Antar Mohamed Marincola was born in Mogadishu (Somalia) in 1963. He left the country in 1983 with an academic fellowship awarded to him by the Somali Ministry of Education, together with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He studied at the University of Perugia and at the University of Bologna, which is where he now works and lives. As the back cover of his novel Timira (Einaudi, 2012) reports, Antar Mohamed defines himself as “un esule somalo con quattro lauree e due cittadinanze”, a Somali exile with four degrees and two citizenships.
The first short story published by Antar Mohamed is titled “Sleeplighter (L’uomo dal sonno leggero)”. It was published in the collection of short stories called “Casamondo” (which is only available online, as a free e-book), which was issued in 2011 by the Italian association Eks&Tra, as a result of the “intercultural creative writing course” held by Eks & Tra and the University of Bologna in 2010.
Eks & Tra has been a very pro-active association in the field of “Italophone migrant literature” since the very beginning of this literary and cultural phenomenon, which might be conventionally dated back to 1990, with the publication of Io, venditore di elefanti (I Was an Elephan Salesman, according to the 2010 English translation of the novel) by Pap Khouma and Oreste Pivetta. The very name of the association denounces the specific ideological attitude of Eks & Tra’s components and actions: it plays on the Italian derogatory term for non-European migrants (“extracomunitario”), by deconstructing it and underlining both the migration process (“Eks”, or “ex”, that is “leaving a place”) and Bhabha’s ‘third space’ achieved by migrants (“tra”, that is “in-between”).
Since mid-Nineties, Eks & Tra has been promoting a very important literary award for migrant authors, called “Concorso Letterario Eks & Tra”, which has produced several publications with the support of a small publishing house based in Rimini, Fara Editore, led by Alessandro Ramberti. Starting from 2007-2008, the decision to focus on intercultural creative writing courses and to publish selected texts originated from these courses in an e-book format could be seen as a significant turning point in the activities of Eks & Tra. As a matter of fact, face to the decrease in its economic and social efforts – while a part of the Italophone migrant literature has gone mainstream – Eks & Tra has succeeded in renewing completely its policies and organization. The organization of intercultural writing courses, rather than the promotion of literary awards, is a concrete response to the urgency of considering Italophone migrant literature not as a literary “sub-genre” to be preserved and promoted, but as a productive possibility both for migrants and for native Italians within a fully collaborative process, avoiding the limits of a literary and cultural ghetto.
Antar Mohamed’s “Sleeplighter (L’uomo dal sonno leggero)” is a short story which recounts, with lots of black humour, the experiences of a migrant African man (whose specific geographical origins are not given) in Italy. Fatah’s ‘secular pilgrimage’ evidently recalls the vicissitudes of the narrator of Khouma’s Io, venditore di elefanti, in a clear attempt to go back to the roots of “Italophone migrant literature”.
Fatah is trapped in an almost forced tour, which transforms him into a “sleeplighter” (someone who doesn’t sleep very much) since he is caught in the endless search of a dignifying work, while struggling for survival; he ends up being exploited in slave-like conditions in a tomato cultivation and he eventually resorts to drug dealing.
Like Pap Khouma’s narrator, Fatah’s tour draws a cartography of Italy which is very different from the ones promoted by Italian hegemonic narrations. This specific analogy with Khouma’s first text highlights how, twenty years after Khouma’s novel and the beginning of Italophone migrant literature, the material difficulties which transnational migrants meet in their voyage towards Italy are still the same, if they are not even worse.
However, Antar Mohamed does not entirely share Khouma’s realistic stance. Fatah’s cartography, in fact, is half realistic and half imaginary: Milan, Rome and Rimini are identified by their real names (for their relevance within the imaginary of migration towards Italy; this is also where Khouma’s narration is set), while Villa Literno is replaced by “Villa Eterna” (“Eternal Villa”) and San Salvario becomes “Set Calvario” (“Golgotha Setting”). The playfulness of this choice goes hand in hand with a subtle reflection on the dissolution of Italian cultural memory, since these fake names actually disguise two important places in the history of contemporary multicultural Italy.
Villa Literno is a small village near Caserta, where a South African anti-apartheid activist and asylum seeker, called Jerry Essan Masslo, was killed, in a racist riot, in 1989.
