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Transnational Identities and the Subversion of Language in Contemporary Italian Literature

Questo intervento è stato presentato alla conferenza Trading Cultures: Migration and Multiculturalism in Contemporary Europe, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick (NJ), 3-4 dicembre 2004.

Una versione ampliata, intitolata Transnational Identities and the Subversion of the Italian Language in Geneviève Makaping, Christiana de Caldas Brito, and Jarmila Očkayová, è stata pubblicata in «Dialectical Anthropology», special issue on Trading Cultures: Migration and Multiculturalism in Contemporary Europe, edited by Gerald Pirog and Caterina Romeo, vol. 29, n. 3-4, September 2005, pp. 439-51

Transnational Identities and the Subversion of Language in Contemporary Italian Literature

In this paper I analyze the literary works written in the Italian language by three women authors: Geneviève Makaping (who migrated to Italy from Cameroon), Christiana de Caldas Brito (from Brazil) and Jarmila Očkayová (from Slovakia).

After a long history of emigration, only recently Italy has transformed itself into a site of immigration. Between the end of the Eighties and the beginning of the Nineties, writers intending to settle definitely in Italy – and to participate actively in the Italian social and cultural life – started to publish poems, novels and short stories in the Italian language. In these literary texts migration is not only a biographical experience, it is an existential condition: it is a kind of critical consciousness where knowledge and behaviour are not taken for granted.

According to Christiana de Caldas Brito, migrants abandon the motherland, the mother tongue and the biological mother, to immerse themselves in the new country. She considers the experience of writing in Italian as the only way to make sense of her own experience, and to represent her own subjectivity (instead of being represented by others). This crossing of language borders, this appropriation of a new sound, is a way to establish a real contact with the “other”.

Many of the migrant writers now living in Italy can speak at least three languages: the mother tongue, the hateful language of the European colonizer country (used as a vehicular international language), and the Italian language: considered as a neutral and uncompromised language. Of course this model does not work for people coming from the former Italian colonies (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia): in this case it is necessary to take into account the deep “removal” of the colonial past that has been perpetrated inside the Italian culture, the absence of a postcolonial critique and of any revision above the Italian history.

I recognize some common features in this new literary production: cultural contamination, linguistic hybridization, an intense connection with the rhythm of oral speech (especially in African writers), and a strong presence of irony, as a result of the increase of multiple standpoints. What is taking place in these texts is a process of estrangement, in which our everyday life is observed from outside, it is seen as something strange and unusual. These writers appropriate the Italian language, they transform the Italian literary tradition, liberating it from provincialism and creating something new: an intercultural literature that corresponds neither to the literature of their country of origin, nor to the one of their country of arrival.

Of course this process of cultural integration through the use of a new language is problematic: Geneviève Makaping feels she does not have a full command of Italian, and because language is a site of fight and resistance – it is a way to recognize ourselves and to take possession of ourselves – she considers this lack as a weakness. On the other hand, Jarmila Očkayová states that the Italian language is part of her everyday life, and the choice of using it is a means to escape from a condition of “internal isolation”, to overcome the “barrier between herself and her perception of the world”. The use of memory and the experience of autobiographical writing are the only possibilities to bridge two different cultures: comparing her nostalgia for the origins with the will to assert her role inside the host country.

I consider their conscious choice of writing in the Italian language to be a claim for being listened to by us – the “native” Italians – and as a way to join the Italian community and to intervene in the Italian literary tradition. All these texts reveal a deep connection between language and identity. The renouncement of the mother tongue is often experienced by the writer as a betrayal of her roots, and sometimes it makes her feel guilty and frustrated. On the other hand, it is the starting point to recognize the plurality of the identities acquired by the author as a woman and as a migrant, and to question the integrity and the completeness of her subjectivity […]

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