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Immigration et "vivre-ensemble" : politiques et discours

Migration discourses in Italy

Discours migratoires en Italie
Elena Benelli


Depuis les dernières trente années, l’Italie a subi une révolution anthropologique : elle n’est plus un pays qui exporte de millions d’émigrants dans le monde, mais elle s’est transformée en terre d’immigration. La présence de ces nouveaux arrivants sur le territoire italien n’a pas encore été acceptée. Leur intégration s’est révélée problématique à différents niveaux. Dans cet article, je compte étudier comment la rhétorique d’État, ses lois et les médias ont représenté les nouveaux arrivants à travers des stratégies rhétoriques négatives, en définissant ces mouvements de population comme un « exode biblique » ou une « invasion de masse » (Portelli, Dal Lago), et n’ont pas été capables de gérer le processus d’intégration (Dal Lago, Parati). Afin de comparer la rhétorique d’État avec un autre genre de discours, j’examine la construction de l’identité narrative des migrants à travers l’étude des écrits de certains écrivains italophones (Methnani, Ebri et Scego), qui, dans leurs œuvres, ont remis en question ce type de représentations et ont entrepris une réflexion critique sur la société italienne et sur ses changements. Dans leurs œuvres, ces auteurs « répondent » (« talk back ») (Parati) à la société d’accueil en se réappropriant ce processus dialogique (Bakhtin) afin de modifier les préjugés et de problématiser la notion d’identité italienne.

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Italy and migrations

  • 1  Italian citizens living abroad are estimated to be around 60 millions, almost as many as the popul (...)
  • 2  “The landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live in: tourists, immigra (...)

1Over the past thirty years, Italy has undergone an anthropological revolution: from a country of emigration that exported millions of Italians around the world, from North America to Australia,1 the country has reversed it historical vocation and has become a country of immigration. While this relatively new migratory flow began to modify the Italian ethnoscape,2 its society and its literature, and the peninsula were unprepared to deal with this global matter. It is troubling to notice how little progress has been made in terms of legislation and integration since then. Viewed as a problem and handled as an emergency, immigration has been defined by the Italian media covering the presumed barbaric assault over the fragile Italian coasts in very negative terms: as a inundation in which migrants became the scapegoats of the public opinion. Nevertheless, and despite the negative and alarmist tone, migrants are claiming new spaces in Italian society and gaining access to cultural practices. If migrants are excluded and objectified in legal and media-type narratives: they challenge these discourses, juxtapose and replace them with literary narratives because literature is the terrain that connects symbolic and signifying practices expressed through language to social and legal representations.

  • 3  In Italian there are other words employed to indicate a migrant other than extracomunitario, an om (...)
  • 4  The translation is mine as all other translations in this paper, unless otherwise indicated.
  • 5  As David Ward rightfully noted some of the figures idolized by the Lega are nonexistent. Let’s tak (...)
  • 6  Claudia Moatti and Wolfgang Kaiser identify three major causes for migration since the Roman Empir (...)

2In order to analyze the impact immigration has had on Italian society, it is important to analyze the way it has been portrayed by the Italian media. Since the 1990s, when the flow began, immigration has been defined in very negative terms: as a “biblical exodus” or as a “mass invasion” by the Italian mass media; the newspapers and omnipresent television, in their coverage of this presumed barbaric assault crashing over the country’s fragile borders and coastlines. In a study conducted by Giuseppe Sciortino and Asher Colombo on the ways in which immigrants have been portrayed by the Italian media, the two sociologists remarked that, all of a sudden, “for the press, immigration has become of crucial importance for the entire social life of the country. We are witnessing the birth of a new narrative domain, defined and fed by a more generic and therefore more ecumenical vision of immigration” (Sciortino and Colombo, 2004, 102). The two scholars examine in their study how immigrants have been defined in the daily press and the results they arrive at are extremely interesting. First of all, they identify a moment in time, around 1989-91, when they notice a shift in terminology: migrants are not called “immigrants” or “foreign workers” any more; but, preference is given to a term that in Italian is a rather demeaning word: “extracomunitario”. This term is well known by Italian speakers and it identifies a person who is not part of the European community. Extracomunitario is never employed to point out a Japanese tourist or an American one; but, often a visible minority and most of the time what is perceived to be a minority.3 Secondly, the sociologists noticed that immigrants are no longer linked with news regarding the labour market but are associated with criminality under the common assumption that being a migrant is equal to being a criminal: “the noticeable increase in the 1990s of news on immigrants and crime has been emphasized by various authors, who note a growing concern over security in Italian public discourse” (Sciortino and Colombo, 2004, 109). As migrants continued to be portrayed as criminals in the news, the issue of public security began to gain attention and “has facilitated the launching of immigration as a major national problem and its politicization, as politicians become a legitimized source of information on the issue” (Sciortino and Colombo, 2004, 103). A document from the Italian Caritas dated October 2009 clearly points out this shift in the public opinion: according to a poll, 6 out of 10 Italians are convinced immigration has a direct link with criminality, while the Presidente del consiglio, the equivalent of the Prime Minister, can bluntly and irrationally affirm that Italy should not become, ever, a multiethnic society (Corriere Della Sera, May 2009). Another well-known sociologist Alessandro Dal Lago, explained in his groundbreaking work Non-persone. L’esclusione dei migranti in una società globale, that: “migrants are excluded and transformed into society’s enemies”4 (1999, 8) and they “became a danger, to be opposed with any possible means” (1999, 8). In order to do so, the state controlled and stiffened the existent legislation, acting like it could block, prevent and control the migration flow through the rigid application of what appears to be a rather inefficient set of laws. In this way, the state wanted to send a message to reassure its citizens; transforming the security argument against immigration into a modern crusade. Negative rhetoric towards immigrants has become a very convenient argument in the hands of many right-wing political parties in search of votes, not only in Italy but in other European countries as well. In Italy, however, there is one party like no other: the Lega Nord, or Northern League. The League is not only overtly xenophobic, like many other far right-wing parties in Europe; it is also the best ally of the current government; therefore, currently in power and constantly gaining support. It has to be noted that the moment in time identified by Sciortino and Colombo, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, when immigration started to be defined in terms of criminality, coincides with the political rise of the Northern League. The Northern League took power for the first time in 1994, a year when the arrivals intensified. The ability of the League to infiltrate the various strata of the population, replacing old political forces, has been remarkable and it has programmatically “carried out a decisive role in urban mobilizations against migrants, promoting demonstrations whenever possible and taking upon itself its paternity” (Dal Lago, 1999, 125) with the benevolent consent of its political allies. It should not come as a surprise that the current immigration law, known as the Bossi-Fini, bears the name of Umberto Bossi, the League’s political leader and today minister of Federal Reforms, along with that of Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the old right-wing party Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance, an ex-fascist party), have now merged with Silvio Berlusconi’s party (the old Forza Italia, now PDL, the Partito delle Libertà, the Party of Freedom) and as well as present-day president of the Chamber of Commons. Many Italian politicians from the Northern League became ideologically acquainted to misread the present in order to construct a fictitious past, singing the praises of a presumed Italian northern purity5 without taking into consideration that migrations have always been an important constituent of the history of the peninsula. Situated in the centre of the Mediterranean, its history is one of fractures and discontinuities, invasions and conquests, trading and business, cultural exchanges and the circulation of goods, human beings and ideas. Many peoples over centuries conquered and established themselves in the peninsula, making it a very complex substratum of cultures, a site of encounter of people and traditions, therefore rendering impossible to regard Italy as a historically and geographically “pure” concept.6

