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I want to be the one who says what my name is

· ​In nine thousand characters ·

The female voice is the most interesting and mature facet of the so-called “immigrant literature”, the term used to denote the literature produced by authors of foreign origin in Italian. As scholars in this sector stress, women writers surprisingly account for 43 per cent of the total production of immigrant literature, in other words almost half. This percentage exceeds that of the native-born female presence in Italian contemporary literature, which these foreign authors make their own, modifying and broadening its perspectives with their works.

Such immigrant writers are women who, after leaving their countries of origin, have undergone a radical change in lifestyle, becoming – through their encounter or clash with a new political, social and cultural situation – active individuals. In this drastic existential change writing has been the most suitable means to testify to a new awareness, directed at the formation of a different and more complex identity. This creates a bond between these women and spurs them to write in another language, Italian. It is a path of liberation and of becoming conscious of their difference and their riches. The narrator, having experienced a twofold exclusion both as a woman and as a foreigner, sees in writing the possibility of emerging from silence and of speaking as an individual, attributing order and meaning to the experiences she has personally lived through, finally constructing her own representation of female subjectivity and of the world in general. Writing thus becomes the means for these immigrant women to reveal themselves openly, reworking themselves and the trauma of migration.

The heterogeneity – of style, of age, of provenance – of female immigrant literature gives a voice to a very variegated picture, where, however, the question of who the “immigrant writer” exactly is remains confused and debatable”. There are authors of the first and second generations who come from the former colonies, as in the case of writers of African origin, authors belonging to mixed families, to Italian families or to foreign families, who did not migrate and they show inevitable differences at the level of their choice of language and content. Although in Great Britain and in France they have constituted true and proper literary movements, such as Black Britain and Littérature Beur, in Italy a pole around which they might aggregate is effectively missing.

In most cases immigrant writers who came to Italy know at least three languages: their mother tongue, in other words the language of the country they came from, the language of the colonizing country, and lastly Italian. This is the case of the Cameroonian Geneviève Makaping, who complains of the difficulty of creative writing in a language of which her mastery is incomplete: “My linguistic expression is still merely a translation into Italian of concepts that are thought of in who knows how many languages at the same time, French, Pidgin English, English and my mother tongue which is Cameroonian Bahuanese. Shall I never master at least one of these languages? Hence language is a place of conflict, a way of recognizing and taking possession of oneself. Moreover the impelling desire to write in order to give order and meaning to experiences and finally to construct a personal representation of one’s own subjectivity clashes with the problems and vulnerability of Italian, since it is a foreign language. Yet the use of Italian remains a constant in this literary production, and for it is the language these writers choose in order to make contact with the outside world, to establish a relationship with other people: for an immigrant woman author writing in Italian means stretching out a hand to the person she is addressing, inviting this person first to listen and then to enter into dialogue.

Pierre Bonnard “A Woman Writing”

By contrast, the women writers of the second generation have never themselves migrated, but are the daughters of immigrants; they were born and grew up in Italy so that Italian is their mother tongue. From the year 2000 they began to surface in the literary panorama of Italy, bearers of a disenchanted and ironic gaze upon the qualities and defects both of their original culture and of the culture they now belong to. They are distinguished from their male peers by the high level of their education and their great mastery and knowledge of the Italian language, learned from childhood. In the case of these second-generation women writers the linguistic problem vanishes: their style is mature, complex, brilliant and capable of creating new terms and coining new expressions; their topics are innovative because of the fact that they steer clear of the classic subjects of nostalgia and regret for their lost homeland, questioning instead, in a critical and sometimes ironic manner, their new and complex reality, that of being women writers and immigrants in Italy, like, for example, Randa Ghazy, who left school in 1986. Born in Italy to Egyptian parents, in her autobiographical book Oggi forse non ammazzo nessuno. Storie minime di una giovane musulmana stranamente non terrorista, she confronts directly and ironically the prejudices arising from misinformation, political apathy and ignorance which second-generation immigrants must reckon with daily. The protagonist is a 20-year-old girl in search of an identity, intolerant of both the impositions of her original culture (for example, arranged marriages), and the clichés concerning Arabs, typical of her western peers.

Igiaba Scego’s works are along the same lines. She was born in Rome, after her Somali parents opted for exile in Italy because of Siad Barre’s military coup in 1969. In her novel La mia casa è dove sono, going back over her family history, she gives a voice to the difficulties and at the same time to the riches of being the bearer of two cultures and two histories: “Am I something? Who am I? I am black and Italian. But I am also Somali and black. So am I Afro-Italian or Italo-African? In the end I am only my history”. In 2007 Igiaba Scego also edited together with Ingy Mubiayi the collection Quando nasci è una roulette. Giovani figli di migranti si raccontano, a series of interviews with the so-called “second generation” in Italy, namely the children of immigrants who are asking for a voice and for recognition, telling of themselves and of their daily lives and showing that the presumed incompatibility of values, which sets Western modern life against the cultural tradition of their ancestors, is all too often a deliberate and recent ideological construction.

As may be noted, in recent years the content of female immigrant literature has moved on from the subject of migration in the strict sense to that of interculturality, that is, the encounter between the different cultures, between different ways of interpreting reality, with the problems connected with integration into new contexts and with the question of rights and justice. These are social subjects which are rooted in a real past, about which the women immigrant writers describe their contradictory feelings: from nostalgia to the desire to flee, from disorientation to assimilation, from rejection to the wish to be integrated and to feel one with others different from themselves.

The experiential account is the preferred literary genre, but recourse to metaphor is not lacking, and hence to poetry, in order to interpret a reality which it is often difficult to decipher, as in the case of the verses of Gladys Basagoitia Dazza, a Peruvian transplanted to Italy many years ago. She is a bilingual poet who writes as much in Spanish as she does in Italian. In her poem entitled Altra lingua, the literature written precisely in another language, that is, in Italian, is offered as a universal language of recomposition, as a gesture of willingness to surmount obstacles and boundaries: “You’ve reached the country of your dreams, / you smile / smiles do not suffice / souls and doors are closed / accepting the challenge, / make the foreign melody your own / you cross frontiers / keep your mother’s song / to sing it to your children”.

The thread that runs through all the different works could be seen as a common and structured condition of awkwardness redeemed by the literary word: the awkwardness of migration which includes the additional difficulty of being a woman, a further position of weakness. It is an identity described as an inexorable duality, as a split between the immigrants’ country of origin and that of the country in which they now live and also as a cultural and human wealth, but at the same time as a laceration, due to a feeling that they do not belong anywhere. And yet the presentation of their subjectivity through literary writing restores to these women the dignity and courage to seek in autonomy the meaning of their being in the world, the meaning of their identity as a woman and an immigrant who, in the words of Geneviève Makaping, claims “The wish to be the one who says what my name is”.

Elena Buia Rutt




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 22, 2020