Current migratory flows from North Africa and the Middle East to Italy, combined with the presence of postcolonial diasporic communities as well as older cultural influences and exchanges harking back to the country’s strategic historical position in the Mediterranean, have been crucial factors in articulating a new discursive configuration of Italianità situated in a worldly perspective. We are witnessing a “Tout-Monde”, to borrow from Édouard Glissant’s poetics, a wordly-Italy, namely, a plurality of worlds exceeding national borders, a métissage of stories, languages and cultures where “single or exclusive root identities” make way for “rhizome or multiple identities”. This imaginary has been envisioned in recent postcolonial literary and visual cultural productions by migrant and African Italian authors. In particular, the work of Igiaba Scego, an Italian writer and journalist of Somali origins, challenges fixed notions of Italianness and national belonging by unveiling forgotten, concealed stories of other worlds (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia) whose memories nonetheless prove to be foundational to the construction of Italian identity and culture. This article will examine the affective routes charted in Igiaba Scego’s latest works, specifically, the memoir La mia casa è dove sono (2010), the novel Adua (2015), and Roma Negata. Percorsi postcoloniali nella città (2014), a nonfiction book combining word and image in collaboration with the photographer Rino Bianchi, in which she retraces spatial and temporal itineraries of Italian and African symbolic places that “transform historical events in emotions, visions, lived experiences”. On the one hand, these relational and transformative affective routes represent emotional journeys in the mystified memory of Italian colonialism. On the other, they bring to light the ensuing legacy of contemporary disavowal of racism and gender violence, thus creating a productive narrative and visual remapping of her private relationship to the worlds she inhabits, which turns out to be both personal and collective.
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§“Ma come, la Morte sa raccontare storie?”
La via del pepe. Alessandro Sanna (2014)
“But how can Death tell stories?” wonders Amal, a young African man who is shipwrecked on board of a fishing boat just before reaching the longed-for shores of Lampedusa after a strenuous trip from Libya. This story, which sounds so familiar in daily news reports, acquires the undertones of a bitter and fantastic fairy tale in La via del pepe. Finta fiaba africana per europei benpensanti (2014), a short novel by Massimo Carlotto illustrated with drawings by Alessandro Sanna, where Amal is engaged in a hallucinating dialogue with Death while all of his travel companions drown under his feet. As a body composed of water, resurfacing from the waves of the sea, Death takes on the shape of a beautiful aquatic woman who seduces him with alluring words towards the abyss where the drowned lie on a carpet of red sand.
But Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic, is kept alive thanks to the salvific power of a handful of peppercorns given to him by his grandfather Boubacar Dembélé, “healer, sage, storyteller of the seventh pepper road and guardian of the secrets of foggara, the art of drilling wells in the desert”. Boubacar diverts lady Death with his story about an ancient law according to which women and men “can decide where to live, settle down, raise children and nothing or nobody can stop them. Not even death, if the trip helps to repair an injustice”. Embodying an allegorical Everyman coming from the South of the world, Amal decides to undertake his journey in search of a better life, because the White Man decided to fight his wars on his ancestral lands, plundering them and betraying his brothers, thus forcing the youth to leave. However, that ancient natural right that allows every woman and man to freely move and live wherever they wish seems no longer to hold value. For those who choose to travel out of necessity, only a few options become available: death by water, which represents “the new law”, or a wall of frontiers on the grounds of “Fortress Europe,” those borders and detention that prevent any legitimate movement across countries. Eventually, Amal survives the shipwreck, but once he reaches the Italian island of Lampedusa, nobody believes his story, as it is considered too African and, therefore, too ancient, fake, unreal, incomprehensible. He is sent back home to “some place in Mother Africa.” What place it is doesn’t matter because, for “European conventional thinkers,” everything in Africa appears to be the same. Even the people are all the same, and “their names have no meaning, no history, no memory, no identity”.
Italian writer of Somali origins Igiaba Scego offers a contrapuntal response to this mordant but realistic fable – which proves to be fantastic and fake only to European conformists for whom African migrants’ lives are considered meaningless and their deaths ungrievable – as she poses the same question as Amal: Can Death tell stories? And whose stories? References in her texts to recent drownings of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea clearly show that those deaths bear witness, first of all, to an all-human inherent desire to travel and to change one’s condition:
L’errance et la dérive, disons que c’est l’appétit du monde. Ce qui nous fait tracer des chemins un peu partout dans le monde. La dérive, c’est aussi une disponibilité de l’étant pour toutes sortes de migrations possibles. … La drive, c’est la disponibilité, la fragilité, l’acharnement au mouvement et la paresse à déclarer, à décider impérialement. Et l’errance, c’est ce qui incline l’étant à abandonner les pensées de système … L’errance a des vertus que je dirais de totalité: c’est la volonté, le désir, la passion de connaître la totalité, de connaître le « Tout-monde ». (Ibid.: 130)
Glissant conceives of the Tout-monde – the ‘whole-world’ free of totalizing borderlines – in terms of drift, namely, a tendency towards movement aimed at tracing routes throughout the world in order to investigate it without claiming to dominate it in a colonialist fashion. Erratic or nomadic thought (la pensée de l’errance) encourages abandoning those systemic thoughts (les pensées de système) that have characterized Western colonialism, which are based on conventional notions of History, along with their corollaries of singular origin, traditional forms of identity, and North-South hierarchies of superiority and inferiority. This alternative approach over Westernized totalizing systems of thought leads to unexpected patterns of reflection and encounters open to subaltern and more inclusive perspectives. The notions of identité-racine and identités-rhizomes are foundational to his “poetics of Relation” that envisions composite identities, in contrast with European atavistic ones, in terms of interrelation, porosity, and proximity to the Other.
