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Transnational Literature, Postcolonial Literature, and G2 (Second Generations Network) in Contemporary Italy— Maria Grazia Negro

Feb 7, 2023 | Non Fiction | 0 comments

My article focuses on literary and creative transnational production in contemporary Italy. The analysis of transnational and postcolonial literature and the creative work of second-generation immigrants will explain the pressure on the contemporary Italo-centric canon and on the homogeneous representation of Italian identity.

The first works of transnational literature appear on the Italian literary scene beginning in 1990. At that time, these works were collected, after a long discussion among critics, under the labels ‘Italian migrant literature’ and ‘migrant writers’. They are immediately taken to be autobiographical novels written in the ‘four hands’ procedure, meaning in collaboration with Italian co-authors. These works are Immigrato (1990) by the Tunisian Salah Methnani written together with the author and journalist Mario Fortunato; Io, venditore di elefanti. Una vita per forza tra Dakar, Parigi e Milano (1990), by the Senegalese Pap Khouma, who received editorial help from the journalist Oreste Pivetta; Chiamatemi Alì (1990) written by the Moroccan Mohamed Bouchane together with the journalists Carla De Girolamo and Daniele Miccione. The common theme recurring within these novels is their description of the migratory adventures of the protagonists/narrators. The novels address their difficulties as clandestine people along with their eventual integration into Italian society. While the transnational writer needs only to write, the co-author must also certify the authenticity of the actual content and its lexical and syntactic style. These pioneering works correspond to what Armando Gnisci defines as the ‘exotic phase’ of Italian migrant literature. They are a promotional operation on the part of large publishing houses to expose the new multi-ethnic tendency of Italian society beginning in 1990 (Gnisci 2003: 93). Following the first male autobiographies that had been written in the ‘four hands’ procedure, there were then two female autobiographies written in 1993. They were also edited by women. They are Volevo diventare bianca by the Algerian Nassera Chohra written with the journalist Alessandra Atti Di Sarro and Con il vento nei capelli. Una palestinese racconta, by the Palestinian Salwa Salem and edited by Laura Maritano, an expert on immigration. Unlike their male contemporaries, they give ample emphasis to their place of origin and their childhood. On the basis of this difference, Alessandro Portelli refers to the male collaborative autobiographies as ‘immigration stories’ and the female ones as ‘life stories’ (Portelli 2000: 84).

The communal transnational autobiographies fall within the area of rhetorical practice and strategy that Gabriella Parati defines as ‘talking back’ (Parati 2005: 31). With these novels, subjects previously ignored and deliberately oppressed, such as immigrants, find their voice in order to denounce the racism and inhospitality of their host country’s environment. In this sense, they are utilizing the autobiographical writing genre of testimonio, which is made up of texts with marked ethical and political protest written on the part of minority groups (Smith &  Watson  2001: 206). Most scholars felt that the first collaborative autobiographies of transnational literature were critiques of the host country, rather than true literary texts, valuing them as sociological testimony (Cacciatori 1991: 168). Gnisci, on the other hand, immediately perceived the basis of a new and fecund transnational literature in these texts.

The autobiographical ‘four-handed-writing’ procedure will progressively be abandoned by both male and female authors because it seemed to limit artistic expressivity. In the following phase of transnational literature known as ‘karstic’ (Gnisci 2003: 90), the vitality inherent in this form of literary production is found in small, courageous publishing houses which published integral, autonomous texts, by both male and female writers. During this phase in 1995, the ‘Eks&Tra’ prize was also established for the promotion of transnational writing.

