What is national literature and how is it defined? Often, when one thinks of a particular nation or language, they imagine a specific phenotype tied to a historical narrative. A cursory Google search of contemporary Italian women writers spits out lists of writers one should read, including Elena Ferrante, Giulia Caminito, Viola di Grado, and Donatella Di Pietrantonio, to name a few. These women, whose works have transcended linguistic and cultural borders through translation, are also who one might expect to embody “Italianness.” In doing so, and without knowledge of the shifting racial and cultural demographic of Italy, one would assume that whiteness is central to Italian identity. In fact, any attempt to find a more expansive list of Italian writers with diverse identities and backgrounds requires adding “postcolonial,” “migrant,” or “second generation” to the search bar.
In engaging with the Italian literary landscape, Italians who claim hyphenated identities, regardless of their personal sense of Italianness, are relegated to the margins. Yet Italy’s geographic location and history as a colonial power have placed it in a proximal relationship to Blackness. These histories, unreckoned with in many ways, mean that racialized experiences of Blackness in Italy are simultaneously at the forefront and invisible.
Even before the transnational Black Lives Matter movement, Black Italians have pushed Italy to confront its colonial past and engage with its present diversity. Among those leading the charge are Afro-Italian women writers whose work speaks to and amplifies both contemporary and historical experiences of Blackness within the Italian context. These writers, in fiction and nonfiction, attempt to expand the idea of what it is to be Italian.
In this issue, four writers from different generations—Igiaba Scego, Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, Marie Moïse, and Djarah Kan—enrich our understanding of what it means to exist in Italy as a member of the Black diaspora. Against the grain of right-wing, xenophobic rhetoric and policies in Italy, their writings challenge the idea of italianità as a synonym for whiteness.
In Aaron Robertson’s translated excerpt of La mia casa è dove sono, “My Home Is Where I Am,” author Igiaba Scego recalls growing up in the Italian education system as the Black daughter of an immigrant, as well as her experience navigating belonging among white classmates.
The protagonist of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s novel Il comandante del fiume, translated by Hope Campbell Gustafson, learns of his degrees of separation from an attempted bombing in the London metro in this excerpt, “Bambi,” and compares himself to the bomber—another Black Roman boy, who’d been friends with his new friends, loved hip-hop, was Muslim, and wore white tank tops.
Djarah Kan’s written performance piece “Soumaila Sacko: Storia della vita di una pacchia” (“Soumaila Sacko: Story of the Good Life”), translated by Candice Whitney, humanizes Soumaila Sacko, a Malian man murdered by the bullets of a white supremacist in Calabria, Italy, in 2018. Kan interrogates the racist and xenophobic gaze of a society that relies on the exploitation of Black people, leading to premature deaths.
Finally, in Barbara Ofosu-Somuah’s translation of an excerpt from “Abbiamo pianto un fiume di risate” (“We Cried a River of Laughter”), Marie Moïse explores how her family's experiences with various configurations of violence have rendered a breaking both through geography and psychology, which ultimately shape her process of hurting and healing. By addressing struggles related to class, gender, (in)visibility of borders, cultural belonging, and healing, these stories demonstrate that the experiences of African-descendant people in Italy are not monolithic.
As translators, each of us has established relationships with the writers we translate. It is important to recognize that as with every cultural shift, literature is a tangible way for people to push a cultural conversation in more expansive directions than have been allowed before. As translators we attempt to expand the transnational discourse around Blackness by showing how Black Italian women and their lived experiences are critical to the way we think about Blackness beyond borders.
Looking to the future, when we think of national literature, we must always ask: what stories are not being told? Which writers don’t have the space to even consider themselves as such, due to structures that prioritize one group over another? How can translation be a bridge to unconsidered stories across borders? We hope that this feature complicates the reader’s idea of national literature and encourages them to consider how we can center the stories of women in racialized bodies when seeking to understand places and experiences.
© 2021 by Candice Whitney, Barbara Ofosu-Somuah, Aaron Robertson, and Hope Campbell Gustafson. All rights reserved.