Our guest Italianist this month is Clarissa Botsford who interviews the celebrated Italian author Igiaba Scego. From rising star and award-winning novelist Scego – the author, journalist and researcher, born in Rome to family of Somali ancestry – comes The Colour Line, winner of the Premio Napoli.
I hadn’t seen Igiaba since before the pandemic, and we had planned to get together in Rome for this interview and catch up over a cappuccino while we were about it. However, as often happens, life got in the way and we ended up doing the interview online, after several preparatory calls and messages. We opted to conduct it in Italian simply because it is the language we always speak when we are together. Igiaba then read and approved the English version.
I was struck by the duality of the title of your novel, The Colour Line: a line of colour, a separation between black and white lives that becomes a line drawn by a black woman artist in her first act of emancipation. Lafanu is a painter and it feels like you have made lines and colours a leitmotif, almost an aspiration in contrast to a very black and white world, both in the present in Leila’s narrative voice, and in Lafanu’s world in the past. Can you tell me why this is such a central theme for you?
The ‘line of colour’ for me has a double meaning. It owes a great deal, of course, to Du Bois’ Colour Line, signifying separation, a denunciation of racism, discrimination, segregation.
However, it is much more in my novel because I made my protagonist Lafanu Brown – inspired by two real characters, Edmonia Lewis and Sarah Parker Remond – a painter. This was a choice I made to give her certain freedoms and powers of perception, but also to make her real and credible.
The line of colour is thus the colour of her art, and the colour that she tries to recover from the trauma she has suffered, which I describe as a draining of colour, a loss of identity, the emblem of which is the torn yellow dress.
This novel is the most complex novel I’ve written so far, and one of the themes is the reconstruction of the self after a trauma, which is a subject I am very passionate about. I have tried to dissect it in a thousand ways and my new book in Italian Cassandra in Mogadishu is also about that.
So, in a way, colour is also the essence of women’s life, of the recovery of oneself, and of one’s being. Our world is made up of lines – of borders, of separation – and yet colour is also what can help us transcend those lines of separation and cross those weaponised borders.
One of the most original aspects of The Colour Line is that you shift the ‘slavery narrative’ away from the US, where your protagonist Lafanu is from, and place it firmly back in the country where you grew up, Italy, which has always denied its history of colonial violence. You describe in your Author’s Note your emotion when you realized that the two fearless Black women you modelled Lafanu on, enjoyed more freedom in Risorgimento Rome than they did in the US. Can you comment on this shift?
I am very fond of American literature; I have always loved it and I have learned a lot from my readings about the United States. The Line of Colour has many mothers and fathers, or influences, if you like: there’s a bit of Henry James, there’s Edith Wharton, and above all there are ‘slavery narratives’: I’m thinking of Olouday Equiano, and Harriet Tubman, in particular.
Technically, what I have tried to do is to reconstruct a narrative that includes a multiple view of slavery. Very often, when we think of the word ‘slavery’, we quite rightly think of the Atlantic trade route, of the slavery on an industrial scale that existed at the time. But that Atlantic trade had precedents in the Mediterranean: apart from the Arab route in Africa, there was also a Mediterranean route and there was a significant presence of enslaved people in the Mediterranean – just think of Portugal, Spain, and many places in Italy.
Italy is littered with depictions of slaves in art: Veronese, for example, or Carpaccio in Venice, but also the statue of the four Moors in Livorno, or the funeral monument to the Doge Pesaro at the Basilica dei Frari where four poor Black wretches shoulder its weight.
And then there is the Fountain of the Moors in Marino that I included in this novel. The fountain was rebuilt because the original was destroyed by an air raid during the Second World War; it was rebuilt exactly as it was. It is emblematic because there are four people in chains, two men and two women, who are half-naked and painfully chained, making their slavery clearly visible.
So, I wanted my novel – which is also a novel about journeys across oceans and seas, about crossings, borders, lines of inclusion and exclusion – to look at everything that is happening in the Mediterranean today, where there is a new form of slavery called human trafficking. These journeys in opposite directions, Lafanu’s in the past and Binti’s today, are a way to look at today’s migrations, today’s stereotypes, today’s denied journeys and global passport hierarchies from a different perspective.
Through the figure of Lafanu Brown, the painter, I wanted to link the history of Atlantic slavery to a woman of her background who travels to Italy on her own steam and finds unexpected traces of slavery in Europe. A woman who actually talks about them because, as an artist and as a Black woman, she cannot fail to see them and critique them. Unlike Veronese or Carpaccio, who depicted European slavery as if were totally normal.
For me Lafanu is almost a bridging character who says to Italy and Europe, ‘Look, you have a history, too; a history that has discriminated against blackness. You have a history that is Afro-European.’ In this novel, I explore how the pain is still branded on their skin, because the way Afro-Europeans are viewed today is very much contaminated by the stereotypes that were applied back then to Black people in Europe, who were treated by the dominant white society as commodities – or, if not actual commodities, as marginal beings.
Ultimately, what I am trying to do in this novel, which is a “whole-world book”, as the French-Caribbean writer Èdouard Glissant would say, is to bring together all these threads.
What does the character of Leila represent for you?
People often ask whether Leila is me. No. It is not exactly like that. Leila has taken many aspects from me, as many characters in my novels do, but she is not nearly as autobiographical as in my new novel Cassandra in Mogadishu, which has not yet been translated into English.