  • 7  ISTAT mentions in its 2010 annual report that without the contribution of immigration, Italy would (...)

3Official statistics regarding the foreign population in Italy are available on-line at ISTAT (the Italian Institute for Statistics): on January 1, 2010, the foreign-born population in Italy was around 4,235,059 people, (2,063,407 men and 2,171,652 women), an increase of 8,8% over the previous year and the equivalent of almost 7% of the total population of the country7.

  • 8  Statistics belonging to Istat are available at the web page:
  • 9  According to Transatlantic Trends: “Overall, there was a lack of distinction among Italians when a (...)
  • 10  1986, Foschi’s Law was followed by Martelli’s Law in 1990, by Turco-Napolitano’s Law in 1998, and (...)
  • 11  A sanatoria is a sort of an amnesty, where illegal migrants can become legal while in normal times (...)

4These numbers are relatively low compared to other European countries. Spain, for example, has the highest number of foreigners residing in a European country. Italy comes in only twelfth after the United Kingdom and Germany.8 These numbers should call into question the emergency depicted by the media and put in perspective what has been called the presumed invasion of the peninsula because they are fundamentally problematic: they do not take into account illegal immigration (that is impossible to enumerate and we should not forget that Italy is only an entry point into the Schengen area) and, as Dal Lago pointed out, “data on immigration are not necessarily unreliable but they are socially constructed” (Dal Lago, 1999, 14)9. Italian newspapers continue to address the issue in terms of emergency and politicians continue to use the “immigration problem” as a way to gain popularity and votes without considering a global trend and a new reality. The Italian state’s inability to deal with immigration issues lies, for Dal Lago, in a barrier that “is in the first place political ” (1999, 43). By defining this issue political, the sociologist refers to the fact the Italian state reacted in a very frantic manner to immigration, as a contingent emergency to be solved, and has politicized the issue without taking into consideration its complexities and continuity. Until recently, Italy didn’t possess a body of immigration laws like countries such as Canada or the United States; the only existing law until 1986 was a fascist law: the testo unico delle leggi di pubblica sicurezza (Laws on Public Security) of 1931 that required foreigners to declare themselves to the police so they could obtain a permesso di soggiorno, a visa. Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, did the Italian Parliament change the legislation and approve in a very short period of time four different immigration laws, all created in a panicky mode while dealing with emergencies with neither planning nor careful consideration.10 What remains of the old fascist law however, is the fact that speaking of immigration in Italy still means talking about security, legality and police. What it is important to emphasize here is that all laws are defined as sanatorie11, which Graziella Parati defined as follows:

sanare actually means to restore someone’s health; in this case, the implementation of the new law was intended to heal the country. This terminology, borrowed from the rhetoric of sickness, is based, in this context, on the assumption that becoming a country of immigration involves a contamination with the body of the country. By calling the law a sanatoria, the nation is characterized, and in the legal text it is narrated, as a diseased body - a metaphor that in the age of AIDS, does not fail to attract people’s attention. (Parati, 1997, 119)

  • 12  See on this matter: Andrijasevic, Rutvica. "Lampedusa in Focus: Migrants Caught between the Libyan (...)