Today, transnational writers represent a mature and vital sector of Italian contemporary literature, with authors coming from all over the world (especially from Africa and East European countries). This is confirmed by the database BASILI & LIMM, founded by Gnisci, managed by the literary magazine El Ghibli and hosted on the Accademia della Crusca website . This database records both foreign writers in Italian: Italian migrant writers, second-generation writers, and critics who deal with them. Currently, there are more than 500 authors, with a marked presence of women coming from all continents (Europe, Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania in order of numerical importance) and a total of about 100 nations. Their works are a cross-section of many genres but concentrate above all on poetry, short stories, fiction, and autobiographical novels. Many of these writers and poets have won important literary awards, like Jarmila Očkayová (Slovakia), Barbara Pumhösel (Austria), Ron Kubati, Gezim Hajdari, Ornela Vorpsi, and Anilda Ibrahimi (Albania), Sarah Zuhra Lukanić (Croatia), Mihai Mircea Butcovan (Romania), Yussef Wakkas (Syria), Younis Tawfik (Iraq), Hamid Ziarati (Iran), Tahar Lamri, and Amara Lakhous (Algeria), Pap Khouma (Senegal), Kossi Amékowoyoa Komla-Ebri (Togo), Gabriella Ghermandi (Ethiopia), Cristina Ali Farah and Igiaba Scego (Somalia), Ribka Sibhatu and Hamid Barole Abdu (Eritrea), Lily-Amber Laila Wadia (India), Adrian Bravi (Argentina), Christiana de Caldas Brito, Julio Monteiro Martins and Heleno Oliveira (Brazil), and others. Italian transnational literature is increasingly present in schools (within intercultural projects) and, albeit timidly, is gaining entry into certain Italian literary histories (Paccagnini 2002) and faculties of Italian universities. However, most scholars, even now, identify the literary canon with the works of Italian monolingual writers. We can verify this Italo-centric vision of literary canon with a statement by Alberto Asor Rosa, a renowned literary critic when he said in 2009: “In a few years citizens coming from diverse places will receive an education in Italy. They will have to study textbooks that describe the history of Italian literature, to learn books written in Italian and, perhaps, to write some of them.” (Rosa 2009: 596) Transnational writers themselves feel the risk of being forced into a ghetto and a majority of them still refuse the label ‘Italian migrant literature’. They believe that they should be considered full-fledged Italian contemporary writers.

The political and ethical implications of transnational literature are particularly clear when we consider that the colonial past (which involved Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Libya, as well as Albania and Greece albeit with a shorter duration of occupation) has been removed from Italian collective memory. It instead has been transfigured, turning it into the myth of ‘Italians, good guys,” i.e. Italians consider themselves to be morally superior to the other European colonizers. The ultimate theme of Italian postcolonial literature is the analysis of the effects of colonial domination and the denunciation of persistent racism in contemporary society. Its ultimate goal is that of inducing Italians to re-appropriate a part of their forgotten colonial past. In this sense, Italian postcolonial literature confirms what the sociologists, Paolo Jedlowski and Renate Siebert, say about contemporary Italian society, namely that racism is the only sediment of the colonial adventure that is present in the unconscious collective memory of the nation (Jedlowski-Siebert 2011).

Italian postcolonial literature first appears in the early 90s together with the growing transnational literature. Postcolonial literature was wrongly placed by critics within this nascent literature. I say wrongly because these authors dismiss the first phase of transnational literature, that of ʻfour-handedʼ authorship. Almost all postcolonial writers possess a knowledge of Italian which predates their transfer to Italy, having learned it in either in the schools of their ex-colonies or because one of their parents spoke the language. The first of the postcolonial writers, the Somali Shirin Ramzanli Fazel and the Eritrean Ribka Sibhatu, were thus assimilated into this nascent transnational literature also due to the autobiographical themes which they shared with other migrant authors in their first autobiographies, Aulò, canto-poesia dall’Eritrea (1993) by Sibhatu and Lontano da Mogadiscio (1994) by Fazel. Chaotic memories of Italian colonization emerge in the idealized transfiguration of Eritrea and Somalia with an ambivalent connotation in both writers. On one hand, colonial memories have a positive outlook, either because the presence of Italians and Italian culture meant modernizing the nation or because this modernization is connected to a cultural heritage that the author has retained throughout his life. On the other hand, colonial memories are negative, because they are tinged with racism, as both writers emphasize.  