Leila is much more than me. She represents my generation. Next year I will be fifty, and when they ‘discovered’ us, quote unquote, they really didn’t know what to think of us. I remember in the 1990s, people looked askance at us because we were neither Italian nor foreign. We were a strange hybrid that they didn’t know how to decipher. The first generation, those of us who are now 49-55 years old, forced Italy to notice that the country was no longer mono-cultural. That we were Italians and that we were Black, that we had other origins, that we were Arabs, or Muslims, and so on.
Leila represents that generation, the dreams of that generation and their disappointments; their anguish and pain, their non-representation; their non-visibility – actually, their invisibility – because, as I know well, my generation grew up feeling invisible. We suffered from the same stereotypes that were literally thrown in our face, like the insult in the novel “little black face” from the Fascist song with the same title.
An example of this is the scene near the beginning of the novel in the Castelli hills outside Rome. Leila is still young, and everyone is celebrating the grape festival. Her friends don’t notice her unease at not being able to drink and, more significantly, they don’t see the fountain. But she does see the fountain, she does see the chained slaves depicted there. Leila’s informed gaze represents Italian plurality today.
But she is also a bridging figure who helped me – literally helped me during the writing – to unite the past and the present, to weave together the story of Lafanu Brown with that of Leila’s cousin Binti, who attempts the reverse journey to Italy and ends up a victim of traffickers.
As Angela Davies pointed out many years ago, there are three ‘lines of separation’ – gender, class and race – and all three are woven together in the multiple strands of narrative in your novel. You explore the devastating effects of rape on women across history and geography, from Lafanu’s degrading experience at college to the chained slaves on the Marino fountain, to Somali cousin Binti enslaved by modern-day people traffickers. Do you think you are using physical violence against women as a symptom of systemic violence in The Colour Line?
The sexual violence that both Binti and Lafanu suffer are a mirror of both systemic violence and colonial violence, for sure. Because what happens to their bodies also happens to their communities and everything that happens afterwards represents an effort to rebuild the damage or resist against a system that crushes you. In fact, Lafanu leaves college and changes her trajectory completely, while Binti literally becomes a zombie.
The links with systemic and colonial violence are really very clear to me. I learned them from many women writers, from Toni Morrison but also from the black Brazilian novelist, Conceição Evaristo. I learned from them that actually when we talk about violence we are always talking about a system, about a cage. And all my characters in all my novels are desperately trying to escape that cage, with varying degrees of success.
In your Author’s Note you place this as the third novel in what you call a ‘trilogy of colonial violence.’ I love your reference to the link between the ending of Adua, which takes place in Termini station Rome, and the opening of The Colour Line which describes the horrors of the battle from which the station square takes its name. The “battle-lines” of your novel are laid out right at the beginning: the local askari, paid to fight a war that is not theirs, desert in revenge for their humiliation; Italian soldiers fighting for a country they don’t feel they belong to, who know in their hearts they are no different from the ‘Abyssinians’; and the Africans who resist the onslaught labelled as ‘terrorists.’ Is it in some way inevitable that you draw parallels with your own life and with today’s battles? And do you feel in some way responsible for shouldering the burden of writing about these battle-lines?
It’s tough being a Black Italian writer in general. I’ve reached the twenty-year mark in my career and I keep asking myself what I can do to improve this country, which for so many years has been struggling with this systemic racism, this denial of citizenship, of otherness, of plurality.
Italy is a very blocked country. Both my countries are blocked for different reasons: Somalia is still struggling with the traumas and scars of war; and Italy is unable to become – rather, to realise that it has already become – plural. It keeps denying its reality, but it has become everyday reality, hasn’t it?
My responsibility as a Black writer – in my opinion, the only one – is to write. I mean I’m not a politician, I can’t change the existing situation with laws, I can’t do really concrete things, but I can make people understand the mechanisms. And so, through stories and through intimacy, I am a bit like Conceição Evaristo: she spoke about escrevivência – that’s the Brazilian word for it, and escrevivência means writing that also exists, the existence of little things, of intimate things.
The Colour Line, which is a historical novel, is actually very much about intimacy, about rebuilding oneself, about dresses and combs and hair, about little things, because big things are always hidden behind the little things. I think it is my duty to continue to study and understand the mechanisms and somehow turn these mechanisms into stories. So that I can make it clear that society does have a chance to change.
THE COLOUR LINE
by Igiaba Scego
Translated by John Cullen and Gregory Conti
Published by Small Axes, an imprint of HopeRoad (2023)
December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Igiaba Scego is a Somali Italian writer, cultural activist and freelance scholar. She was born in Rome to Somali parents who took refuge in Italy following a coup d’état in their native country, where her father served as foreign minister. She holds a PhD in education on postcolonial subjects, has done extensive academic work in Italy and around the world and has a special interest in migration. She has three books in English translation: Adua (New Vessel Press, 2017, tr. Jamie Richard) Beyond Babylon (Two Lines Press, 2019, tr. Aaron Robertson), and now The Colour Line, linking the lives of two black female artists in Italy living a century apart.
Clarissa Botsford (www.clarissabotsford.com) is a literary translator, musician, Humanist celebrant and celebrant trainer in Italy. Her translations include: Viola Ardone, The Children’s Train and The Unbreakable Heart of Oliva Denaro (HarperVia, 2021, 2023), Lia Levi, Tonight is Already Tomorrow (Europa Editions, 2021), Sasha Naspini, Nives and Oxygen (Europa Editions, 2021), Concita De Gregori, The Missing Word (Europa Editions UK, 2022), and Erica Mou, Thirsty Sea (Heloise Press, 2022).
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