Words Without Borders: Afro-Italian Women Writers

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘Blackness beyond borders’ is a concept brought to the fore in the current edition of ‘Words Without Borders,’ surfacing the work of Afro-Italian writers in a culture often assumed to be white.

Masks on sale in the streets of Venice, a shot from February. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Oktober 64

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Afro-Italian Women in Translation
During this year’s Women in Translation Month, the digital magazine Words Without Borders is offering an edition titled Backstories: Afro-Italian Women Writers.

It’s coupled with a sidebar, Italian Translation Slam: Three Takes on Rahma Nur, which is based on a program that Words Without Borders presented at the digital Bologna Children’s Book Fair in its translation forum in June. That segment features three translations of a poem by Rahma Nur (two by this edition’s guest editors) with its own introductory article.

The issue is led by guest editors Candice Whitney and Barbara Ofosu-Somuah. They’re joined in their introductory article by translators Aaron Robertson and Hope Campbell Gustafson. Whitney currently is co-translating Future. Il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi in collaboration with Ofosu-Somuah, and is a former Fulbright scholar in Italy. Ofosu-Somuah is a Ghanian-American activist and social scientist who has investigated racialized lived experiences in the African diaspora as a Thomas J. Watson fellow and Fulbright researcher.

Candice Whitney

And their introduction, “Afro-Italian Women in Translation: An Introduction,” points out that the most basic look at Italian literature would lead most people to “assume that whiteness is central to Italian identity.”

“In engaging with the Italian literary landscape,” they write with Robertson and Gustafson, “Italians who claim hyphenated identities, regardless of their personal sense of Italianness, are relegated to the margins. Yet Italy’s geographic location and history as a colonial power have placed it in a proximal relationship to Blackness. These histories, unreckoned with in many ways, mean that racialized experiences of Blackness in Italy are simultaneously at the forefront and invisible.”

The editors bring together work of four writers from different generations: Igiaba Scego, Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, Marie Moïse, and Djarah Kan. They stress that the effort to widen “what it is to be Italian” is hardly new.

Barbara Ofosu-Samuah

“Even before the transnational Black Lives Matter movement,” they write, “Black Italians have pushed Italy to confront its colonial past and engage with its present diversity. Among those leading the charge are Afro-Italian women writers whose work speaks to and amplifies both contemporary and historical experiences of Blackness within the Italian context. These writers, in fiction and nonfiction, attempt to expand the idea of what it is to be Italian.”

And what you’ll read in the edition they’ve put together, “challenges the idea of italianità as a synonym for whiteness.”

Writing specifically to the translator’s role, they say, they land a point of proximity to the work they interpret.

“As translators,” Whitney and Ofosu-Samuah write, “each of us has established relationships with the writers we translate. It is important to recognize that as with every cultural shift, literature is a tangible way for people to push a cultural conversation in more expansive directions than have been allowed before.

“As translators, we attempt to expand the transnational discourse around Blackness by showing how Black Italian women and their lived experiences are critical to the way we think about Blackness beyond borders.”

In the July-August Edition of ‘Words Without Borders’

From left, writers whose work is in the Afro-Italian women edition of ‘Words Without Borders’ and its ‘Italian Translation Slam’ sidebar are, from left, Djarah Kan (image: Riccardo Piccirillo); Rhama Nur; and Igiaba Scego (image: Simona Filippini)

  • My Home Is Where I Am” is a nonfiction extract from the memoir La mia casa è dove sono by Igiaba Scego, translated from Italian by Aaron Robertson. In it, the author recalls growing up in the Italian education system as the Black daughter of a Somali immigrant, too frightened of her classmates to speak in class. A caring teacher makes contact with her. Scego, who was born in Rome into a family of Somali origin, is an author of fiction and nonfiction. Her novels Oltre Babilonia (2008), Adua (2015), and La linea del colore (2020) have been translated into English.
  • Soumaila Sacko: Story of the Good Life” is a performance piece by Djarah Kan, translated from Italian by Candice Whitney. The work is a monologue mourning and honoring a Malian immigrant murdered by a white supremacist in Calabria. Kan is a Ghanaian-Italian writer, activist, and artist born and raised in the south of Italy. She lives in Naples.
  • Bambi” is an extract from The River Commander by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, translated from Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson. In it, an Afro-Italian teenage boy in Rome realizes he knew the alleged perpetrator of a failed bombing plot in the London Underground and quizzes mutual friends about the possible motive. Ali Farah was born in Verona to a Somali father and an Italian mother. She grew up in Mogadishu but fled to Europe at the outbreak of the civil war, and in 2006 won the Lingua Madre National Literary Prize. Her novel Madre piccola (2007) was awarded a Vittorini Prize and has been translated into English as Little Mother (Indiana University Press, 2011).
  • We Cried a River of Laughter” is a nonfiction memoir by Marie Moïse, translated from Italian by Barbara Ofosu-Somuah. In it, you meet the deracinated daughter of a biracial Haitian man whose father left Haiti for Italy. She reflects on her lost heritage and takes her father back to Haiti to celebrate her grandfather’s life and attempt to connect with her lost roots. Moïse is an activist based in Milan and a PhD candidate in political philosophy at the University of Padova and Toulouse. She’s an editor of Jacobin Italia and writes about racism, feminism, and politics of care. She’s a co-translator of Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis (Alegre, 2018).

And in the sidebar based on the Bologna event from June, you’ll find the Rahma Nur work and its treatments here:

From the July-August edition of ‘Words Without Borders,’ ‘Maggio’ by Nazanin Rastan. Image: Courtesy of the artist and provided to Publishing Perspectives by Words Without Borders

More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, more from us on translation is here, and more on women in publishing is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.