IGIABA SCEGO (ROME, ITALY, 1974)
By now an established writer, Igiaba Scego is the author of short stories and novels as well as being one of the most active intellectuals in the field of “transculturalism”, especially with regard to the cultural and civil issues related to African migration. She lives in Rome where she was born in 1974 to Somali parents who had emigrated to Italy following Siad Barre’s 1969 coup d’état (her father had been Foreign Minister). Raised in Italy in a primarily racist environment, Scego learned about her family’s country of origin through accounts and stories told in the home. The multiple identity that was cultivated by the fables, memories and traditions of her mother tongue was also formed through Scego’s daily experiences with her “other” mother tongue, Italian. Scego confronts this reality in her 2010 book (perhaps her best), La mia casa è dove sono [My Home is Where I Am] (Rizzoli, Milano. 2011 Mondello Award).
After a degree in modern foreign languages and literatures, Igiaba Scego completed her Ph.D. in 2008. Since 2005, she has edited a series of radio programs and authored columns in some of Italy’s most notable newspapers and magazines (“Repubblica”, “l’Unità”, “Internazionale”, “Nigrizia”, etc.). Her current position is in part thanks to the plaudits and interest generated by her first two publications, both novels: La nomade che amava Alfred Hitchcock [The Nomad Who Loved Alfred Hitchcock] (2003: a story inspired by Scego’s mother, who had been a nomad before settling in Mogadishu); and Rhoda (Sinnos, Roma. 2004). Notoriety came following the publication of two short stories, Salsicce [Sausages] (2003 Eks&Tra Prize for migrant writers) and Dismatria, published in Pecore nere [Black Sheep], an anthology edited by Flavia Capitani and Emanuele Coen (Laterza, Bari-Roma, 2005, with texts by Gabriela Kuruvilla, Ingy Mubiayi, Igiaba Scego and Layla Wadia). Both stories are what we might call “socially conscious” in that they address themes of cultural and juridical discrimination on the part of the Italian state toward Arab and African immigrants. In Salsicce, for example, Scego opts for an ironic and paradoxical tone as she tells of the anger that a Muslim Italo-Somali girl feels as she attempts to force herself into betraying her religion’s rules on not eating pork, all in an effort to feel “less different”.
Scego’s opus refers to her own life experiences (“At home I lived the Somali culture and the Islamic faith, I spoke Somali, I ate Somali food. But outside I came in contact with the Italian reality, with school, television, friends. This division was part of my life and it is clear that this experience then passed over into my writing.” Interview published in “El Ghibli”, the most noted online Italian journal for migrant literature, http://www.el-ghibli.provincia.bologna.it/index.php.) That notwithstanding, autobiography is never left to its own means; rather, it continuously encourages both the author and her readers to confront a more collective, and often political, reality. In this way, Scego’s creative writing fuses with reporting, investigation and other less literary events that mirror contemporary public interest. In 2005, Scego edited the anthology Italiani per vocazione [Italians by Vocation] (Cadmo, with stories by J. C. Alves, S. Annecchiarico, K. Komla-Ebri, M. Alatas, I. M. Kakese, U. C. Ali Farah, J. C. Calderón, B. Hirst, Y. Wakkas, J. Mabiala Gangbo, B. Serdakowski). In 2007, she and Ingy Mubiayi co-edited a collection of interviews, Quando nasci è una roulette. Giovani figli di migranti si raccontano [When You’re Born It’s a Crap Shoot. Young Children of Migrants Tell their Stories], a collection of stories by seven young people of African origin who were born in Rome (or moved there as young children). Their stories revolve around school, relationships with family and friends, religion, racism, and the desires and frustrations of a generation at a crossroads; more than just cultural differences, they also confront the contradictory feelings that put one’s sense of self to the test, including acceptance and dismissal, love and anger.