Les identités a racine unique font peu à peu place aux identités-relations, c’est-à-dire aux identités-rhizomes. Il ne s’agit pas de se déraciner, il s’agit de concevoir la racine moins intolérante, moins sectaire : une identité-racine qui ne tue pas autour d’elle mais qui au contraire étend ses branches vers les autres. (Ibid.: 132)
“Rooted identities” would stem from a creation myth based on filiation that claims its legitimacy on a territory. In contrast, “relational identities” would be based on an unpredictable experience of cultural contacts and exchanges shaped by the chaotic chain of relation that would make them not bound to any territory and open to ‘the thinking of errance’ and totality.
From this perspective, the notion of the nation takes on a new configuration that is more cultural and less state-bound, thus transcending the idea of a historically over-determined sovereign political community, biologically determined and delimited within precise boundaries (cfr. Anderson 1991). For Glissant, the principles of errance, relation and unpredictability, are associated with the idea of a prophetic vision of the past – “la vision prophetique du passé” – according to which the past has not only to be narrated by the historian with an objective or subjective approach, but also to be imagined in a prophetic way for those communities and cultures whose past has been kept hidden or neglected (Glissant 1996: 86).
In light of these reflections, it could be guessed that not only can death tell stories of denied rights and human desires – whether unfulfilled or not – it can also tell neglected accounts of common pasts and shared histories by digging up buried traces of untold stories for new imagined communities. Scego’s narratives rewrite history from the perspective of a prophetic vision of the past, as she tackles the issue of how migrations have been affecting and transforming contemporary Italy and Italian identity as a whole, in a temporal juncture that is widely known as postcolonial. “As a condition that exceeds national borders” (Lombardi-Diop and Romeo 2012: 2), the “Italian postcolonial” refers to a temporal continuum as well as a critical perspective that connects historical emigration and present-day mass immigration to the legacy of the Italian colonial past (see also Lombardi-Diop e Romeo 2016: 109-117).
Loro lo sanno che l’Italia è meticcia. […] In Italia Annibale era passato con le sue truppe e suoi elefanti e da allora l’Italia è un po’ africana. Come del resto è un po’ araba, un po’ francese, un po’ normanna, un po’ austriaca, un po’ spagnola, un po’ somala, un po’ libica, un po’ eritrea, un po’ etiope, un po’ mondo. (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 135-36)
Indeed, as Scego clearly points out, current migratory flows from North Africa and the Middle East to Italy, combined with the presence of postcolonial diasporic communities as well as older cultural influences and exchanges harking back to the country’s strategic historical position in the Mediterranean, have been crucial factors in articulating a new discursive configuration of Italianità situated in worldly perspective: a “Tout-Monde”, to borrow from Glissant’s poetics, a wordly-Italy, namely, a plurality of worlds exceeding national borders, a métissage of stories, languages and cultures where “single or exclusive root identities” would make way for “rhizome or multiple identities”.
This imaginary, which has been envisioned in recent postcolonial literary and visual cultural productions by a significant number of migrant and African Italian authors, is widely explored in the work of Igiaba Scego, which challenges fixed notions of Italianness and national belonging by unveiling forgotten, concealed stories of other worlds (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia) whose memories nonetheless prove to be foundational to the construction of Italian identity and culture. In her latest works, specifically, the memoir La mia casa è dove sono (2010), the novel Adua (2015), and Roma Negata. Percorsi postcoloniali nella città (2014), a nonfiction book composed in collaboration with the photographer Rino Bianchi, she traces affective routes and imaginary mappings that represent emotional journeys in the neglected memory of Italian colonialism as well as in its legacy in contemporary reconfigurations of race and gender issues.
§ Sheeko sheeko sheeko xariir. “Racconto… cammino”
As the direct descendent of a nomadic culture, Igiaba Scego declares that to narrate for her means to walk, a movement aimed to explore alternative routes that redraw the historical and geographical, cultural and urban contours of her Italian hometown Rome:
Cammino… Lo faccio sempre quando ho qualche pensiero. Cammino per le strade trafficate della mia Roma… Roma con i suoi segreti e i suoi deliri inconfessabili. Roma che non mi ha mai detto la verità fino in fondo. Cammino. Metto un piede dopo l’altro (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 13).
