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Italian Somali writer Igiaba Scego creates a stark juxtaposition between Rome of the 1860s and the contemporary city in her most recent novel, The Colour Line, translated from the Italian by John Cullen and Gregory Conti in 2022. Her protagonists, nineteenth-century African American artist Lafanu Brown and modern-day Somali migrant Binti, attempt to cross the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Oceans respectively to fulfil their artistic talent in Italy. However, current migration practices means that the latter is subject to horrific violence en route, and the eternal city remains beyond reach.
Scego’s polyphonic novel portrays Abolitionism in the United States and the early decades of Italian Unification (1860s-1880s) through the fictional character of Lafanu, a composite of two real-life African American women, sculptor Edmonia Lewis and mid-wife Sarah Parker Remond, who spent time in Rome when it was the preferred destination for upper-class Northern Europeans and Americans on the Grand Tour. Scego’s portrayal of golden-age Rome puts Italy’s contemporary issues of inhumane migration laws and exclusionary citizenship rights in stark relief. The author’s opening dedication to the city, “wherever she may be,” goes far beyond a superficial paean to beauty. Cognisant of Rome’s semiotic value as both a locus of artistic expression and extreme despair for contemporary migrants, Scego follows her epigraph with an excerpt from Shelley’s Adonais, an ode to the city where “fragrant corpses dress/ the bones of Desolation’s nakedness.” Rome is a palimpsest of histories that have often remained unprocessed by its inhabitants. Scego, with a PhD in postcolonial studies, is acutely sensitive to tracing connections between the past and present, and to illuminating how the ghosts of the past haunt the city through its monuments and street names, but also to how these ghosts are internalised, wreaking havoc on individual bodies from the inside out.
The Colour Line, originally published in Italian in 2020, is the most recent in Italy’s now flourishing canon of postcolonial literature by female writers. From the early 1990s, when Italy had shifted from being a country of mass emigration to immigration, women from the former Italian colonies in East Africa (Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia) began to write about the oft-forgotten colonial past from a female, colonised perspective, eventually succeeding in bringing this topic to some level of public awareness. Scego is one of the most prolific of these writers and made her literary debut in 2003 with the short story, “Sausages”, which shed light on the identity struggles of a young Muslim Somali Italian woman who tries to convince herself of her Italianness by forcing herself to eat pork meat. It does not go well, but the story’s acclaim led to a successful literary and journalistic career for Scego. The Colour Line, the third in what she has called her “trilogy of colonial violence” (along with Beyond Babylon, 2008 and Adua, 2015), charts familiar territory for the writer: intergenerational trauma; the effects of trauma on the female body; the interconnections between global histories of violence; the current migrant crisis; and art as a means of salvation. This text, however, is yet more ambitious in scope, linking the history of slavery in the US to European colonialism and current migration issues in Italy. Just as protagonist Lafanu Brown is told “there is no such thing as a negro American”, children of migrants in contemporary Italy face a discriminatory citizenship law that is intent on denying the existence of Black Italians.
Rome is at the epicentre of Scego’s trilogy. In fact, The Colour Line opens where its predecessor Adua concludes: at Piazza dei Cinquecento (the “square of the five hundred”), where the central station, Termini, is located. Scego chooses this site, charged with unprocessed colonial history, to illuminate its legacy. The “five hundred” in question were Italian soldiers killed in one of Italy’s first attempts to conquer what was then known as Abyssinia in 1887. Their humiliating defeat was used as a motivating factor for another failed attack in 1896, the Battle of Adua, and then again for Mussolini’s return to Ethiopia in 1935, which led to a five-year war during which the Italians carried out horrific war crimes. It is in this square that we are introduced to Lafanu in The Colour Line, as an increasingly aggressive crowd, after hearing of Italy’s defeat, turns on the only black woman in sight, insisting that “her people” killed Italian soldiers.
The bridging character in the novel, linking the two female protagonists and two time zones, is contemporary Somali Italian art curator Leila. Shocked by a statue she has seen in an Italian town depicting four enchained slaves, she dedicates her life’s work to “help[ing] people to see better.” Through an acquaintance in the art world, she discovers the work of Lafanu Brown, and becomes obsessed with the woman, finding in her a kind of foremother and the reassurance that there has always been a black presence in Rome. Meanwhile, Leila’s Somali cousin Binti risks the treacherous journey across Africa to reach Italy. After being held captive and sexually assaulted by smugglers, she is forced to return to Somalia, physically and psychically shattered. In alternating chapters, we learn of Lafanu’s life story, narrated by the artist herself in the form of a letter to her suitor, and Binti’s ill-fated journey, narrated by Leila. Interestingly, the translators chose the title “Crossings” for the latter’s chapters. While the Italian term “incroci” could also be translated as “intersections” and would thus render Scego’s interweaving of these female narratives more clearly, the choice of “crossings” draws attention to the theme of travel, which is central to the novel. Scego displays how a black woman in the nineteenth century had the freedom to cross the Atlantic alone, while a Somali woman in current times is forced to place her life in the hands of smugglers. As protagonist Leila notes, while some people have “strong” passports, those of others are mere “toilet paper.”
A recurring motif in Scego’s work is the effects of trauma on the female body and she has become known for her corporeal narrative style. Both Lafanu and Binti experience the after-effects of sexual violence as a sense of being tormented by shadows with an oppressive tangible presence. In addition to this haunting, the protagonists lose their ability to taste food. One way Scego achieves the sensuousness of her writing is through her use of synaesthesia, a blending of sensory experiences. Lafanu’s rapists are described through their scent: “a potpourri of hormones, desire, delirium, and lilac”; trauma is portrayed as a theft of colours; a voice is depicted as “multicoloured, poppy-scented;” and Rome as “the heart of colour.” While the title undoubtedly draws the reader’s attention to W.E.B. Du Bois’s pivotal work on race (1903), it is also concerned with depicting black female protagonists as artists in search of their personal colours with which to render their world subjectively.
Philosopher Laura Marks writes of how intercultural cinema undoes Western ocular-centrism by inverting the hierarchy of the senses, prioritising instead those closest to the body, where memory is often held: touch, smell, and taste. Likewise, Scego foregrounds the female body, demonstrating how the body itself can be an archive of the traumatic memories of slavery, colonialism and migration, especially when traditional archives have not provided shelter for these memories. Her embodied narrative style succeeds in creating a relationship between the storyteller and listener, which recalls Walter Benjamin’s image of “traces of the storyteller cling[ing] to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.” This allows the story to touch the reader in such a way that the memories evoked become part of their collective memory, the ideal antidote to the cultural amnesia that so often shrouds these events. For a country now governed by the most right-wing coalition since Fascism, the works of Scego and other postcolonial Italian writers, such as Cristina Ali Farah and Shirin Ramzanali Fazel, fulfil a vital role in continuing the dialogue on Italy’s contentious past and present, unearthing the layers beneath Rome’s glittering surface.
By Igiaba Scego
Translated from the Italian by John Cullen and Gregory Conti
Other Press, 544 pages
Noreen Kane is a PhD student working on intergenerational trauma and the Body in Italian Postcolonial Women's Writing in University College Cork. Her interests are postcolonial literature, gender studies, the Body, and contemporary Irish film and literature.
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