By Silvia Camillotti
Erminia Dell’Oro was born in Asmara (Eritrea) in 1938; her grandfather had moved there in 1896 from Lecco (Lombardia), where he married and had children and nephews. When Erminia left Eritrea for the first time to go to Italy, she was twenty years old: she migrated to Milan where she is still living.
She says about this:
“Ero una migrante al contrario rispetto a mio nonno; non lasciavo certo la madrelingua, perchè ho studiato l’italiano e avevo la cittadinanza italiana, ma certamente lasciavo la mia terra”.
(Unlike my grandfather, I wasn’t leaving my mother tongue, because I had studied Italian and I had the Italian citizenship, but definitely I was leaving my homeland) (Lingue e letterature in movimento, 2007, 47).
She came to Italy to study, but she has always kept contact with Eritrea, a country she considers her homeland, where she goes back frequently to visit friends and relatives. Dell’Oro worked in Milan for fifteen years, from 1975 to 1990, in the Einaudi bookshop, an historical place where intellectuals and writers usually met and where writing became her passion.
Even though Dell’Oro attended Italian schools in Eritrea, the cosmopolitan environment in which she grew up taught her the positive value of encounter with different cultures: her mother was Hebrew, in her house Greeks, Arabs, Indians often met, going to church and to synagogue didn’t produce any kind of conflict in her:
“Questo crescere tra gente diversa di paesi diversi, questo sentire il muezzin e le campane della cattedrale, i salmi della sinagoga, come se tutto fosse il mio mondo naturale senza che me ne rendessi conto, perchè quella era la mia realtà e non ne conoscevo assolutamente altre, indubbiamente qualcosa mi ha lasciato, mi ha molto arricchito” (Lingue e letterature in movimento, 48-49).
(Growing up among different people from different countries, listening to the muezzin and the cathedral’s bells, the psalms of the synagogue: that was naturally my world, since that was my only reality and I didn’t know anything else; undoubtedly all this impressed something on me, it enriched me).
Even if she lived in a neighborhood for white people, Dell’oro has learned the respect for Eritreans who have become the main characters of her fiction. She started writing articles and reportages and worked as a journalist in the Horn of Africa and then also during the Eritrea-Ethiopia war in the Nineties. Her ties with Eritrea come out clearly in her writing. About the reasons that have driven her to write, she says in an interview:
“Anche quando ero giovane desideravo scrivere qualcosa di utile, qualcosa che avesse un senso. Arrivata in Italia mi ero accorta che quasi nessuno conosceva la storia delle colonie italiane in Africa. Era una fetta del nostro passato di cui nessuno sapeva o voleva sapere nulla. Le nostre colonie erano piccole, perse in fretta, popolate soprattutto da fascisti… non c’era letteratura su questo argomento” (El ghibli, on line).
(When I was young I wished to write something useful, something that made sense. In Italy I became aware that almost nobody knew the history of Italian colonies in Africa. It was a part of our past of which nobody knew anything or didn’t want to know. Our colonies were small, lost quickly, inhabited mostly by fascists… there was no literature on this topic).
Dell’Oro’s narrative includes subjects such as Italian colonialism, migration, double belonging, metisságe and Hebraism, most of them inspired by her autobiographical experience.
In Italy she was for years member of Eks&tra jury, which awards tales written by immigrants or their sons, such as Gabriella Ghermandi, Igiaba Scego and many others who have become popular in Italy. Another important activity in which Dell’Oro is involved concerns school: she often goes in schools to speak about Eritrea. It is no accident that her narrative production for children and young adults is wide. She believes in the importance of writing for young readers:
“É nell’infanzia e nell’adolescenza che ho vissuto esperienze decisive. E comunque popolare i romanzi di giovani e adolescenti è un modo per coinvolgere i loro coetanei, per trasmettere loro un messaggio, per raccontare loro una storia che non conoscono” (el ghibli, on line).
(I lived crucial experiences in my childhood and adolescence. Introducing young people in my novels helps the involvement of their peers, sends them a message, and tells them a story they don’t know).
To Dell’Oro, writing for young people represents a way to make them aware of Italian colonialism and its long-term effects.
The complete bibliography for children and young adult, which includes more than twenty books, is available on her web site.
Among this broad literary production for children, we would like to mention Dall’altra parte del mare, winner of many literary awards, in which Dell’Oro describes the dangerous boat journey from North-African coasts to Italy of a young girl, Elen, and her mother. With this tale Dell’Oro helps young readers to understand and become emphatic with the many migrants who go through the sea risking their life in order to achieve better life conditions. Dall’altra parte del mare, published in 2005 by Piemme, is an extremely relevant book since the phenomenon of boat people from Africa to Italy is increasing.