As a modern flâneuse strolling along the busy streets of Rome, Igiaba embodies the figure of an urban spectator, an amateur detective that investigates the secrets and unspoken delusions of the city where she was born to Somali parents who had immigrated to Italy following Siad Barre’s 1969 coup d’état. This association between the drive to unfold a tale and the need to walk is reiterated in her memoir La mia casa é dove sono, which, from the very title ‘My Home is Where I Am’, points to the migrant/nomadic dimension of the existential condition of the writer. Coping with her diasporic identity as a black Italian, Scego compares herself to a crossroads, a bridge, a tightrope walker, until she identifies herself with her story and her feet: “Sono un crocevia, mi sa. Un ponte, un’equilibrista, una che è sempre in bilico e non lo è mai. Alla fine sono solo la mia storia. Sono io e i miei piedi… Si, i miei piedi” (Scego 2010: 31). Her double identity and belonging leads her to trace a map of her existence torn between two cultures and places: Rome, the metropolis with its historically stratified architecture, homeland of her autobiography, and Mogadishu, the former colony pervaded with the memories of Somali oral culture representing the motherland of her family origins. Igiaba Scego charts literal and metaphorical maps in order to weave the web of her life experiences turned into a sort of visual narrative. In so doing, she inscribes an emotional and subjective dimension onto geographical and historical spaces, which are thereby represented as maps of moving affects able to transform places in routes and trajectories of personal stories (see Benini 2014: 479).
The writing of her story begins in the sign of movement and nomadism with the memory of the Somali tales and fables told by her mother:
Sheeko sheeko sheeko xariir…Storia storia o storia di seta… Così cominciano tutte le fiabe somale. Tutte quelle che mia madre mi raccontava da piccola. Fiabe splatter per lo più. Fiabe tarantinate di un mondo nomade che non badava a merletti e crinoline. Fiabe più dure di una cassapanca di cedro. Iene con la bava appiccicosa, bambini sventrati e ricomposti, astuzie di sopravvivenza. Nelle fiabe di mamma non esistevano principesse, palazzi, balli e scarpine. Le sue storie riflettevano il mondo in cui era nata lei, la boscaglia della Somalia orientale dove uomini e donne si spostavano di continuo in cerca di pozzi di acqua. “La casa ce la portavamo sulle spalle” mi diceva sempre. (Scego 2010: 9)
Like Somali fables describing tales of survival, journeys and relocations, Scego’s story unfolds in her memoir as the members of her family scattered across Europe reunite in one of the centers of Somali diaspora in an attempt to recall the urban fabric of their native city Mogadishu, destroyed by civil war following a cruel history of colonizations, wars and dictatorships. The family members begin to draw their personal map of Mogadishu overtaken by an inexplicable feeling that the writer defines as saudade, a kind of melancholia that is experienced after the loss of one’s own motherland: “una sorta di malinconia che si prova quando si è stati molto felici, ma nell’allegria si insinua un sottile sapore di amaro. … saudade di esiliati dalla propria madre terra” (ibid.: 13). The notion of saudade, that feeling of diasporic exile expressed through longing for lost loved objects and places, or through lingering on past events, seems to echo a form of “melancholizing” as a practice of knowledge (see Flatley 2008: 2; Sarnelli 2015: 151-155).
Interestingly, the loss of Somalia corresponds to a creative act of imagination aimed at recreating memorable places from the dead city of Mogadishu, now haunted by ghosts, with collective and individual memories of lived experiences. At the same time, the funereal sites of Mogadishu, from roads to monuments and objects, reveal a forgotten history of other places, streets, schools, theatres, restaurants that bear the mark of Italian colonial presence in Africa: “L’Italia stava dappertutto nei nomi delle vie, nei volti dei meticci rifiutati. E l’Italia non ne sapeva niente, non sapeva delle nostre vie con i suoi nomi, dei nostri meticci con il suo sangue” (Scego 2010: 27). Indeed, the refusal to account for colonial history is part of a process of cultural amnesia well-known in Italian intellectual debate, as Italian historiography has only recently started to acknowledge its colonial archives (Lombardi-Diop and Romeo 2012: 8).
Significantly, the map proves to be incomplete for the narrator, for whom Rome and Mogadishu represent two hometowns, interwoven and yet separated, one including the other (ibid.: 11). For this reason, she decides to draw her imaginary map by attaching some post-it notes to the map of Mogadishu, on which she writes the names of six places and monuments of Rome: Teatro Sistina, Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva, stele di Axum, Stazione Termini, Trastevere, Stadio Oimpico. These sites reveal traces of colonialism during fascism while evoking, at the same time, Scego’s personal memories of her family and her life path. Thus, Teatro Sistina summons the memory of her father, who visited the theater in the 1950s as a minister of foreign affairs during the Italian trusteeship, and which was the place where he fell in love with Nat King Cole and Rome, the city he was eventually forced to move to following the dictatorship. To Scego, this site is a reminder of why she was born in Rome: “Io e i miei piedi siamo nati a Roma perché mio padre si è inamorato di Nat King Cole” (ibid.: 36). Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva becomes the opportunity for the narrator to tell the story of her mother, a nomad who made the journey from the African savannah to Mogadishu, and from there to Rome, undergoing various abuses, including genital mutilation. The stele of Axum and Stadio Olimpico evoke those monuments built to celebrate the grandeur of fascist imperial power during which her grandfather worked as an interpreter for the regime, while the barefoot Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bichila ironically won the 1960 Olimpic Games (in this respect, see Scego 2016: 99-105). Finally, Trastevere and Roma Termini come to represent places that tell stories of cross-Mediterranean migration, stories of death and survival of the many migrants from the Horn of Africa.
