In this space, usually reserved for issues of refugees in Sicily , I tackle a twin topic: that of organized killing and slaughter worldwide in repressive countries with brutal regimes. Poet, Writer and Activist Gloria Mindock answers some of my questions about her latest collection of poems, The Whiteness of Bone, which focuses on systematic killing as a worldwide modern scourge. Not coincidentally, brutal regimes and all that goes with them are often just one of the reasons people flee their country of origin, their home. Her newest poetry collection, The Whiteness of Bone, tackles this subject matter.
MR:Your collection of poems, Blood Soaked Dresses stunned me with its stark portrayals of how banal evil really is. It reminded me so much of Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between us. In that collection you focused on the legacy of violence, oppression, terror and death in El Salvador. In the Whiteness of Bone you cast your net wider and speak of human tragedies in the world at large. Tell me a bit about how this collection came to be, and what your preoccupations were when you were writing these poems.
GM:After Blood Soaked Dresses was published, I continued to write about the atrocities. The slaughter of the innocents was happening in so many countries. I knew I had to continue to be a voice for those who could not speak. I felt the world was silent and ignoring what was going on. I was not about to ignore it, so I kept writing about it. Finally, I had enough poems that I felt good about and put them into a manuscript, Whiteness of Bone. I am so excited and honored that Glass Lyre Press published this work.
MR:Andrey Gritsman, so astutely called the poems in this collection “a long weapon piercing human conscience.” In fact, once one reads these poems, it would be difficult if not impossible to perceive what is going on in the world at a distance, since the human essence is so very vivid: you do not hold the reader at arms length—in fact, you are speaking directly to the reader when you write, in the poem “Don’t”
Don’t tell me my writing is too graphic
for you as you sit in your nice apartment,
enjoying the day, sleeping peacefully at night.
You can do this, they can’t.
MR:Who are your readers? What effect do you think or hope these poems have on awareness of political, military and social violence in the world?
GM:Besides friends and others in the writing community, I am hoping I can reach those that feel like I do and want to wake up the world to these killings. Some people have said to me that it is difficult to read some of my poetry at times. It should be. This means I am doing my job as a writer, as an activist. Right now, the world is falling a part and it is over greed, money, power, religion, oil, land etc… I am hoping people will read more on what is happening and get involved. Voices need to be heard. The slaughter has to stop.
MR:Your prose poem “Random Thoughts About a Boy” touched me deeply. What came to mind was the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, found face down on a beach while trying to flee his war torn country. That was a graphic and gut wrenching visual provided to us by worldwide news, the image of which I will never forget. What you do with words here, is also so evocative, one can imagine children everywhere who are either lose their lives’ or who take the lives of others, as is the case with children being conscripted into war. If killing is learned, how can it be unlearned?
GM:Killing is learned and it can be changed, starting with the adults and parents not teaching their children to hate by watching what comes out of their mouths and demonstrating the actions of peace and caring for others. Change can happen if responsibility is taken. For some people, it is rooted from one generation to another. People have to be willing to change, work at it to stop the cycle. Strapping bombs on children, or giving them a gun and teaching them to shoot is , clearly, not the answer.
MR:In your poem “Shrapnel” hope feels lost. You write: No matter how hard we try, we can’t attach ourselves back to solace. then further, you write: The vine stays, the debris adds up, and the angel laughs— truthfully, as fine a line as I have ever read. So fine, in fact, I copied that line into my journal. while so much poetry has an ineffable quality, explain to me, if indeed you can, what you mean by that line. Do you really believe there is no longer a place or room for solace.
GM:The line means the vine to heaven stays but the debris of the killings adds up. No one is going to climb the vine but it is there if you do. The angel laughs because no one climbs it. She is cynical and feels there is no hope for this world. I feel the same way lately because the slaughter is getting worse. Evil is getting worse. Again, the world stands by and does nothing to put a stop to it. I believe in comforting and helping the innocents in these countries but I can’t do this alone. I feel alone in this calling at times so where is the solace? There are a few out there speaking up like I do but not enough. I will never lose hope and my love for mankind but I am human. I want to shake the world up and put a stop to all this killing. If enough people say stop, I believe it all can change.
MR:You do not shy away from the graphic, which is just one of the things that give your poems their great power. In Maria’s Uncle, Maria holds her uncles guts in her hands, then tries to push them back in. Her lips actually touch them. Such a stark and stomach churning image, but it is the last two stanzas that move me the most:
Now Maria travels the world, speaking about the dead, telling the
world it is hopeless, that no one is capable of a quiet tongue.
With outstretched hands, she handed everyone a flower, said:
you must water it to live, but if not, the depths of hell will assign you a seat.
This poem both expresses despair that is unending and then hope. Is Maria a composite or a real person? Are you expressing here the stubborn hope in the face of unspeakable tragedy?
GM:Maria is a real person who fled El Salvador in the 1980’s. She escaped at age nine. She laid in a pit by her mother who was dead and faked her death so she would not get shot. The trauma and PTSD this young girl suffered was heart breaking. I had a translator when speaking with her. In the book is a poem called “Maria” which I wrote for her. I have no idea what happened to her but hopefully, she still is alive and living here in the United States.
I decided to use Maria in many of my poems and made her into a saint- like figure. To show everyone, that there is always hope in this world.
MR:We can only imagine some of the locations of the poems that you write about, since you are not explicit and do not name names of the countries. As a poet, this appeals to me greatly—because while each tragedy is unique in its own way, oftern the effects, the loss of life and other horrific vagaries of war are the same. Was this lack of specification intentional on your part? If so, why?
GM: I did not name the countries because there are so many of them. There are only so many ways to kill a human and so many countries slaughter in the same way. How many different ways can you use a machete, shoot a person, rape, chop up, and torture? It all is horrific. I don’t need to name the countries because it is everywhere. This world is becoming a cruel place. Towards the end of the book, I do mention a few countries.
MR:The last poem in the book “Orchestra” brings it all home to me. You give the reader something of yourself, which is brilliant:
I don’t think you understand who I am—
Bohemian girl, who never sleeps…
Can I speak to you about my poetry?
Listen, you will hear new words
coming from my voice.
MR:Who is Gloria, the writer, the poet, the activist?
GM:I am someone who believes in helping others, speaking up; being a voice for others.
I am a protestor, a warm-hearted person who cares about the world and how people treat each other. I will never understand all the mass killings.
I write on many different subjects and write poetry, plays, and flash fiction. Not all of my work is about the atrocities.
One of my biggest gripes is that many people don’t care about what is happening in the world because it does not directly affect them. These are the people I am trying to reach, to wake up. I want people to say “enough”.
I have always helped people in so many ways. I work in addictions and have for close to 36years. It is not easy some day working with people who are suffering and addicted to drugs, but I love it—it is very rewarding.
