A look at immigrants' rich contribution to Italy's literary scene

From the pens of those who first landed in the 70s and 80s, to that of their Italian-born children and grandchildren, the writing of relative newcomers and their families can hit home hard

A trawl through the history of immigrant writing in Italy for more than a generation, including its changing nature and the reasons why the authors felt compelled to voice their thoughts in the first
Julien Pacaud
A trawl through the history of immigrant writing in Italy for more than a generation, including its changing nature and the reasons why the authors felt compelled to voice their thoughts in the first

A look at immigrants' rich contribution to Italy's literary scene

It always rains in this country,

Perhaps because I am a foreigner.

We travel at night,

Forgetting that we are blind,

To reach a bare land,

Which needs our voice.

These are the words of Kazem Haideri, a diaspora poet in Italy and the first foreigner to receive the Eugenio Montale International Poetry Prize.

Penned in the 1990s, his words depict the problematic relationship between immigrant and host society, and the difficulty of making an immigrant’s voice heard beyond the leather tanning factories, construction workshops, cow sheds, horse stables, slums, prisons, citrus farms and vineyards where thousands worked long hours illegally for meagre wages.

It is always difficult to identify when a literary current is born, but sometimes a seismic social or political event plays a decisive role in the emergence and development of literary movements. In the case of migrant literature, this was the murder of a young South African by the name of Jerry Masslo in August 1989.

It is difficult to determine when a literary current is born, but sometimes a seismic social or political event plays a part. For migrant writing, that was the death of Jerry Masslo.

Like many young men from the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa, Masslo had arrived in Italy seeking a better life and was working harvesting tomatoes, one of Italy's main crops and a key ingredient in many of its most famous dishes.

Returning back to the workers' shed one night, where he slept with 28 other migrants, a local masked gang burst in to rob the migrants of their monthly earnings, which had just been paid in cash. In the ensuing medley, they shot two migrants before fleeing. One lived; Masslo died.

His killing shook the country and alerted many Italians to what appeared to be a national problem with racism and immigrants. The state TV channel broadcast Masslo's funeral ceremony live.

Protesters numbering 200,000 took to the streets of Rome. Within months, the government had issued a decree - later becoming the Martelli Law - which sought to legislate on immigration and regulate the affairs of immigrants. Italy began to move from a country of immigrants to a land of immigration.

Finding a voice from death

Masslo's killing – and the reaction to it - reverberated far and wide, and it was immigrants themselves who were among the first to respond. One was Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan writer living in France, who published his collection of short stories called 'State of Absence, in collaboration with Italian journalist Egi Volterrani. An entire category, dubbed 'migrant literature' or 'witness literature', was being born.

Between 1990-1992, four books seemed to encapsulate this. The first was 'My Name is Ali' by Moroccan writer Mohamed Bouchane and Milanese journalists Carla Di Girolamo and Danielle Micconi, telling of Bouchane's life far from his hometown of Tifelt.

The others are 'The Emigrant' by Tunisian writer Salah Methnani and Italian Mario Fortunato, 'I was an Elephant Salesman' by Senegalese writer Pap Khouma and Oreste Bivitta, and 'The Promise of Hammadi' by the Senegal's Moussa Saido Ba and Alessandro Micheletti.

The books came from the need of immigrant intellectuals to make their voices heard and to communicate directly, through writing, with the Italian public. They are texts, often autobiographies, that talk about violence and the still seemingly unattainable integration of immigrants into Italian society.

From a wave to a ripple

Despite the attention it got and the significance of the era, this nascent literary flame soon began to flicker. The interest of large publishing houses waned, ceding the scripts to smaller, typically left-leaning, often independent publishing houses and those supporting the causes of Third World countries.

Still, immigrants had begun making their own cultural interventions.  Literature became a way to overcome the stereotypes and prejudices held against those who came ashore to work, whether it be in the factories or in the homes of Italians, as many thousands of Ukrainian and Filipino women were doing, looking after Italian children and Italian elderly.

It was also meant to help them integrate into their new societies (although the term 'integration' is still a matter of great controversy). The negative image of immigrants being peddled in Italian media meant that changing Italians' perspective of newcomers became both important and urgent.

Despite the attention, despite the significance of the times, the migrant literary flame flickered and the big publishing houses lost interest, ceding scripts to those supporting the Third World'

Presenting the literature of immigrants in the Italian language was key, because it reflected the ocean-crossing past of Italians in the context of the present.

There is no fundamental difference between someone emigrating today and that of past generations, which prompted tens of thousands of Italians to leave for the likes of Australia and America more than 100 years ago, likewise in search of a better life.

By using the Italian language to express themselves, immigrant writers created a bridge of communication between them and their host society.

Elsewhere in Europe there have been other literary movements such as 'Black Britain' in the UK and 'Littérature Beur' in Franc, Italy is nevertheless a special case on the continental panorama.

In less than 20 years, it has moved from autobiography mediated by co-authors, to the acquisition of the writers' own language, to the writing of the second generation.