By overlapping multiple territories, both her dual identities and the histories of Italy and Somalia become intertwined in a reterritorialized mapping that includes the multiple layers of her belongings. As Jonathan Flatley has argues, “affective mapping” is an aesthetic practice aimed to represent “the historicity of one’s affective experience”, through which a political issue can be transformed (Flatley 2008: 4). A map is meant to be not so much the charting of a territory, but rather a tool providing a feeling of orientation, and soliciting mobility in order to trace “the paths, resting places, dead ends, and detour we might share with those who came before us” (ibid.: 7). Completing the map of Mogadishu with post-it notes portraying overlapping sites of the city of Rome has the result of creating affective routes that, on the one hand, question the Italian collective political amnesia of its colonial past and, on the other, remap a world of the stories, rituals and languages of the Somali diaspora.
The landmarks constituting Scego’s rhizomatic imaginary maps, made of autobiographical elements entwined with those political events connecting Africa and Italy that have been repressed by official historiography, are re-proposed with new vigor in Roma Negata. Percorsi postcoloniali nella città (2014), a nonfiction book combining words and images in collaboration with the photographer Rino Bianchi. The book is an attempt to recover from oblivion a neglected colonial past that nonetheless manifests uncannily in the public places of the Italian capital. Scego’s words and Bianchi’s images revisit some of the symbolic sites in Rome – monuments, buildings, streets, and place names – that bear traces of the Italian colonial enterprise in the Horn of Africa after Italian unification and during fascism. Indeed, during the 1930s, social and cultural practices of Italian every-day life were pervaded with the celebrative presence of the overseas colonies due to an obsessive political propaganda, that permeated the school system with book covers displaying images of East Africa, extended into cinema and the newsreel that publicized and made Italians acquainted with exotic cities like Adua, Macallè, Asmara, Merca, Mogadishu, and shaped mainstream media, the newscast and popular games. After the fascist regime ended, that African presence made so strong by an intrusive colonial dispositive has been discarded, ignored and forgotten (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 21). The postcolonial diasporic communities that have transformed the ethnic configuration of Rome and other Italian cities since the 1970s, as well as present-day migrants coming from the Italian former colonies of Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and Ethiopia, are a reminder of that past connecting Italy to Africa, and yet they are not recognized as belonging to a common history. Actually, the oblivion of the colonial past is symbolically associated with the disclaimed historical responsibility on behalf of Italy towards African migrants, especially Eritreans and Somalis, attempting the crossing of the Mediterranean nowadays. If for African refugees Italy represents their motherland, since Italy has left its visible imprint in the former colonies, from architecture and place names to the educational system, culture and language (ibid.: 37), for most Italians those migrants, far from being perceived as part of their history, are reduced to a sort of universal stereotype, supported by media, which portrays them as the wretched fleeing from war, dictatorship and famine, the destitute without any past, present or future to claim.
Ancora oggi i giovanissimi Somali che sbarcano a Lampedusa su barconi sempre più fatiscenti sanno di essere approdati in un paese che ha fatto, nel bene e nel male, parte della storia della loro terra… mi chiedevo se l’Italia avesse la stessa consapevolezza dei somali e degli eritrei di Lampedusa. Conosceva la sua storia l’Italia? (ibid.: 104)
Working against the erasure of Italy’s historical relation to Africa from Italian national memory, Scego and Bianchi rewrite Italian history through a creative remapping of the urban space of Rome, symbolic city and capital of imperial power. They fulfill their project thanks to a dual practice: on the one hand, they fill in the voids of a denied past by recovering those colonial traces that still linger disseminated in the public arena of monuments, buildings, and squares. On the other, they re-appropriate and re-signify those sites by observing them with a new gaze that aims to be no longer celebrative of colonialism, but critical. Their work tries to subvert the “toxic narration” (ibid.: 128) that the Italian national rhetoric has divulged in order to justify its ferocious colonial enterprise, like the self-absolving myth of “Italiani brava gente” and “tramp imperialism”, which have been considered not comparable, in duration and brutality, to the French and British colonizations:
Ahi, il colonialismo italiano ferita mai risanata, ferita mai ricucita, memoria obliata. Quel colonialismo italiano che si fingeva buono […], ma che aveva sterminato quanto e a volte più degli altri colonialismi. Pensai in un lampo alle vittime dell’iprite in Etiopia. Alle vittime di quella guerra orrenda voluta da Benito Mussolini. Poveri corpi lacerati dalla chimica. […] Pensai alle donne eritree e somale costrette a vendersi (se non direttamente vittime di stupro) al padrone italiano. Pensai ai campi di concentramento, come quello di Danane, dove povera gente finiva ed esauriva la propria vita tra percosse e fame. Pensai ai corpi decapitati, impiccati, violati. (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 18)
Scego deconstructs the ideological premises of a colonialism that proved to be as vicious and ruthless as that of other European counterparts by bringing to light its horrors. At the same time, she unmasks those contemporary race and gender prejudices and stereotypes that are a direct entangled legacy of that repression. This project entails a politics of location that posits her at the intersection of trajectories that originate from specific places in Italy, since they represent a starting point for alternative routes:
[S]ono ossessionata dai luoghi. È da lì che dobbiamo ricominciare un percorso diverso, un’Italia diversa. Io sono figlia del Corno d’Africa e figlia dell’Italia. Se sono nata qui lo devo a questa storia di dolore, passaggio e contaminazione. Non la posso dimenticare IO questa storia. Non la voglio dimenticare. Per questo forse, a modo mio, la racconto. Per questo forse cammino (Ibid.: 25).