With the novels, Il latte è buono (2005) by the Somali writer Garane Garane, Madre piccola (2007) by the Italo-Somali writer Cristina Ali Farah, and Regina di fiori e di perle (2007) by Italo-Ethiopian Gabriella Ghermandi, Italian postcolonial literature enters a phase of full maturity. The three novels are not directly autobiographical and they confront many classic themes of postcolonial production (Negro 2015): 

  • the relationship with history and the past becomes essential to recount the story from the perspective of the dominated people;
  • even the definition of identity is articulated in relation to the contrast with imperialistic power;
  • memory is fathomed in its heterogeneity and its diverse functions; 
  • the re-appropriation of the literature and of the language of the ex-colonizer means re-writing the literary canon and changing the Italian language from the inside. Indeed, these texts are characterized by multilingualism;
  • the time of narration becomes circular to adapt to the rhythms of oral storytelling. 

But the real novelty of these works, with respect to the first two postcolonial autobiographies of the 90s, is the explicit claim that profound historical ties exist between Italy and its ex-colonies. Contemporary Italians have repressed these ties in order to further distance a recent memory from the collective consciousness, in which they were the ones who had to emigrate across the globe on account of poverty. The formalization of this profound nexus between these two repressions (the repression of the colonial past and the repression of the migratory past) on the part of the Italian collective memory is an entirely new theme. This short-circuiting of the collective memory creates gaps in the construction of national identity and gives way to racism dating back to pre-Fascist colonial times, continuing during the Fascist period up to the present. Italians do not even realize that they are reproducing these ingrained attitudes even today.

Other important books by Italian postcolonial writers mark a further evolution of the theme which I’m analyzing. They are: La mia casa è dove sono (2010) by Somali writer Igiaba Scego, a collection of autobiographical stories; Nuvole sull’equatore. Gli italiani dimenticati. Una storia (2010) by Fazel, a novel about mestizo children; Fra-intendimenti (2010) by Somali Kaha Mohamed Aden, another collection of autobiographical short stories; Timira. Romanzo meticcio (2012) by Italian Wu Ming and Somali Antar Mohamed, a novel on the life of Mohamed’s mestizo mother Isabella Marincola, which analyses Italian and Somali societies from the 30s until today. What seems most unique in this phase is the explicit claim on the part of the authors to the existence of a hybrid identity. This identity no longer desires to be in dialogue with Italian society, but simply wants to contrast it with the awareness that the time for discussion is over. It is as if the time of disenchantment had arrived for postcolonial literature. The persistence of racist attitudes and of acts of self-absolution in Italian society prevents it from overcoming the short-circuiting of memory which I earlier analyzed, and from accepting ex-colonized people with dignity as well as taking up an effective dialogue with them on the basis of a shared common past. What changes in the third phase of Italian postcolonial literature is the definition of the postcolonial subjects’ identity, which is no longer being negotiated with Italian society in the search for an impossible sense of belonging. A many-sided identity is vigorously claimed with the proud ostentation of its hybrid components and it is provocatively opposed to the repeated expressions of closure on the side of Italian society: 

I am what? I am who?
I’m black and Italian.
But I’m also Somali and black.
Am I Afro-Italian, then? Italo-African? Second generation? Uncertain generation? Meel kaale? An annoyance? Saracen nigger? Dirty nigger? (Scego 2010: 27) 

