An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog

Boundaries – Critic’s corner


Identity, Migration, Post-colonialism. Canon and National Literature

by Daniele Comberiati (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

What does it mean nowadays to deal with migrant and postcolonial literature in the Italian language and what are the dynamics that this field of study brings into play? Starting from this question – which actually opens up many others about definition, method, canon, as well as ‘disciplinarity’, especially if one considers how subjects are taught and organized in the Italian academy – I have chosen here to present, in a slightly different form, some considerations that are included in the book «Affrica». Il mito coloniale italiano attraverso i libri di viaggio di esploratori e missionari dall’Unità alla sconfitta di Adua (1861-1896), published this year by Cesati. Here I begin my analysis with the concept of Italian ‘identity’ in the nineteenth century which, partly because of recent studies carried out from a migrant and postcolonial point of view, has been recently called into question.

The writer and journalist Thomas Besozzi, Dino Buzzati’s close friend and colleague in Milan after the Second World War, who committed suicide when he was sixty-four, in the 1950s edited for the magazine L’Europeo a series of reports on the ‘insabbiati’ or ‘incatramati’, i.e. Italians who decided to settle in Africa after the end of the Italian colonial empire. Later Besozzi’s articles were collected in the book Il sogno del settimo viaggio (from the title of the last entry in the volume) published by Pegasus. In 2001 Fazi acquired the copyright for the book[1]. But who were the so-called ‘insabbiati’ or ‘incatramati’? In a rather evocative way these were the labels used for those Italians who after the end of the Second World War chose to remain in the old overseas possessions, sometimes without even reporting their presence to the Italian consulate. Besozzi, who was an outsider, was not immune to their charm; he saw them as moved by opposition to the mainstream and as making an apparently illogical choice, driven by an irrational bond with a land which to the ‘Western’ look probably appeared simply ungenerous and hostile. On the other hand, several years earlier Buzzati himself, especially in the short story Uomo in Africa[2], perfectly described the ambiguous feeling of loss and self-rediscovery experienced by some Italians living in the colonies.

On closer inspection Buzzati’s ‘uomo in Africa’ and Besozzi’s ‘insabbiati’ both represent the top of the iceberg of a presence – that of Italians in the colonies – which predates and continues after the military activities and political interferences of the Italian state, and constitutes a long-term process that starts from Italian unification and continues until at least 1960. It expresses a constant tension that tends to deform and stretch the national borders toward both the south and the east, especially if one bears in mind the special relationship with the Yugoslav, Greek and Albanian territories.

It is necessary to highlight that some traces of this tension can be seen to predate the colonial enterprise and must be associated with the definition of national identity. Thus it can be noted that the redefinition (or rather definition) of national borders and internal political order and the development of an interest in the colonial possessions are simultaneous, parallel and in some ways even convergent movements. The more apparently straightforward path requiring first an adjustment and consolidation of national unity and identity followed by a subsequent expansion project, does not always prove to be accurate in  the study and analysis of Italian but also European affairs in general. Certainly, during the period of the Risorgimento, politicians’ priorities were different and audiences’ cultural and literary interests and tastes were directed elsewhere. However it is undeniable that, even in those years, the will of some members of the future Italian ruling class to look to Africa and to design or simply imagine a possible colonization did not disappear. The ‘mal d’Africa’, mentioned by Besozzi and which is a constant motif in the work of colonial writers and of those who have used the colonies as a theme or simply as a background for their stories, sees its own origin in the particular relationship between the history and foundation of the Italian nation[al] state with some African countries.

When reading the lyrics of Edoardo Scarfoglio, Ferdinando Martini and Alfredo Oriani (written in a time interval starting in the 1880s and ending with Fascism), there emerge some stereotypes and clichés still persistent in the representation of Africa, but more generally of otherness in Italian culture. These representations served the purpose, at the dawn of the Italian unification, of consolidating its internal identity, which was in reality far weaker than previously thought, against any external elements.

A decisive change in this perspective can be found at the end of the Eighties, when Italy became, for the first time in its history, a country of immigration and therefore was forced to rethink and renegotiate its identity in transformation, including its literary and cultural output. An example is the contrast ‘hot country / cold country’ which for several years has characterized the vision of Italy compared to other European countries and was called into question because of the insertion in this dynamic of the ‘African’ element. This dichotomy is so entrenched as to be used as dominant leitmotif, even in the early narratives of some migrant writers in the late eighties and early nineties of the twentieth century: Senegalese authors such as Pap Khouma and Moussa Saidou Ba found in the counter-representation of Italy[3] – seen for years, especially in emigrants’ accounts, as a place of the sun in comparison to the cold countries of the earlier diaspora – an effective metaphor based on climate and weather elements but which points to social and psychological factors.

The characteristics of Africa and Italy at first sight have remained the same with respect to what is narrated by explorers, missionaries or colonial writers. What is changing is the dynamic of the relationship itself, the sense and direction of the migration process, as well as the reasons for the journey. The use of an ‘upside down’ stereotype connects the colonial experience (and cultural changes of the second half of the nineteenth century) with the present postcolonial society, showing some continuity – built clearly through breaks, upturns and further ruptures – between the two moments in the Italian history. It is for these reasons that Derek Duncan and Jacqueline Andall speak, referring to the memory of Italian colonialism, not of removal, which would mean a complete mis à l’écart of the colonial question in the post-war years, but rather of a dissemination which, despite not having access to public discourse, emerges occasionally creating a paradigmatic oscillation between memory and oblivion[4].

I believe that, beyond the specific field of application, the true disruptive intervention of postcolonial migrant studies lies in the ability to reflect on aspects of the historical and literary Italian past considered as ‘unassailable’, so to call the canon into question and to offer a new point of view on the present.

Daniele Comberiati is chargé de recherches Frs-Fnrs at Université Libre de Bruxelles. He published the collection of interviews La quarta sponda. Scrittrici in viaggio dall’Africa coloniale all’Italia di oggi (Rome, 2009), the essays Scrivere nella lingua dell’altro. La letteratura degli immigrati in Italia (1989-2007) (Bruxelles, 2010) and Tra prosa e poesia. Modernità di Sandro Penna (Rome, 2010). He is also the author of «Affrica». Il mito coloniale italiano attraverso i libri di viaggio di esploratori e missionari dall’Unità alla sconfitta di Adua (1861-1896) (Firenze, 2013) and with Emma Bond he edited Il confine liquido. Scambi letterari e interculturali fra Italia e Albania (Nardò: Lecce, 2013), the first systematic analysis of the literary and cultural relations between the two countries from the 15th century to the present day.

[1] T. Besozzi, Il sogno del settimo viaggio, Roma, Fazi, 2001

[2] Dino Buzzati, Uomo in Africa, in «Primato. Lettere e arti d’Italia», 2 (1940), pp. 18-20.

[3] Pap Khouma, Io, venditore di elefanti. Una vita per forza fra Dakar, Parigi e Milano, a cura di Oreste Pivetta, Milano, Garzanti, 1990; Saidou Moussa Ba, La promessa di Hamadi, a cura di Alessandro Micheletti, Novara, De Agostini, 1991.

[4] Jacqueline Andall, Derek Duncan, Memories and Legacies of Italian Colonialism, in Italian Colonialism. Legacy and Memory, a cura di J. Andall e D. Duncan, Berna, Peter Lang, 2005, pp. 9-27.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on July 29, 2013 by in Critic's corner.
%d bloggers like this: