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I am with you

· ​The book ·

In Vita (2003) [English edition, Vita, A Novel, 2006], Melania Mazzucco told of the difficult page in her history which was her emigration from Europe to the Americas; now, in Io sono con te. Storia di Brigitte (Einaudi, 2016), she recounts the epic of a women migrant today. Between these two true stories there is not only a gap of at least a century but also the total overturning of points of departure and points of arrival and the warm comfort we derive from not wanting to see.

Obliged to escape for political reasons, Brigitte arrives from the Congo at the Termini station in Rome on a winter day: after months of daily group rapes, travails and torture in prison, alone, with no money, documents or addresses, she finds herself flung under the overhanging roof that shelters the façade in Piazza dei Cinquecento: “It is 5:30 p.m. on 26 January. I don’t know where I am, I am alone at the station of an unknown city in an unknown country on an unknown continent. I’m alone and I no longer have anything”. Nothing behind or before her: her brain now seems to have “left” her. Of her previous life (work as a nurse, the clinic off to a good start, her four beloved children) all memories have been wiped clean into a blank slate for legitimate self-defence, while physically she survives, thanks to the rubbish bins in the station. Brigitte is now beyond the abyss when a religious scribbles down an address for her: Via degli Astalli 14a.

This was to be only the beginning of a very hard journey. For as well as her providential encounters with those who work at the Centro Astalli and with that world of men and women religious who listen, take in and accompany those who – like Brigitte – have found their very selves shipwrecked, the odyssey of having to rediscover herself as a person in an unknown situation now begins. At every step she risks slipping between ghosts and hopes.

Every desperate individual who is fleeing is not born poor. The person may be ignorant, alone or on the margins, but he or she has been a person with his or her history, family, social status and dignity. Brigitte herself struggles to understand this: “The word réfugiés [refugees] makes her think of the Rwandans.... She has never imagined that one day she would have to associate this word with herself.

We limit ourselves to being moved by the plight of immigrants, seeing the scenes of their gruelling journeys, whereas we know nothing of what happens to them when that journey ends on our own streets. Melania Mazzucco fills this gap. “We suffer”, she writes, “the dictatorship of emergency, without reasoning about its duration or conceiving of a prospect.... Who or what they think, are or will become concerns us. It is necessary to know them and to enable them to know us. The future is built now”. Io sono con te is a powerful novel. Because the upsetting meeting between these two so different women – Brigitte, the protagonist of the story and Melania who, armed with a pen, gives this story a new birth restoring Brigitte’s dignity to her – upsets us too.

And thus, just as it is impossible to look at Tintoretto’s works without thinking of The Long Wait for the Angel, we hope that having read Io sono con te, we shall find it difficult to lift our gazes from those asleep on the kerbs of our pavements without at least asking ourselves what their story might be. For if Brigitte’s story has not reached its end, it is up to us to write the conclusion.

Giulia Galeotti




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 21, 2019