When it was discovered last fall that one of Rome’s beloved sculptures, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Elephant and Obelisk, had been vandalized, the tip of the marble elephant’s left tusk snapped off, Igiaba Scego used the opportunity to diagnose what she understood as a peculiarly Roman sickness. Scego, writing for Internazionale, called Rome a “lonely and indolent” city where the stench of uncollected trash chokes every breath and aggression is diffuse. Perhaps these would be pardonable sins were the city more hospitable to the “other”—even a symbol like the Indian elephant—but something like the opposite seems to be the case.
This has been a year of great exposure for Scego, the Roman-born daughter of Somali immigrants who left their home after the 1969 coup d’état of Siad Barre, a former auxiliary soldier for the British and Italian empires. The English translation of her fourth novel, Adua, was released by New Vessel in June. She also published Lend Me Your Wings (Prestami le ali), an illustrated children’s book set in eighteenth-century Europe about a Jewish girl from the ghettos of Venice and a young African slave boy who help liberate a rhino from its cruel Dutch owner. A blending of the fabular and historical, filtered through the eyes of society’s castaways, is the trademark that has made Scego something like Italy’s most obvious answer to Toni Morrison.
With the publication of her 2010 memoir My Home Is Where I Am (La mia casa è dove sono), her much-lauded short story “Sausages” (“Salsicce”), and a number of edited literary volumes, Scego stepped onto an impressive (if dimly lit) stage alongside writers like Gabriella Ghermandi, Erminia Dell’Oro, Ribka Sibhatu, Cristina Ali Farah, and Maria Abbebù Viarengo. These Afro-Italian female writers, native and naturalized, have family origins in the countries that once constituted the Italian Empire, namely Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Libya. Their literary products are works of métissage, often toying with languages, genres, epochs, and borders—both geographic and psychic—to accentuate the arbitrariness of each. “We speak two or three languages,” Scego explains, describing the group, “we dream of a savannah and the zebras that we’ve perhaps never seen and, naturally, the books of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie make a beautiful display on our bookshelves next to some rap albums and the inevitable Frantz Fanon.”
Although there is growing interest among academic circles in what has somewhat crudely been called “the literature of migration,” these authors know that a surge in scholarship doesn’t constitute a general confrontation with history. Scego and her contemporaries often deflate the notion of italiani brava gente (“good Italians”)—the claim entertained by many postwar Italian intellectuals, artists and politicians that held, among other ideas, that fascism (and its attendant displays of isolationism, chauvinist fervor and racial enmity) was an anomaly that didn’t receive widespread support. Roberto Fiore, national secretary of the Italian far-right party New Force, recently called anti-fascism a preoccupation of elites; Scego would probably agree with him that the spirit of fascism has never been entirely quelled. She is particularly apt at tracing how the residues of Italy’s colonial past affect contemporary multinational, black and mixed families—the unmendable rifts between generations, as well as the various traumas that, in some ways, unite them.
Italy’s relatively uneventful entry into Somalia was facilitated by the decline of the sultanate of Zanzibar in 1889. Seeking to increase its influence on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Italy obtained the protectorate over Obbia and Mijertina, expanding south to the Juba River and acquiring territory that included the cities of Merca, Brava and Mogadishu. In 1923, Mussolini appointed Cesare Maria De Vecchi as the Governor of Somalia, where he was expected to take over territories still under clan influence. One year after De Vecchi’s regime ended in 1928, the Foreign Ministry was relinquished to Dino Grandi. The rise of Nazism and Grandi’s clumsy diplomatic dealings with France and England caused Mussolini to take over the Foreign Ministry in 1932. His leadership there culminated four years later with the capture of Addis Ababa, thus marking the birth of the Italian African Empire.
Adua, a novel that straddles two time periods, concludes shortly before the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935, when Addis Ababa is “fatefully preparing for defense, and every spot, even the holy cathedral of St. George, had become a trench.” Ethiopian regent Haile Selassie is putting on parades to ease people’s concerns about the impending invasion. Rumors have it that spies and mercenaries are circulating in the streets. Rather than taking the threat seriously, journalists in the capital city (from “Communist fans of the Negus to ridiculous Americans in shorts and suspenders”) are given to sensationalism. Foreign readers want to know more about the natives’ exotic quirks than the looming war.