In a complex mapping connecting space, memory, narration and a sort of erratic thinking (Glissant’s la pensée de l’errance) implied in the act of walking, Scego retreads some of the public sites visited in La mia casa è dove sono. Among them, Piazza Porta Capena becomes a melancholic empty space marked by the absence left by the “Stele of Axum”, an obelisk stolen from Ethiopia by the fascist regime in 1937 as war booty following the Italian conquest of the colony, and erected in the square of the capital to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the March on Rome as a glorification the “new Roman empire”. The monument, which was returned to Ethiopia only in 2005 after long and embarrassing negotiations, has been replaced by two columns representing a memorial to the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Interestingly, they represent different tragedies that nonetheless bear witness to first and secondhand memories (“memories di serie A” and “memorie di serie B”, as Scego points out). What is missing in this substitution is the commemoration of the victims of Italian colonialism; in other words, Africa is missing. That empty space in Piazza Porta Capena thus becomes a symbol of the Italian failure to recognize its historical responsibility towards its former colonies, which is reflected in the present-day mismanagement of the so called ‘refugees-migrants emergency’ as well as in its incapability/unwillingness to commemorate officially the many victims of the shipwrecks off the coasts of Lampedusa (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 34-48).
On the other hand, this connection resurfaces in the ‘Operation Mare Nostrum’, the military and humanitarian operation aimed to search for and rescue migrants lost at sea and to arrest their smugglers, which recalls the ancient Mare Nostrum, an expression first used by Romans to define the Mediterranean as the center of Greco-Latin culture and the dominions of their empire, and later reutilized by fascists to reclaim their legacy to the glorious Roman Empire and establish Italy’s power over the Mediterranean. As Scego comments: “Mare Nostrum era un mare di Guerra. E anche a distanza di secoli il significato era rimasto immutato. La Guerra, invece di essere mossa contro gli eserciti, viene oggi perpretata ai danni dei migranti, la vera e unica carne da macello di questa globalizzazione che dall’Arabia Saudita agli Stati Uniti miete vittime ad ogni sospiro” (ibid.: 36).
Like the Stele of Axum, the Stele of Dogali witnesses another story of violence and neglect. Erected in front of Termini Station and then moved to the Terme di Diocleziano in 1925, the monument was meant to commemorate the 1887 Battle of Dogali in Eritrea, where 430 Italian soldiers died defeated. Even before fascism indeed, the young Italian nation (1861) was engaged in the colonial enterprise in order to earn its own “place in the sun” in the Scramble of Africa with other European states (Eritrea was the first colony founded in 1890, Somalia followed in 1908, Libya in 1934, and Ethiopia in 1935. In 1941 the colonies passed under the British protectorate, and in 1947 were granted independence). The insurrection of Eritreans against the colonizers, with the subsequent massacre of Italian soldiers, was transfigured into an epic act of heroism and patriotic sacrifice, so much so that the dead soldiers, who were bravely amounted to 500, were dedicated a memorial in the square named after them, Piazza dei Cinquecento.
However, the Piazza dei Cinquecento, located in front of the main train and bus stations, is also first and foremost the paradigmatic site of travel and exchange, redefined by Scego in a postcolonial perspective as a new Babel, a crossroads of migrants, cultures and languages:
È questo il vero ombelico di Roma, quasi più del Colosseo, qui dove in una Babele folle le lingue si intrecciano e si contaminano con la lingua di Dante. E chi lo immaginava che proprio questa piazza babilonia fosse legata alla storia del colonialismo italiano? Infatti i cinquecento citati nel nome della piazza sono i cinquecento caduti di Dogali. Non so bene quando l’ho scoperto. Forse l’ho sempre saputo. E forse anche per questo, per un caso fortuito della vita, è diventata la piazza dei somali, degli eritrei, degli etiopi e anche di tutti gli altri migranti. Una piazza postcoloniale suo malgrado, quasi per caso. Perché è qui che la storia degli italiani in Africa orientale è stata cancellata. (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 68)
Scego’s words are transcodified in a picture by Rino Bianchi portraying Amin Nour, a Somali Italian actor, standing on a sort of pedestal at the center of the Piazza dei Cinquecento with his back against Termini station, a place of arrivals and departures. His gaze is also turned away from the station, looking forward, towards a de-territorialized elsewhere.
