazes my clear forehead.
The beard he’s letting grow out is ticklish and when he kisses me I instinctively want to flinch, but I stay. I don’t want him to feel insulted. This boy who said it’s you that I love right when I wasn’t expecting it, and when he says it again I wonder if he sees me as a whole or only in pieces, like peach slices.
Hakuzwimana has created a novel that, though not complete fiction, revels in many a fictional device and technique. A novel that discusses language while bathing in multiple tongues that are never glossed, translated, not allowing the reader to fully grasp their meaning. And that is intentional. One life, one perspective cannot hold all the answers. Sara’s experience is never fulfilled, many questions are left unanswered: each slice, each section of the novel as the story progresses, forms a whole that is never fully complete.
This is a story of adoption and saviourism, of race and racialisation, of cities and those who live in them, of integration and assimilation. A début that speaks to language, and about languages and those who gatekeep them as opposed to those who treat it as a game, developing new rules as they play. It is a novel of our time and for our times, and I can’t wait for everyone to read it.
By Alex Valente
TUTTA INTERA (In One Piece)
by Espérance Hakuzwimana
Published in Italian by Einaudi (2022)
Translations from Italian by Alex Valente, with help from Barbara Ofosu-Somuah
Espérance Hakuzwimana (1991) was born in Rwanda and grew up around Brescia, Italy. She attends both the Università di Trento and the Scuola Holden in Turin, where she now lives. Her first book, E poi basta. Manifesto di una donna nera italiana (‘And that’s it. Manifesto of a Black Italian woman’) was published in 2019 by people.it. Tutta Intera is her first novel, and is published by Einaudi (2022).
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.
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