MR:You are so active and present on the poetry scene both in the US and abroad. Your press Červená Barva Press has published poetry from writers the world over. What is the philosophy behind the press?
GM:Červená Barva’s mission is to publish poetry, fiction, plays, and translations from all over the world. The press tries to bridge gaps between countries. To name a few, we have published writers from: New Zealand, Australia, Poland, Northern Iraq, Canada, Romania, Asia, South Korea, Czech Republic, England, Argentina, Mexico, Sweden, Estonia, and many more.
I have more countries to reach. We have so much to learn from what is written in other countries. Failure to read work from other countries make a person’s view rather narrow You will never grow as a person or writer if you don’t expand your view. Translations were once difficult to find , but more presses are publishing translations. This makes me really happy.
Oh my, I have so many influences–here are just some of them: Neruda, Agosin, Allegra, Milosz, Amichai, Hikmet, Celan, Vallejo, Dugan, Radnoti, Alberti, Zagajewski, Lorca, Herbert, and really a ton more, mostly foreign.. These are the writers I read over and over again.
MR:What would you like people to know about the power of poetry as witness?
GM:The poetry of witness can make you aware, not let you feel alone, can help action to proceed, can make people think, cry, and is so powerful. It grabs at your heart.
MR: Well said. Thank you , Gloria!
Very grateful to poet extraordinaire Nicole Rollender for proving a platform on her blog for me to talk about my collection Birds of Sicily!
Pap Khouma is a man to be greatly admired. I consider myself extremely lucky that he so generously agreed to answer my questions via e-mail despite his incredibly busy schedule. It speaks to his commitment to the cause of immigrants and refugees in Italy—that he would take the time to answer questions and to help explicate for those who still wonder or do not believe the suffering of refugees and immigrants in Italy. He fights tirelessly for equal rights of the “New Italians,” astutely realizing (while many still don’t) that helping this vulnerable population, (a moral obligation)strengthens Italian society in general. Thank you for reading.
You came to Italy in 1984. You were a “stranger in a strange land.” I feel that so many people, who oppose those who cross borders fail not only to understand exactly the conditions under which people leave their homes, indeed, their native lands, but also they fail to recognize how soul sick it can leave one feeling for years and years. Describe, if you can, what that mental and physical dislocation felt like.
I was among the first Senegalese arrived in Italy 30 years ago. Senegalese were a bit ‘more “lucky” than other immigrants, certainly we were in Italy for economic reasons , but we were free to return to our country when we wanted. For example, at the time, the Eritreans were at war for the independence of their country and the nostalgia of the homeland, dreams of return that plague many migrants or refugees were tied at the end and the outcome of that war. However, the laws on migratory flows towards Italy were almost nonexistent. Probably because Italy is considered a country of emigration, and not yet a country of immigration. Paradoxically, at the time a Senegalese could enter Italy without a visa, stay three months as a tourist and maturity had an obligation to share. He could not perform any work or try to obtain a residence permit. Those who remained after the expiration of three months, was exposed to the controls of the police or the police and could receive an expulsion. In our specific case, meant a deportation order that you forced to leave the Italian territory within 48 hours. Those who did not respect this decree of expulsion from Italian territory, was considered an illegal immigrant. At the time, the Senegalese, because they have black skin and thus more identifiable than other foreigners, were stopped every day by police, police, traffic wardens or financial police. Those who had received the warrant, was handcuffed, taken to the police station and locked up in a cell for a few hours or for about 48 hours. Every day, before you get out of our homes, we looked out first to see if a cop was not passing. When we were on the street, barely saw any man in uniform, a car that was flashing from the roof (could be an ambulance), we hid behind a traffic light, in the crowd, to ‘corner of a street, behind a car parked or mingling with the crowd. Who was stopped while carrying the business of street vendor, his goods were seized, appeared before a judge, who could sentence him to abusive work on public land. Snapped a fine and another decree of expulsion from the territory (expulsion) or in some cases a criminal conviction of a few weeks or months in prison. With very few exceptions, all the Senegalese in Italy in the first half of 1980 were illegal hawkers who squatted on public land. Obviously, the status of illegal immigrants exposed to too much abuse. I was more or less underground for three years. In 1987, my brother and I finally got a permit to stay, thanks to a law of general regularization.
But even in this situation, members of the security forces (police, police, police, financial police) coming home Senegalese night or day, patrolled their homes, carrying away the money they were and if they cared for them. Protesters were arrested and charged with resistance and violence a public official or other crime that he never committed, to give lessons to others. Samba ,my brother and I were victims of similar allegations when we were residents with regular residence permits. On the way, some individuals are allowed to spit in the face, insult or physically attack people with black skin. The tragedy occurred in 1989, with the killing of the refugee Jerry Essan Masslo by three white men in Villa Literno. He was a black guy who fled from apartheid in force in South Africa. What gave him the strength and hope as an African immigrant, was a part of the Italian public, unions, politicians, Catholic priests and Protestants who were indignant that in the press, on television, and against the rights denied and humiliations suffered by these people.
Many blame (in my mind, justifiably) the Berlusconi government for fanning the flames of hatred. The Lega Nord (Northern League) was said to be perversely pleased with the (wrongly) proclaimed “human tsunami” that Berlusconi coined the wave of refugees coming to Italian shores. Can you comment on that?
Silvio Berlusconi is a billionaire and a shrewd media (newspapers, television, websites, radio, etc.) mogul in Europe. It employs an army of journalists, political analysts, pollsters. Most of them put aside ethics and ethics and he used the powerful means of communication made available to spread fear and hatred against immigrants, political refugees, Muslims.
But the political movement that lit the flame of hatred against foreigners was founded by The Northern League led by Umberto Bossi, in the first half of the 1980s. Umberto Bossi was first elected Senator, I believe in 1986, because the corrupt politicians railed against the government and against the presence of southern Italians emigrating from the poor South to the industrialized north of the country. Before Bossi, the millions of southerners who for decades were to northern Italy to look for work, they were discriminated against by their fellow countrymen. The inhabitants of the many regions of Italy (Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia Romagna), refused to rent houses Italians of the south and their families. From the late ’80s, Italy, in full economic boom, has become a destination for immigrants from Africa, Asia, South America. Bossi changed target and foreigners became enemies to fight. Keep attacking the Southerners was risky for a political party. Why are Italian citizens who have the right to vote and can do weigh during the elections. While the alien has few rights, and is of course excluded from the right to vote, so it is a very easy target to hit. The Northern League in its propaganda was the amalgamation of the words immigrants, refugees, illegal, invaders, Muslims and earned the consent of the voters in northern Italy. Silvio Berlusconi entered politics in 1994, his newspapers, radio and television adopted the slogans of the League, not to lose ground.