Amin Nour, Piazza dei Cinquecento. Photo: Rino Bianchi (2014)
As has been widely shown by scholars and postcolonial writers and artists, the notion of Italianità is unattainable for black Italians due to the racialist and biologist definitions of national identity harking back to the colonial period, which are based exclusively on whiteness. However, as Lombardi-Diop and Romeo have argued, migrants to Italy both from former Italian colonies and from other colonized territories are today articulating a shift in the conceptualization of race that challenges the very idea of Italianness (Lombardi-Diop and Romeo 2012: 10), introducing a new and postnational perception of Italian identity that is meant to be based not on legal status, in spite of the principle of ius sanguinis, but rather on new ways of being Italian through participation in shared everyday experiences and cultural practices. Since contemporary racism in Italy, with its stereotypical representations and xenophobia towards the Other, are a direct legacy of colonialism, a revision of that past is a necessary critical tool in order to imagine a new community: “Solo prendendosi in carico il passato si può costruire un paese davvero meticcio, un paese dove l’individuo venga valutato in quanto essere umano e non in quanto stereotipo” (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 125).
In an attempt to reappropriate and resignify those spaces denied to the Italian collective unconscious, Scego and Bianchi remap the city by following a route made of monuments, traces, and above all faces. Indeed, as Scego underlines in Roma negata, the text is subsidiary to the gaze. Therefore, each monument they revisited is photographed as a backdrop against which a person coming from Africa, that place that was first invaded and then forgotten, stands out. The bodies photographed in Bianchi’s pictures become foundational to their project of rediscovery of the city, which involves reconfiguring the metropolitan stratification of Rome against the grain of dominant historiography, thus bringing to light subaltern views and forgotten traumas, like traces in a palimpsest.
The black and white of the pictures points to a temporal and spatial distance that nevertheless comes back to be embodied in those human figures inhabiting the present-day urban spaces of the Italian city. The project is aimed at producing a sense of estrangement and disorientation in the spectator/reader as s/he is compelled to confront a common past that has always been there but which has been removed, and is now resurfacing uncannily in the faces of the ‘new Italians’ – black Italians, mixed race, migrants – occupying those public spaces. “Occupare uno spazio è un grido di esistenza” (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 125), as Scego states, and indeed the photographed bodies, who have been moved by the feeling of buufis to migrate to Italy from the Horn of Africa for different reasons, claim their own stories and identities, their dignity as human beings, their dreams for a co-existential space in a country that is called upon to be less racist and more open to diversity. Bianchi’s pictures give back an image of Italian culture that is distorted and truthful at once, an image that turns out to be both an inverse and a reflected mirrored picture of Italian national rhetoric (see Benvenuti 2015: 119), thus opening up a critical space for a post-national perspective.
As Scego underlines, the subject in Bianchi’s pictures is never turned into object, rather he/she appropriates and affirms his/her subject position by occupying a common public space and bringing his/her story into the field of vision.
Ruth Gebresus, Cinema Impero. Photo: Rino Bianchi (2014)
This picture lays bare another uncanny connection between Italy and Africa, as it portrays a female subject standing on the backdrop of Cinema Impero in Rome, a movie theatre that was built during the fascist era, in 1936, and then closed in 1983. The façade of Cinema Impero in Tor Pignattara is similar to that of Cinema Impero in Asmara, Eritrea, which was built by colonial authorities in 1937 and named after Mussolini’s proclamation of the Italian Empire in East Africa. The cinema in Rome, unlike its twin in Asmara, is now a ghost building, abandoned and in a state of neglect, thus symbolizing the denial of Italian colonialism in Italy, though its memory is still present in the Eritrean capital. For a few years, Cinema Impero in Rome has provided shelter for migrants and refugees of different origins, including Eritreans, but it has never become a center of intercultural cohabitation (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 36). Rino Bianchi’s picture seems to accomplish this purpose, by envisioning the possibility of turning this run-down site into a laboratory of educational exchange. For this reason, the subject of the photo is Ruth Gebresus, an Italian Eritrean operator of art teaching, visual and reading education, engaged in designing laboratory courses on the teaching of languages and visual experimentation.
