Miss Igiaba Scego, an Italian writer with Somali origins, collaborator for the “Internazionale” journal, came to Venice and kindly accepted to be our host to take part in Waterlines project 2017. Here is our brief interview.
You experience everyday a sort of syncretism between your Somali origins and the country where you have always lived, Italy. How has this syncretism influenced your life and your choices, regarding your carrier?
It’s interesting, very interesting, I think, because at a certain point you tell this duplicity, which is not only your autobiography, but it’s just how you see things, it opens your mind. And that’s why writing is important to me, it comes a time when you feel the need to tell what you experienced on your skin on a deepest level, so I started to make historical surveys.
And what about your studies?
I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish Literature. No one knows that, but that’s it. My thesis was about Arabic culture in Spain. Then I made a PhD in Post-colonial Studies and Pedagogy. I also attended other courses and then I started to write essays and narrative in general. I also write articles for newspapers, such as “Il Manifesto”, “L’Unità” and “La Repubblica”. Today I only contribute to the “Internazionale”. I have to say that my literary background helped me in what I wanted to do. Today most people think these kind of studies are like a suicide, because it’s generally believed that they don’t lead to a job, but it’s not like that. It depends on what you want to do and on how wide is your education. My education helped me to be “multitasking” and above all the Spanish studies, because Spain houses different cultures and the histories of these cultures made me analyze in a different perspective what’s happening now.
You tend to write about topics such as the meeting between different cultures, migration and cross-cultural problems. Do you feel more comfortable to express these topics as a journalist or as a novelist?
Both, it depends on the topic. Last year I wrote an article for the “Internazionale” and it was the most red article of the year. It was incredible, even today I feel astonished about that and I think that it won’t happen anymore. I wrote about menstruation. I asked the manager if I could write an article about menstruation and she looked at me sideways, as if she was about to say “what do you want to write about menstruation?”. So I wrote the article and I wrote it very quickly, because in that moment I needed to say those things very quickly and it’s obvious you can’t write a novel about menstruation. So it really depends on what you want to say. For example, the story about the rhinoceros in Venice was just an experiment, because I didn’t know if children would have liked it. But in the end they did and also my publisher did. That’s what I do. I make experiments, sometimes it goes well, sometimes not. Once I wrote an article for the “Internazionale” and the manager didn’t like it, so now I have to rewrite it. There are things that I’m not able to do. I can’t write poems, or detective stories. Well, I mean, classical detective stories, it could be that I’m able to write a noir. I love detective stories, Agatha Christie and Poirot, but I just read them. Reading is very important, because what you read influences what you write.
“Home is where the heart is”. Where is your home?
I wrote a book entitled “La mia casa è dove sono” [“My home is where I am”]. It’s about people’s ability to adapt to different places, but in the end my home is Rome, because I was born there and I grew up there, so Rome is my city.
Have you ever thought about living in Somalia?
No, not in Somalia. The historical situation in Somalia is very difficult, you know, because of the civil war and so on. I’m emotionally connected to Somalia, but not as my brothers, because they really consider Somalia their home, although after the war it’s difficult to recognize the places. I have some memories about Somalia, but I’ve spent most of my life here.
Do you prefer writing as a profession or writing as a medium to express yourself?
Both, because at a certain point you just understand that writing as a medium to express yourself has become a profession. I didn’t decide to become a professional writer, it just happened. I wrote a short story and it went good, I wrote a novel and it went good, so I told myself: “Well, I can keep writing”. This is how it worked at the beginning. Then I decided to become more serious and I hired an agent, who helped me with the communication with my publisher, I did something I’ve never imagined I would do and now I can think about working and writing. I feel free to express my ideas, I don’t want to be restricted, I don’t want to write what people want me to write.
Can you name three books that any immigrant can relate to, in general?
Igiaba: “Americana” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is a Nigerian writer and she is amazing. The book is about a Nigerian girl who goes to the USA, her love affairs, and the situation of immigrant women in the USA, and all their different problems. Another book will be, well it’s quite difficult, I have a lot of ideas. John Fante, he is an American writer from Italian origins. His books are quite interesting because he talks about the Italian families in the United States. I love a lot of books about the United States. Another book is written by a Palestinian author, it is “Men in the Sun” by Ghassan Kanafani. It is about a Palestinian that tries to go to Yemen under a truck. There are a lot of stories about immigrants and refugees nowadays, but I think Kanafani is the most useful, because he understands refugees and immigrants, not as they are now but as they were before. But I think the stories are still the same.
Edward Said as well!
Igiaba: Yes, of course, but Edward Said is an essayist, I prefer novels.
Yes, he has no novels. Also, his daughter Najla Said writes about the same topics.
Igiaba: He is a master of all, I study his books now, and I did before and they are all about orientalism. I think he is one of the best and his biography is very important.
As his interviews are.
Igiaba: Yes and I love his book Cultural Imperialism. It is really interesting because it is about colonial stereotypes in European and western literature, and colonialism in general. I have two friends they are actors, and they use Edward Said in their performances in Rome and it is very interesting.
Orientalism in general is interesting, especially in the middle east and more specifically in the Arab Muslim world. There is the far eastern Orientalism, but it is different from the middle eastern one.
Igiaba: there is a French book called “Boussole” [French title] by Mathias Enard and it is all about Orientalism. It could be useful if you are interested in such topics.
And what about your favourite book in general?
Igiaba: My favorite book is “Don Quichotte”. I love Cervantes, because I took a degree about Cervantes. My degree is about Arabs in the Spanish literature from the 16th to the 17th century, so I read all of the books about Cervantes. I love Cervantes and Loppe de Vega but more Cervantes. I love also German and south American literature.
What about Italian books?
Igiaba: Regarding Italian, it is something we learn at school so we have a strange relationship with it. For Italian writers, I love Calvino, Svevo, and modern ones I have a lot of friends writers. I have a lot of names and things in my mind because I love reading. Writing is wonderful but reading is the best because you travel through other lives and other bodies.
From the books you have written, which one do you think is more like of an auto-biography of you?
Igiaba: it is the book I mentioned before, entitled “la mia casa è dove sono”. It is most about refugees that try to remember their city and they tried to draw it to remember it. Then I included the story of my parents and why they came to Italy. Then that of my grand-father during the fascism, because he was a translator of a fascist general. And all stories of colonialism related to refugees. If you want to read something, there is a story about sausages. It is about a second-generation Muslim immigrant that buys pork to prove to Italians that she is Italian. Then, she starts questioning why she has to eat it since she does not like it. At the end, she understands that she is actually both, Italian and Somali, and that she does not have to erase one to keep the other. It is a metaphor that I used that people used to really do in 15th and 16th century in Spain, when Muslims and Jews were thrown out of Europe, so they used to eat pork in front of people to demonstrate they were Christians. In conclusion, it’s quite interesting the situation of Jewish and Muslims in the 15th century and that of Muslims now, as well as Islamophobia and the Muslim ban. You are not in the ban (meaning Morocco), my people are (Somalia). So, I have a lot of problems to go to the United States, which is horrible.
One last question: what triggers you to start writing? Also, when you write about refugees or colonialism, topics that are too personal, how do you manage to keep on writing even when it gets too emotional?
Igiaba: it is quite difficult for me, I have no beginning of career: it is a process. I write a short story or I write a chapter and then a book. It is important to write in your own language. And also you need emotions, they are very important to keep writing.