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Migrant Imaginaries

Figures in Italian Migration Literature


Jennifer Burns

This book addresses a rich corpus of contemporary narratives by authors who have come to Italy as migrants. It traces the figurative commonalities that emerge across these diverse texts, which together suggest the shape and substance of what might be termed ‘migrant imaginaries’. Examining five central figures and concepts – identity, memory, home, place and space, and literature – across a range of novels and stories by writers of African and Middle Eastern origin, the study elucidates the affective and expressive processes that inflect migrant story-telling. Drawing on the work of cultural theorists such as Sara Ahmed and Michel de Certeau, as well as on recent work in postcolonial literary studies, memory studies, human geography and feminist theory, the book probes the varied works of Shirin Ramzanali Fazel, Amara Lakhous, Mohsen Melliti, Younis Tawfik and many others. Each chapter posits alternative interpretations of the ways in which the interior experience of encounters across territories, cultures and languages is figured in this literature. In doing so, the book moves towards a wider apprehension of recent Italian migration narratives as suggestions of what a new notion of contemporary ‘Italian’ literature might look like, figured at once within and beyond the boundaries of a national literature, a national language and a national cultural imaginary.


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To speak means to come forward and to locate oneself in one’s sphere of existence; it means to claim a modest quantum of agency.1 A novel published in Italy in 1980 indicates a wider cultural frame in which to view the literature of immigration which will be the focus of this study. Nero di Puglia, written by Antonio Campobasso, of fers a first-person nar- rative of the experiences from childhood to around thirty years of age of a mixed-race boy in Italy.2 Born on 2 June 1946, the day of inauguration of the Italian Republic, to an African American father serving brief ly in the US armed forces in Italy, and a Puglian mother who subsequently married a British Italian man and moved to London, the narrator’s life, after early years being cared for by his grandmother in a Puglian village, is told as a passage from an orphanage to numerous young of fender institutions, to prisons, an asylum, and eventually drama school, each move contributing to the tracing of a map of Italy from Messina to Milan.3 Physical abuse and hardship are a feature of all his stopping points. Acute anger and emotional 1 Michel de Certeau, The Capture of Speech and Other Political Writings, ed. by Luce Giard, trans. and afterword by Tom Conley (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 98. 2 Antonio Campobasso, Nero di Puglia (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1980). 3 The early story of Campobasso carries echoes of Leonardo Sciascia’s character, Candido Munafò, born in Sicily...

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