“The Word Illegal Didn’t Make Sense Anymore”

Ten years ago, when I would ask my students if they knew any modern Italian authors—not Dante—I would occasionally get the response of “Calvino” and, more ...

Ten years ago, when I would ask my students if they knew any modern Italian authors—not Dante—I would occasionally get the response of “Calvino” and, more rarely, “Primo Levi,” but most often silence. Today, with Elena Ferrante’s popularity and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Italian work, the landscape has shifted. The novels of Igiaba Scego exemplify another important reason for the growth of attention to Italian literature: her urgent narratives call attention to issues of migration, racism, and antisemitism that have long been ignored in Italy, but are topics of increasing concern there and here.

There is an Italian phrase that sums up this willful ignorance, by offering a particular myth of Italy: Italiani brava gente (Italians, good people). The phrase portrays Italians as incapable of any great wrongdoing, especially in contrast to Nazi Germans or imperialist Brits and French. But in exploring how Italians did, in fact, play a role in 20th-century atrocities, scholars today have identified Italiani brava gente as a sign of Italy’s refusal to entirely confront its past.1 This is a past that includes, among other tragedies, the devastating violence of Italy’s more than half a century as a colonizer and the persecution of Jews in the 1930s and ’40s.2

Because Italian literature and criticism are addressing this violent past after decades of scholarship, it builds on earlier studies of postcoloniality, decolonialization, antisemitism, trauma, and multidirectional memory. In particular, racism and antisemitism, both perceived for decades in Italy as marginal or nonexistent, are now more likely than in many other places to be considered here together.3 Coming late to the conversation can have some advantages.

Some of the most compelling explorations of how prejudice and violence intersect in Italy can be found in the two Scego novels to have appeared in English to date: Adua (2017, originally published in 2015) and Beyond Babylon, which appeared this past May, with an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri, over 10 years after its original 2008 publication. Yet all of Scego’s writing reveals her investment in representing the effects that migration, poverty, racism, sexism, colonialism, and antisemitism have on very different individuals.

Both Adua and Beyond Bablyon represent multiple perspectives from different generations and sexes. In Adua, the male protagonist, Zoppe, meets a father and daughter who treat him humanely. Because he is black in 1930s Italy, this encounter warrants comment. Zoppe reflects, “The father and the girl looked at him with human eyes.”4 It turns out these eyes belong to the Jewish Davide and his daughter, Emanuela.

The inspiration for the friendship between Zoppe and this Jewish Italian family came from real life, as Scego discusses in the novel’s acknowledgements. Scego writes:

One day the Roman writer Giacometta Limentani showed me one of her childhood photos, of her as a little girl and three probably Somali askaris [soldiers] in the Prati neighborhood. … I also thought that those four people brought together by chance shared (even if they didn’t know it as the time) a destiny. Giacometta, a Jewish girl, and the askaris, subjects of an African colony, would go through 1938 and its atrocious racial laws.”5

The acceleration of racism, antisemitism, and sexism under Fascism in Italy shows how these prejudices reinforce each other.

English-language reviews of Adua tend to focus on how the novel connects Italy’s colonial history with current migration to Italy,6 but they often ignore the significance of its Jewish characters.7 Although racism, sexism, and antisemitism are firmly rooted in the development of both Europe and America, they have specific histories and take different shapes in each context.

Scego’s fiction frequently focuses on Somalia and Italy, but it is never just binary and her narratives always travel to other places. Scego creates characters one wants to learn from, hear about, and know better. Her novel Beyond Babylon weaves together diverse perspectives—on colonial Italy, prerevolution Somalia, Argentina’s desaparecidos, bisexuality, racism, sexual violation, learning Arabic in Tunisia, and life in Rome—from five different viewpoints: two daughters (Zuhra and Mar), their respective mothers (Maryam and Miranda), and a father (Elias).

The reader of Beyond Babylon is able to make connections between the five characters’ lives and feelings that the characters themselves do not always make. As the novel itself states, “The stories entwine, at times converging, often searching for one another. Each one united by a color and a feeling.” The power of the novel is the unexpected links among these different characters and places. Miranda reflects that her friend “was speaking of Rome and Italy, but I always thought she was talking about me, about Argentina.” Not only do the characters at times see how their stories intertwine with others’ experiences, but readers may also see their worlds reflected in the stories.

