The two Color Lines
A conversation with writer Igiaba Scego
by Rossella Menna
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Your last novel, which concludes an ideal trilogy about colonial violence, is called La linea del colore (The Color Line). Can you explain what this line is?
It’s the line that divides peoples according to skin colour, granting white people privileges which are denied to black people. According to William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, an African-American social scientist to whom we owe this concept, the problem of the twentieth century identifies with the problem of the “color line”. Well, we have entered the twenty-first century twenty years ago, and we’re still there. It is a border that moves according to the interests of the ruling classes. For a long time, Italian-Americans were not included within the white privilege. Like other communities, they became part of it only in the 1970s, because Richard Nixon needed more votes to win the presidential election. After all, from the chromatic point of view, nobody is really all white or all black. Therefore, if necessary, the concept of “whiteness” can become wider. However, in my novel, the meaning of the color line is overturned by the 19th century protagonist Lafanu Brown. Lafanu is a young African-American student who, after a violent attack, decides to turn that dividing line into a pictorial line, to regain the colours that were stolen by her aggressors through becoming an artist.
It seems a countertrend strategy compared to that which is more applauded and prized today, of representing hyper realistically the exploited and the weak as subjects inexorably trapped inside a system that allows them no way out.
The horror that surrounds us is huge. I believe that movies, novels, and performances representing it have the merit of making us think about how huge the inequalities in the world are, of reminding us that there’s a very small percentage of privileged people, and a large percentage of people who suffer and who sometimes, in desperation, find solutions that might give credit to the reasons of their executioners. Even in my novel, the topics of race and social class are central. Lafanu has no money, she relies entirely on her benefactress. The character is fictional but, while creating it, I was inspired by the life of two real African-descendant women: the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who arrived in Rome from the United States in the mid-nineteenth century after having suffered a terrible aggression; and the obstetrician and activist Sarah Parker Remond. Edmonia’s biography struck me especially due to how much she suffered from her dependence on the benefactresses who had a say even in her art. In the novel, therefore, I gave much space to the ambiguity of the figure of Betsebea McKenzie, this benefactress who helps Lafanu to certify her goodness, to testify it, because being good is a status. In the story that I tell, the reality of a present dominated by inequalities resounds a lot, with all the shades of both white and black. But the fact that I chose a mainly nineteenth-century setting also gave me great freedom. What I claim as an artist, in fact, is the right to the imagination. Sandro Portelli tells us that African-Americans have been denied the right to the imagination in the United States for almost two hundred years.
That is, to dream other lives?
Yes, but as writers. Everything they produced, whether poems or novels, was interpreted as the tale of their personal history, of their life experience, never as an artistic gesture of imagination and reinvention. I’ve seen something similar happening to me as an African-descendant writer, when I just started writing, and to other authors of migrant origin or first-generation migrants in Italy. Alongside many others: Gabriella Kuruvilla, Gabriella Ghermandi, Cristina Ali Farah, Ornella Vorspi. Everything we wrote was reduced to our life experiences, even when it was obviously about fantasy or self-fiction. Everything was always brought back exclusively to “ourselves” and it was never understood as fiction. But it often was! I have to admit that, in my case, the closeness to theatre, the assiduous attendance to shows but also workshops (as a listener), has been crucial in giving an explicit and central role to the issue.
On the pretext of political vocation and engagement, some artists (and some populations!) are doomed to be nothing else but themselves, condemned not to be able to represent themselves in any other way than by pure social, geographical, economic contingencies. It’s the same principle for which an artist with a non-conforming body seems to have no reason to be on a stage, except to tell her/his own condition of non-conformity. I think that’s the greatest paradox of contemporary culture.
It’s the struggle in which we’re trapped today. It is not by chance that I have edited an anthology of young Afro-Italian voices (Ed: Future. Il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi, effequ 2019) because the publishing houses do not scout to discover Italian writers different from those that circulate most widely, and when they do, they don’t even consider them as authors of Italian narrative, which they are in fact. I, myself, was born in Rome. I write in Italy, in Italian, and yet it’s the first time that one of my novels, the most recent one actually, belongs explicitly to the “Narratori Italiani” series. When I realised that, I celebrated a great political achievement. Instead, there are so many beautiful books written by Italian authors that have no migrant origins and that deal with themes of migration and colonialism. For example, I think that Sangue Giusto by Francesca Melandri (Ed: Rizzoli 2017) is a masterpiece.
In the first show of his trilogy, dedicated to the lies of white people, actor and dramaturg Alessandro Berti claims for himself, a white man, the right to speak about “blackness”, despite not being black, in response to a widespread debate on cultural appropriation. What do you think about this? Should only gay people have the public and artistic right to speak about homosexuality? Only black people about black people? Only women about women?