The role of women in Bianchi’s photography takes on a significant connotation as it unveils the gender-race dynamics operating during colonialism that still linger in different ways in contemporary everyday practices. Indeed, the existing stereotypical representations of black women in Italy date back to Italian imperial propaganda that publicized deceptive ideological discourses aimed to legitimize the colonial enterprise. Among them, a persistent myth was the European imaginary associating black women to African virgin lands to penetrate and dominate. Anne McClintock has defined this European colonial tradition as “porno-tropic” (McClintock 1995: 22), whereby foreign lands and their people were feminized and erotized in order to make them appear as desirable territories of conquest, thus bolstering a discourse of masculine sexual aggression as a means of exercising power over colonized lands. This imaginary resulted in the stereotypical representation of black women as “Black Venuses”, namely, as lascivious and sexually available bodies that were both menacing and dangerous because of their primitive Otherness. Actually, as Scego observes (ibid.: 64), this fantasy of colonial exploration/domination masked atavistic fears of castration on behalf of white men towards a devouring untamed black sexuality that, for this reason, had to be subjugated. This imaginary was used in Italian propaganda to lure soldiers into moving to the colonies in service of the Empire, so as to import the virility of Italian men and their superior race and civilization. However, this view of an alluring black female engaging in sexual activity and promiscuity with white men was problematized after it was censored by the Italian State with the first fascist law on madamismo and meticciato that forbade interracial relationships after the introduction of apartheid laws in 1937 (ibid.: 107).
As has been noted, the image of the Black Venus was immortalized in the form of photographs, postcards, and paintings, that circulated officially and unofficially to give visual shape to colonial culture for audiences in Italy (see Ponzanesi 2016: 376). These colonial representations still linger in contemporary culture where women, as Scego’s personal experience demonstrates, are addressed with sexist and racist epithets like “faccetta nera, cioccolatino, negrettina, caffettino” (Scego in Scego e Bianchi 2014: 106).
In one of Bianchi’s pictures a black woman, Sofia Mohamud, stands against a fascist inscription engraved on Ponte Principe Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta in Rome, dedicated to the valor of the imperial enterprise in Italian East Africa.
Sofia Mohamud, Ponte Principe Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta. Photo: Rino Bianchi (2014)
In this photograph, the association between ‘woman to rape’ and ‘land to subjugate’ is deconstructed through the female body’s postural attitude, as her slightly smiling face questions false racist and misogynist myths with a mocking and yet clearheaded air. Another picture portrays a woman whose melancholic gaze looks from a distance at an image of herself, imposed from outside, which she wants to leave behind. The photographed woman is Tezeta Abraham, Ethiopian-Italian model and actress, finalist at the national beauty contest “Miss Italia” in 2010.
Tezeta Abraham, Palazzo della Civiltà italiana. Photo: Rino Bianchi (2014)
Actually, Tezeta’s presence seems to subvert the alluring representation of the beautiful black woman embodied by Eritrean top model Zeudi Araya. Elected miss Ethiopia in 1969, she became an erotic icon of the exotic soft-core cinema that was very popular in 1970s Italian culture (see Rosetta Giuliani Caponetto 2012: 191-199). Not by chance, the protagonist of Scego’s last novel Adua (2015) is a Somali woman who decides to move to Italy in the 1970s with the promise to work as an actress in the film industry and ends up acting in soft porn movies, thus corroborating once again the embodiment of the myth of the Black Venus. Significantly, Adua (the female protagonist of Scego’s novel), as well as Tezeta in Bianchi’s picture, undermine this imaginary by remapping their bodies as free form cultural stereotypes.
Igiaba’s Scego’s Adua tackles intersected issues of race and gender on the wake of these reflections. The novel portrays three historical stages: Italian colonialism during the fascist period, the transition between the Italian Trusteeship Administration in Somalia (AFIS 1949-60) and Siad Barre’s dictatorship in the1970’s, and cross-Mediterranean migrations in contemporary Italy. These time-spanned events are poetically interlaced in an affective itinerary traced through the emotions, visions and life experiences of Adua and her father, who symbolically named her daughter after the first African victory over Italian colonizers (the Battle of Adwa in 1896).
Like the female figures portrayed in Bianchi’s pictures, Adua is a woman living in present-day Rome following the Somali diaspora in the 1970s. Significantly, she tells her story to the only interlocutor able to listen to it: the sculpture of the Elephant underpinning an Egyptian obelisk in Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva designed by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Once again, a monument reveals traces of the African presence in Italy. Moreover, the Elephant comes to represent an intimate connection for diasporic and migrant subjects with their motherland by virtue of its mutual existential condition of exile from Africa. Like in a Somali fairytale, Adua tells her marble friend stories within stories entwining colonialism and generational migrations.
Her tale alternates with that of her father who worked as a translator for the fascist regime in Rome in the 1930s. Switching to a different linguistic register and narrator, the experience of colonialism, with its corollaries of crimes, violence and racism, is filtered through the perspective of a colonized subject, Zoppe, who is emblematically portrayed as a soothsayer, a mediator between the visible and the invisible world, between the present and the future. By virtue of his visionary gift, he predicts the horrors perpetrated by the Italian imperialist campaign. Interestingly, his inability to communicate his experience of submission to a racist colonial system is expressed in his failure, years later, to engage in an affectionate relationship with his daughter, who eventually decides to leave and move to Italy.