Some critics, such as Armando Gnisci (in Creolizzare l’Europa, Meltemi, 2003), has individuated in this murder another foundational step for Italophone migrant literature. However, this memory is about to dissolve, in a place where the exploitation of migrants is still alive and powerful, while few people care about this specific cultural and political history.
The same can be said of San Salvario, a quarter in the city of Turin which is characterized by massive immigration and, at the same time, excessive mediatization, making it a place to “avoid” for native Italians for the “dangers” linked to high rates of criminality. With a simple, ironic misnaming, Antar Mohamed shows that even media stereotyping is deeply involved in the dissolution of an otherwise multicultural experience.
Fatah’s “pilgrimage” ends in a hospital, after being stabbed by his fellow pusher Harun. Fatah describes this episode in self-ironical and sarcastic terms, underlining how his long and complex individual story of migration has been deprived of any value and silenced, now that the Italian institutions have labeled him as a “drug dealer”, that is, as a criminal. Fatah bitterly declares that he would have preferred being hospitalized as an illegal migrant, being injured while working and being exploited by Italian entrepreneurs, in dangerous work conditions; in that case, he would have been granted, at least, a sympathetic consideration for his pain:
“Quant’è che sono qui?” (…) “Dodici giorni” mi disse, e dal modo come mi guardava capivo che sapeva che non ero in un letto di ospedale perché ero caduto da una qualche impalcatura!” (2011, 22)
This attitude reveals Antar Mohamed’s strong social engagement and criticism, which doesn’t prevent him to conclude his short story on a bittersweet tone. While, on the one hand, once that he has been hospitalized, Fatah can finally sleep peacefully, on the other hand he is forced to acknowledge that once he has been labeled as a criminal by Italian institutions he might not be able to work with dignity and help his family with his remittances anymore.
Timira surely represents a wider and more complete literary effort than “Sleeplighter”: it is a long novel, written in collaboration with the Italian writer Wu Ming 2, and it falls within a larger project, which Wu Ming 2, Antar Mohamed and Antar’s mother, Isabella Marincola, had started to work on some years before. Timira can be seen, indeed, as the third publication on Marincola’s family, after Carlo Costa and Lorenzo Teodonio’s historical essay Razza Partigiana, Storia di Giorgio Marincola (Iacobelli, 2008) and Wu Ming 2’s short story Basta uno sparo (Transeuropa, 2010), which was published together with a CD, recorded by some musicians of the Italian alternative rock groups Massimo Volume e Settlefish. These musicians have also played in several readings of the short story, taking place on the whole territory of Italy, such as this one.
Both Razza Partigiana and Basta uno sparo focus on Giorgio Marincola (1923-1945), Isabella’s brother and Antar Mohamed’s uncle. He was a Black Italian partisan, who was murdered by Nazi troops in May 1945, few days after the official date of “Italian Liberation Day” (25 April 1945); for this reason, he is recipient of a posthumous Gold Medal of Honor of the Italian Government. However rooted in an individual and nearly unique experience of being a Black Italian partisan, also Giorgio Marincola’s case could be deemed as exemplary in the field of political, historical and cultural memory, since it underlines the possible and fruitful intersections of anti-colonialism, anti-fascism and anti-racism (for a different perspective, claiming the right of anti-racism to autonomy, see, for instance. Alana Lentin, “‘Race’, Racism and Anti-racism: Challenging Contemporary Classifications”, Social Identities, 6.1, 2000, pp. 91-106)
Timira, on the other hand, shifts the focus of the narration on the equally incredible life of Isabella Marincola, Antar’s mother. As it has been said, Isabella had actively collaborated with Wu Ming 2 for the realization of Basta uno sparo and the subsequent readings, as it might be seen in this video:
leaving this task to Antar after her death (occurred on the 30th of March 2010)
The same changeover happened with the writing of Timira.
It is correct, then, to maintain that – as the back cover reports – the novel was actually written by three people, Wu Ming 2, Antar Mohamed Marincola and Isabella Marincola. At the same time, what the cover reports is that the authors of the novel are two – Wu Ming 2 and Antar Mohamed – while Isabella Marincola comes to be only a hidden presence in the title (“Timira” is actually her Somali name: Timira Hassan Yere).
The paratextual apparatus of the novel, then, presents some interesting points, as it regards the inclusion of the novel in the fields of “Italophone migrant literature” and of “Italian postcolonial literature”.