Her first book for adults, Asmara addio, came out in 1988 at a small publishing house in Pordenone, Studio Tesi. It was a success and was republished in the series Best Sellers Mondadori in 1993 and by Baldini&Castoldi in 1997. A review is available in El ghibli, a popular on line journal on migrant literature. Many scholars have paid attention to this novel, since it discusses a topic quite unusual in the Eighties and the Nineties: Italian colonialism. In Asmara addio the writer describes the story of Conti family and their living in the African country in the first part of the Twentieth century, during and after colonialism, which is depicted without rhetoric. This topic intertwines with another one, frequent in Dell’Oro’s narratives: Hebraism and the Jewish diaspora due to the fascist racial laws. It’s worth mentioning the essay by Daniele Comberiati, Una dispora infinita. L’ebraismo nella narrativa di Erminia Dell’Oro, in which he argues how the Jewish diaspora becomes the lens through which Dell’Oro explains the exile and the sense of displacement of her characters. This subject shows up also in Il fiore di merara, (Baldini&Castoldi 1994) which maintains the setting in the former Italian colony; instead, the novel La gola del diavolo (Feltrinelli 1999) doesn’t focus on diaspora but keeps the setting in the beloved Eritrea.
Among the many topics Dell’Oro’s narrative deals with, colonialism has been the one that has made her popular, but another innovative feature, steady in her writing, is the space to African people, the will to give them voice and to describe them in an anti-eurocentric way. She says:
“Ho sempre creduto fosse un dovere morale per chi ha la possibilità di scrivere non dimenticare queste donne, questi bambini e bambine “perdenti”, sconfitti dal destino ma tenaci, coraggiosi, eccezionali” (el ghibli, on line).
(I have always believed it was a moral duty for those who have the chance to write, not to forget these women, these losing children, won by fate but firm, brave, extraordinary).
Indeed, colonialism and its effect are at the centre of L’abbandono, (Einaudi 2006) inspired by a real story whose main character is a young girl, Marianna.
Marianna, born from an Eritrean mother and an Italian father, suffers from this condition since the Italian father hasn’t acknowledged her. Marianna wants to go to Italy to look for her father, to understand why he left his family, condemning them to a life of misery and pain. Marianna’s condition – the metisságe – was quite common in the colonies, where the children of African women were forgotten by their Italian fathers (who had often already a wife and a family in Italy). Sandra Ponzanesi, in Paradoxes of Postcolonial Culture and Daniele Comberiati in La quarta sponda pay attention to this point. The essays by Monica Venturini Toccare il futuro. Scritture postcoloniali femminili and the one by Derek Duncan, Italian Identity and the Risks of Contamination: the Legacies of Mussolini’s Demographic Impulse in the Work of Comisso, Flaiano and Dell’Oro centre on this matter, too. Indeed, a self-presentation by the author is present in Il colonialismo italiano in Eritrea. Riflessioni e letture.
The last novel, Vedere ogni notte le stelle, (Manni 2010) tells the story of an Italian family in Eritrea, in the last decades of the Twentieth century: the bond with this country is still strong in the main character, Milena, although she is living in Italy.
All these novels describe the experience of double belonging, the feeling of being part of Eritrea, despite the migration to Italy. It’s a condition that Dell’Oro has experienced personally and that shapes her writing:
“In Eritrea ero bianca ma mi sentivo a casa, in Italia tutti mi consideravano italiana perché ero come loro e parlavamo la stessa lingua ma io mi sentivo straniera” (el ghibli, on line).
(In Eritrea I was white but I felt at home, in Italy everyone considered me Italian because I looked like them and we spoke the same language but I felt an outsider).
The only text for adults that doesn’t have an African setting is Mamme al vento, (Baldini&Castoldi 1996) which shares with other narratives the point of view of a young girl.
The relevance of Dell’Oro’s narrative is prominent not only within the theoretical frame of migrant or postcolonial literature, but in Italian literature tout court, since it has unveiled an awkward matter as Italian colonialism has been for a long time, giving voice to African people without the usual racial hierarchies that consider them inferior, but, on the contrary, stressing the historical link between Italians and their African colony. Moreover, writing for children and considering them the characters of her writing help to promote a difficult subject among readers not used to it.
Comberiati Daniele, La quarta sponda. Scrittrici in viaggio dall’Africa coloniale all’Italia di oggi, edizioni Pigreco, Roma 2007
Id., Una dispora infinita. L’ebraismo nella narrativs di Erminia Dell’Oro, http://www.italianisticaultraiectina.org/publish/articles/000087/article.pdf
Dell’Oro Erminia, Il colonialismo italiano in Eritrea. Riflessioni e letture, in Camilotti S. (ed.) Lingue e letterature in movimento. Scrittrici emergenti nel panorama letterario italiano contemporaneo, Bup, Bologna, 2008, pp. 46-58
Duncan Derek, Italian Identity and the Risks of Contamination: the Legacies of Mussolini’s Demographic Impulse in the Work of Comisso, Flaiano and Dell’Oro in Duncan D. and Andall J., (eds) Italian colonialism: legacy and memory, Peter Lang, Bern, 2005, pp. 99-124
Ponzanesi Sandra, Paradoxes of Postcolonial Culture. Contemporary Women Writers of the Indian and Afro-Italian Diaspora, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2004.
Riccardi Irene Claudia, Intervista, in El ghibli, http://www.el-ghibli.provincia.bologna.it/index.php?id=2&issue=00_02&sezione=7
Venturini Monica, Toccare il futuro. Scritture postcoloniali femminili in Derobertis R., (ed.) Fuori centro. Percorsi postcoloniali nella letteratura italiana, Aracne, Roma, 2010, pp. 111-130