Adua is impelled to migrate for several reasons: she feels the need to flee a political dictatorship and the male chauvinist tradition embodied by her father’s rigid education (the practice of infibulation she is forced to undergo becomes paradigmatic of this patriarchal tradition), but also she is moved by the aspiration to pursue her “Italian dream” represented by her desire to become a movie star. Unfortunately, her only movie will be Femina Somala, whose title recalls the colonial novel by Gino Mitrani Sani (1933) portraying the black female body as a “thing” to penetrate so as to satisfy men’s carnal needs. Indeed, Adua experiences the literal and metaphorical rape and vilification reserved to black women in Western contexts, in which they are almost exclusively assigned the role of shermutta (“prostitute” in Somali) or are associated with the sexist image of exotic/erotic objects available for the pornographic gaze of white masculinity (Scego’s novel Rhoda represents another example of this imaginary).
However, the present-day existential condition seems to grant Adua a form of redemption. Living in Rome as a mature woman in 2013, Adua copes with her past by exchanging protection and affection with a young immigrant, Ahmed, who had gone ashore in Lampedusa after surviving the deadly Mediterranean crossing, thus creating a link between the first Somali diaspora and the most recent immigrations. As she confides to the statue of the Elephant, the tuning point of her story takes place in the Piazza dei Cinquecento. In this paradigmatic square, Adua undergoes a symbolic regeneration from the many forms of slavery she has gone through. Indeed, she frees herself from the weight of colonial memory, with its legacy of prejudices and false myths, and contemplates the possibility of narrating her own story. The camera she is given by Ahmed before he leaves her in order to reach a northern European destination is a symbolic tool of this rebirth: like Rino Bianchi’s photography, the camera allows her to film herself as a subject rather an object to be exploited, starting from her own desires, thus giving shape to an image of herself free of oppressive representations as well as past feelings of shame and remorse. And it is not by chance that the novel ends in the symbolic square of the Piazza dei Cinquecento, a place where colonial traces overlap with contemporary migrations, a “non-place” of arrivals and departures where migrant identities get lost and intersect in a constant flow of encounters and new beginnings.
In Scego’s narratives, places and monuments play an important role, as they are considered as not simply backgrounds crystallized in silent simulacra, but rather as living entities participating in a precarious contemporaneity that hangs over in a “present imperfect” temporality, a time in between a past that still lingers in the present (Grechi e Gravano 2016: 34). As Lombardi-Diop has enlightened: “Il nostro presente è imperfetto in quanto il nostro passato coloniale non è in alcun modo remoto ma è un passato prossimo, prossimo in almeno due sensi: prossimo nel senso di vicino al presente, e prossimo nel senso di venturo, poiché è a partire dall’analisi del rapporto tra passato e presente che si gioca il futuro dei rapporti sociali nell’Italia postcoloniale” (Lombardi-Diop 2016: 45).
In light of these reflections, Scego proposes what Giulia Grechi and Viviana Gravano have defined as an “affective archive” of “(post)colonial imaginaries”, aimed at creating a shared archive constituted by private, intimate memories, as well as documents and materials pertaining to Italian colonialism:
L’archivio che Immaginari (post)coloniali propone parte da un dono che porta con sé un racconto, che genera a sua volta una promessa e una possibilità. C’è in tutto questo una dimensione di coralità, che consente l’emersione di una comunità estemporanea, disseminata e diasporica, una “comunità che viene”, attraverso quei nodi relazionali che sono le cose private, intime, intrise della memoria del colonialismo italiano (Grechi e Gravano 2016: 35).
In this perspective, Igiaba Scego retraces spatial and temporal itineraries of Italian and African symbolic places that “transform historical events into emotions, visions, and lived experiences”. On the one hand, these relational and transformative affective routes represent emotional journeys in the mystified memory of Italian colonialism. On the other, they bring to light the ensuing legacy of contemporary disavowal of racism and gender violence, thus creating a productive narrative and visual remapping of her private relationship to the worlds she inhabits, which turns out to be both personal and collective.
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Laura Sarnelli holds a PhD in Anglophone Literatures and Cultures from the University of Naples L’Orientale, Italy, where she has taught English Literature. She has held Visiting Scholar appointments at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is currently located. She has published extensively on critical theories of melancholia in postcolonial literatures, cinema, Caribbean Canadian women writers, gender and queer theory, British and Gothic literature, and Mediterranean Studies. She is the author of two books, Il libro dei desideri. Scritture di deriva nella letteratura femminile diasporica in Nord America (Aracne, 2009), and La donna fantasma. Scritture e riscritture del gotico inglese (Iacobelli, 2013). Among her latest articles is “The Gothic Mediterranean. Haunting Migrations and Critical Melancholia”, Journal of Mediterranean Studies 24.2 (2015), pp. 147-166.