Translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards
(New York, NY: New Vessel Press, 2017)
Adua, by Igiaba Scego, translated by Jamie Richards, is a lyrical novel that describes the cultural alienation of Somalis living in Italy, both in the present and during the 1930s under the reign of Mussolini. While Scego’s family is originally from Somalia (her parents fled the country because of a coup d’etat in 1969) the novel is not a linear, autobiographical tale; instead, the author merges African fable and folklore, family anecdotes, and a sophisticated knowledge of literature and cinema to explore themes of colonialism, racism, and power.
Adua centers on the idea of a split identity. In the opening chapter, the main character, Adua, who is herself from Somalia, is confused about which country she should call home, Somalia or Italy. Her friend, Lul, has decided to repatriate to Somalia, yet Adua wonders if she wants to return. And, even though she has inherited her father’s house, she reflects upon her strained relationship with her father. She loves the seagulls in the summers in Rome and talks to Bernini’s elephant in the Piazza, who listens, unlike her father. She feels a connection with the African elephant, who, like her, is “from the Indian Ocean.” However, she is unsettled when an African woman on a tram recognizes her from her past role in a movie.
Movies are important in the novel. Adua remembers the little cinema named Il-Faro, or the Lighthouse, in Magalo from her childhood there. For African housewives, Western movies are fantasy, an escape from household drudgery and their “fat husbands.” All they needed were a few minutes “to get lost in the blue eyes of Paul Newman.” For Adua, movies represent adventure, romance, and the world of the imagination; an escape from her traditional African background and family life; and the freedom that she naively believes Italy will offer her. In reality, she is bought by traffickers who sell her to a couple, Arturo and Sissi, producers of a porn flick, who exploit her. Adua tries to convince herself that she will become a star, like Marilyn Monroe. Yet this self-delusion shatters when Arturo and Sissi take her to their beach house, get her drunk, and violate her to satisfy their sadistic, depraved fantasies, as Adua is the victim of female genital mutilation: her clitoris has been clipped and her vagina has been sewn up. In a harrowing scene, Sissi and Arturo hold her down and “deflower” her with a pair of scissors so that Arturo can sleep with her while Sissi watches.
Adua’s jungle poses in Arturo and Sissi’s movie might seem mild, if we compare them to the cruel rape of their seventeen-year old starlet. The Italian producers rely on African sexual clichés, which appeal to Western Oriental fantasies. In their tawdry flick, Adua is “a panther” who splays herself open, ready to be conquered, or runs naked on a beach with a man, Nick, who, in actual fact, is gay. Nick is gentle with her, and they “fake love talk and orgasm” and dream of acting in better movies. She dreams of being another Judy Garland, “skipping around like a baby butterfly.” Because of Nick’s sensitivity and kindness with her on the set, she does not necessarily feel degraded by the sexual postures. Instead, her feelings of humiliation are heightened off-camera, where she is continuously degraded.
Besides Adua’s perspective, the novel rotates between two other points-of-view: Adua’s authoritarian father, Zoppe, lecturing and scolding his daughter in a section called “Talking To,” as well as her father’s uncensored first person point-of-view in a section simply titled “Zoppe.” Tragically, Adua’s father’s harsh experiences in Italy and on the African continent do not necessarily make him kinder to his daughter. His sermons, rants, and homilies on life, love, and gender offer Adua little guidance for finding her way in the world. He says that “the world is cruel,” but does not explain why. He “spits on love” because he is disappointed his wife died in childbirth, which is hardly the fault of the daughter. When Adua finds a picture of him in military uniform, he refuses to talk about his past or his role as a translator in imperial Italy.
When we are first introduced to Zoppe, he is a young man being “pummeled” by other soldiers in the army because he is black. He finds refuge in visions and hallucinations of the “giant and his blonde girl,” a Jewish father and daughter he met by chance on the street, who invited him to their home. He wanted to thank them for coming to him at his dark hour, but “they were neither made of flesh nor bone.” Zoppe wishes he could actually embrace the father and daughter, but he “didn’t know how to embrace people.” When he is tortured in jail, the visions of the Jewish family return to him and he senses that they are in danger because of the increasingly hateful, anti-Semitic mood in the city.
Zoppe acknowledges that this extraordinary clairvoyant power does not necessarily help him change the course of anyone’s destiny: “I can see things before other men, but I wasn’t granted the power to change the future, neither theirs nor mine.” These dream-like, surreal visions are highlighted by Jamie Richard’s agile translation. For example, in this passage Zoppe foresees the grisly violence of Italian conquest:
Detached rooster heads, tongues hanging from pomegranate trees, a sea red with blood, and him with wounds all over his back. And as the voyages progressed and he could feel Mogadishu approaching, his visions became more outrageous. A man riding a leopard laughed wildly, while a crow made a nest on the snakelike head of a monster with swollen lips. Zoppe didn’t recognize anything. In those monstrous visions nothing had a human form. People with three layers of teeth were talking to oxen that had rabbit ears, and crouched next to them was a giraffe’s head excreting butterflies over a pile of corpses…
Bestiality is represented by beheaded creatures, mutilated tongues, and blood. People are no longer human, but have transformed into animals during the massacre. Zoppe is not only an observer of the massacre, but is also hurt with “wounds all over his back,” the moral price for collaborating with the occupiers.
The conclusion of the novel returns to Adua in the present and explores another variation of the master/slave relationship. In a surprising reversal, an older, less attractive Adua pays a young, handsome refugee for sex and affection. In the end, though, she lets the young man, Ahmed, go free at the same Piazza where the novel began. A seagull snatches the blue material of her father’s turban off her head, the symbol of Zoppe’s enslavement to the Italians. Relinquishing symbols of slavery or oppression isn’t hard, like knocking down statues or burning flags. It is much more difficult to break free of insidious historical patterns of master and slave; instead, racial and gender relationships have to be renegotiated in a world, still unjust, imperfect, and inequitable.
Ahmed gives Adua a parting gift, a video camera, and urges her to tell her story, “however you think and feel.” Maybe remembering and recording stories honestly, even if they are painful, is the first step toward liberation.
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Gretchen McCullough is a writer and translator, teaching at the American University in Cairo. Her stories and essays have appeared in:The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, NPR, Storysouth and Guernica. Translations in English and Arabic with Mohamed Metwalli include: Nizwa, Banipal, Brooklyn Rail inTranslation and Al-Mustaqbel. Her bi-lingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories from Cairo (2011) and a collection of short stories, Shahrazad’s Tooth, (2013) were published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo. You can read more of her work by visiting her website.