Nassera Chohra (Marseille, France, 1963)
Nassera Chohra was born in Marseille in 1963, where she grew up as the daughter of Saharawi-Algerian immigrants, thus belonging to the immigrants of the second generation. After her studies she worked as an actress for French television in Paris and in the year 1990, following a trip to Italy, she decided to live in Rome (Camilotti np), where she married an Italian man and gave birth to two children.
Nassera Chohra belongs to the first wave of Italian migrant literature; we know this because in her autobiographical text, Volevo diventare bianca (1993, I wanted to become white), she mainly describes her migrant experience and because the book was written in cooperation with the Italian journalist Alessandra Atti di Sarro. It is possible to find a lot of information regarding this cooperation in an interview conducted by Graziella Parati. Parati tells many details about this interview in the essay ‘Looking through non Western Eyes. Immigrant Women’s Autobiographical Narratives in Italian’ (Parati 122-123). According to Parati, their collaboration was the only unsuccessful and problematic one for both the writer and the editor among migrant writers. Chohra only asked for grammatical assistance but according to Chohra, di Sarro wanted to modify her writing style.
Nassera Chohra wrote also the short story: ‘La signora del deserto’ (1995, ‘The Woman of the Desert’) published in the year 1995 in Studi d’italianistica nell’Africa australe. Italian Studies in Southern Africa (Pretoria: A.P.I. , 1995).
This short story is divided in two parts: ‘La signora del deserto’ (‘The Woman of the Desert’) and ‘La maga Mochina’ (‘The Wizard Mochina’). Through reality and imagination, Nassera Chohra describes some events of her childhood in France and in Africa. In the first part, Nassera Chohra describes the winter spent in a poor and marginal district of Marseille collecting snails to be sold. Although this short story presents several features of fairy tales, in some aspects it is possible to mark the poverty of the French slums:
Two kinds existed on my mountain: the round ones with a pretty shell, a little hard to find, and the big, flat kind that you find a lot of in garbage piles, but especially in piles of poop (Chohra 166).
Also, the inhabitants of the district, who the little Naci meets, remind the reader of fairy tales but at the same time depict the dreariness of the poor areas. These are transfigured by Nassera Chohra’s imagination, like the neighbour, who is similar to a witch:
She never gave up on anything; she even covered her decayed front teeth with aluminum foil, leaving her healthy canine teeth visible. We called her “Dracula” because, like him, she only went out at night: in the courtyard, she’d sprinkle alcohol and light it to kill the ants (Chohra 166).
In the second part, titled ‘La maga Mochina’ (‘The Wizard Mochina’), Chohra describes a summer spent in Africa, in the Sahara, and her meeting with an old woman who tells her about her life and about the magical powers of Nassera’s grandmother. Fantasy and reality are melded in a catchy tale in which popular traditions, memories and fantasy are combined.
In Volevo diventare bianca, Nassera Chohra writes about her life, beginning with her childhood and adolescence spent in a poor and marginal district in Marseille, up to her arrival in Italy where, following a trip, she decided to stay. Furthermore, she describes her experience as a child in Algeria, where her family was in contact with the Sahrawi community and her short journey to Paris, while she was looking for a job as an actress. This autobiography could be considered a Bildungsroman, because in the beginning she refuses her identity and cultural difference, but throughout her life she learns how to accept the colour of her skin and how to appreciate her difference rather as richness and advantage (Ponzanesi 262).
As it can be understood from the title of the book, the human body plays a pivotal role in this autobiography, as well as racism and the feeling of being an outsider. Nassera experiences her difference in the early childhood while playing with a French friend:
Non è che fossi invidiosa, ma io non ho mai avuto una bambola. Nemmeno una brutta, piccola o rotta. Mi ricordo che un giorno le chiesi di regalarmi una di quelle che non usava più. Era una bambola vecchia, rotta e sporca, ma lei con una smorfia rispose: «No. Perché tu sei negra» (Chohra 10-11).