What has changed for immigrants, migrants and refugees since the time of your arrival in 1984?
Since November 1989, the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the citizens of the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, had regained the freedom that all Western countries strongly demanded for them for decades. I remember that before that date, every citizen of East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Romania, etc., which could escape the “iron curtain” was celebrated as the victory of freedom against communist oppression. The dissident was welcomed in any country of the West. Received asylum in a short time. With the end of the Cold War, many citizens of the countries affected by natural disasters in Eastern Europe immigrated to the countries of Western Europe, who had fought for their freedom. But times had changed and they were no longer welcome as before. Migration flows are carriers of a humanity varied: refugees, honest workers and unfortunately criminals. The press pointed the finger especially against the criminals, did not hesitate to generalize and to criminalize all immigrants.
The various leftist governments have not addressed the immigration issue seriously because it is very unpopular and they fear losing voters. The detention centers (CPT), which today are called centers of identification and expulsion (CIE), were created in 1998 by the government of former communists led by Massimo D’Alema, in accordance with Article 12 of Law Turkish-Napolitano. Giorgio Napolitano is the current President of the Republic. The CIE are real prisons where they are locked up for months of foreign citizens, the children of immigrants born and raised in Italy, of asylum seekers, people suspected of being illegal immigrants. There are, of course, the normal reception centers where refugees are not prisoners.
The right-wing governments have exploited and stigmatized the presence of immigrants, because it is a move that led consensus. In 2001, Forza Italy, the party of S. Berlusconi and the Northern League (U. Bossi) have joined forces and together with other small neo fascist movements (including the National Alliance, the party heir of Benito Mussolini, led by Gianfranco Fini) and won the national elections.
Paradoxically, in 2002 the government of Berlusconi right / Bossi / Fini has approved the largest law regularization of immigrants since the end of World War II. And the Bossi-Fini law is still in force with some modifications. At the time, the Italian entrepreneurs driven by the economic growth needed workers and on the market there were many illegal immigrants and refugee youth. The majority of entrepreneurs had supported the election campaign of the political right, and after the victory, were satisfied. However, during the election campaign the coalition of Berlusconi / Bossi / Fini had promised that he would drive the foreigners from Italy and stopped migration. Broken promise, but the Bossi / Fini had become so rigid and few guarantees granted to immigrants and their families. The majority of immigrants have a residence permit only for reason of employment (Article 22 Bossi-Fini).
The financial crisis that erupted in the US in 2008 did not spare any Western country and led to the failure of many businesses and, therefore, each year tens of thousands of Italians and immigrants became unemployed. Immigrants who do not find another job because of the economic crisis affecting Italy still risk losing their residence permit and become illegal immigrants and their families even if they live here for many years, they have worked and paid contributions.
You have made it your life’s work to write and speak about the experience of the immigrant. Do you feel that this has effectively helped not only Italians, but also those in Europe to see those crossing borders with more compassion?
Although it is not relevant to the question, I answer with this extract from my book We Italian Blacks written in 2010:
The fear in small doses.
What follows Mr. Judge is a small example of how the fear of the different can be injected in small doses in the spirit of the people. In the early nineties, in Italy there were nurses, profession that was entered in the list of jobs not acceptable to young people. Because it was said that the rounds were grueling and the pay was not adequate. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of the population had increased and there were always older to treat. In Sydney, there was the proposal to open access of the profession to foreigners who did not belong to the European Union. They were on the market many foreign nurses graduates in countries of origin, which could not have pulled back in the face of exhausting shifts and the base salary. While waiting for the sick care, politics questioned the professional skills of nurses trained in the countries of the third world, which could be verified without wasting time in controversy in the newspapers and on television. There is hiding behind the law on reciprocity. That is, if the country of origin of the nurse there was a law that allowed an Italian citizen – who already refused to do it in a better condition to his home – to go there to play the same profession. Touched nurse immigrant or refugee demonstrate to the Italian authorities the actual existence of such reciprocity between sovereign governments.
Some politicians Lombard had declared:
“Our seniors are not used to being cared for by strangers! Will be afraid to be approached and touched by nurses Filipinos, Arabs and blacks. ”
And then they had proposed:
“Let’s go get nurses in Argentina,” they said in the press. “There are our natives. Are italoargentini, our seniors will not be afraid of them. ”
The proposal was put forward to the Argentine authorities who responded in
spades. Had invested money and facilities to train professionals. Why in the world would have to send them to Italy and deny care to their patients?
At this point, the Region of Lombardy agreed to pass a law that allowed immigrants to be able to practice as nurses. The elders did not manifest any fear towards them.
Your novel I Was an Elephant Salesman is an evocative narrative of possibly the most successful of all African immigrants—the so-called (by Italians)”Vu Cumpra” (You buy). How did you come to write this novel and what did you hope to express in it?
I was a seller of elephants” (“I Was an Elephant Salesman”) was written with journalist Oreste Pivetta and published in 1990. The purpose of the book was to take the floor and explain firsthand Italians the situation of immigrants, through true stories that I lived by myself, by my friends and acquaintances. I just wanted to open a dialogue with the Italians in the simplest manner.In the book, which is written with some humor, there are stories of humiliation that we suffered at the hands of the police force, but fought to overcome through solidarity by the people and especially the common hope of young Africans who dreamed of building their future lives in Italy. I Was an Elephant Salesman was adopted in Italian schools as a textbook.
With the dissolution of Mare Nostrum and the closing of some refugee centers, it is said that Italy is losing both patience and compassion. Please share your thoughts on that.
The barges loaded with women, children, men from Libya, African parties are directed to the islands of Sicily, in particular in Lampedusa. People are fleeing war or dictatorship(s) in Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Also landed families of refugees fled from the wars in Iraq and Syria. These refugees are exploited by traffickers of African or Asian men and then boarded the floating coffins. Happen many shipwrecks and sea of Sicily became the largest marine cemetery in the world. The Transaction Mare Nostrum was started in October 2013 after the massacre of 130 shipwrecked migrants October 3, 2013 near the island of Lampedusa. The aim was to monitor the ships of the Italian Navy, the Mediterranean Sea and the rescue boat migrants in distress. And ‘duration a year, was stopped on 31 October 2014 and replaced by the operation that Triton has few resources and a more limited range. A part of the Italian public, some newspapers, political parties (Forza Italy, the Northern League, 5 Star Movement founded the comedian Beppe Grillo, etc.) considered Mare Nostrum as encouraging Africans to immigrate to Italy, defined of these refugees illegal carrying of insecurity. It is obvious that as long as there will be wars, dictatorships, famine, ethnic or religious oppression as happens in the Middle East and in some African countries, people will try to survive elsewhere. The dictatorial regimes of Eritrea and Ethiopia are allied with most Western countries. Most Western countries considered rich and stable close their borders and there will be more human traffickers ready to set sail the boats laden with desperate people who will risk their lives for the dreamed paradise.
