Igiaba Scego on Writing between History and Literature

This is the second of five articles in the series Black Italy, which explores questions of Blackness, belonging, and representation in contemporary Italian society.
“I strongly lay claim to imagination, because to us Black women for a long time the possibility of imagination had been negated.”

Igiaba Scego is a prominent Italian writer and journalist of Somali heritage, whose work focuses on migration and intercultural dialogue. In this interview, Scego talks about her writing process, especially the role that history and historical research have played in the creation of her most recent novel, La linea del colore (Bompiani, 2020). She also discusses the role of fiction in shaping contemporary conversations about Blackness and Italianness. This interview has been translated from Italian into English by Giulia Riccò and edited for clarity and length. The interview was conducted through voice messages on August 30, 2020.

Giulia Riccò (GR): In your novels, you often play with various polychromies. Indeed, a common theme is showing to your readers the nonwhiteness of Italians and Italy. Actually, we could say that together with other activists, you are the standard-bearer of a Black Italy.

What is the role of literature in forging and expanding the repertoire of colors associated with Italy? Does it exist in Italy today—the right language needed for this forging and expanding? Or do we need to look for this in other contexts?


Igiaba Scego (IS): I must say I really don’t agree about me being the standard-bearer, because I am not an activist.

All interviews say it, but I am not. I am simply a writer and a citizen. I speak out on certain issues, but I do so from the point of view of a person who writes and of a person who is a citizen: a person, therefore, worried about the common good of their country and about their own person.

I have never felt like anybody’s standard-bearer; I don’t feel like I should be talking for someone else, it is dangerous when you talk for someone else.

And in any case, in whose name should I be talking? I am many things at once: I am Black, Muslim, Italian, from Rome, no? [chuckles]; I am also a romanista [a fan of the soccer club A. S. Roma]. I could become their standard-bearer!



GR: That’s right, but what of your role as a writer?


IS: For me, literature is an incredible tool, because it has the potential to arrive at places closed off to politics, places that a slogan may touch upon but not really explore, for obvious reasons.

My interest in Black Italy, is, first of all, motivated by an interest in myself—a Black woman in this country, born in this country. For me, it has actually been an absolute necessity to dig up history to understand, first, why I am a product of colonialism (since my parents came to Italy also because of Italian colonialism and its legacies) and, second, to confront myself with a country like ours, which is peculiar insofar as it’s both a country of emigrants and an immigration country, a country that I would not define as white, but, thankfully, as Mediterranean. And the Mediterranean is a mixture of cultures, peoples, languages, exchanges, adventures, and clashes.


GR: Right.


IS: I want to add one small comment: I always distrust those who rise up to be the voice of someone else. Nobody can speak for anybody else. You may be able to share your experience within a collective—as I consider literature a global conversation—where each has a piece of the puzzle. We do not have access to the full puzzle, but we have one piece, to be put together with other pieces. That’s why I do not like to define myself as a spokesperson, because I am the first one to distrust spokespersons.

Regarding what you are asking about language—now, language is an important thing. We need to create a language, a mode, a modality, to speak about being Black in Italy, neri italiani. One that neither retraces the African American forms, nor the debate of the anglophone world, because the risk is that of retracing things that do not really fit with our situation.

Numerous scholars and activists parrot the United States discourse about race, whether slogans—I am not talking about “Black Lives Matter,” that slogan is universally true—or other concepts, which, in a carbon-copy fashion, are applied, here, in Italy.

Yet, we are not the United States: we are something else. This must be remembered.

GR: Art, in its various forms, from the painting to the monument, from the palace to the sculpture, becomes the glue between the histories in La linea del colore. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I glimpse, in both Lafanu Brown’s story and in Leila’s, a certain type of privilege, that of an education that has allowed them access to the art world. This separates them from the third protagonist, Binti, who attempts the trip from Somalia to Italy, as a migrant.

Does being conscious of your privileged position of citizen, university graduate, and prominent writer influence how you write, and think about the racial question in Italy?