This negative experience marks her life in a permanent way and this feeling of being a foreigner will accompany her throughout her life. As Menin notices, ‘il suo corpo cessa di essere casa’ (Menin 73) because she incessantly has to face a body that prevents her from feeling at home and from being part of the French society. Her body is seen as an enemy or an illness and it determines her mood and her ways of relating with the people surrounding her:
Anche quando passai in prima media, in classe ero l’unica ragazzina di colore. E questo sentirmi diversa dagli altri mi faceva essere permalosa e aggressiva…(Chohra 71).
The hate against her body and the black colour is so strong that she is ashamed of her mother, to the point that she does not want her to pick her up at school, or hopes other children will think her mother is a nanny:
Le passai vicino senza neppure alzare lo sguardo e mi misi a camminare molto avanti a lei, con le mani in tasca, senza dirle neanche ciao. Speravo che così chi ci avesse viste avrebbe pensato che quella era la mia governante (Chohra 13).
It is worth pointing out Nassera’s tale about her attempt at decolorizing her black skin with some bleach she found at her place:
Mi tormentai a lungo, finché mi sembrò d’aver trovato finalmente un rimedio infallibile. L’avevo visto usare tante volte e funzionava sempre. La candeggina: rendeva bianchi i pantaloni dei miei fratelli, figuriamoci se non avrebbe schiarito anche me! (Chohra 14).
This description underlines the feeling of inappropriateness and the efforts to deny her identity when she was a child; furthermore, it is interesting because it stresses her humoristic, ironic and, at the same time, bitter style. This feeling of being an outsider also accompanies her at a mature age, because she says:
Capii in fretta e controvoglia che essere adulta, immigrata e persino con la pelle nera, non era decisamente un vantaggio in un paese di bianchi (Chohra 80).
The body is the starting point when speaking about her inappropriateness, as well as to explore the violence she experienced as a woman and the discrimination between sexes. Nassera remembers and tells her life starting from the body, so that her autobiography becomes corporal and sexed. In doing so, the body becomes the medium of complaint about the violence between sexes, the discrimination and women’s lack of bodily control and manipulation of the female body. Nassera insists in telling about the ways she was mistreatmented. For example, there are many descriptions about corporal punishments her mother inflicted upon her. As noticed Parati (128), her mother, who in this text can be considered as phallocentric and chauvinist, constantly punishes Nassera in a way that mortifies and denies her sexual sphere and femininity:
«Sdraiati per terra, senza mutande e con le gambe aperte!» urlò mia madre stringendo in mano un peperoncino verde spaccato nel mezzo. Conoscevo quel castigo; cercai di fuggire, ma i miei fratelli mi immobilizzarono. Tutta nuda e con le gambe aperte sembravo un pollo da condire prima di metterlo al forno. Il peperoncino, strofinato ripetutamente sul mio sesso, bruciava da morire (Chohra 23).
The fact that Nassera insists on writing about her mother’s obsession with virginity, while also incessantly standing up against her wish of becoming an actress, which she regards as a work for prostitutes, reveals her need to denounce a body that is always manipulated by cultural and social codes, and the necessity to develop new patterns for female sexuality. At a certain point, Nassera’s fragile body is victim of her brother’s violence, as he releases his frustration by beating her. The chapter in which Nassera describes these episodes is called “one hundred and twenty kilos”, maybe to underline the body’s hierarchy:
Gli bastava vedermi parlare in strada con un ragazzo per riempirmi di pugni al mio rientro a casa […]. E ogni giorno le botte erano più forti. Ormai i lividi sul mio corpo non si contavano più (Chohra 86).
What can be observed from these quotations is that Nassera’s memories are bodily and sexed. Furthermore, the body is the starting point to reflect on cultural differences.
Nassera describes a trip to the Saharawi community in Algeria, where she went with her family in her childhood. The writer depicts the rituals of circumcision and the female Saharawi baptism, consisting in a little incision in the knee to prevent women from harassments. As Graziella Parati noticed (129), little Nassera’s attitude is quite western, given that she is always complaining and looking for western comforts:
Non potevano darmi una normale bottiglia con il tappo? Me lo chiesi per tutta la serata, ma il mio capriccio non venne assecondato e dopo un po’ dovetti arrendermi. Il fatto era che l’oasi più vicina si trovava a quattro chilometri dal villaggio e quindi c’era poco da fare gli schizzinosi (Chohra 33).