What does a typical day in the life of Pap Khouma look like?
I work five days a week in a library in the center of Milan. In the evening, after work I often take part in debates on immigration or literature. During my two days off a week I go often in schools of all Italian regions and participate as a speaker, along with students and teachers, in debates on immigration, integration, or simply on the themes of literature. I direct the magazine online and free http://www.el-ghibli.org, which deals with the literature of migration and beyond. I find the time to take care of miafamiglia, my partner Anna and my son Khadim, now eighteen.
The condition of the “new Italians” is met with consistent resistance at many, if not most levels of Italian society. Is there hope?
My latest book is titled “We Italians blacks” (We italians black) and deals with the theme of “new italians citizens”. In conclusion, if you have black skin, all you will consider a foreigner. You are a customer who has to bow your head and thank Italians always white. Certainly, all the “new Italians” are not blacks. There are the children of white Arabic, descendants of Asians or South Americans, children between blacks mixed African and Italian banks, etc. These kids or adults are called “second generation immigrants” and not “citizens of the first generation”. Sometimes even their parents were born, raised and educated in Italy, the country of which they are nationals and know little of the original land of their grandparents. But they stressed is the fact that you have a name and a surname “not normal”, to be people of “color”, to have traits sommatici “strange”, not to be Christian. My dream is as I write the last page of my book:
“Do not struggle to the dreams of the great characters that I mentioned. But in my small way, I would finally the community were considering me, or at least my son and his generation, Yassin, Saba, Matthew and the other, not a skin color which bind the worst prejudices inherited from the past, but of citizens with equal dignity and equal opportunities. I wish at least my son does not know either hatred or suspicion, often so subtle, but instead, compassion. I wish no one has to defend themselves as to their identity of being Italian, as if a black Italian was a paradox. I wish no one would suspect him automatically if you do not find something in class, in school, and no one asked him the ticket arrogantly assuming that because black has to travel illegally. I wish the new generation of Italian blacks, can face all the choices of life and work on the basis of merit and ability. I wish that when my son will be great in the national football there were not one, but many Balotelli, and that thanks to them we won the World Cup, and he referred them to the skill and not for black skin. I want a country where my son can become healthy man, a country that is not afraid of ethnic, religious and cultural, but who knows how to exploit the best of its components. I wish my son could go to Senegal, uncles, to tell how good it is to live in Italy for him, and then returned to Italy to speak of his origins with pride. I know that everything will happen, Your Honor, it’s just a matter of time. The day was coming when blacks men and women are doctors, policemen, lawyers , and even controllers of public transport. That will be a great day, I hope to see it. This is my dream, Your Honor, this was the dream of my father. ”
I have met Padre Carlo, once before, but briefly. On the day I am to interview him, I feel a bit nervous. Padre Carlo is a man that is, in so many ways, bigger than life, but quite humble. He is, at once, a plain spoken, often abrupt man, but a man that is unique for his world view and acts of charity, amidst an environment that is often uncomfortable, if not downright hostile, to “newcomers” of color—namely the influx of immigrants and refugees, particularly those of color.
That he is a priest is sometimes a fact one can forget in his company—he does not talk or act like the ways in which we have come to think that they should act. In fact, he does not act at all. He does not pretend to be pious, or holy or better than anyone else He is simply Padre Carlo, a man with a mission of social justice.
A lifetime, 40 years traveling around the globe helping others and , he says, “I am proud of that.”
Habiba Elaschi is a remarkable woman who has had the talent to reinvent herself in many ways. She is a woman of great inner and outer beauty, a caring and talented individual who is not content to live in her own little world. She sees much work to be done and is intent upon helping others.
Habiba is a political candidate , one among many, in Siracusa, Sicily who are vying for a seat in local government. The streets are strewn with political flyers, head shots of so many candidates, all with different platforms and different promises, but Habiba’s platform is a simple and good one. Habiba, in her own words, wants to truly be “the voice for those who have none.” And there are so many who do not have a voice, who have no political power, who are not even really “seen” by others: the downtrodden, the immigrants and the refugees.
Habiba, who I have profiled on this blog before, came to Italy from Tunisia. And while she holds her Tunisian identity very dear she is well integrated into Italian society, and wants others to feel the same.
” I have lived a rather closed life,” Habiba told me outside at a cafe where we sat in the sun drinking coffee with our good friend Antonino. ” In so many ways I have been preparing for 26 years, for this new role,” she says, referring to her political role. “This has felt like a natural process for me and I feel strong and able to do this. ”
Habiba acknowledges the rampant corruption in Italian politics at all levels, even the local one where it is quite common while asking for someone’s vote, for the person to expect to be paid.
” I don’t need everyone’s vote. I need only good , decent Sicilians to vote for me. People buy votes in Sicily. This is corrupt. But they cannot corrupt everyone in Sicily. I tell people who expect me to pay for their vote ‘I don’t need your vote.’ ”
Habiba’s sincerity is evident. Her warm , brown eyes sparkle. She is a good and gentle soul. She tells me that she is without fear and read for whatever comes next. “This is not a paradise,” she warns. “It is up to us.”
When I ask her what she will do if she does not win, she shrugs her shoulders slightly in that very Sicilian way and gently touches my arm. She smiles and says, “Then, I will simply live my life.”
I she wins a seat as councilor in Siracusa, then there will be so many who will be the better for it.
I was very excited the first time I read about Dr. Kossi Komla-Ebri, an educated man—a medical doctor, born in Togo and living in Italy. I had been searching, endlessly, for about African immigration in Italy from the “inside.”
I was eager to know everything about him—he is a passionate activist and writer, who does not shy away from speaking about racism and other issues that affect immigrants of all kinds in Italy, but most of all, the African immigrant. Dr. Komla-Ebri speaks from a unique position—to me , he is both an insider and outsider. He rights both from the margin and within the margin. Yes, he is an African man living in Italy , but one who is highly educated and able to make a successful living in his chosen country which gives him the ideal platform to speak eloquently and truthfully about the condition of the immigrant, a condition he has experienced himself and knows intimately. His activism and his prolific writing helps to not only bring awareness to the plight of the African immigrant , but is helping to effect change.
MR: There is so much talk about the lack of integration in Italian society, regarding immigrants and refugees. Has it always been the case or have made things worse?
KKE:The difficulty and lack of integration of migrants and refugees in Italian society has several origins and causes.