This is true for Zuhra’s idea of being “illegal”: “Finding them a life, a life for me. If this meant paying a soul smuggler to drive them around half of Europe, so be it. Was it illegal? No more than it was tossing toxic waste in Somalia or feeding civil wars and insecurities to plunder the riches of African countries, as the West did. The word illegal didn’t make sense anymore.” Though there are many moments in Beyond Babylon that narrate the specific history of Argentina, Italy, Somalia, and Tunisia, the characters’ statements often reverberate far beyond their individual cases.

Beyond Babylon is a brutal book that vividly describes multiple rapes, desperate poverty, suicide, forced abortion, racist violence, torture, clitoridectomies, and death in childbirth. But it is not without hope. Near the end, for example, one character talks about her “untimely happiness.” The work is full of characters who take joy in their ability to express themselves through music, dance, clothing, poetry, and prose. There is a woman who only writes in a certain color notebook, a woman who can only narrate with the help of a tape recorder (we read a transcription of her recorded thoughts), and a man who can only recount his life in the third person. Joy comes when the characters find the right words, or any words, to tell their stories. Beyond Babylon reveals how ignoring past dehumanization leads to further dehumanization, and how silence can be a form of violence. The hope in the work partially comes from the idea that, as Louise DeSalvo observes, “To recount that you were mistreated and to see this as significant, demands that you can imagine a world in which people are treated (or should be treated) humanely.”8

The multilingualism and polyphony of “Beyond Babylon,” unlike in many modernist works, never aim to obfuscate.

One of the book’s many feats is to illustrate how violence and prejudice in one place connect to those in another. We are therefore fortunate that Aaron Robertson has rendered this vast, powerful novel in accessible, fluid English. After having completed Beyond Babylon, anglophone readers will see, perhaps to their surprise, how connected we are to the world Scego describes. The novel’s title is in part inspired by Bob Marley’s reference to the Rastafarian idea of Babylon as a representation of Western oppression. Scego’s “Babilonia” in her title Oltre Babilonia is partially a translation of Marley’s “Babylon” (also cited in English within the original text) that is then retranslated into English for us. As the word “Babylon” itself also suggests, multilingualism is embedded in the work, with significant inclusions of Arabic, Spanish, Roman dialect, English, and Somali.

Translations into English of phrases originally in English present difficulties and potential pleasures for the anglophone reader. The first section of the novel, in the Italian original and in the 2019 translation, opens with a line from the Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, translated into Italian: “C’è qualcosa nella morte che assomiglia all’amore.” In both the Italian text and the English translation, the line from the English original is soon provided: “There is something about death like love itself.” Mar reflects on the importance of seeing this American poetry in English and Italian. Like Mar, the reader of Robertson’s translation encounters the Italian, then the English. Mar connects the line to a tragedy in her own life: she comments that its rhythm was an abyss, like the “pistol barrel” inside the mouth of her lover, Patricia.

The navigation of racist terms presents different complexities, since race and racism are constructed through our use of language. The translator and reader need to grapple with the multiple racist terms used in the book, including ones that appear in English even in the original Italian text. For example: Mar’s reflection on her racial identity contains the Italian words “nero” (black) and “negro,” as well as the English word “nigger.” The complicated relationship between American and Italian racism,9 as well as ideas on race, is suggested by the Italian novel’s use of this English-language racist slur:

Mi avrebbe detto che nero è bello e ci avrei creduto. Io anzi ci credo anche adesso che negro è bello. Forse non dovrei dire negro, ma nero. Ma non m’importa, me lo hai insegnato tu, Zuhra Laamane abbayo, che non si deve avere paura delle parole. Nigger is beauty. Ma half-nigger? Seminegra? Semibianca? Semipallida? Seminiente?10


He would’ve told me black is beautiful and I would have believed him. I believe even now that nigger is beautiful. Maybe I shouldn’t say nigger, but black. It doesn’t matter to me, you taught it to me, abbayo Zuhra Laamane, that no one should be afraid of words. Nigger is beauty. But half-nigger? Semi-nigger? Semi-white? Semi-pale? Semi-nothing?

The narrator’s consideration of what to call herself raises the question of how to deal with the racist, negative connotations of “negro.” There is no perfect way to translate this Italian word. The precision, beauty, and force of Scego’s language can be hard to render into English, as revealed by Robertson’s understandable decision to translate this use of “negro” as “nigger” (a choice that then obscures the latter’s foreignness within the Italian).