5The attempt to legalize migrants in Italy is marked by strong negative rhetoric. In so doing, the Italian state is reaffirming that immigrants are inferior and therefore subjected to humiliation. The most recent law, the Bossi-Fini, was approved in June 2002, modified under the left wing government in 2006, but modified again in 2008 by the right wing government. This law, an object of contentious public debate, “has been from a certain point of view the perfect law, creating precisely target that was needed to obtain the political support to implement so-called law and order policies and political messages in the very same direction, building social fears and exploiting them for political purposes” (Allievi, 94). It introduced a very alarming set of measures: it requires photo-dactyloscopic printing, also known as fingerprinting, for anyone requesting and/or renewing a visa, even those residing in Italy with a regular one who have been renewing it regularly; family reunification became extremely difficult; the Italian navy has the duty to patrol the coasts as a counter-measure to prevent illegal arrivals (an extremely difficult task, considering Italy has some 8,000 kilometers of coastline); political asylum is almost impossible to be obtained and citizenship can be acquired only after ten years of residence on Italian soil; second generations, born in Italy from non-Italian parents are tolerated on the Italian territory only until they turn eighteen, after which they have to obtain a visa. The law established and implemented the C.P.T. (Centri di Permanenza Temporanea, Centres of Temporary Residence), today called C.I.E. (Centri di Identificazione e di Espulsione, Centres of Identification and Expulsion) for illegal immigrants located in the outskirts of some Italian cities, a softer version of labor camps where immigrants sans papiers are confined for up to 60 days, waiting to be expelled and repatriated (usually much longer considering the notorious delays in the Italian justice system). It devised also some very highly criticized extraterritorial camps (located in Libya) where migrants have been denied basic human rights.12

6While migrants are excluded and objectified in Italian legal and media narratives, they are seeking a way to challenge these narratives and replace them with their own. They started writing either journalistic articles or fiction, and have found a particular hospitable venue in literature, because, as Graziella Parati pointed out, “literature embodies here the only alternative to specific parameters in public representations. Literature initiates a discourse in which the migrant is not only the ‘foreigner’ that appears in the law, but also a speaking subject beyond the role of cipher in numerical immigration quotas” (Parati, 2005, 174). Migrant writers “critique and revise particular narratives embedded in law, and the identities and institutions these narratives enable” (Parati, 2005, 178). In doing so, they “talk back” to the Italian public, the media and the State and initiate a process in which they become the subjects producing the discourses on Italy, Italians, Italian-ness and on themselves while creating a dialogue and exchanging with the Italian public.

Migrant writings in Italy

  • 13  “Mila lire, accendini, mila lire”: “thousand Liras, lighters, thousand Liras” (The translation is (...)

7In the early 1990s migrant writers began publishing their first novels in Italian, on their autobiographical experience, with the help of an Italian co-author. The most well known example is the novel Immigrato by Salah Methnani and Mario Fortunato, published in 1990. It focuses on the experiences of Salah, a Tunisian migrant who arrives in Italy, in Sicily, travels north to Milan and narrates all the difficulties, dangers, compromises and experiences of his precarious life as an illegal immigrant in Italy. Each chapter is named after the Italian city he visits: he starts his trip in his own country, Tunisia, and then slowly travels north to Mazara Del Vallo, Palermo, Naples, Rome, Florence, Padua, Turin and Milan. The last chapter takes place back in Tunisia, in Kairouan, to visit his family when he finally became a “citizen with a regular visa in Italy” (Methnani, 1990, 128). For the first time, his narrative reported, directly in Italian to the Italian public, the racism and hostility migrants were facing. In these narratives, Italians are described, narrated and judged by migrant writers. Each brief stay in an Italian city offers some short descriptions of the author’s encounter with the locals; while in Palermo, Salah is waiting for the bus, and he realizes that the lady close to him is scared of his presence and holding on to her little daughter (Methnani, 1990, 33); he can’t be served in various bars in cities like Palermo or Rome (Methnani, 1990, 21-50); and the only one he finds hospitable is in Padua, where the owner is Sicilian, a migrant himself (Methnani, 1990, 86). In each city the migrants are rejected and not integrated or accepted. During his entire trip, the word “sanatoria” is mentioned on numerous occasions and all illegal immigrants are waiting for this opportunity to legalize their stay in Italy. This is precisely what Salah will do, even if he does not explain it clearly in the book. Its critique of Italian society is harsh and depicts it as a very inhospitable place. His encounters with Italians are scarce, not very positive and always beset by difficult communication, to the point that even though Salah is able to communicate fluently in Italian he has to falsify his proficiency because he knows the locals want migrants to speak a certain way. This means that migrants often feign not knowing Italian although, like Salah, they have a graduate degree. He recounts the episode when, while he was selling little objects in the streets, he decided to scream “mila lire, accendini, mila lire” (Methnani, 1990, 114), transforming the word mille, a thousand, in Italian, into mila, a common mistake made by someone who has not mastered the language.13 But by mimicking this simple linguistic mistake, the author makes sure that the reader understand perfectly that in reality he is mastering Italian and underlines how important the process of taking control of discourse is, since “Italian institutions take for granted that migrant people are not qualified enough for being writers. What is evidently at play here is a system of procedures of exclusion and control, that, according to Michel Foucault, restrict the power of all the potential discourses by limiting access to certain areas and selecting subjects who may speak” (Sabelli 445). Writing becomes the way for migrants to express, for the first time, their opinions on Italian society, to recount their experiences, and to be heard for the first time by the Italian public, up until this moment indifferent to their struggles. In “talking back”, they initiate a process in which they become active agents of change while gaining access to discourse-making strategies. Iain Chambers notes that

for many writers, estranged from their initial cultures as migrants or exiles, writing itself provides a home: the stories they tell offer cohesion for their fragmented identities. In a similar vein, migrants who write in Italian today express the same feeling of urgency and necessity, the same insistence on the value of writing as a bridge between cultures: “the place where we exchange our experiences, and each of us meets the other”, says Tahar Lamri, an Algerian writer living in Italy. (Chambers and Curtis, 2008, 394)

8Autobiographical writing however, is just one component of the more complex and fascinating Italophone migrant literature. In fact, aside from autobiography, writers have begun exploring different fictional issues with very individual literary styles. Nowadays, categorizing Italophone migrant writers is a very difficult task because they are heterogeneous when compared to migrant writers in France or England, whose place of origin is mostly these countries’ former colonies. In Italy, they are: Romanians, Somali, Tunisians, Moroccans, Albanians, Iranians, Russians, Brazilians, Togolians and others. As Julio Monteiro Martins, a Brazilian writer, explains:

  • 14  Quinto Seminario degli Scrittori Migranti. Hosted by Sagarana, an on-line journal that puts on-lin (...)