First of all Italy for years has been a country of emigration and not having had a marked colonial experience has not been able to deal rationally and metabolize the arrival of migrants as the tradition of colonialist countries such as France and England.
The first migrants were well received by the paternalism of the left and the Christian pietism because they were mostly tourists, pilgrims and students-if we exclude the exiled Eritreans and Ethiopians for which Italy was predominantly a place of passage to England, the United States or Canada.
The massive arrival of immigrants in the 90’s and the political crisis in the east-south from the worlds economic crisis has been unprepared for this company and has worsened relations between the migrants and nationals, also because of the right-wing populist who has ridden the ‘wave of xenophobia’ for electoral finding an excuse for their incompetence in dealing with the crisis.
Yet we would have expected a greater solidarity on the part of a country with nearly 30 million expatriates from the unification of Italy and today has more than 4 million citizens officially residing abroad.
KKE: Personally, I landed in Italy in 1974 thanks to a scholarship to enroll in medicine and surgery because then the right to do so did not exist in Togo. In those years as migrants “intellectual” from black Africa, aroused interest and curiosity (a legacy of the missionary in the Italy of the Pope) and were regarded as “good” as opposed to the Greek students who then fled the dictatorship of the colonels and had not yet of the EEC.
We were the people renting out their homes and not because they were “bearded”, spoke a language that no one understood and were considered “dirty”.
In Bologna at that time there was a town that was open and welcoming to the tradition.
Today, as a doctor, my social role, I need to bark and make me a little ‘sheltered harbor’ until the white coat-that a little’ me-bleaching, but return to being a “vu cumpra” (Michelle’s note: a street vendor of African origin) but once I undress and am out of the hospital I am a bit paranoid. I am constantly living in these alternate roles.
MR: Please speak to the difficulties of so many African refugees who are l currently living in Italy—a society that, for the most part, clearly does not want them.
KKE: The plight of refugees is of two types.
The first is on a corporate basis in Italy because there is an organic law on refugees and asylum seekers. The second point is the lack of planning over the eternal “emergency.”
The newcomers largely fled and expelled from Libya found themselves sandwiched between the crisis situation, the non-existence and non-recognition of their status and the lack of economic means available for their hospitality and the impossibility ‘of being able to fix .
In this crisis, young men and women have been blocked in hotels and shopping centers without the possibility of work for almost two years and have been sitting all day to wait for the end of the day. Obviously they were perceived by the common people as pests for which it spent taxpayers’ money. When Italians tightened their belts to survive them if they were housed and fed free to do nothing from morning to night. These refugees were in large part run by volunteers who taught them the language, but there were no resources for training. In this way, without the possibility of looking for a job, without any specification of their social status, has favored a liability without participation in the construction of their own lives.
Today the countries of the “Arab Spring” have remained in Italy :13,000 people on 62,000 refugees accepted in the context of the ‘”emergency north africa” of 2011.
From March 31, 2013 were “liberated” with a dowry of 500 euro (because the funds are over-sometimes-mysterious ways) and the obligation to leave the centers or hotels because the money ran out, with the obligation to find a job within a year to break into the world of production.
Yet they have been spent on them an average of 25,000 euro per person with no planning.
Many still suffer from mental suffering and some girls, in order to have a bit ‘of money , have gone into prostitution, exploited by their fellow countrymen.
Today they put themselves on the street, left to themselves without even a place to go to sleep , which makes them easy prey to exploitation in undeclared work, the underground and the world of crime. Italian companies do not want them!
KKE: The integration understood as the interaction of our integrity, understood as the inclusion, not segregation or assimilation, is possible but not easy and it will take time. However, I do not think that will be the law to do so, some will be able to facilitate and alleviate discomfort but the real process of integration materializes only from below from the local to the global.
The overall approach as the “local without walls” of everyday life in coexistence and sharing spaces for meeting and direct knowledge and respect, to overcome our mutual prejudices.
MR: You are a doctor, and your commitment to the plight of immigrants is an amazing thing — do you do this because of your own experience?
KKE: Before being a doctor I am a man and a citizen who lives and is part of a society in which ,I believe , like many do, that injustices should be fought because we are all jointly responsible. I am convinced that as long as we remain on the bench not playing and we can only stand on the edge of the field to yell at the players and to protest and give the “horned” the arbitrator. To win you have to enter the field, take shots, learn to dribble and score.
Obviously as an immigrant living clearly, powerfully, this experience of my skin with my eyes straight on the future of coexistence for new generations, our children and future grandchildren.
Nowadays, unfortunately, we are not leaving a better world.
MR:In another interview I read, you talked about the promotion of African cultures —- whose responsibility is this — speaking in the Italian context, of course.
KKE: In the collective European mind there is essentially a negative image of the African continent and particularly in Italy linked to this “no knowledge” is voiced by a missionary heritage pietism African children are stunted, starving Africa to help, perennial beggar at the table opulence. An imaginary that “hinc sunt leones” ( Michelle’s note: “Here be dragons”–denotes dangerous and unexplored territory) feeds off the slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism, literature, film theory, reportage, short stories missionaries and spots of NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations).
There is an idea of Africa as a single entity almost as a country instead of a continent of 54 countries all different from one another. The Africa of Tarzan, the virgin spaces untouched, wild animals, Africa of “Out of Africa” Blixen, the “Leopard Woman” of Moravia. To deconstruct this needs to be done to know the ‘”other” Africa, that is not news, the one who walks with the legs of his women with their economic, social and political power.Africa: that different from so-called “tribal wars” of dictators cannibals, clowns and puppets. Do know Africa in turmoil that invents and is invented in daily life. The Africa of a thousand cultural riches. Africa is resisting, that dell’Ubuntu, orality, the community schoolgirl, holistic medicine, cooperatives, young inventors, artists. We must make known what Africa has given and can offer humanity. And who better than the Africans themselves can operate in this sense, who better than the euro-African diaspora across the two cultures, which knows the password, can mediate and open a gate to knowledge.
In the Italian example this promotion can be done concretely with the establishment of cultural centers in Africa into three main Italian regions, which make available materials for schools, books, movies, kit of different themes and to organize meetings, travel eco and fair trade , talks about the past, present and future of our continent and where to take our children to decline the richness of their rut identity porous, multi, mosaic, plural.A place where involve institutions, associations and NGOs (non governmental organizations) in new partnership for the development of circular migration, to guide and stem the brain drain from the old continent cradle of humanity.
KKE: I believe that racism exists in all the heavens and stems from prejudice and ignorance, and our habit of relating to each other starting from the appearance and social status.
There’s so much classism in racism.
The case of Italy is predominantly a racism that was latent, unrecognized Italians themselves are gratified by a self-esteem that says: “Italians good people.”