IS: It is interesting what you say about education and privilege. I must say that, yes, now it seems I have privilege, but my education is rooted in Italian public school, meaning it’s not that I did anything special; I just went to school.

This is the point: education should not be a privilege but a common good. (And what I learned depended on the teachers I had. I mostly had female teachers. I remember one in particular, Claudia Patuzzi, who, in high school, helped me a lot.) I have never lived my education as a privilege, because I believe education is a universal right.

With the character of Leila (who is not an autobiographical character), I wanted to show something that we rarely see: children of migrants—the so-called “second generations,” even if I prefer the term “new generations”—that are now adults. When we talk about second generations and new generations, we often think of younger people, children, at most of kids in middle or high school. Never of 40-, 50-something-year-old people …

But they do exist! And this group of 40-, 50-year-old (even well into their 50s) children of migrants proves that immigration to Italy is structural. It is not recent but has been going on for a long time.

Moreover, Leila is a character that shows that a Black woman can be anything she wants to be, even an art curator, that we have studied. And, to me, this was obvious, because the majority of my generation has studied.

More so than Leila, the one who is really able to overcome the barrier, and snatch education, is Lafanu. Lafanu was destined for a whole different life, a life with nothing, not even the alphabet. She not only takes ownership of the alphabet, but she creates a language: she reads, paints, becomes an artist.

So, for me, that art and education isn’t a privilege. It is a conquest.


“The Word Illegal Didn’t Make Sense Anymore”

By Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski

GR: You wrote (in an essay about the “making of” La linea del colore) that, to craft the character of Lafanu Brown, your African American heroine, you spent hours and hours studying. The historical quality of your novel is undeniable. Yet, you insist in not calling it a historical novel, per se.

How do you see the relationship between literature and history? And how does this vision inform your writing process?


IS: Actually, I do think that my novel is a historical novel. What I mean in the “making of” [essay] is that the novel could also be a fictional one.

I worked in this way: I began from the great History—with a capital H—and the two major events in the book are Italian 19th-century colonialism and the Grand Tour.1

(Better yet, instead of “Grand Tour,” as calling it this way would be erroneous, since the proper Grand Tour was the 18th-century one, I should refer to it as “the trip to Italy,” which, as a literary topos, populates numerous narratives and novels.)

So, I was departing from these two great events, but also from the real biographies of two African American women who actually lived in Rome in the middle of the 19th century, Edmonia Lewis and Sarah Parker Remond.


GR: Right.


IS: What mattered to me was to give historical coherence to what I was saying. When I jokingly call it a “historical fantasy,” what I mean is that I tried to fill the gaps, the unsaid, the removed, and the unexplored with my imagination. It is obvious that a professional historian does not perform such an act of using imagination. But, thankfully, in literature, you can do it; you can fill the gap left unsaid by history textbooks.

My work has always been in between—between history, and even historical method—because, after all, everything I wrote corresponds to the truth: from the dresses they wore back then to how Rome looked in those years. I had to study those historical aspects, which required a long and hard work of in-depth research.

I believe this has been the novel with the longest research work behind it: I did not want to get anything wrong. I didn’t want to write things that made no sense. I wanted to be true to the period I had chosen through and through, even in the most minimal gestures.

Then, it’s clear that for creating a character like my Lafanu, I had to stretch my imagination. I strongly lay claim to imagination, because to us Black women, for a long time, the possibility of imagination had been negated. We were asked to—and we are still asked to—write only intimate narratives, testimonials, as if fiction were something that we cannot write, because we are not capable.

And, so, instead, I precisely chose to work with fiction. It is a political choice.


This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabrielicon

  1. The Grand Tour was a customary educational rite of passage for young, upper-class European men in the 17th and 18th centuries. Celebrating mobility in an era post–absolutist regimes, the Grand Tour exposed young (mostly aristocratic) men to classical antiquity and the Renaissance.
Featured image: Rome, Italy (2018). Photograph by Carlos Ibáñez / Unsplash