First of all, the presence of two authors – one who is “native Italian” and the other one who is “native Somali” – seems to go back to the earlier production of Italophone migrant literature. However, this is not a case for the slippery kind of “co-authorship” which has been individuated by many scholars as an ambivalent feature of the first Italophone migrant production. That phenomenon presented a clear case for cultural, social, and political “ventriloquism”, where the Italian-born author legitimated and influenced the linguistic expression of the “non-Italian” colleague (see, for instance, Alessandro Pannuti’s contribution on Kúmá, in 2006).
Timira, on the other hand, is a collaboration in its rightful sense, since it is part of a literary and cultural project which has been strongly pursued by Isabella Marincola and Antar Mohamed Marincola, and Antar Mohamed had previously experienced as positive form of collaborative writing within the intercultural writing courses organized by Eks & Tra.
What is more, Antar Mohamed’s first publication in volume is not an autobiography – as it has often happened in Italophone migrant literature – but a biography of the mother, which hides its partial autobiographical traits, as it concerns Isabella Marincola’s participation in the writing, within the mix of different literary genres which characterizes the text.
Timira, as a matter of fact, presents himself as a “mestizo novel”, as it is claimed by its sub-title (“Romanzo meticcio”). This hybridity is both formal and thematic.
At a narrative level, Timira is a historical novel, which mixes many different genres in order to achieve the status of a “New Postcolonial Epic” (being “New Italian Epic” a label coined by the Wu Ming collective of authors for their texts, as well as for many other contemporary historical novels written in Italy).
At a symbolic level, on the other hand, the characterization of “mestizo novel” is due to the real, historical mestizo family of Isabella and Antar Marincola, which was rooted both in Somalia and in Italy. (What is more, part of the Marincola family comes from and still lives in Sardinia, an Italian island which has always had a kind of “colonial/postcolonial” relationship with the peninsula, according to the scheme firstly described by Gramsci in Quaderni del Carcere, when he underlined the nexus existing between “internal” and “external colonialism”).
The story follows the 85 years of Isabella Marincola’s life, especially focusing on the period which goes from 1925 to 1991, which is the official year of beginning of Somali civil war. In other words, it is a story which, through Isabella and Antar’s lives, binds the metropolitan history with that of the Somali colony, highlighting the persistence of a strong connection between the colonial and postcolonial/neocolonial era.
Isabella Marincola, in any case, entered Italian history not only by virtue of her rich biography, but also for her artistic works: she is the “black mondina (‘rice weeder’)” who appears together with the Italian cinema star Silvana Mangano in Riso amaro (1949) by Giuseppe De Santis, a masterwork of Italian Neorealism.
This extraordinary cinematographic discovery makes it clear, once again, that postcolonial subjects were engaged in Italian daily life and experience many decades before the massive immigration flows of the Nineties of the Twentieth century and the official birth of Italophone migrant literature. In a confuse statement, manipulating this exceptional finding within his own ideological attitude, the Italian critic Renato Barilli has recently reviewed Timira as a case of “New Italian Realism”, by attacking, in this way, the most postmodern trend in Wu Ming’s “New Italian Epic”.
As it has been mentioned before, Timira is based on a multiple and multifarious narrative which can be compared, for some aspects, to the parameters of Italian postmodern novel, and Barilli’s ironic label seems to adhere more to an artistic and cultural suggestion, rather than sticking to the materiality of the text. This doesn’t mean, however, that the postcolonial features of the novel don’t give a renewed portrait of Italian historical reality: what Timira really points at, among other features of the text, is to make Italian history and cultural memory available for new political and cultural interpretations.
First of all, the racial and gender discrimination which Isabella Marincola has suffered during her whole life shows how Italian racism is not only a consequence of the xenophobia which has spread after the massive migration flows of the last years, but as a clear ideological legacy of Italian colonial racism (both in its liberal and fascist periods).
Besides, the text assumes directly the perspective of the “black woman”, avoiding, thus, the double bind of some (male) Italian postcolonial literature which has re-taken the colonial and racist trope of the “black woman” as a sexualized and animal-like being. Some authors, such as Carlo Lucarelli in L’ottava vibrazione (Einaudi, 2008), according to Paolo Jedlowski’s analysis, have aimed at the deconstruction of this powerful and still alive trope, but, in order to criticize it, they have been somehow “forced”, at the same time, to reinstate it, in a rather ambivalent way.