Scego’s Oltre Babilonia [Beyond Babylon] (Donzelli, Rome) was published in 2005 and centres on the reconstruction of identity through the relationship with the mother tongue, with the past, and with divisions. These same relationships form the heart of the novel’s organizational structure, as well. The text is constructed on a precise frame, with a prologue and epilogue (guided by one of the characters, Zuhra Laamane, the “Negropolitana”, who lives in Rome and decides to write her story in a series of notebooks). The prologue and epilogue frame eight narrative blocks. Within each of these there are five alternating stories (following the same order each time) that take their titles from the nicknames of the respective characters: the Nus-Nus, Somali for “half and half”; the Negropolitana; the Reaparecida; the Pessottimista; and the father (the only character whose name is not capitalized). As the writing and reading gradually proceed, the characters encounter one another and their respective stories begin to intersect. Matters complicate as a result. The Nus-Nus is Mar, a young woman with an Argentine mother (Miranda, the Reaparecida) and a Somali father. She is black and lives in Rome, like the Negropolitana. The two women will not meet in the city where they both live, but at a language school in Tunis where the most diverse languages congregate. In this conglomeration of ethnicities, destinies, words and even colours, we also have the secret stories from the pasts and homelands of Mar and Zuhra—Buenos Aires and Mogadishu, respectively—thanks to their mothers, Miranda and Maryam, who reveal the secrets in the telling of their own stories. We might even say that they ‘give birth’ to their own pasts like memories to pass down to their daughters. Along with these four voices, we have that of Elias, Mar and Zuhra’s father, who is doubly foreign as his two daughters do not know they are sisters.
Excerpt from La mia casa è dove sono [My Home is Where I Am], Rizzoli, Milano 2010. [Translation by Alexandra Lawrence].
The drawing, or neverland
Sheeko sheeko sheeko xariir…
Story story, oh story of silk…
That’s how all Somali fairy tales start. All of the ones that my mother told me when I was a little girl. Splatter fairy tales more or less. Tarantino-style fairy tales of a nomad world that had nothing to do with lace and crinoline. Fairy tales that were harder than a cedar chest. Hyenas with sticky drool, eviscerated babies that got pieced back together, the cunningness of survival. In my mother’s fairy tales, there were no princesses, no castles, dances or delicate shoes. Her stories reflected the world that she was born into, the woods of eastern Somalia where men and women moved constantly in search of water wells. “We carried our houses on our backs,” she used to tell me. And if it wasn’t actually on their backs, it almost was. Man’s best friend, the noble dromedary, often carried it in their place.
It was a hard life for mama Kadija until the age of nine. She was a good shepherd even as a child. She milked goats and cows, looked after the camels, cooked rice with meat and didn’t ever complain about the calluses on her feet that came every time her family moved. The stories were the best way to not think about the difficulties of real life. Those dangerous and possessed ginni, those ferocious blood-hungry beasts, those heroes with magnificent talents all served as a reminder that life was not a gift and that it needed to be preserved every single day with a healthy dose of will. As my grandfather—Mr. Jama Hussein, my mother’s father whom I never met—used to say, “Because the only thing that make us truly free is will.”
When mum would tell me her stories, I, who was born and raised in Rome, used to shake like a leaf. But I didn’t run away because I always wanted to see what happened at the end. To see the bad guy punished and the good guy on the throne. It was a Manichean world that reassured me. A cruel but clear world. And like any self-respecting kid, I was a bit sadistic.
No, don’t think badly of me now. I am a sweet and sensitive woman, I am honey and ginger, I am cinnamon and cardamom. I am sugar cane. I know that the words I just said make me look like a dhiimiirad, a drinker of human blood. But in fairy tales one must choose a system of life and death. It connects us to the ancestral world of our forefathers.
When I came across Snow White for the first time in a middle school anthology I realized that Europe and Africa have a lot in common. In the original Grimm Brothers’ version the ending is quite different from the one most people know: The evil stepmother is invited to the wedding banquet. And it is at the wedding that the wicked queen pays for her evil deeds. “Two iron slippers were already on the coals: when they began to glow they were brought to her and she was made to put on the burning shoes and dance until her feet burned up and she dropped down dead.” Justice was done! Queen Grimhilde to the stake! To the stake!
Grimhilde was like the determined man-eater Aarawelo Wil Wal who seemed right out of an Andersen story. Our fairy tales are more similar than you think. And maybe we are, too. Rome and Mogadishu, my two cities, are like Siamese twins separated at birth. One includes the other and vice versa. At least that’s how it is in my sense of the universe. […]