Italy didn’t have a post-colonial literature as rich as the one in France or in England. Maybe it missed an important literary flux but maybe this has left an open door and has made Italy the center of migration literature in Europe. From what I have read, the number of writers is similar but nowhere else they come from all over the world. Maybe the fact that Italy didn’t possess a post-colonial literature created this world traveling literature?14

9This varied background has created a migration literature that is rich in linguistic, cultural and literary influences. All these authors use Italian and, unlike the first wave of writers, they are autonomous and do not need an Italian co-author to assist them. This choice is greatly significant: it means they can ably manipulate the language and that Italian has become a sort of lingua franca, a neutral language not linked with a colonial past (for most of the authors). They consciously decide to write in Italian not only as the language they have adopted for practical reasons but also as a language that represents a cultural referent, because most of them are, as Jennifer Burns points out, literature graduates “with an extensive experience of reading in local and international literatures, and perhaps some experience of writing or translating, who migrate in part with the ambition to write” (Burns, 2007, 150). Some writers of the first wave have become journalists, editors and full time writers. Methnani became a journalist for Rai 24. Another writer, cited alongside Methnani, Pap Khouma, the author of Io venditore di elefanti, una vita per forza tra Parigi, Dakar e Milano, one of the first ground breaking novel, is now the editor-in-chief of an on-line magazine of migrant literature, El-Ghibli,15 and published in 2009 on La Repubblica16, one of the most important Italian newspaper, a open letter after being aggressed on a bus in Milan, which stirred the debate on how important it is to discuss integration in Italy. If talking back is the essential first step towards re-appropriation of agency, migrant authors moved away from autobiography and started to produce complex fictional narratives about migrations and integration. In doing so, they are not only replying to the narratives produced by the state and the media but they also initiate and create a cross-cultural interactive dialogue with the Italian public that will eventually subvert prejudices. They position themselves inside the hermeneutic circle within a complex dialogic process that refers not only to the fact that now they are able to speak for themselves but also because, departing from a strict autobiographic voice, they are able to embody in their works not only their personal voice but those of others as well. Michail Bakhtin used to refer to a particular kind of novel in which different ideological voices are represented as a “microcosm of heteroglossia” (Bakhtin, 1981,411). Not only the language used in the novel is complex but the discourses inside the novel itself are constructed as a “concrete socially embodied point of view” (Bakhtin, 1981,412) in which antagonists’ points of view of the world are presented. The recent works of Italophone migrant writers can be considered dialogic in the Bakthnian sense because they incorporate different languages, disparate stylistic levels and antagonistic worldviews of various characters who relate to migration in complex and contradictory ways.

  • 17  Anthony Tamburri defined the hyphen “an ideologically charged marker” because it is a sign of suba (...)

10Two authors are particularly relevant: one is well know for his irony and disenchanted ways of portraying Italian reality and the other has gained constant popularity and has been a prolific writer. The first one is Kossi Komla-Ebri, a doctor at the hospital Fatebenefratelli in Como, a journalist and an activist for cross-cultural integration, who published the novel Neyla, incontro tra due mondi and a collection of short stories in the two-volume Imbarazzismi. The second one is Igiaba Scego, a second-generation Italo-Somali and a journalist, editor and writer. She has published three novels, La nomade che amava Alfred Hitchcock in a bilingual version (Italian and Somali), Rhoda and Oltre Babilonia. Igiaba can be defined a hyphenated writer, a new breed unfamiliar to Italian critics and the Italian public, who are still coming to terms with “Italian” writers with a multifaceted cultural background.17 Both authors recount their relationship with Italy in a very ironic prose, discussing their own Italian-ness and negotiating their peculiar Italian identity through narration.

Komba-Ebri Imbarazzismi

  • 18  With a considerable sense of humour, Kossi presented himself at the local elections in Erba, near (...)

11Komla-Ebri’s Imbarazzismi is a collection of short stories full of humour on little embarrassing moments in everyday life. The short stories are a collection of small narrative flashes displaying the creative capacity of the author, who constructs in a minimal narrative space a significant, sometimes brutal and ironic, short story in which the narrative structure works eminently well. 
The stories are original and powerful because they communicate in everyday language a very realistic and satirical situation that is; at the same time, visionary, because of the presence of some mysterious angels flying over the characters, commenting, not without embarrassment, on what is happening below them. All the stories have a tough theme in common: racism. Intolerance seems to be slipping through the fissure of language in Ebri’s everyday situations, embarrassing all the characters in the stories, as well as the author. The title expresses Ebri’s point of view: Imbarazzismi is a word that does not exist in Italian; it is a neologism that captures the double essence of the situations described: imbarazzo and razzismo, embarrassment and racism coming together as one. The stories present a variegated spectrum of events, from the writer’s personal experience at the hospital, where patients can’t believe this big black man is actually a doctor, to fictional situations when the narrator, with his Italian wife, go to a federal adoption office because they want to adopt an African orphan and the employee thinks the narrator is the one who wants to be adopted by his wife to cut short the bureaucratic wait for the visa. All the stories are narrated through a very ironic tone and they bring forward a very powerful and subversive strategy similar to the one Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World, defined as laughter: “an interior form, not an exterior one . . . it freed not only from outside censorship but also from the interior one, from the fear of the sacred, of authoritarian prohibitions, from the past, from power: from fears that were anchored into the human spirit from thousand of years” (Komla-Ebri, 2002, 105). Irony is a tool that frees discourses on difficult themes and subverts the current state of affairs.18

  • 19  Taking care of the elderly is a job nowadays in Italy reserved for migrant women and they are call (...)