At the same time, her attitude is ambivalent; she is in the middle of traditions and modernity, showing the complex stance of someone who used to live in different cultural contexts:
Per anni, in seguito, amici e conoscenti mi hanno chiesto invano il significato di questi strani segni sul ginocchio. È stato il mio piccolo segreto per molto tempo. Non è che ci credessi completamente, ma in alcune occasioni mi sono scoperta a pensare che il mio tatuaggio avesse fatto il suo dovere (Chohra 44).
Another pivotal topic, shared by many migrant writers, is food as a metaphor for culture. One of the most original episodes connected to food is when Nassera talks about the buffet after her French friend’s Holy Communion. Nassera wants to eat as much pork as possible, in order to convince others of her Catholicism and, ultimately, become a Catholic. She uses food as a means of integration in the French society and to convert to Catholicism:
Il salame aveva un sapore salato e il vino aveva un po’ il gusto dell’aceto rosso al quale era stato aggiunto dello zucchero. Li avevo ingurgitati in un istante, senza quasi masticare. Ripetei quel gesto più volte, come fossi una ladra. Ogni boccone era sempre più grande e ogni sorso di vino sempre più abbondante, finché ritenni che potesse bastare. A quel punto dovevo per forza essere diventata cattolica. (Chohra 67).
After constantly rejecting her diversity and her hybrid identity, she will finally appreciate her culture and see the mestissage as something positive for her and her family:
Ma il fatto era che io ero cresciuta metà araba e metà francese e per quanto mia madre si ostinasse a volermi educare come una ragazza musulmana, facendo i conti di quanto potesse fruttare il mio titolo di studio il giorno che avessi trovato marito, io vivevo ormai in un mondo tutto mio che era un miscuglio di tradizioni algerine e sogni europei (Chohra 133).
Her desire to reach a monocultural and rigid identity is replaced by the concept of a fluid and complex identity and, using Braidotti’s terminology, she ultimately becomes a nomadic subject.
As Comberiati noticed (np), although this text belongs to the first wave of migrant literature, it is possible to say that it is a more complex book, embracing several topics, such as the body, the need for women’s independence and agency, racism, cultural codes and hybrid identity; topics that Nassera Chohra was able to develop with a simple and humoristic style.
Camilotti, Silvia. ‘Nassera Chohra: La scrittura di una donna tra romanzo e vita’. Voci dal silenzio: np. http://digilander.libero.it/vocidalsilenzio/silviatesi.htm.
Chohra, Nassera. Volevo diventare bianca. Roma: Edizioni e/o, 1993.
Chohra, Nassera. ‘La signora del deserto’. Studi d’italianistica nell’Africa australe. Italian Studies in Southern Africa 2 (1995): 23-29.
Chohra, Nassera. ‘The Woman of the Desert’. Trans. Marie Orton. Ed. Graziella Parati. Mediterranean Crossroads. Migration Literature in Italy. United States of America: Associated University Press, 1999. 165-169.
Comberiati, Daniele. ‘Le molte voci del ’soggetto nomade’. Le reti di Dedalus (2007): np. http://www.retididedalus.it/Archivi/2007/marzo/LETTERATURE_MONDO/Letteratura_migrante.htm.
Menin, Laura. ‘Immaginando la «casa». Luoghi di dislocamento e di desiderio negli scritti di tre giovani donne arabo-musulmane’. Scritture migranti. Rivista di scambi interculturali 3 (2009): 67-92.
Parati, Graziella. ‘Looking through non Western Eyes. Immigrant Women’s Autobiographical Narratives in Italian’. Writing New Identities. Gender, Nation, and Immigration in Contemporary Europe. Ed. Gisela Brinker-Gabler and Sidonie Smith. Minneapolis,London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. 118-142.
Parati, Graziella ed. Mediterranean Crossroads. Migration Literature in Italy. United States of America: Associated University Press, 1999.
Ponzanesi, Sandra. ‘Resisting Representation. Nassera Chohra, Volevo diventare bianca’. Paradoxes of Postcolonial Culture. Feminism and Diaspora in South-Asian and Afro-Italian Women’s Narratives. Utrecht: Universiteit van Utrecht, 1999. 241-267.