An evolution in writing

The themes of the first phase testify to the dramatic experience of immigrants, the difficulties of integrating into Italian society, and the urgent need to express their existence and affirm their traditions, culture, and their right to be regarded as thinking beings and not mere workers or second-class citizens.

This literature exists in a state of fragile balance between rejection and acceptance, between the culture of belonging and the culture of the host society.

As such, the desire to integrate – an ever-present theme in immigration stories - appears in the first wave in the form of a love note to the host land, the romance then fading when the writers face rejection, prejudice, discrimination, and racism.

Adopting the Italian language through forms of co-authorship further emphasises the writer's feeling of a double nature, of living in an environment to which they do not belong, and with the loss of their original identity without having yet acquired a new one. This 'passing literature', as some critics call it, was an important first step creatively.

In less than 20 years, it has moved from autobiography mediated by co-authors, to the acquisition of the writers' own language, to the writing of the second generation

Brazilian-born writer Cristiana de Caldas Brito once said that "for an immigrant to write is to rearrange a life that should have flowed between the inner walls of the homeland and which, instead, suffered its swinging fate, and thus moved elsewhere".

Migrant literature is about "giving a meaning to leaving here and arriving there," she explained.

The danger facing immigrant writers, according to her, is that they remain "forever bound by the topic of migration associated with folklore or the exotic." Media labelling of 'migrant writers' may exacerbate and perpetuate this.

Second generation writer Ijaba Shekho, one of the children of "that generation of immigrants who arrived in Italy in the 70s and 80s", says his peers feel very different to their parents.

"We attended Italian schools, had an Italian cultural background, lived part of our lives in an Italian homeland… we are Italians through and across."

An immigrant's eloquent silence

Algerian writer Tahar El Omari thinks immigrant writers in Italy "speak only of the eloquent silence of the immigrant… a secret way of talking about life and love, alienation, motherhood, childhood, death, difficulty, and joy, and above all the writer's ability to use Italian words to express all of this with the kind of fluidity that makes us surprised to love everything and forgive everything".

He says this happens "when we find ourselves living in a contingent, unsteady, tenuously balanced, sometimes-on-one-foot-never-on-both state of perpetual deferment or dangling… It is a silence that does not allow for argumentation and never claims that conflict is an end in itself.  It is expressed instead in a wholly personal way, in a language that often whispers, never screams."

One finds that immigrant writers' characters are often still trying to find a hiding place, for fear of confrontation or questions over the colour of their skin, or their very being there. Therefore, we see such a character constructing a double conception of the real world.

The danger facing immigrant writers is that they remain forever bound by the topic of migration associated with folklore or the exotic, with media labelling only likely to perpetuate this.

The immigrant writer tries, through writing, to never get lost in Italian society, and tries to reconcile memories of past environments with the realities of their new one.

Since the immigrant stutters when he begins to speak Italian, he feels the need to see their words in print, to feel the joy of listening to them. Still, saying things only once is not enough. They feel they must repeat them in various forms.

Sumaya Abdel Qader

Italian-born Sumaya Abdel Qader, a writer of Palestinian-Jordanian descent and former Milan city council member, begins her novel 'I Wear the Veil, I Love the Music of Queen' ('Porto il Velo, Adoro I Queen') with an elucidation.

"There is no need for someone to come to tell me that we others are lost and confused. We are necessarily lost. The country in which you were born and raised puts thousands of obstacles in front of you, and the country of origin of your parents provides you with other sorts of obstacles. In short, they toss you from side to side, and no-one recognises you."

Qader says on the one hand, there are the Italians "who ought to be your compatriots, who keep asking you the usual and somewhat sterile questions - do you have hair under your veil...On the other, there are relatives, Arabs, who tease you for being too Western."

Explaining the Italian breakthrough

Some suggest that the penetration of migrant literature in the Italian language might be related to the empires and colonies of Italy, France, and Great Britain, the latter pair having colonised lands then imposed their native tongues on them. By contrast, Italy encouraged the encounter with new cultures and languages.

Taher Al-Omari said: "You cannot explain in any other way the motivation behind choosing the Italian language… On the other hand, writing in French, a former colonial language, means to be read by many people… while writing in Italian… is to write for oneself, for a circle of friends, or even to get the attention of a girlfriend, who may be Italian."

You don't need to tell me that we 'others' are lost and confused. The country in which we are born and raised puts thousands of obstacles in front of us, and the country of origin of our parents provides us with other sorts of obstacles.

Paola Ellero, from the University of Padua, cast a dark note, saying the phenomenon of migrant literature "is still of little interest, starting with the Italian studies curriculum, although it clearly occupies a new and important place in the context of the Italian literary discourse."

Why? Ellero thinks culture may be seen as being "particular to us, and which others have to adhere to, especially if they belong to other cultural realms."

The issue of cultural identity stretches far beyond literature into sociology, anthropology, and intercultural pedagogy, so last words go to the late Professor Armando Nieschi at the University of La Sapienza in Rome, who reminded us that the descendants of Italian immigrants often look up to their families' literature, and to foreigners' use of Italian, "as a kind of mirror of what happened to their parents and grandparents."

font change

Related Articles