People who don’t know me assume, looking at me, that I don’t know Italian. When I speak to them in Italian, when I ask for something . . . they say, puzzled, ‘I don’t understand.’ It’s always the same response, the same scowl. As if my Italian were another language.
—Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words
What is migration? The word itself immediately brings up a concatenation of issues: immigration, emigration, flights both voluntary and forced. Can one even draw a distinction between migrants and refugees? Our mass media often lump these ideas together. Luckily, the world of literature is more nuanced, and necessarily embraces complexity. Add to this the fact that the Italian peninsula is a skinny strip of land jutting out into the Mediterranean—a body of water the ancient Romans revealingly called mare nostrum, “our sea”—dotted with islands conquered so many times that they’ve developed their own ideas of safety and sovereignty. So, just how might we best explore this mobile concept, blending diaspora and influx, as it has influenced contemporary Italian literature? With great care.
One day in the late 1990s I sat down at the bar of a café in a small medieval town in central Italy. I was an undergraduate, and had just arrived. A grandmotherly woman two barstools down heard my accent as I ordered tea, and leaned in to ask where I was from. “The United States,” I replied. Her eyebrows rose as she leaned in even closer to tell me how lucky I was to have landed there, clarifying: “Down south, they’re all Africans. Up north, they’re all Germans. Here, in Umbria, we’re the real Italians.” I stifled my laugh, because although I found her pearl of wisdom hilarious and figured she had to be joking, her earnestness told me otherwise. It was a perspective I’ve heard over and over again during the past several years, and she springs to mind each time I hear a native–born Italian hint that the place they’re from is somehow “more Italian” than any other.
Asked about non-native speakers currently writing in his language, a noted Italian writer and literary critic whose name I do not care to remember dryly replied that a lot of people are “trying to write in Italian,” but that “it’s not literature.” My hope is that readers of this issue will have ample reason to disagree.
Which brings us to the next inevitable questions: who is Italian, what is the Italian language, and who deserves to write in it? Italians themselves often acknowledge their esterofilia, a “passion for foreign things,” which becomes immediately clear when you walk into any bookstore and see a majority of the titles on offer are translations from other languages. Italy has successfully exported Elena Ferrante, Umberto Eco, Andrea Camilleri, Dante et alia, but still imports far more. The tide shows signs of turning, however. London-born writer Jhumpa Lahiri has now chosen to write exclusively in Italian. Translator Michael Moore, reviewing the recent bilingual edition of In Other Words (translated by Ann Goldstein) for the Los Angeles Review of Books, pointed out that, as an “exophone,” Lahiri “joins the distinguished company of many Italian writers who grew up speaking in dialect, a regional variant of standard Italian, or another national language altogether (French, German, and, today, on the wave of recent immigration trends, Albanian, Arabic, and Somali). In their day authors as prominent as Pirandello, Svevo, and Moravia were attacked by the critical establishment for writing ‘bad’ Italian.”
One of the writers featured here uses a pen name, and, although it replaces an “equally Italian” family name, it’s worth noting that any consideration of the pseudonyms dotting the Italian literary canon necessarily brings up the question of heritage. Renowned Italian writers Kurt Erich Suckert (German father, Italian mother) and Aron Ettore Schmitz (born in the Austrian Empire to a Jewish German father and Italian mother) gave us twentieth-century masterpieces like Kaputt and Zeno’s Conscience, although you probably know the authors better as Curzio Malaparte and Italo Svevo.
As Italy’s publishing scene welcomes more indie presses, and as literary festivals start to look beyond the established canon, many new voices are joining the chorus. The specific selections included here aim to reflect the diversity of the Italian peninsula and its new literary currents.
Ethiopian-American novelist and essayist Maaza Mengiste lived in Nigeria and Kenya before moving to the United States, and has contributed a key piece tying together the multiple factors at work when considering Italian literature and the theme of migration.
German poet and teacher Eva Taylor lives in Italy, and has translated work by Elisa Biagini, Anna Maria Carpi, Yüksel Pazarkaya, Zehra Çırak, Hasan Özdemir, and Uljana Wolf. Her suite of Italian poems featured here, translated by Olivia Sears, explore the foreignness of inhabiting a new land and language.
Albanian–born poet Gëzim Hajdari is also president of the Centro Internazionale Eugenio Montale. An example of his prolific work is brought to us here through Patrick Barron’s translation—and comments both directly and metaphorically on his itinerant, internationally recognized poetic practice.
Italian poet Giampiero Neri offers up reflections on hospitality, solitude, and exile in prose and verse. The selection of poems included here are team-translated by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani.
Milanese journalist and author Gabriella Kuruvilla’s story, translated by Jamie Richards, is from a recent collection whose title could be translated as “That’s Life, Sweetie,” and touches upon the dynamics of motherhood and assimilation.