12In another short story, “Home . . . sickness” the writer explores the meaning of home sickness recounting the story of a young African woman who joins her brother, Fofo, a doctor, in Italy, where he married an Italian. In Torre Boldone, near Bergamo, living with her brother and her sister-in-law, she discovers that she does not know how to act in this new society and she feels like an “intruder” (Komla-Ebri, 1997, 93). She has to wear “house skates” when at home, must not make noise when she eats, can’t cook food that “fill the house for days with the aroma of spices (that stink)” (Komla-Ebri, 1997, 92), while she has to take care of the kids and do the chores. When she can’t take it anymore she decides to move in with an elderly lady and to take care of her as a badante, a caregiver for the elderly.19 In her spare time she learns how to sew because she dreams of going back home and opening her own tailor shop. One day, when she has enough money, she decides to leave Italy: “After returning to Africa, the first week effervesced and I understood I could no longer live in the village with no running water. . . . I could no longer start a decent conversation with my girl friends from before. . . . My aging parents insisted that they wanted to choose a man for me to marry, but I had already decided on the liberated life of the single person” (Komla-Ebri, 1997, 97). Back home, she discovers that she misses Italy and therefore she goes out to watch Italian movies, listens to Italian music at home and cooks Italian dishes. “Ah Italy”, she declares, “to think that in Italy I wanted so much to go home! Now I feel like a tenant in two countries: sometimes I am happy for that, sometimes I feel divided, a little unbalanced as a part of me remained there, and yet I know that there I would still have suffered from mal d’Africa. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, or more simply mal di…. mal di Europa” (Komla-Ebri, 1997, 98). The expression mal d’Africa refers to a popular expression linked to the nostalgia colonizers felt when they came back to Europe and missed the countries they lived in. Komla-Ebri is particularly ironic because he subverts the roles in his narrative: it is now the migrant who adopts the expression, switching positions within language with the colonizer. At the same time the woman recognizes that her migration to Italy had a strong impact on her, to the point that she can’t locate home anymore. Kossi Komla-Ebri expresses through his narrative the migrants’ point of view in order to have his Italian readers better understand the feeling of estrangement. This narrative re-appropriates agency and enables those who had no voice before to find their own.

Igiaba Scego Salsicce and Rhoda

13Igiaba Scego came to the attention of the public in 2003 when she won the Eks&Tra prize in 2003 for her short story “Salsicce”. The story is relatively simple: on a warm day in August in Rome, a young woman, an alter ego of Igiaba, decides to go the local butcher’s and buy a couple of salsicce, sausages. Nothing too strange except for the fact that our gentle buyer is Italian but also Muslim: “The strangeness was not in the bought object but in the subject, the buyer. Me, myself. I. I am a Sunni Muslim” (Scego, 2005, 24). Her action is compelled not so much by the curiosity of trying something prohibited in her own religion and common for Italians as the desire to sample something that will make her belong to her own country. She asks herself, first of all, how to cook the sausages and then: “If I eat these sausages, one by one, will people understand that I am Italian as they are?” (Scego, 2005, 26). Monica Hanna has written that “food and eating are tropes often related to notions of cultural incorporation, access, and integration. It is significant that the narrator cannot bring herself to ingest the sausages that she believes will prove her repudiation of her Muslim and Somali identities in favor of an Italian one. She refuses to accept a simple assimilation requiring negotiation” (Hanna, 2004). The salsicce are a challenge to define her position in the country and her role as a different kind of citizen. She writes:

The anxiety I am feeling comes from the Bossi-Fini and the fact all the extracomunitari will be fingerprinted. And what should be my role? Would I be an extracomunitaria, a potential crime perpetrator whose fingerprints the Italian state would take in order to prevent a crime not yet committed (but supposed to be perpetrated sooner or later)? Or an Italian to whom the state given the benefit of the doubt even if I might have been a previous offender and a habitual criminal? Italy or Somalia? Doubt. Fingerprints or no fingerprints? Terrible doubt. (Scego, 2005, 26)

14Igiaba will try to force herself to eat the sausages, a cultural trope on Italian food, but vomits them because “she struggles with restrictions and categorizations . . . she identifies not only as a racialized Black woman, but also as an Italian, as a migrant, and as a member of a larger group affected by racism” (Hanna, 2004, 75). Her story is very powerful and challenges the preconceived message the Bossi-Fini law gave Italian society. What does it means to be Italian today? How is Italian identity challenged by the law? How does the law impose what a person is or is not? Igiaba does not fit in but she feels she belongs to both of her countries. She therefore makes a long list of what defines her: she feels Somali when she drinks cardamom tea and cinnamon, when she prays five times a day towards Mecca, when she puts on her dirah, etc. At the same time she feels Italian when she eats sweets for breakfast, when she visits museums, monuments and exhibitions, when she talks with her friends about sex, men and depression, when she watches movies with Marcello Mastroianni, and other Italian actors, and more. Igiaba (both fictional and real) is an Italian citizen who feels betrayed by her own state and decides to define herself with her own words, rejecting the definition given by law.

  • 20  Gaal is a Somali expression to translate a person who is non-Muslim. It is also used as a synonym (...)