A similar strategy of cultural hybridism, rooted in Italian popular culture and informed by global hip hop is used by Rete G2 , an organization founded in Rome in 2005 by children of immigrants and refugees to support second generations. The Italian citizenship Act No. 91 of 1992 provides for the acquisition of citizenship only at the age of adulthood and with uninterrupted residence in Italy until this age. Today, they are about one million children born in Italy to foreign parents living in an awkward situation: they attend Italian schools and are fully Italian, but they are considered foreigners under the law and they must ask for a residence permit. As the founders of Rete G2 indicate on their website, the ultimate goal of this organization is not only that of changing the citizenship act but also that of the changing Italian society in order to recognize all of its children, whatever their origins. In order to make institutions and their peers aware of their concerns, the members of G2 have organized a series of cultural initiatives such as active laboratories, the production of written texts, of videos, and of a CD Straniero a chi? with songs inspired by hip hop, soul, reggae, punk in several languages including Italian, local dialects, English, Arab, and Portuguese. G2 chooses a simple and direct method of communication, as can be seen in the videos on the website : a series of second-generation youths born or raised in Italy presenting themselves, explaining what it means to be Italian today, and demanding the change of the citizenship act, as well as the acquisition of the right to vote in local elections. With regard to written texts, in 2008, G2 recovered a product of Italian popular culture, the fotoromanzo, a narration through photographs where well-known actors play the role of the protagonists. This pulp sub-genre of comics was a widely-circulated magazine in the second Italian postwar till the end of the 70s. The fotoromanzo, Apparenze (Appearances) was sponsored by Rome’s municipality and distributed free of charge in all the high schools of the city. The plot is based on the meeting of second-generation youths in Villa Borghese for a drink. In the beginning, Lucia, a black girl waiting for her friends, is approached by an Italian guy, Adriano, speaking in broken English. Lucy is irritated because, as often happens, Italians do not envision black people speaking perfect Italian, but she discovers later that some of Adriano’s relatives had emigrated to Australia, thus linking the history of immigration in Italy to that of Italians in the world. With an ironic style and manipulation of the Italian language, mixing local dialect and youth jargon, the fotoromanzo becomes an educational tool where second-generation youths represent their hybrid identities and their complicated confrontation with Italian institutions.

fotoromanzo-21

A fotoromanzo

Transnational and postcolonial literature and the network G2 contribute to the globalization of the Italian imaginary because they show real facets of Italian multicultural society. They perform an intercultural and imagologic task, exposing the national and ethnic stereotypes and highlighting the complexity of Westerners’ exoticizing gaze, owing to residual traces of colonial power relations. 


Bibliography

 

Asor Rosa, Alberto. Storia della letteratura italiana III. Torino: Einaudi, 2009.

Cacciatori, Remo. “Il libro nero. Storie di immigrati.” Tirature. Ed. Vittorio Spinazzola. Torino: Einaudi, 1991. 163-173.

BASILI & LIMM: Banca degli Scrittori immigrati in Lingua italiana e della Letteratura Italiana della Migrazione Mondiale: https://www.basili-limm.it/

Gnisci, Armando. Creolizzare l’Europa. Letteratura e migrazione. Rome: Meltemi, 2003.

Jedlowski, Paolo, and Renate Siebert. “Memoria coloniale e razzismo.” Un paese normale? Saggi sull’Italia contemporanea. Ed. Mammone Andrea, Nicola Tranfaglia, and Giuseppe Alessandro Veltri. Milano: Dalai, 2011. 231-251.

Llaguno Ciani, Maya. Fotoromanzo G2 Apparenze. Roma: Ufficio Stampa Comune di Roma, 2008.

Negro, Maria Grazia. Il mondo, il grido, la parola. La questione linguistica nella letteratura postcoloniale italiana. Firenze: Franco Cesati Editore, 2015.

Parati, Gabriella. Migration Italy. The Art of Talking Back in a Destination Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Portelli, Alessandro. “Le origini della letteratura afroitaliana e l’esempio afroamericano.” L’ospite ingrato 3 (2000): 69-86.

Rete G2 – Seconde Generazioni: https://www.secondegenerazioni.it/

Scego, Igiaba. La mia casa è dove sono. Milano: Rizzoli, 2010.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading. A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis-London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 


Also, read six French poems, written by Tanella Boni, translated into English by Patrick Williamson, and published in The Antonym:

Unpublished French Poems— Tanella Boni


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Maria Grazia Negro is an Italian researcher. She has taught for many years at the University of Casablanca, Salzburg, and Istanbul. Her fields of research are contemporary comparative literature, migration literature, and cultural, diasporic, and postcolonial studies. Her publications include the volumes La spina nel cuore, La figura di Margarete Maultasch tra Otto e Novecento (1998), Nuovo Immaginario Italiano,Italiani e stranieri a confronto nella letteratura italiana contemporanea (2009, with Maria Cristina Mauceri), Il mondo, il grido, la parola, La questione linguistica nella letteratura postcoloniale italiana (2016). Furthermore, her essays were published in several collective volumes and journals. 

 

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