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Black Italia - Africa Meets the World in the Bel Paese

Alessandra Di Maio

Through the centuries, black historical and fictional characters have been an integral part of Italian culture at large – from Hannibal to Othello, up to present-day immigrants. Yet their presence, in history as much as in the arts, has often been marginalized, or considered episodic, if not entirely overlooked by the dominant discourse.

The recent arrival of a plethora of immigrants from the four corners of the world, many of whom from African countries, has urged Italians to recuperate their African past as an essential, and often problematic, component of their national identity. Yet historical sources appear fragmentary and often interpolated. How to re-compose the neglected African Italian heritage?

A number of artists from the African diaspora have recently tried to answer this question with their creative works. Art has succeeded in filling history’s and biology’s gaps. Imagination provides connection, inclusion, and the possibility of cultural transmission. By giving voice and visibility to those who had been silenced and made invisible or simply exotic by mainstream history, an array of contemporary writers, painters, sculptors, film-makers and musicians has contributed to the recollection of a crucial, neglected aspect of Italian culture.

By examining some of these artists’ most recent productions, and in particular their literary outcomes, my study – which is part of a book-length project – aims at reassessing the importance of the African heritage in the formation of Italian cultural identity. By focusing on the contemporary development of this heritage, my research also questions how it relates to and differs from that of the African diaspora in Europe and in other parts of the world.

My approach is comparative in perspective and interdisciplinary in essence. Moving from literary, linguistic and aesthetic matters, it takes into consideration sociological, anthropological, philosophical, historical, political, biological, religious, and especially legal issues. It draws from different scholarship – literary critics, postcolonial theorists, historians, sociologists and international lawyers are but of some reference points. And it deals with complex culturally constructed concepts such as color, race, gender, class, hegemony, nationality, citizenship, post/colonialism, identity, borders, diaspora, agency and representability. Far from giving univocal definitions of these terms, my analysis is an attempt at contextualizing and defining them, by putting them in relation to each other. My ultimate goal is begin to develop a new theoretical framework through which one can soundly address the issue of Black Italia, and thence of Black Europe, which includes and at the same time goes beyond the approaches suggested by the status quo academic and political discourses.

In particular, the development of my argument follows two steps. In the first part of my study, I address the rising literature of the Italian immigration and contextualize it within a more general frame of Italian letters and fine arts. By examining some narrative texts, I intend to show how this new literature came into being as a response to a nation that was beginning to narrate its immigrants through its new immigration laws – even before the media took interest in this topic. In fact, Italy, traditionally a country of emigration, was neither socially nor politically ready for these rising waves of immigration.

The first laws regulating these migratory fluxes were promulgated at the end of the Eighties, and the national, and European, body of laws controlling migration is as yet under construction. In 1990, an amnesty known as the ‘Martelli Law’ marked a turning point, as it granted in-situ immigrants Italian citizenship. In the same year, three books were published by first-generation immigrant writers of African descent, in collaboration with some native-speaking editors – Io, venditore di elefanti (I, the elephant seller), by Senegalese Pap Khouma; Immigrato (Immigrant), by Tunisian Salah Methani; and Chiamatemi Alì (Call me Ali), by Moroccan Mohamed Bouchane. These three extended narratives gave rise to what was soon considered a new writing, and immediately contributed to reshaping Italy’s languishing literature. Moreover, by telling their own stories in the first person singular, these immigrant writers, by their own admission, responded to the legal text, transforming themselves from narrated objects to narrating subjects. By participating in first person in the nation’s discourse on immigration, they interrupted a monologue and established a dialogue. And in fact, the immigrants’ literary production has been flourishing ever since.

In the second part of my research, I analyze some narrative texts by authors coming from a former Italian colony, Somalia. I am interested in exploring the ways in which Somali authors ‘write back to the center’ – in Rushdie’s words – and in seeing how they relate to other Italian immigrant writers on the one hand, and to other European postcolonial writers on the other.

For a curious historical coincidence, when immigration to Italy was starting to be regularized through the Martelli Law, Somalia was on the verge of a disastrous civil war, which is still on-going. This gave origin to a diaspora of enormous proportions – and to the coinage of a word which had not existed until then in the Somali language, corresponding to ‘refugee’. Some Somalis settled in Italy, where there was a small community of fellow-countrymen and women; but most have sought refuge in other countries, such as England, Switzerland, Sweden, and especially Canada and the United States. Why these countries? How does Italy deal with Somalis? Do they receive any special treatment for the fact that they are Italy’s post/colonial subjects, escaping from a civil war? Are they granted special benefits? Moreover, who are ‘they’, and how do they relate to Italians, in comparison with other immigrants? Finally, what do they have to say about Italy? In what language do they say it?

A first, powerful set of answers to these questions is given by Somalia’s leading novelist Nuruddin Farah. In his so-far only book of non-fiction, Yesterday, Tomorrow (2000), Farah offers his intimate portrait of Italy, where he was when the news of his exile reached him; and a more detached, political description of the country which treats Somali refugees simply as immigrants, in spite of the civil war from which they are fleeing, and in spite of its own historical responsibilities. He also proposes some glimpses of the Italian presence in Somalia.

The relationship between Somalia and Italy is also at the centre of four, very different texts written in Italian by Somali women during the last decade: Sette gocce di sangue (Seven drops of blood) by Sirad Hassan, about the practice of infibulation; Lontano da Mogadiscio (Far from Mogadiscio), an autobiographical narrative by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel; Interamente (Entirely), a short story by Ubax Cristina Ali Farah: and the recent, satirical tale Salsicce, written by Igiaba Scego on the aftermath of the so-called ‘Bossi-Fini Law’, which makes immigrants’ fingerprinting compulsory – which earned the author the literary Eks&Tra Prize in 2003.

By comparing these Italophone narratives to Farah’s Anglophone text, by putting them in a more general migrant-literary context, and with the support of a number of theoretical texts, I intend to give a portrait – partial as it may be – of contemporary, postcolonial Italy, and ponder on how the national discourse is transforming, and is being transformed by the original cultures of the newcomers and how it now phrases terms such as race, citizenship, identity, language and, of course, color.

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