If before was latent racism in Italy, today it has become social and political phenomenon worrying! Some laws have contributed to this Italian increasingly discriminatory towards us, the otherwise visible. The policy has the duty rats.
I once thought that the Italians were good, although bad politicians. However, after a realistic analysis, I had to change my mind. It is an illusion on an intellectual level to make this distinction. The policy implemented by the elite of government is what the Italians want, since politicians are voted by the citizens. It’s really sad to admit, but it is better to start from this consideration. I keep saying it to other immigrants: do not be fooled that the government is doing things contrary to the will of the people! Of course, there is a minority in Italy that does not agree with this policy. I do not know if it is a minority or a silent majority that does not agree. However, not expressing their dissent, this “silent majority” will always be in fact a minority of more accomplice of the other screaming.
MR: What part does the Italian media played in forming negative attitudes towards immigration in general and immigration in particular?
KKE: The media have had and still carry a big fault: the lack of an ethic of responsibility. The media certainly live on the newsworthiness (bad news are good news) but they create and act as a sounding board to an imaginary collective syndrome of invasion using a terminology related to water “invading” and “human tsunami” of “tide human ‘, the’ “wave of migration” forgetting that the water is also to water to germinate and new fruits.
On average there is no serious analysis of the cause of migration. They
do not explain that among the root causes of immigration processes are: the desertification is advancing in Africa, conflicts, lack of employment prospects with the co-responsibility of our leaders. How can a Togolese farmer, still tied to old systems, compete with a farmer plowing North America that uses the thresher? Or compete with European farmers who receive subsidies? How can they take off our economies if the prices of our products are determined by the stock exchanges in Europe? Why do you pretend not to understand that our so-called “tribal wars” occur where the soil is rich in coltan, gold, diamonds, oil and uranium? It is irrational to analyze the phenomenon of immigration from a single point of view. An African boy, if he had the chance to work in your country and to be with his family, would not have decided to leave everything to undermine its only asset (life) to venture on the open-air graveyard that is become the Mediterranean Sea to come to suffer;suffering discrimination in the land of Dante.
The media slam the immigrant in large letters on the front page, speaking only in crime with an easy equation: illegal immigrant = criminal—in contrast with the reality that so many Italian migrants who rely on these things most dear to them: the care of their home, their children and their parents. Today it seems that words like “mafia”, “mafia”, “Ndrangheta” are of African origin.
The media do not ever talk about the immigrants themselves and do not report the objective fact that even if 10% of them are made of offenders, 90% work, pay taxes and contribute to the growth of this country by creating 11% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and paying with their contributions to the retirement of many Italians.
In order not to be feeling sorry for himself, to exit the systematic disadvantage, is important today for the “new Italians” to organize themselves with Italians progressives and integrate the media system, to promote pluralism and objectivity in the world of communication. It is urgent that the “new Italians” to develop their imagination to create works that arouse empathy with Italians without pietism on the real causes of immigration and the situation of migrants in this country.
KKE: The election of Laura Boldrini as the entrance to the parliament of two African citizens – Italian (I prefer this definition than “new Italians”) made us hope for a change. To be honest, personally I have doubts because, today it seems that if a political party wants to give a turning point, I believe that the closure of the CIE (Centres for Identification and Expulsion)-real-lager, the law on citizenship, the ‘ abolition of the wicked Bossi-Fini law that binds the living room to work will not be easy due to be approved without a parliamentary majority. Unfortunately, the recent developments in policy in Italy and the priority decisions are clipping the wings to our hopes. In this situation, I am afraid that the election of Laura Boldrini for now will only stem the river of institutional racism.
KKE: My advice: Change from the bottom, working to share in the neighborhoods, schools, parents meetings between natives and migrants, avoiding the urban ghettos. Bringing migrants to participate in the life of the host country, encouraging them to enter the meeting spaces: in the associations, the voluntary sector. Give migrants rights and not just the obligations of citizenship, citizenship to children born in Italy to offer them equal opportunities with peers, the right to vote in local elections.
Working integration means operate to the sharing of values, to everyday managing conflicts in the negotiation and appreciation of the cultures of origin, creating spaces of encounter, dialogue for a better understanding and coexistence slowly to create what I call a fruit salad of our cultures and not their bland smoothie.
KKE: Hope, they say in Italian , is the last to die.
My hope is that you take the road of a poetic relationship, as would the Caribbean Edouard Glissant, learn to go “beyond” our appearances to discover and rediscover what we have in common: our humanity.
If we can from this port to approach and recognize each other, the other on its own then it will not matter the pigmentation of skin, gender, social class or sexual orientation.
It seems like a dream.
We continue to dream because reality is not the shadow of a dream. Of course, as they say, we know that “it is difficult to steer the wind but we can direct the sails.”
Giacomo Sferlazzo is a most gracious man. He is also a very busy man so I am so grateful that he could take the time to answer so many questions. He is thoughtful and selfless. And an inspiration. Those coming to Lampedusa from so far away are , amidst much misfortune, lucky to have the activists of Lampedusa, of which Giacomo is one, fighting, endlessly for their rights, every single day. If you think you know the story of Lampedusa, you probably don’t. Sferlazzo’s words paint a portrait of the island in ways I did not imagine.
You are an important activist and Lampedusa. How did you come to do this work?
I do not know if there are important activists. I have always wanted to improve things around me, certainly improve them according to my way of seeing life. Lampedusa has an important role in the Mediterranean, the thousands of people who pass by here, for me there are only humanity to be welcomed, but they are history, with all its injustices and its expectations. I became an activist because I want to work on the story, of course with the minimum means that I have, of course along with others, founded the Association Askavusa, to which I belong, was one of the decisions that have accelerated this process of politicization of my life . I believe in community and culture are a weapon. Thomas Sankara, who is one of my models, he said:
For imperialism is more important to dominate culturally and militarily. Cultural domination is the most flexible, the most effective, least expensive. Our task is to decolonize our thinking.
What I do is in this sense, and I realize that every day there is work to do on one’s self. Being an activist in Lampedusa means to be an activist in the world, we must first understand how much we do not know, as we are ignorant, because our mind is colonized.
You are an accomplished musician — and you have an album that is dedicated to Lampedusa entitled “Lampemusa” —- — implying that Lampdusa inspires you. Tell me about this.
Lampedusa for me is a land that is epic, magical, mythical, spiritual, it is the periphery and center at the same time, we are in and out of the story at the same time. The sea and the sky in Lampedusa are like two bodies that love constantly, this huge blue and this always have in front of the horizon, you are faced constantly indefinitely. For me Lampedusa is the place where you are reborn, as they say many migrants, the sun, the moon and the stars you see in this way so sharp. I make a clear distinction between Lampedusa and feel like a living being and Lampedusa, and I make this distinction even between the world and its inhabitants. Lampedusa, we say we love our island, but in reality the processes of capitalism / consumerism also made Lampedusa an object to be exploited for profit. If I have to look at Lampedusa from this point of view, but also the world, I see it as a wonderful mother tortured by their children.