Wu Ming 2, on the other hand, has recently published an article on the Italian review Letteraria – “La Somalia negli occhi degli Italiani (1909-1936)” (2012) – which focuses on the symbolic connections between the physical land to be conquered by colonial powers and the body of the black woman, showing, in this way, his high critical awareness of postcolonial issues.
Timira is also a diasporic novel, where Isabella Marincola is constantly looking for “home” throughout her life. She finally finds it in Bologna, together with Antar Mohamed, few years before her death. She is pushed by that “homing desire” which Avtar Brah has individuated, in Cartographies of Diaspora (1996, 180), as a prominent feature of the diasporic condition. Isabella’s quest, however, is made even more difficult by her difficult relationship with both Somali and Italian institutions, for her paradoxical position regarding her right of residence and her citizenship.
Regularly subscribed to the AIRE (Anagrafe Italiana dei Residenti all’Estero), Isabella Marincola didn’t receive the help promised by this Italian organization for her return to Italy from Somalia in 1991, because, three months after her return in Italy, she had not yet found a house and, for this reason, she wasn’t entitled to the economic help of the Italian government. Politically speaking, she was a “refugee”, but she could not take advantage of any of the economic or political rights guaranteed by the Italian government for this condition. These rights were fully available only for Italian-born Italian citizens, who could go back to their own houses, after living in Somalia as “colonizers”.
With this paradoxical situation in mind, afflicting a Somali-Italian woman in her own country, Wu Ming 2 takes the responsibility to write a letter to Isabella Marincola and he puts it at the very beginning of the novel:
“Siamo tutti profughi, senza fissa dimora nell’intrico del mondo. Respinti alla frontiera da un esercito di parole, cerchiamo una storia dove avere rifugio.” (2012, 10)
In a novel where the categories of “Italian”, “Somali”, “mestizo” and “refugee” take up new meanings, within the same socio-cultural constellation, Antar Mohamed Marincola’s work, in collaboration with Wu Ming 2 and Timira/Timira, might provide the reader with multiple suggestions towards a re-definition of the general categories of “Italophone migrant literature” and “Italian postcolonial literature”.
Renato Barilli, “Isabella di Somalia, com’è amaro il riso”, Tuttolibri, La Stampa, 06/03/2012.
Avtar Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities, London: Routledge, 1996.
Carlo Costa and Lorenzo Teodonio, Razza partigiana. Storia di Giorgio Marincola (1923-1945), Pavona di Albana Laziale: Iacobelli, 2008.
Armando Gnisci, Creolizzare l’Europa, Rome: Meltemi, 2003.
Paolo Jedlowski, “Memoria pubblica e memoria autocritica. Su alcune recenti rappresentazioni del colonialismo italiano” (2008)
Pap Khouma and Oreste Pivetta, Io, venditore di elefanti, Milan: Garzanti, 1990.
Antar Mohamed, Marincola, “Sleeplighter (L’uomo dal sonno leggero)”, in VV.AA. Casamondo, Eks & Tra, 2011 (http://www.eksetra.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/casamondo-libro2.pdf)
Antar Mohamed Marincola and Wu Ming 2, Timira. Romanzo meticcio, Turin: Einaudi, 2012.
Alessandro Pannuti, “Cenni sulla letterarietà e su alcune questioni linguistiche relative alla letteratura migrante italiana”, Kúmá, 12, 2006.
Alessandro Portelli, “Le origini della letteratura afroitaliana e l’esempio afroamericano”, El-Ghibli, 3, 2004. (http://www.el-ghibli.provincia.bologna.it/id_1-issue_00_03-section_6-index_pos_2.html)
Riso amaro (108’, 1949), dir. by Giuseppe De Santis.
Jonathan Rutheford, “The Third Space. Interview with Homi Bhabha”, in J. Rutherford, ed., Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London: Lawrence and Wishart, pp. 207-221.
Wu Ming, “New Italian Epic” (2008)
Published later as: Wu Ming, New Italian Epic, Turin: Einaudi, 2009.
Wu Ming 2, “La Somalia negli occhi degli Italiani (1909-1936)”, Letteraria, 5, 2012 (http://www.wumingfoundation.com/giap/?p=8302)