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.1 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.
The eponymous protagonist is a middle-aged Somali immigrant woman living in present-day Rome. Like Scego’s own parents, Adua leaves for Italy after Siad Barre’s ascension. The Eternal City she finds, however, isn’t an “open-air palace, but instead … a pisspot for dogs and humans alike.” For the duration of the novel, Adua addresses herself to Bernini’s elephant in Piazza della Minerva. “We understand each other perfectly, you and I,” she says. “After all, we’re both from the Indian Ocean. Our ocean of magic spells and scents, of separations and reunions.” The irony of Adua recounting her story to an inanimate object typifies Scego’s tendency to glide from humor to desolation and back again, between chapters and even within sentences. When Adua first meets her biological father, he appears with “twisted feet, rotten teeth, and the receding chin of a false virgin.” Young boys at the cinema mock John Wayne because, though he is slaughtering natives, he walks like “a freshly infibulated girl, the stitches still enflaming her tender vagina.” As you read you want to laugh, then cover your mouth with both hands.
Adua’s story begins on the morning of her visit to Piazza della Minerva, when she rummages through old belongings and finds the deed to her family home, located in the southern Somali town of Magalo. She has no kin left there—her mother died in childbirth, she is estranged from her sycophantic sister, and she never got along with her father before he passed away. If the home is worth enough, Adua muses, maybe she can go back to Somalia where her friend Lul will give her the homecoming she yearns for. These first-person recollections are followed by short, quasi-monologic interludes in which her father, Mohamed Ali Zoppe, reprimands a young Adua: Sit up. Take your elbows off the table. Stop crying. The reasons for this aren’t clear at first, but Zoppe strikes us as unduly stern. The stable family is a casualty at the outset, though Adua’s longing to repatriate herself suggests an allegiance beyond blood. In the absence of parental support, fidelity to a motherland replaces the covenant of the pious daughter.
The scene abruptly shifts. Rome, 1934. Three white Italians assault a black man—Zoppe in his youth. While the aggressors contemplate burning his feet, gouging his eyes and breaking his nose, Zoppe recalls a happy father-daughter pair that he once knew, two Italian Jews who were among the few whites to show him kindness. The man in his recollection, Davide, is a nationalist whose own father had fought at the battle of Vittorio Veneto, which sounded the death knell of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Anyone familiar with the tribulations of Italy’s Jews knows that Davide’s patriotism won’t prevent him and his daughter from becoming internal enemies of the state. Although Mussolini’s anti-Semitic animus preceded the invasion of Ethiopia, the war coincided with a fascistic re-evaluation of the “Italian race.” Attempting to splice strains of Aryan and Mediterranean theories of race, Mussolini conceived of a community based on shared, if disastrously vague, moral and spiritual precepts.
Understandably then, the book is full of foreboding. The approaching war is signaled by thinly veiled symbols (animal viscera, fugue-like apparitions of the present and past, and so forth). In a hotel courtyard in Addis Ababa, an elephant-eared man draws a portrait of Zoppe. When he asks to see the painting, the man warns him against it. But hotter heads prevail, the painter gives in, and Zoppe faints when he sees the picture. The dream that follows, in which a man in a blue turban (likely Zoppe himself) slaughters an elephant, is one of many omens Zoppe experiences in the countrywide wave of nausea leading up to the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The portents only grow more grotesque:
I saw mangled black bodies. Hanging men, houses burned down, hands cut off, decapitated heads stuck on spears, stabbed women, disfigured corpses, children died up and dragged while still alive, deacons executed, little girls raped. I saw blood, pus, brains. And I saw heads severed from their bodies placed on silver trays surrounded by people laughing. The heads belonged to Ethiopians and the smiling mouths to Italians.
Scego is fond of liturgical enumerations like these—sobering lists that itemize the violence inflicted upon colonial and post-colonial persons alike. The shadow of Mussolini’s party is elongated and dark, and the novel retraces Adua’s past to reveal the cause of her disillusionment with Europe. She relocates to Italy to pursue her dream of becoming a film star as a young woman. Although she’s initially encouraged by a white Italian couple that works in the industry, the director Arturo and his callous wife Sissi, Adua isn’t destined to be the next Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne. She ends up in a softcore-porn film, Femina Somala (Somali Woman), which shares the title of a real 1933 novel by the colonialist Gino Sani. The unrealized fantasy of a black woman who wants to become a respected movie star is a recurring trope in Scego’s fiction that recalls a fraught history of black women in Italian cinema and art.2 The success of the “Steamy Kiss from the Abyssinian Abyss” in the novel alludes to the appeal of the Black Venuses (Veneri Neri), the women, predominantly Eritrean, who were mythologized as beautiful and docile concubines (madamas) of white Italian occupiers.3
Arturo and Sissi get Adua drunk and coerce her into undressing. The brutal rape that follows, which begins with Arturo using a pair of scissors to open Adua’s infibulated vulva, weds a legacy of historic violence to the private carnage unfolding in a bedroom. Fascist Italy’s fortification against “foreign contaminants” was largely influenced by civic codes enacted in the late 1930s that specifically impeded interracial unions between white Italian men and women of color in the colonies. The codes forbade male colonists from conferring citizenship on the mixed-race child (meticcio) that sometimes resulted from these relationships (though covert interracial coupling continued as more Italian soldiers were sent to Eritrea). The bodies of the black madamas, like that of Adua, were read as invitations to lust and imperial assault. When Adua returns to Magalo for the film’s premiere, she finds that her father, privately pained by his daughter’s humiliation, paid the cinema’s manager “the equivalent of three full houses for them not to show it.”