15In the novel Rhoda, Scego also narrates the same concerns around integrating into Italian society. The departure point is a family: an extended matriarchal family composed of an aunt, Barni, taking care of her two nieces, Aisha and Rhoda, all three of them Somali women who emigrated and escaped from the civil war in order to live in Rome, the former colony’s capital. Barni, the aunt, is a cleaning lady. Scego describes her as “an honest woman, religious and dutiful. She was a cleaning lady and she had to run around Rome in order to clean pink toilets very dirty. . . . She really didn’t like to work at the gaal’s house.” (Scego, 2004, 21-22).20 Despite her unrewarding occupation, Barni has a dream: she wants to start a Somali magazine in Rome. Her hard work, however, allows her nieces to go to school and get an education: Rhoda goes to university but all of a sudden refuses to continue, turning to prostitution, whereas her little sister, Aisha, pursues her education. Rhoda quits her studies troubled when she slowly discovers her sexuality. She is rejected by an older Italian woman who refuses her affection and love and moves to Naples to start her dark journey far from her family. The struggle to find her sexual, emotional and national identity is presented throughout the novel. She refuses to adapt to Italy, always feeling like an outcast. On the contrary, her sister

was well integrated. She tried to understand people. She talked with them, she discussed with them and sometimes she fought with them. But she never ceased to look for a comparison. She tried to understand their culture and she explained hers with sweet and precise words. She was always at the center of a constant exchange. My aunt and I didn’t even try to make an effort. We were not as integrated as she was. (Scego, 2004, 119)

16The decision not to integrate and the choice of becoming a marginal, a prostitute, leads to exclusion from Italian society. Unable to accept her cultural and sexual difference (she remarks numerous times that she is not a lesbian, “that horrible word” [Scego, 2005, 163]), she prefers self-annihilation in prostitution because, like a Pirandello character, she can become one or a thousand Rhodas in a complex multiplication of identities; without having to choose one, she can become simply nobody. When she discovers that she is sick with AIDS, she asks for her aunt’s help to move back to Mogadishu in order to spend the time she has left with her family in her own country.

17What is unique in Scego’s novel is that each chapter in the book is subdivided into small chapters, each of them named after the character narrating his or her own history. This is a particularly important narrative strategy because it enables the voices of all characters to be read and to be heard, especially the mysterious voice of Rhoda, the enigmatic character around whom all the action revolves. Four polyphonic voices (Barni, Aisha, a young man named Pino who fell in love first with Rhoda and then with Aisha, and Rhoda herself) narrate together Rhoda’s actions, her life and their own. The reader knows from the beginning that Rhoda has already passed away, not because of her illness but through the dreadful violence of a group of criminals in Mogadishu. But she is still present as a ghost voice, the haunted who becomes the haunter for those still living, the key to their lives and destiny. All the characters are constantly questioning themselves about the choices Rhoda made in her life, trying to solve the mystery of her departure. Searching for Rhoda is synonym of the quest for a social, national and personal identity, but it won’t elucidate Rhoda’s decisions. She left a void, which needs to be filled with words, even if they are not hers. This challenge resonates in all Scego’s works: she writes with a certain irony about the struggle for identity in “Salsicce” and in Rhoda she is critical of gender and ethnic roles. Language in the novel becomes the site of a power struggle, where migrants, and especially women, strive to find their voices. First of all Italian, the language of the host country. Barni went to Italian schools in Mogadishu and was very good in her Italian class. But when she emigrated to Italy,

because she kept hearing all the time “you blacks, don’t know how to speak Italian”, Barni ended up to believe it. Dante, Ariosto and Leopardi abandoned her and their place was taken by awfully conjugated verbs. Everything in her language became approximate and confused. And she ended up becoming that stereotype of the immigrant woman which society (or, even better, the media) wanted to see in her. (Scego, 2005, 156).

18Language becomes the battleground where roles need to be overturned. Aisha, Rhoda’s sister, is the positive agent of change in Scego’s novel: she chooses to talk, to explain and to speak, while she explains to Rhoda: “Sister, if Italians do not understand us, we have to explain to them who we are, what we do and where we go. We have to let them know our dreams, our expectations. We have to talk about our past, we have to include them in our future and we have to let them share our present” (Scego, 2005, 73). This discourse strategy is fundamental to counterbalance narratives coming from the media, from the state and from Italian society, it obliges all the characters involved to open up a dialogue and to work on the issue. Scego’s novel accomplish to portray different points of view on what integration is and provides the Italian public with the migrants’ point of view on the issue, something they are not aware of.


19Both writers are able to challenge the media’s discourse and the text of the laws describing them as objects, quotas but not as subjects. Literature becomes here “the signifier of cultural hybridization contained in weaker texts that reject policies and politics of exclusion” (Parati, 2005, 57). Through writing and through their personal voices, they become active agents of (multi)cultural change through literature, a cognitive system informed by power relationships where the struggle for a new rhetoric of hospitality can be carried out. Language be it from the media or from a novel is never neutral. We have to remember how important language was for the Greeks in order to define who was a stranger. The xenos, the stranger, was someone coming from outside the polis but close to Greek culture, while the barbaros was the person culturally from outside Greece not speaking the language. The stranger was not an enemy, as the rights of all xenoi were granted under the right to absolute hospitality offered by Zeus, the father of all gods. In modern societies the meaning of the word has changed and now carries a negative charge, as migrants are treated as strangers. The word hostis, instead of indicating someone coming from outside who was treated with equal rights, become the hostile, and hospitality was expressed by derivatives of the word hospes. Today this term signifies both the person who is hosting and the person hosted. For French linguist Emile Benveniste,

A hostis is not a stranger in general. In contrast with the peregrinus, who lived outside the boundaries of the territory, hostis is “the stranger in so far as he is recognized as enjoying equal rights to those of the Roman citizen. This recognition of rights implies a certain relation of reciprocity and supposes an agreement or compact. Not all non-Romans are called hostis. A bond of equality and reciprocity is established between this particular stranger and the citizens of Rome, a fact which may lead to a precise notion of hospitality. (1973, 77)