In contrast to the racial slur, “abbayo” (sister, in Somali) is marked as foreign in the English translation. The narrative’s use of “abbayo” is multilayered: its phonic similarity to the Italian “I bark” (abbaio) creates confusion, and, in this passage, the term of endearment is used among two women who remain unaware of their familial connection. The inclusion of Somali terms in Scego’s work is also often “a way of repudiating Italian names and the colonial project behind them.”11

The multilingualism and polyphony of Beyond Babylon, unlike in many modernist works, never aim to obfuscate. The characters can only narrate their lives and feelings with their own words, which necessarily come from a variety of origins. Scego’s dedication to bringing forward multiple voices extends to her work as an editor and contributor to collections that call attention to issues of racism, sexism, migration, refugees, antisemitism, and colonialism.12 Scego’s multifarious output reveals the power of telling the oppressed’s stories, of looking at each other with “human eyes,” as she wrote in Adua, as well as the potential force of the narrator, artist, and editor. They suggest that there may still be time for “untimely happiness.”


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.


For more on the topic of ethnonationalism and xenophobia, visit this episode of the Recall This Book podcast, in which John Plotz and Elizabeth Ferry speak to Quinn Slobodian. icon

  1. See Claudio Fogu, “Italiani brava gente: The Legacy of Fascist Historical Culture on Italian Politics of Memory,” in Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe, edited by Richard Ned Lebow, Wulf Kansteiner, and Claudio Fogu (Duke University Press, 2006), and Angelo Del Boca, Italiani, brava gente? (Neri Pozza, 2005). See also Simon Levis Sullam, The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy, translated by Oona Smyth and Claudia Patane (Princeton University Press, 2018), p. 143.
  2. See Jacqueline Andall and Derek Duncan, eds., Italian Colonialism: Legacy and Memory (Peter Lang, 2005); Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Mia Fuller, eds., Italian Colonialism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); and Cristina Lombardi-Diop and Caterina Romeo, eds., Postcolonial Italy: Challenging National Homogeneity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) for foundational examples of the wide-ranging work on Italian colonialism that exists in English.
  3. Political tensions and disciplinary boundaries have often prevented racism and antisemitism from being discussed together in detail. See Arlene Stein, “Jewish Fragility,” Public Books, July 18, 2019, for a discussion of the complicated way these prejudices intertwine.
  4. Igiaba Scego, Adua, translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards (New Vessel, 2017), p. 9.
  5. Ibid., pp. 181–82.
  6. See Gabriele Lazzari, “Somalia and Italy across a Century,” Public Books, November 6, 2017; Jodi Monster, “Adua,” Cleaver, April 6, 2018; “Adua,” Publisher’s Weekly, n.d.; Charles R. Larsen, “Review: Igiaba Scego’s Adua,” Counterpunch, July 7, 2017.
  7. In contrast, see Derek Duncan’s discussion of how terms from the Shoah are connected to contemporary refugee experiences in Italian. Duncan, “‘Il clandestino è l’ebreo di oggi’: Imprints of the Shoah on Migration to Italy,” Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, vol. 10 (2016).
  8. Louise DeSalvo, “Color: White/Complexion: Dark,” in Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America, edited by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno (Routledge, 2003), p. 20.
  9. See Lorgia García-Peña, “Black in English: Race, Migration, and National Belonging in Postcolonial Italy,” Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies, vol. 3, no. 2 (2016).
  10. Igiaba Scego, Oltre Babilonia (Donzelli, 2008), p. 389.
  11. Simone Brioni, The Somali Within: Language, Race, and Belonging in ‘Minor’ Italian Literature (Legenda, 2015), p. 50.
  12. Scego’s work as an editor includes Italiani per vocazioni (2005; Italians by Vocation), a collection of Italian migrant fiction; Future: Il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi (2019; Future: Tomorrow Narrated by the Voices of Today), which brings together 11 short stories by Afro-Italian women writers; and, with the UN Refugee Agency, Anche Superman era un rifugiato: Storie vere di coraggio per un mondo migliore (2018; Superman Was a Refugee Too: True Stories of Courage for a Better World), a collection of stories that weaves together the tales of famous refugees (historical and fictional, including figures as diverse as Aeneas, Superman, and Hannah Arendt) with those of current refugees. She contributed to the collection 1938: Storia, racconto, memoria (2018; 1938: History, Story, Memory), whose short works reflect on the 1938 Italian racial laws that barred Italians with Jewish origins from many parts of Italian life. Scego is also part of a collective of authors called Zoya Barontini, who produced a novel, Cronache dalla polvere (2019; Stories from the Dust), about the violence of Italian colonialism in the 1930s.
Featured image: Igiaba Scego in Rome, December 31, 2018