How do you use music as activism?
For me, music is many things. Among these there is also the political and cultural activism.
I can tell what is happening in their lives and to look at this particular story is important to the universal, of course if you have a life in which the ultimate desire is to have a new car, a cell phone, lots of money etc. etc., then the songs that will come out will be of some militants in the sense that we understand it. Pass through music messages, position papers. I think that is the key to all of this is. I’m not sure you’re right, I always leave room for doubt, but that does not stop me from taking a stand and do what I can because this position will prevail. The thing that feels more dangerous to me is the absence of stances. When no one is an express how they feel it leaves the field open to indecision, non-choice, then , with their strong interests , they can act more easily, making their own interests to the detriment of the community. The music, like art, must take a stand if you want to be militant, and I think an important aspect of my music is this:I take position with my songs and say what I think on political, philosophical and cultural, but music you can add many adjectives militant music, religious music, folk music, etc etc. the music is not to be defined is a means by which we can improve things, they can increase men more effectively than they can do politics or science. In that sense, I hope that my music will become increasingly militant.
With regard to the immigration museum in Lampedusa, why is it important to be the curator of the objects left by faceless, nameless lives Has it had an impact?
It is an extremely important thing is to save the history of mankind. This means to preserve what many humans have brought with them on the most important journey of their lives, a journey that is sometimes the last one they will have. It Means restoring humanity to these masses too often deprived of their individual stories, their bodies, their emotions, their ideas, their words. Among some time when the children, the grandchildren, of these people will come to Lampedusa to look for traces of their history will find objects, photos, letters belonged to their ancestors, this will be very important. There are two aspects: the spiritual and the political, which in this museum need to overlap, reporting and analysis of what is happening in Africa with the new imperialism, and the evocation of values, emotions, needs that are common to all the ‘humanity. These objects have the power to do this.
What is a typical day in your life?
Fortunately I do not have typical days.
How do the people of Lampedusa feel about the influx of immigrants to the island? I have heard, for example, both extremes of emotion.
Many believe that it is a detriment to the island, others understand that Lampedusa save lives and make their contribution because it continues to happen. Let’s say that the island is divided.
You seem to give so much of yourself to the cause — do you ever feel that it is hopeless? That things can and will never change?
It sometimes I get this feeling, like impotence. I think the most important reason is the revolution we need to do each of us, of ourselves. That is the most difficult and complicated, but it’s something we can act directly and without apology of any kind. As for what happens outside of us there are so many factors that we can not control, when we want to change our behavior these factors are significantly reduced. To give a concrete example, decide not to eat meat and fish depends on us, and it is a very important ethical and political choice. Not to buy certain products depends on us, using cars less dependent on us, watch less TV, read more, strive for the common good and not the private etc etc. They are all little things that add up to make a big step forward. This comforts me and motivates me: I can change my life.
Please describe Lampedusa me.
Lampedusa is a small rock in the middle of the Mediterranean island really is an island, because it is far away from the mainland. Lampedusa has a very unique history and place more meaningful, evocative and important, that sums up a bit ‘all the island’s history and character, is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Porto Salvo of Lampedusa. This site was created as a hermit, was a cave transformed into a place of worship, there was a hermit who officiated the double worship, Christian and Muslim, according to those who arrived on the island (Christian or Muslim), that between the ‘ other was a free port, in the sense that if two ships were making war, arrived in the waters of Lampedusa no longer fighting, he gave respite. In this sanctuary there was an oil lamp on all the time, which was fed by both Christians and Muslims, who left in the sanctuary: strings, cookies, working tools, oil, coins and many other things, a legend said that if someone took something from the sanctuary, leaving nothing in return, remained stuck on the island from the storms, and there are several stories about this.
Another great story is that of Andrea Anfossi, slave of the Turks who arrived in Lampedusa to stop and get provisions, they leave without the slave who had sheltered in the sanctuary. At that time (we are in the sixteenth century) in the sanctuary there was a painting of the Madonna and Child and Saint Catherine.
Legend has it that Andrea Anfossi dig a tree trunk and used the framework as a sail and came to the beach near the home of Taggia dell’Anfossi: Castellaro Ligure, where he was a church dedicated to Our Lady of Lampedusa and where it is still guarded the picture. Another church dedicated to Our Lady of Porto Salvo of Lampedusa is in Brazil, founded by slaves around the eighteenth century, who built with his own hands. Every year on May 12 in the church at Avenida Pasos, we celebrate the redemption of millions of human beings exploited and humiliated by slavery.
On 22 September 1843 Lampedusa was settled on behalf of the Bourbons by an expedition led by Bernardo Sanvisente who wanted to coincide with the religious public holiday, in fact September 22, is celebrated with a procession of Our Lady of Porto Salvo of Lampedusa. They lived on fishing until the mid-eighties, then Gaddafi in 1986 threw two missiles trying to hit the base born who headed west and all the media talked about the island. I was a child and I remember two things in particular of those years: the speed with which the island changed from year to year more and more tourists came, sticking more and more houses for rent, hotels, rentals, pizzerias, all built anywhere, without any criterion , abusively and many left the fishing for sightseeing. The other thing I remember is that suddenly appeared on Lampedusa maps, even there, we were there but not exactly where we needed to be, the Pelagie were represented in a square near Sicily, because otherwise it would stretch far the map to the south.
Immigration was another turning point for the island, for me it is a great opportunity that we have, in addition to saving lives Lampedusa can become a major cultural center in the Mediterranean, but now you have to work to get results in a few decade. The powerful have always used the island as a base or military or prison. Today there are so many things that do not work on the island and all governments at national, regional and especially local, have not done much to improve the situation, but we have not done much. The most critical are the school, which has adequate facilities to carry out educational activities, health: the island there is only one first-aid and specialists come once a week, there is a strong disease-specific mortality on this yet studies have been done, but the situation is critical. Transport for an island are of vital importance, remain precarious, especially in winter, and many other things that I’m not here to say, because it would take a lot of space and a minimum depth to understand better. I think that Lampedusa has an enormous potential, but must first look at its history and its recent past linked to the fishery and to a more communal life, we need to share more and talk more and then absolutely must create a network with the ‘ Linosa belonging to the same town of Lampedusa. The thing that I suggest to all who come to Lampedusa during a period of low season, maybe in the winter, because it is then the island speaks and knows how to listen can hear many things.
