Multiculturalism in Italy: Four Postcolonial Writers Speak in Bologna

'Scrivere = Incontrare' - 'Writing = Meeting':

Conference report, Bologna, 27 May 2000

 

It may not be sufficiently well known that substantial academic work is being done in Italian universities on the phenomenon known as postcolonial literature - that is, literature produced in European languages by the writers of non-European countries, or, in other words, European-language writing from the former colonies, whether 'colonies of invasion' or 'colonies of settlement' (the United States being excluded). Such writing is generally in one of four major international languages, namely English, French, Spanish and Portuguese; only rarely, for historical reasons, is postcolonial writing to be found in Italian. One could argue that the resultant specific positioning of Italian scholars vis-à-vis the phenomenon of postcolonial writing permits a particular, and potentially fecund, stance of non-partisan objectivity; it is most certainly the case that major intellectual labours are being performed in Italy in this increasingly significant domain.

Several universities are active in the field. At the University of Turin, the 'Gruppo di Studio e Ricerca sulle Letterature dei Paesi di Lingua Inglese' (Study and Research Group for the Literatures of Anglophone Countries; http://hal9000.cisi.unito.it/wf/FACOLTA/Lingue-e-L/GRUPPI-DI-/postcolonial.htm_cvt.htm) consists of teachers and researchers of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures who are actively working on the literatures of the former colonies of the British empire. The University of Venice publishes 'Il Tolomeo' (www.unive.it/~tolomeo), a scholarly journal devoted to the 'new literatures' in English and French (those defined above as postcolonial, and also Irish and Scottish writing). A particular impetus has also come over the years from the University of Bologna and its 'Centro studi sulle letterature omeoglotte dei Paesi extraeuropei' (Centre for the study of the literatures in European languages of the non-European countries), set up within the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures (Faculty of Foreign Languages) and highly active in the study of the non-European literatures written in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese (http://www.unibo.it/Annuari/Annu9799/Indice/parte2/P2s2b-29.htm).

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On 27 May 2000, the above-mentioned Centre of the University of Bologna hosted a one-day conference on the subject: 'Scrivere = Incontrare (migrazione, multiculturalità, scrittura)' ['Writing = Meeting' (migration, multiculturalism, writing)], as part of the series of events grouped under 'Bologna 2000 - Città Europea della Cultura'. The morning venue was a lecture room on the premises of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages in via Cartoleria; the afternoon session was held in the garden of the Associazione Culturale 'Hamelin', in via Zamboni. Both morning and afternoon sessions were well attended, by a cross-section of university staff, students and the general public. The audience included the official Italian translators of at least two of the guest writers, as well as persons who had published critical studies on, again, at least two of them.

The organisation, thanks to the good offices of Silvia Albertazzi (of the English-language studies section, and head of the Centre) and Carla Fratta (of the French-language studies section), was excellent: all went according to schedule in a convivial atmosphere. Consecutive interpretation was provided from French and English into Italian, by professional interpreters. The conference was noticed in the regional edition of 'La Repubblica' ('Scrivere nella lingua dei colonizzatori' [Writing in the colonisers' language], 27 May 2000, p. XV), and was featured on local television.

The four guest speakers were: the Australian novelist Peter Carey (resident in New York), Booker Prize laureate in 1988 for 'Oscar and Lucinda'; the Indian novelist Vikram Chandra (resident in Washington, DC), winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first published book for 'Red Earth and Pouring Rain' (1995); the Moroccan writer Driss Chraïbi (resident in France), author of numerous novels including 'Naissance à l'aube' and 'L'Inspecteur Ali à Trinity College'; and the Haitian poet (resident in Montreal) Anthony Phelps. All four - two anglophone, two francophone, all living other than where they were born and none originating in Europe - were eminently qualified to speak on the subjects of migration and cultural identity, in their relation to the act of writing.

The conference was opened by Professor Edoardo Vineis, Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages, who stressed the multilingual and multiethnic dimension inherent in the teaching of foreign literatures. Introducing the speakers, Silvia Albertazzi recalled that the University of Bologna has been working for thirty years in the area of 'emerging literatures' [a new project under way is the realisation of a multimedia CD-ROM on the subject]; the aim of this conference, meanwhile, was to move the subject out of the strictly academic milieu and let the writers speak. The morning session continued with informal addresses by each of the four writers in turn, followed by a debate with the audience. After lunch and at the via Zamboni venue, the four writers read extracts from their works - in English and French, with consecutive interpretation into Italian and texts provided in Italian translation. This second session was chaired by Professor Carminella Biondi, Director of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages. The atmospheric readings, in the idyllic summer setting of a historic Bologna garden, were greatly appreciated by the attentive audience.

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What follows is a summary of the main points made in the morning session by each of the four guest writers, arranged in alphabetical order (comments made in answer to questions from the audience have been integrated at the relevant points).