Indian–born writer and translator Laila Wadia pens a letter to her newborn son. She works with immigrant populations and women’s groups in Trieste, and is translated here by Sole Anatrone.
Marco Truzzi hails from Correggio, and won the 2012 Premio Bagutta for his novel Goldfish Don't Live in Puddles. The excerpt featured here, translated by André Naffis-Sahely, dives right into the daily life of a young man growing up in a Romani camp in Emilia-Romagna.
Sicilian playwright Lina Prosa’s three-part drama Shipwreck Trilogy grapples with the refugee crisis on its front lines. Translated by Allison Grimaldi Donahue and Nerina Cocchi, Part I was published in The American Reader in 2013. Here we present an excerpt of Part II, “Lampedusa Snow,” narrated by an African refugee in Italy’s Alpine north.
Algerian–born writer Tahar Lamri worked in Libya and France before moving to Ravenna in the 1980s. His whimsical story is translated by Robert Elliot, and blends strands of Italian, Arabic, German, and cultures from all over the Mediterranean as experienced by “an immobile traveler, eternally traveling,” born somewhere in present-day Italy.
Journalist and literary critic Francesco Durante, who teaches in Naples, provides a sharp-eyed overview of migration in Italian literature. His essay, translated by Antony Shugaar, tackles the topic from both directions—writers from elsewhere adopting the language, and native-born Italians who left for other lands.
Countless facets come together under the rubric of Italian literature and migration, and although not all could be included here, many deserve greater exploration. One of the earliest can be found in Nathalie Hester’s work on a premodern travel account from sixteenth-century Galeotto Cei. His Viaggio e relazione delle Indie (“Voyage and account of the Indies”) is one of the first texts by a merchant from Florence venturing abroad and reporting back on local customs, the treatment of slaves, agriculture, cuisine, etc. His critiques include a vivid account of eating arepas coated in fat he was told came from old goats but turned out to be from a roasted human. Twentieth-century writers Barbara Allason, Ada Gobettti, Carlo Rosselli, and Ignazio Silone also wrote extensively on migration, exile, and resistance. The work of Giuseppe Ungaretti—who was raised in Egypt, studied in French schools, and didn’t see Italy until he was grown—is pervaded by a sense of displacement; see Geoffrey Brock’s fine translations in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry. Brazil–born Julio Monteiro Martins published several stories and books in Italian, which are currently being translated by Anne Greeott. Coming to the present day, essayist Giuseppe Burgio is doing fascinating work on migrant sexuality and cultural borders. Erri De Luca’s texts have also touched on migration, and translations of his work by Jim Hicks have appeared in The Massachusetts Review and the PEN America blog. Albanian writer Ron Kubati, now living in the United States, has published novels in Italian dealing with the Fascist occupation of the Balkans, Yugoslavian interference in Communist Albania, and the early Cold War years in Italy. Igiaba Scego, featured in our April 2016 issue, has written a lot on the subject; fortunately for us Anglophones, her novel Adua, translated by issue contributor Jamie Richards, is forthcoming from New Vessel Press. Contributor André Naffis-Sahely has translated the poems and fables of Eritrean–Italian writer Ribka Sibhatu, and recently published Part I of The Confines of the Shadow, an epic charting the history of Libya by Syrian–born Alessandro Spina (né Basili Shafik Khouzam). French-Algerian writer Nassera Chohra moved to Rome and learned Italian as an adult; her 1993 book Volevo Diventare Bianca (“I Wanted to Become White”) has yet to appear in English.
A parallel could be drawn with what Italian cuisine was before the tomato was brought back from the New World or coffee introduced from Africa. The country’s geographic neighbors and its very map reveal a lot, too. Will fraternizing with Arabic, various kinds of English, German dialects, the Mande languages, Tigrinya, and many other tongues affect Italian? Some of these languages already have, and the others probably will. Might Italy’s literary practitioners embrace these evolutions? Let’s hope so.
In a recent radio interview, Mayor of Lampedusa Giusy Nicolini spoke about how the refugees passing through her island have asked for bilingual books of literature, in addition to the necessities included in the basic welcome kit they receive. She emphasized that, with proper legislation and international cooperation, the treacherous sea crossings covered in the news could be made a thing of the past; she’d much rather see the funding currently used for burials used instead to give people books, as a gateway to Italian language and culture. Just as the German, French, and other European and international literary establishments have begun to grapple with writers of all different backgrounds adopting and reinvigorating their languages, Italian literature faces a great opportunity. We can consider these new voices both the fruit of fallen empires and a great gift—a fresh glimpse into a human experience we thought we understood, until now.
© 2016 by Alta Price. All rights reserved.