But Scego doesn’t allow her characters to be seen solely as patient sufferers. Adua finds joy in caring for her young refugee husband, whom we know only as “Titanic” (an archetype, referring to the precarious boats that ferry such men across the Mediterranean). When he landed at Lampedusa, “he needed a house, a teat, a bowl of soup, a pillow, some money, hope, any semblance of relief.” Adua gives him all of that, but her “dreams soon gave way to worries of drought.” Titanic was in love with another girl who met an appalling end in the Libyan desert, and Adua knows he dreams of life and younger women in Northern Europe. Ugly fights make her wish she’d left him to rot alongside the cheap bottle of gin she’d found him nursing. “I remember when I was young I brought the sun to Italy,” Adua reminisces, “to this crater of illusions that swallowed me up.” With the help of a smuggler, Adua sends Titanic on his way to Milan. They think he’ll get to Germany because “after the Holocaust they have to be nice.”
Rome has conquered both Adua and Zoppe. Their relationship is so tenuous that Adua can’t bring herself to call Zoppe aabe, father. Instead, he is “the one who brought me into the world,” “the man who impregnated my mother,” or, most damningly, “the person who tore me away from real life.” Jamie Richards’s translations here are faithful, but still one almost wishes that she had exploited a more scathing valence of the verb strappare (to tear, but also to rip and rend). “The word father terrifies me,” Adua says. “But it’s the only one that can help me breathe anymore.” For the translator, Scego’s work offers more than a few delights. Adua’s roundabout way of calling her father anything but “father” calls attention to the painstaking labor of naming, an idea the author returns to frequently. We learn that Adua’s birth name is in fact Habiba, meaning “love” in Arabic. It is a word that Zoppe finds difficult to say once Adua’s mother dies. It’s plain, Zoppe gripes, the name of a prostitute. We see why Adua has so little to do with him.
Zoppe should know more than most about the mechanics of effective communication. He is an interpreter for a Fascist statesman, Count Anselmi. Significantly, Scego and Richards use the word “translate” to describe what Zoppe does more often than “interpret.” He speaks Arabic, Somali, Swahili, Amharic, Tigrinya and “several minor languages that would be useful for the coming war.” Zoppe takes his job seriously. Other Somalis might call him a collaborator, but he insists that he “wasn’t betraying anyone”: “He would never take arms against a neighbor, a man with the same color skin. He translated, that’s all. He was a linguistic ambassador, a mediator, he didn’t hurt anyone.” But guns and lances are not the only weapons, and the consequences of his participation are grave. His job was to read the world and yet, he confesses, “I don’t know how to decipher it.”
The novel’s climax is both startling and foreseeable. Count Anselmi brings Zoppe to a marketplace in Massawa, the outpost of the Empire. Here languages are “mixed together in a magical alchemy fused by the sharp taste of dates from Egias.” Anselmi has come to meet two Ethiopian dignitaries, a father and son, and Zoppe prepares to go to work. He is convinced that translating is his livelihood, his only path to freedom. A “word by word” translation, one that doesn’t “interfere” or “improve” is the only proper one, in his view. He strains to discern the old Ethiopian’s voice:
It was beautiful. A rugged singsong that could awaken a sleep-soothed soul to new life … Zoppe couldn’t stop to think about [the words’] meaning, because then he wouldn’t have translated anything. He would have been lost. A carcass that even a vulture would have left alone.
Scego plays on an Italian adage: tradurre è tradire, to translate is to betray. The dignitary agrees to supply the Italians with men, arms and other provisions for the imminent conflict. Zoppe never considers himself the dedicated manservant of a bloodily culpable empire, but, as an interpreter should know, intention and action are separate beasts.
When Derrida wrote in “Des Tours de Babel” that translation is a weighted promise, “the decisive signature of a contract,” he had reconciliation in mind. By contrast, Scego glories in those moments when translation fails. She is at her best when what is real cannot be fully reconciled with what is expected, as when a black Somali is implicated in colonial murder and conquest. Scego explained her approach to writing in an interview:
I like moving from the quotidian in order to then embrace the big picture, from the particular in order to arrive at the general. I start from subaltern figures, those not considered by History with a capital “H,” because it is in the folds of a subaltern life that the world’s existence is written. It is in the suffering of the subaltern that the contradictions of our society take root.
In practice, Scego has abandoned the linearity of textbook history for the hazy domain of Alltagsgeschichte, the history of the everyday. The most notable gaps in Adua aren’t structural or temporal, but human: the great chasms fixed between people and countries. Her characters are wounded, maimed and perpetually dependent, if not on some disaffected family member then on the antagonistic nation-states they call home.
If Scego is clearly in love with Italy and with what she affectionately calls “Dante’s language,” she is also alarmed by the country’s hesitance to recognize how conceptions of a “national family” have developed. The question of who belongs is answered in part by exclusionary policies, such as migrant repatriation, and commitments to old shibboleths regarding legal citizenship. In Adua, the neglect of the father and the sins of the fatherland mark the daughter’s flesh with scars, but the book’s most radiant scene of hope is one of unburdening. Adua holds onto her only material trace of Zoppe, his blue turban, which the reader doesn’t know she has until a bird swoops down and snatches it away. “It was the sign of my slavery and my old shame,” Adua tells Bernini’s elephant. “It was the yoke I had chosen to redeem myself.”