Rewriting the Black Mediterranean

Igiaba Scego is one of the most prominent voices of a new cohort of Black writers in Italy.

Italian writer Igiaba Scego and a fan.

The past year has thrown into sharp relief the complicated and power-laden connections between Italy and the African continent. Refugees fleeing violence and upheaval in countries from Eritrea to Nigeria add to the horrific tally of death in the Mediterranean or on the shores of Lampedusa. They are casualties of the replacement of the Italian navy’s maritime search-and-rescue Mare Nostrum program with the EU Frontex agency’s Triton border securitization initiative, and–more broadly–of a systematic devaluation of black and brown life in Fortress Europe. This summer, in fact, the Mediterranean has been dubbed by many analysts the deadliest sea in the world and the deadliest migrant crossing in the world.

In the Italian political sphere, a lengthy investigation into right-wing Lega Nord minister Roberto Calderoli’s 2013 comments comparing Cecile Kyenge (former Minister of Integration and the first Black cabinet member in Italy’s history) to an “orangutan” recently concluded that his remarks constituted defamation, but not racial discrimination. (Earlier this month, another Lega Nord politician was fined for a 2013 Facebook post in which said that Kyenge should “go back to the jungle.”) Kyenge was subject to a staggering number of racist attacks during her tenure in the Letta government, from thrown bananas to hanging nooses to calls for her rape.

Alongside these shockingly transparent examples of racism in Italy, at the time of writing the Italian Senate is considering landmark legislation that would grant Italian citizenship to many children of immigrants who were born or raised in Italy (members of this so-called “second generation” make up almost 10 percent of minors in Italy). This is a limited, yet important and arguably symbolic reform to the country’s restrictive jus sanguinis citizenship laws, the product of years of organizing by a multi-ethnic coalition including many Afro-Italians.

The complicated and contradictory events unfolding in contemporary Italy require a significant reconsideration of Italy’s relationship to Africa. This critical work has been undertaken by radical historians, postcolonial scholars, novelists, filmmakers, and others, linking the racialized economic and political subjugation of Southern Italy, Italy’s own colonial entanglements in Africa, and forms of exclusion, racism, and violence waged against immigrants in Italy since the 1970s. Some writers have begun to group these multifaceted interventions under the rubric of the Black Mediterranean (a term first used by scholar Alessandra di Maio). This homage to Robert Farris Thompson and Paul Gilroy that emphasizes the dense relations of cultural exchange (but also racial violence) linking Europe and Africa. Multiple generations of Black writers, from Pap Khouma to Gabriella Ghermandi, have been at the forefront of this movement by rethinking the boundaries of Italy and exploring the complex life-worlds of African and Afro-descendant communities in Italy through memoir and fiction.

Igiaba Scego is one of the most prominent voices of a new cohort of Black writers in Italy. Scego was born in Rome in 1974 to parents from Somalia; her father served as a high-ranking official in the Somali government before the 1969 Siad Barre coup d’etat. A prolific novelist, journalist, social commentator, and activist, Scego has won numerous awards for her writings on African-Italian identities and the legacies of Italian colonialism. Her newest book, Adua, released in Italy by Giunti this September, represents a welcome intervention into the diversity of Black experiences in Italy. Indeed, Adua can be read as an exploration of what Jacqueline Nassy Brown has termed “diaspora’s counter/parts”–relations among the African diaspora that are based not solely on affinity and sameness, but also on differences and antagonism.

Adua is told through two voices and over three historical moments, which Scego describes as “Italian colonialism, Somalia in the 1970s, and our current moment, when the Mediterranean has been transformed into an open-air tomb for migrants.” Zoppe is a polyglot Somali, descended from a family of soothsayers, who works as an interpreter in the 1930s under Italian fascism. In many ways an embodiment of the tragic maxim “translator as traitor,” Zoppe is torn between his struggle for survival and his deep sense of ethical obligation toward family and nation. A survivor of brutal racist attacks while in Rome, Zoppe’s translation work also affords him a terrifying window into the impending and bloody Italian re-invasion of Ethiopia.

Adua, Zoppe’s daughter and the book’s namesake, was born in Somalia but left for Rome at the age of seventeen. She is known as a “Vecchia Lira” (Old Lira), the irreverent term used by younger immigrants to describe women of the Somali diaspora who arrived in Italy during the 1970s. Adua’s young husband is a recent Somali refugee who came to Italy via Lampedusa escaping civil war; she calls him “Titanic” in reference to the precarious boat on which he arrived, and the two share an ambiguous relationship that oscillates from the maternal to the hostile.

Young Adua dreamed of becoming a movie starlet like Marilyn Monroe–her romantic images of Italy were shaped by the films she watched as a child in a theater built by the fascists. Yet after decades in Italy, she only has one title to her name: a humiliating and degrading erotic movie exploiting Italian stereotypes of Black female sexuality. Adua’s own tragic tale is belied by her triumphal name, bestowed by her father to represent the first African anti-imperialist victory.

Adua is deeply and thoroughly researched, a process Scego describes in the “Historical Note” after the epilogue. It is also a captivating read: the novel is sweeping in its geographical and temporal scope, yet Scego nonetheless renders her complex protagonists richly and lovingly. Adua makes two critical contributions. First, she centers Italian colonial history (particularly Italian colonization and occupation in East Africa) and its reverberations in the present through the lens of lived experience–the layers of intimacy and violence that characterize imperial entanglement. Contrary to the rabid rhetoric of ethno-nationalism, xenophobia, and border securitization in Italy today (seen in the aggressive taunts launched against the likes of Mario Balotelli that “there are no Black Italians”), Scego’s book underscores that “Africans” are not foreign Others intruding into bounded Italian space; rather, these intertwined histories predate Italy’s “official” transformation into a country of immigration during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

And second, Scego dispels the notion that there is any sort of unitary Blackness in Italy. Her characters are colonial subjects and aspiring freedom fighters, migrants and refugees of multiple backgrounds and generations–in other words, Afro-Italians of many stripes and political valences. Scego has taken us beyond the all-too common invocation of subjects “trapped between two worlds,” instead portraying a range of experiences that–while still structured by racism, misogyny, and other axes of power–can do justice to the changing face of Italy today.

Adua is available in print via Giunti Editore, and can also be purchased as an ebook. While the novel is currently available only in Italian, Scego and her editor are hoping to eventually offer translations in multiple languages. In the meantime, you can read an English translation of Scego’s 2003 Eks&Tra prize-winning short story “Sausages” over at Warscapes.


Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.