The topic is delicate. Both in Europe and in the U.S., there are many cases of cultural appropriation. The fact that the publishing market rarely takes texts of Black, Latin, Asian-descendant authors into consideration and prefers instead to give space to those who face these issues in an incorrect and uninformed way is an objective problem. It’s what recently happened with American Dirt, by the white author of Spanish origin, Jeanine Cummins. The book, which tells the story of two Mexican migrants, but with mistakes, sloppiness and stereotypes, has incited a lot of controversy. What angered the Latin community is that it became the publishing case of the year, a pre-set, studied bestseller has become the reference book on the theme of Mexican immigration, while the voices of Latin authors have been ignored by the cultural industry. I’m an African-Italian who told a story about an African-American, isn’t this also appropriation? It’s true that, as an African-descendant, I learned a lot from African-Americans like Malcolm X, but it’s not because we’re black that we share the same history, the same experiences. In fact, I wanted to make this introduction in the abstract of the book, just as Alessandro Berti did. The point is, telling Lafanu Brown’s story was a way to build a bridge to my story and to many others. That’s how art and writing work, we can’t confine imagination. I believe everyone has the right to talk about everything, as long as they don’t do it carelessly, but honestly. From Alessandro Berti’s performance, for example, I learned a lot about myself as a black woman; there were some things that I didn’t know.
As a journalist for Internazionale, you also deal explicitly with political issues, migration and post-colonialism. In an article from a few years ago, you wrote about how Chinese migrants, welcomed by Americans with open arms around 1840 for their cheap labour, in the period of the gold rush, then turned into the “yellow peril” and “dangerous gooks”, when they became stronger economically, when they began to open stores and start their own businesses. Delayed racism. On the other hand, a little while ago, we talked about how being white was easily extended to Italians in a moment of opportunity. There’s even logic to racist madness.
Yes, to better exploit. Anti-migration policies follow this logic. The Trump Wall, for example, is not meant to really stop people, but to make them weaker and more liable to be blackmailed once they arrive. As for Italy, we are always trapped in the Bossi-Fini law that weakens migrants because, with its devious mechanisms. it allows them to enter the Italian territory and then fall into illegality, thus feeding the submerged market. Then again, it’s insane that we have not yet reached the Ius Soli law, that citizenship is linked to blood and not to the land. And it’s not only a matter of laws, unfortunately, but of gaze. As a young girl, although I was born in Rome, I myself was often looked at by others through a colonial lens because of my black skin. It is very important to fight for an increasingly plural narration that normalises what is still experienced as extraneous.
And here we return to art.
Yes, but also to school where today, among other things, bodies are able to witness a thousand different stories. Speaking of rewriting school programmes in a more plural and complex way, something incredible has happened lately: at the end of January, Leila El Houssi, a professor of History of the Middle East of Tunisian origins, also very prepared on the themes of colonialism and post-colonialism, has been included in the Commission for the Didactics of the History of the Ministry of Education and has promised that she will pay special attention to those fundamental issues of the twentieth century.
You often talk about strong and weak passports, and about the importance of taking immediate action to stop the shame of travel Apartheid, which prevents certain populations from moving freely around the world. In a dimension of ideals, how do you imagine the borders of the States? Non-existent? Permeable? After all, your Leila, also an Afro-descendant protagonist of the contemporary section of The Color Line, while being Italian, openly expresses the desire to know the history of her ancestors, to remain connected to her origins. Origins are important.
It is a misunderstanding to think that those who fight for open borders imagine a world which is all the same: with no more traditions, cultures and languages. Indeed, my ideal future is based on the freedom of travel, of dialogue between peoples who do not take advantage of each other, who do not compete to dominate the lives of people and resources. The West is terrified by an image that does not correspond at all to reality. Those who see Africa as an enormous group of huts inhabited by people who can’t wait to come and invade Europe, they don’t really know anything. There are countries in Africa where there is an amazing explosion in arts and technology.
In which the future is planned with much more originality and according to new models.
Yes. My home country, Somalia, is one of the most unfortunate countries in the world. My country is torn apart by a thirty-year civil war armed by traffickers, by terrorism, by the digging of oil wells in which toxic waste, which causes our children to be born with deformities, has been spilled. It’s not a coincidence that Ilaria Alpi died in Somalia: she had discovered a circulation of weapons and toxic waste. The beauty I saw as a child no longer exists. And yet, some people want to go back today, like my cousin, who lived in Canada for thirty years and then decided to go back there and open an Italian bar, because like all Somalis of his age, he studied Italian as a boy. So, the other day, l helped him buy a coffee machine and an ice cream maker, a picture of the Colosseum, things like this, “Italian Flavour” to bring to Mogadishu. People don’t want to come here to stay, they want to move freely searching for opportunities, just like we do with our beautiful burgundy passports. This isn’t science-fiction, but history. In Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana, you can see Pasolini having a fantastic dialogue with a number of elegant African students in Rome. Well, those boys didn’t come to Italy by boat, they could travel by plane. And I also remember that so many members of my family went back and forth from Somalia when I was a kid. Traveling, moving, going away and returning back was a choice – as it should be for everyone, not only for those lucky enough to have the right passport. Our migration policies claim the power to turn this right into a privilege inaccessible to entire populations. But we have to be very careful, because shutting others out will sooner or later lead to being shut out ourselves.