20Hospes is a double-edged word used in all Latin languages (in Italian ospite, in French hôte, in Spanish huésped) that signifies both the host and the guest, while in Germanic languages there are two distinct words to indicate the person who offers hospitality and the one who receives it. The root of the word used in English and German comes from the Gothic stem Ghast, the guest (the German Gast and Gast-geber and the English host and guest). As Benveniste explains, the semantic drift occurred when Rome was transformed from a civitas into a powerful nation:

When an ancient society becomes a nation, the relations between man and man, clan and clan, are abolished. All that persists is the distinction between what is inside and outside the civitas. By a development of which we do not know the exact conditions, the word hostis assumes a “hostile” flavor and henceforward it is only applied to the “enemy”. As a consequence, the notion of hospitality was expressed by a different term in which the ancient hostis nevertheless persists, but in a composition with *pot(i)s: this is hospes <*hostipe/ot-s. (Benveniste, 1973, 78)

21These paradoxes lie at the heart of the concept of hospitality because the hospes, the guest and the host, is at the same time hostis, but always in the condition of becoming a stranger, a wayfarer in need of hospitality. Derrida is the thinker who actively put his thoughts against the rhetoric of the state into practice, taking side with the sans-papiers against the French government and the Debré-Pasqua legislation, which transformed migrants and anyone who offered them hospitality into criminals to be punished by the law. In De l’hospitalité, Derrida makes the distinction between an absolute law of hospitality and a conditional one:

  • 21  Jacques Derrida wrote extensively on this topic and he condemned immigration laws (especially Fran (...)

The law of unlimited hospitality (to give the new arrival all of one’s home and oneself, without asking a name, to give him or her one’s own, our own, or compensation, or the fulfillment of the smallest condition), and on the other hand the laws (in the plural) those rights and duties that are always conditioned and conditional, as they are defined by the Greco-Roman tradition and even the Judeo-Christian one, by all of law and all philosophy of law up to Kant and Hegel in particular, across the family, civil society and the State. (2000, 77)21

22There is an antinomy at the heart of the concept of hospitality, he declares:

The antinomy of hospitality irreconcilably opposes The law, in its universal singularity, to a plurality that is not only a dispersal (laws in the plural), but a structured multiplicity, determined by a process of division and differentiation: by a number of laws that distribute their history and their anthropological geography differently. (2000, 78)

23This tension makes us aware that hospitality is an absolute which perhaps can never be perfectly achieved but can become a practice in our society. Literature can become the site where it is produced and discussed because, as Valeria Pompejano points out, “hospitality produces the continuous redefinition of a discourse in which cultural elements are constantly put though an incessant process of re-conjugation within the stimuli of actuality” (2004, 9).

24Derrida named a part of his seminar on hospitality “Pas d’hospitalité”. In French pas can be a step, a movement towards hospitality, towards the other, or it can be a negation, a denial, as in “no hospitality”. We can’t decide what his phrase really means because it is un-grammatical. We are faced with the opacity of language and thought and can’t decide what it can express. It is this pas that constricts us in our dual conception of hospitality that is always confined and expressed in language. To think about hospitality and how it is produced, can make us aware of the limitations of our representation of the Other and how this is negotiated by the media, the law and fiction writing. As Iain Chambers noted in a passage which I quote in its entirety,

When the imaginary of the West no longer lies elsewhere, at the edges of the map, in the margins of history, culture, knowledge and aesthetics, but migrates from the periphery to take up its home in the contemporary metropolis, then our story, the language we inhabit, implodes under the pressure of these new and urgent coordinates. . . . But if, as Benjamin and Heidegger insisted, we dwell in language and its limits are the limits of our world, then to meet others within its fabric, is to stretch it, double it, interrogate and remake it. It leads to a highly charged practice when we encounter diverse worlds, histories, cultures and experiences within an apparent communality. It is a meeting, a putting yourself on the line, that is invariably accompanied by uncertainty and fear. . . . It is perhaps also necessary to acquire the habits of listening: to open our language, our domesticating principles to the unforeseen consequences of conversation, dialogue, even incomprehension. This may merely serve to register the unequal distribution of economic, cultural, and symbolic powers. Yet in signifying limits we already expose ourselves to the possibility of an opening. For we are thrown into that ambiguous space in which differences are permitted a hearing, in which both speakers and the syntax of conversation run the risk of modification. (Chambers, 1994, 29-31)

25It is in this search for dialogue that the concept of hospitality expressed through literary discourse can help us understand the world and the migrant in a different way, on perhaps on more uncertain foundations, while encouraging us to listen to the hospes knocking at the door—not because he or she will arrive in the future, but because they are already here, in our homes.

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1  Italian citizens living abroad are estimated to be around 60 millions, almost as many as the population of the Italian peninsula today.

2  “The landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live in: tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guest workers and other moving groups”. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1996, p. 33).

3  In Italian there are other words employed to indicate a migrant other than extracomunitario, an omni comprehensive category indicating all migrants who are not welcomed to Italy, for example Romanians who are indeed European citizens but are still defined following old prejudices. There is the curious vu’ cumprà, contamination from the French vous and the form of the verb volere: vuoi (do you want) and the verb comprare, to buy, missing the last syllable because it is supposed to be mispronounced or misspelled. This word is used to define all the young men walking on the Italian beaches trying to sell some counterfeited bags or little things such as lighters, bracelets and beach towels. Furthermore, there is the term marocchino, Moroccan, which demonstrates a superficial relativization of geography, by mixing together all immigrants coming from Africa, without considering the richness of the ethnic traditions of the African continent, nor the complexity of the uniqueness of each one. It derives from the part of the allied army who arrived in Italy during the liberation and apparently perpetrators of various crimes. Another word is zingaro, gipsy, if the immigrant looks like a nomad. The last one is clandestino, illegal, which, very unfortunately, is used to define all of the above.