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Peter Carey began by saying he would rather speak of 'emerging literatures' than 'multiculturalism'. Australia was a multicultural country, but also a country which wished to forget its past. A clear example was provided by the country's 'bicentennial' celebrations, which had conveniently elided all of 50,000 years of aboriginal culture in favour of the last 200 white-dominated years - while also airbrushing out of the picture the legions of the transported, the condemned criminals sent by the British to Australia who arrived in the new continent in chains. His own novel 'Jack Maggs' (1997) had grown out of his reading of Edward Said's book 'Culture and Imperialism'; this novel centres on a rewriting of Charles Dickens' celebrated character from 'Great Expectations', Magwitch - the convict who returns to England after 'making it' in Australia, to a life of illegality and ostracism - but from an Australian perspective. An Australian reading of 'Great Expectations' is necessarily different from a British reading: thanks to Said's book, Peter Carey had discovered that 'Magwitch is my ancestor'. He was now working on a novel about the bushranger Ned Kelly, one of Australia's national icons, in an endeavour to answer the question: why do we Australians love this man - this outlaw, this lawbreaker - so much?

Vikram Chandra introduced himself as a 'frequent flyer', who spends half the year in Washington, DC and the other half in Bombay. He believed that today 'some of us' at least can genuinely live in several worlds at once: sitting in Washington, he can listen to Indian music and read the Indian press on the Internet! His novel 'Red Earth and Pouring Rain', inspired by his reading of the autobiography of James Skinner or Sikander, a half-English, half-Indian soldier from the nineteenth century, was an attempt to answer the question 'how do you make a marriage out of a capture?'. Sikander-Skinner's father was an East India Company officer; his mother was a captured Rajput woman. Their relationship could be seen as a metaphor for the whole Anglo-Indian colonial relationship; further to complicate matters, Skinner's autobiography was originally written in Persian (the court language of the Mughal empire), and then translated into English by a fellow officer. By rewriting Skinner's story in his own novel, Vikram Chandra felt he had made sense of his own story.

Since then, Chandra said, he has concentrated his writing efforts on Bombay - the city which he sees as a truly multilayered metropolis, a labyrinth of cultures. His next novel will be a detective fiction set in the city. Bombay is the meeting-point of Indians from all over the subcontinent, and yet someone could live their whole lifetime in the city speaking only, say, Tamil. The recent official renaming of Bombay as 'Mumbai', in a superficially third-worldist, anti-colonial gesture, was, he felt, in reality the act of a sectarian, narrowly communalist right-wing faction, whose appropriation of 'Mumbai', the city's name in the local Marathi language, was actually a denial of its true cosmopolitanism - an attempt to impose a singular, not a plural, vision of the past. On the use of English by Indian writers, he believed that English is today 'an Indian language': 'Hindi is my mother tongue and English my father tongue'. The subcontinent has always made use of 'link languages' - yesterday Sanskrit, today English. It is of course true that a social class cachet attaches to English in India, as knowing English is a badge of education. English will keep its space in India, for very concrete practical reasons (foreign investment, the software industry). The English language, he felt, plays a role similar to the city of Bombay in providing a 'meeting-place for Indians', and he intends to stress this dimension in his new novel.

Driss Chraïbi spoke on a more personal note. He is used to travelling round the world to speak on writing (his books have been translated in 16 countries). He had recently attended a writers' conference in Montreal: the official theme was 'The American Dream', but he had spoken instead, as the sole representative of the Maghreb, on the alternative theme of 'The Mediterranean Dream' - the Mediterranean as cradle of civilisations and cultures. His true multicultural encounter in Montreal had, however, been something completely different: his chambermaid had invited him to a party of the hotel workers, who were as multinational and multicultural a group as could be imagined, and knew how to enjoy themselves with their own national food, music and dancing ...

Anthony Phelps began by drawing attention to his own name and origins: he is a bilingual poet (French/Creole) with an English name. Many Haitian writers, including himself, are émigrés or exiles. A Haitian linguist had affirmed that his fellow-nationals spoke a language that they did not write and wrote another language that they did not speak, but he himself felt equally at ease in French and Creole, considering both to be his mother tongues. He believed, however, that 'multiculturalism' was today a political term which had simply replaced 'race': its value for literary studies was, he felt, dubious, as literature had always been multicultural by definition - people in the West write in Latin letters originating in Greece and Phoenicia, on paper, a medium invented by the Chinese ... In the New World, he argued, writers create much in the same ways as they do in Europe, except that their sources are two or threefold richer.

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The University of Bologna and the organising Centre are to be congratulated on the high intellectual quality of this event and its smooth organisation. Among the ongoing projects at Bologna, the forthcoming multimedia CD-ROM will surely be greeted with great interest. Moreover, the months since the conference have witnessed the publication of Silvia Abertazzi's new book 'Lo sguardo dell'altro: Le letterature postcoloniali' (The gaze of the other: Postcolonial literatures; Rome, Carocci, 2000 - www.carocci.it), a remarkably wide-ranging study of postcolonial writing (which I have myself reviewed, in a text posted on 15 August 2000 on the Usenet newsgroups rec.arts.books, soc.culture.italian and soc.culture.indian). The active study and promotion of contemporary postcolonial writing is a vital element in the continuing struggle of intellectuals in the West against the still all-too-prevalent stereotyping, misunderstanding and underestimation of the peoples and cultures of other continents. In Italy, it is clear, 'la lotta continua' - and long may it continue, right across our newborn twenty-first-century!

Christopher Rollason, 26 August 2000

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