I know that people have a lot of misconceptions about what happens in the place where so many with so much hope at the end of the earth — what are some of these misconceptions
The idea of an island invaded, many arriving on the island believe they will find thousands of migrants on the streets that “invade” the island, this was built by the Berlusconi government and the media have used this for their campaigns election, for their economy. 2011 was a special year and shameful and images of those months have gone around the world, speaking to many students who arrive on the island from all over the world, they tell me that the image is still that of Lampedusa, of ‘island packed with migrants. The other misconception we have on the island of Lampedusa, which we believe is Rimini or Ibiza Lampedusa, Lampedusa is unique for its history, for its role in the Mediterranean and has for its natural beauty, we must safeguard these beauties and encourage other models of life and tourism.
Can you share a story about hope of the island?
Yes: the island’s history is a story of hope.
What is the hardest part of the work you do?
Trying to change the world and realizing that the biggest risk is to be changed by the world.
In the midst of posting about issues on all aspects of crossing borders as well as the profiles of people that I meet, I like to intersperse aspects of Italian-Americana. My interest in borders began very early on in my life, with my acute awareness of my own cultural identity. So, in essence , I am continually crossing borders in my own life: immersing myself in the quagmire of identity, the nation state, borders, immigration, refugees and all other texts and subtexts, from Sicily to my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia , etc. etc. etc. So here, I cross another border into the world of the Italian-American intellectual by asking Dr. Fred Gardaphe, questions about immigration, identity , the future of Italian-American culture and other things.
In the spirit of self-disclosure, I want to say that Fred Gardaphe is the very top of my list of Italian-Americans to admire—and my list is a long one. I am proud of who he is. I have long followed his work and through his writings have found ideas that have both excited and challenged me. I am proud, too, of the fact that despite the stereotype of Italian-Americans as “anti-intellectual” —he is a true thinker; a man of ideas and scholarship.
Dr. Fred Gardaphe is the Distinguished Professor of Italian-American Studies at Queens College, The City University of New York. He was born of immigrants in the mean streets of Melrose Park, a suburb of Chicago. As a way to escape the increasing violence of the streets ; his father , grandfather and godfather all died lost their lives’ to violence. Gardaphe translated these tragedies by trying to understand them within the context of the Italian-American experience, playing a trailblazing role in the establishment of Italian-American studies in various Universities around the country. To both escape and understand his experience, he became a scholar. Dr. Gardaphe readily agreed to answer my questions about the Immigrant and Italian-American experience. While he would never claim to speak for all of us, his answers provide a new perspective and a new direction in how we think about “identity” in an increasingly complicated world.
Please tell me about the intersection of your identity as an Italian-American man and your professional academic life.
I don’t see the need to separate the personal from the professional and so there are many intersections between my work in Italian American studies and my identity as an Italian American. My identity is as unconscious as it is conscious and in that I find a balance that takes me through life enjoying what I do for a living in that I live for doing, for being.
What are your particular research interests?
Right now I’m interested in humor and its affects on human behavior. I’ve always been somewhat of a class clown, even as a teacher, and so I thought I’d better study it to understand it. I am working on a book on Humor and Irony in Italian American culture, but before I write it, I am reading every book I can find on the subject and teaching courses so that I can learn more about it before I have my chance to write what I think about it.
What does (or doesn’t) it mean to you to be Italian-American?
Being Italian American means a unique way of being American. I thought I was Italian American by just being born with this ancestry, but I find that to be a good Italian American I had to learn about all the other ethnic identities and then more deeply investigate Italian and American cultures so that I could draw the most out of both. It’s more than physical, it’s more than material, there is a spiritual quality about it, especially when you study it, that connects you to the most ancient aspects of life.
How do you feel the culture is (or isn’t ) different from other “hyphenated” cultures?
Italian American culture is like so many other cultures in many ways. What differs is the way we approach the idea of being American. We assimilated so quickly into American culture, out of fear, desperation, hope, and need that we lost things like language and a sense of history beyond the family (and sometimes we even lost our family histories). What happens then is that when you begin to study, to learn about what was, you begin to see things differently and imagine more. I see much of being Italian American as a way of being connected to traditions that need to change in order to adapt to the changing world around us. You have to know the traditions, know how they have affected our past, and use the present to imagine positive futures for the beauty and truths we uncover about our cultures.
What does Italian immigration to the United States look like today?
Today it seems to be that the Italian immigration is not much unlike the past. It is the youth of Italy who look around and don’t see a place for themselves in the future of Italy—the same way my grandparents looked around during their youth and decided to take a chance elsewhere, and so they are leaving, not only the educated youth, but the adventurous youth.
(Mis)-Representations of Italian-Americans is legendary—one only need to look at the most recent spate of television shows, reality and otherwise , that are insistent in their portrayal of Italian-Americans. Can you comment on this?
This happens because others have lead the way in representing Italian American culture to the masses. What we have before us today is simply fodder for entertainment that gets confused for education. Italian Americans have never done much, as a group, to reveal the realities of what it means to be Italian American, at least not on a level par with what has been done in mass media. If we took the time to develop our youth, to educate them as to our histories, to reflect their realities in our media, then we might not have such one-sided representations.
How do you feel the immigrant experience changes someone?
Typically it takes someone out of their comfort zone and challenges them to be able to find ways of surviving. The key is to find and maintain the confidence that one’s ancestral culture has values that can be shared by others. We need to understand why it is people immigrate, what happens to them when they do, and then we will all see that everyone goes through similar experiences as them progress through life.
Are you acquainted with Italian immigration policies and controversies? What do you think of them?
I’m not connected to the legalities of it all. I see much of it as a throwback to the old notions of nation building and in this transnational, transglobal world of today; the old ideas are wearing thin. We need new ways of imagining identities that transcend the traps of nationalism to bring people of all cultures together.
In your opinion, What is the worst stereotype of Italian-Americans? For instance, mine is that we are anti-intellectual.
Stereotypes are necessary in story telling, but dangerous in history telling. The most dangerous ones for me are the ones that we ourselves believe. We need to acknowledge those qualities that have been shaped into stereotypes (such as those that come from the working class experiences), and show the world that there is more to us than the surfaces of those stereotypes. Whether it’s the gangster, the old, sainted mothers, the stubborn, protective fathers, the inarticulate beauties or the stupid brutes, these stereotypes won’t matter much if Italian Americans can stand with the confidence that comes from truly knowing our own histories and acting on our informed imaginations.
Finally, what do you think of the future of Italian-American culture, such as it is?
I think that the old notion of Italian American culture as practiced in the public organizational models will die out. A greater diversity of what it means to be Italian American will rise out of its dust and there will be many ways of being Italian American. Through identity-building and identity-stretching education, future Italian Americans will no doubt look very different from what we consider the Italian American is today.