4  The translation is mine as all other translations in this paper, unless otherwise indicated.

5  As David Ward rightfully noted some of the figures idolized by the Lega are nonexistent. Let’s take the case he cites: Alberto da Giussano who presumably fought in the battle of Legnano against Frederick I. “The source from the legend around Alberto da Giussano comes not from the battle, but form the poem ‘il Parlamento’ (the Parliament) by Giosuè Carducci in which he erroneously writes that the Milan forces were led by such a figure” in David Ward, "'Italy' In Italy: Old Metaphors and New Racism in the 1990s," Revisioning Italy. National Identity and Global Culture, ed. Beverly Allen and Mary Russo (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.95).

6  Claudia Moatti and Wolfgang Kaiser identify three major causes for migration since the Roman Empire: political, military and cultural. See Claudia Moatti and Wolfgang Kaiser, "Mobilità Umana e Circolazione Culturale nel Mediterraneo dall'Età Classica all'Età Moderna," Storia d'Italia Annali Migrazioni, ed. Paola Corti and Matteo Sanfilippo, vol. 24 (Torino: Einaudi, 2009). Just to give an example, entire populations were moved during the Roman Empire to repopulate far away regions and this trend continued with the Hellenization of the Empire in the 7th century, a date after which Italian regions were conquered by the barbarians. It is striking that these complex factors are not taken into account when debating on such a complex issue.

7  ISTAT mentions in its 2010 annual report that without the contribution of immigration, Italy would see its population drastically diminishing.

8  Statistics belonging to Istat are available at the web page:

9  According to Transatlantic Trends: “Overall, there was a lack of distinction among Italians when asked about their perceptions of legal versus illegal immigrants; 56% of Italians now believe that legal immigrants increase crime in society, the highest of all countries surveyed, and a 24% increase from the 2009 survey”. Country Specific Results, Italy 2010. Available at

10  1986, Foschi’s Law was followed by Martelli’s Law in 1990, by Turco-Napolitano’s Law in 1998, and the Bossi-Fini’s Law in 2002.

11  A sanatoria is a sort of an amnesty, where illegal migrants can become legal while in normal times they would have been expelled.

12  See on this matter: Andrijasevic, Rutvica. "Lampedusa in Focus: Migrants Caught between the Libyan Desert and the Deep Sea." Feminist Review 82 (2006): 120-25. She writes: “The proposal to establish extraterritorial processing centres and the construction of Italy-funded detention centers on Libyan territory, deportations to and from Libya, and joint Italian–Libyan police patrolling of Libyan coastline are all instances that de-localize the EU’s external border from South Italy beyond the Libyan coastline into its territory. They consequently challenge the idea of the EU’s external border as a firm border between Italy and Libya and show that southern EU border rather than being a linear and stable geographical demarcation is a discontinuous and porous space encompassing the area between southern Italy and Sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, this reading of the border calls into question the common assumption that the state regulates people’s entry/stay into its territory.”

13  “Mila lire, accendini, mila lire”: “thousand Liras, lighters, thousand Liras” (The translation is mine). In my personal experience, when talking to migrants on the Adriatic coast, they are fluent in more than one language: they speak their own, the language of the colonizer, be it French or English, and very often not only they master Italian but also the local Italian dialect.

14  Quinto Seminario degli Scrittori Migranti. Hosted by Sagarana, an on-line journal that puts on-line the acts of their annual congress.



17  Anthony Tamburri defined the hyphen “an ideologically charged marker” because it is a sign of subalternity as in the case of Italian-American. He proposes to replace the hyphen with the slash because it does not divide but unites two nationalities that are cultural and historical products and, together, form a third hybrid nationality. In Anthony Tamburri, To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate. The Italian/American Writer: An Other American (Toronto: Guernica, 1991, p. 11).

18  With a considerable sense of humour, Kossi presented himself at the local elections in Erba, near Como, a League’s fortress. He was not elected but enjoyed his campaign.

19  Taking care of the elderly is a job nowadays in Italy reserved for migrant women and they are called badanti, from the Italian verb badare: to care for.

20  Gaal is a Somali expression to translate a person who is non-Muslim. It is also used as a synonym for white people.

21  Jacques Derrida wrote extensively on this topic and he condemned immigration laws (especially France’s Pasqua-Debré law) in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: Galilée, 1997), as the true “offense to hospitality” while clearly distinguishing between “an ethics of hospitality (an ethics as hospitality) and a law or a politics of hospitality” (19).

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Elena Benelli

 is Assistant Professor in Italian Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She earned her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the Université de Montreal with a dissertation on Contemporary Italian writers and the notion of hospitality. Her current research interests include postcolonial writing in Italian, migrant literature and cinema in Italy, and the relationship between music and literature. She has published several articles in Italian, English and French on migrant writers and contemporary Italian fiction and cinema.

Elena Benelli est professeure adjointe en études italiennes à l’Université Concordia à Montréal. Elle a obtenu son doctorat à l’Université de Montréal en littérature comparée avec une recherche sur les écrivains contemporains italiens et la notion d’hospitalité. Se recherche porte sur l’écriture postcoloniale en Italie, la littérature migrante et le cinéma en Italie et les rapports entre musique et littérature. Elle a publié plusieurs articles en anglais, en français et en italien sur les écrivains migrants en Italie ainsi que sur le roman et le cinéma italien contemporains. 

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