Monday, 13 May 2013

African Diasporas: many voices with a common ground

One of the first scenes in Igiaba Scego’s La mia casa è dove sono (My home is where I am) portrays a family reunion. Somalis from different parts of Europe, of different generations and nationalities and speaking different languages meet in Manchester and sit around a table trying to grapple with a sense of loss which cannot be expressed in words. What brings them together is the memory of a distant past, of an imaginary, fragmented homeland, a homeland some of them belonging to the younger generation have not even physically experienced. A sheet of paper on the tea-table and, taking turns, each of them marks a site out of memory, from what they remember personally or from what has been described to them by someone else: a cemetery, a hospital, a monument, a school, a theatre, a cinema, the parliament building. It is a map of Mogadiscio, a map of a city which is no more (no longer there in that form at least) and yet comes to constitute the primary signifier of their bond. Igiaba Scego is from Rome, but not only. Identity and roots are more complex. And Rome is not simply the Italian capital. Somehow Rome is also African. “Rome and Mogadiscio, my two hometowns, are like Siamese twins separated at birth. One includes the other, and vice versa.” In fact, in the following chapters and all through the book, Scego sketches a map of Rome (a map which also envelops Mogadiscio). Each chapter is a site or a monument, one of those well known sites marked in tourist guidebooks, but what she tells us about these sites is not to be found in any Lonely Planet or Globetrotter Travel Pack. Every site marks a moment in her personal biography as well as a significant moment in history, bringing to the foreground the deep historical entanglement of the eternal city with Africa as well as the impact of African Diasporas on the configuration of the metropolis and its daily life.
Let us move to the opposite shore of the Mediterranean. In Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain with a strong sense of cultural identity, a little boy asks his mother: “Am I Catalan, mum?” Najat El Hachmi cannot provide an immediate answer for her child. This is not a matter of yes or no, neither a matter of yes but. Again, identity and roots are more complex. In Jo també soc catalana (I am Catalan too) El Hachmi explores the intricate patterns of self-definition and the contradictory feelings often accompanying the sense of belonging here and there: Morocco and the Berber world, Spain and Catalonia. As with Scego, El Hachmi’s assertion of identity and belonging moves in the direction of the notion of inclusion, rather than integration, and of individual stories rather than collective histories. Rather than fragmenting, a background different from that of the dominant group provides a plus, an additional tool of understanding: “Before you were born, long before you were even conceived, your father and I decided we would speak Tamazight with you. Not for any patriotic fervour, no, but rather in order for you to have another tool at you disposal to interpret the world.” Taking clear political stands with regard to the way identities are conceived and defined, for example firmly rejecting the denomination of ‘second generation’, El Hachmi depicts a Catalonia of the XXI century whose dominant discourses on cultural roots do not match the reality of a plural society and the life stories of many who in fact do belong. The dominant ideologies El Hachmi targets and deconstructs are not only the ones whose nationalistic rhetoric leaves no room for dialogue and actual change, but especially the ones using a celebratory rhetoric, for example the tendency of a liberal sector of Western society to stress superficial elements of difference, reducing ‘other’ cultures to a folkloric spectacle. Having long lived in Catalonia myself, I get a sense of what she is talking about. The festa de la diversitat (festival of diversity), organized every year by the city council and several NGOs, is a big event which receives a large number of visitors. However, diversity there is mainly reduced to gastronomic and musical curiosities, so you eat your tajine, dance to the sound of a djembé and go home with a sense of having opened up to the world without the need of actually opening up to your Black or Muslim neighbours. Even more problematic than this unproductive folklore is the representation of People of Colour promoted by NGOs and charity organizations to raise funding in the West and which has an impact on the position People of Colour come to occupy in a predominantly white society and on their self-perception. For this reason the identity politics articulated in the literatures of the African Diasporas necessarily engages with issues of representation.
always remember/ whatever they think of you is/ what they will think of you/ all.” The lyrics collected in Philipp Khabo Köpsell’s Die Akte James Knopf start off, as the title indicates, from representation and stereotyping. The poet persona, constructed as the angry counterpart of the popular children’s book character Jim Knopf, strikes back and defends the necessity of self-representation: “I speak, so you don’t speak for me”. He also reminds us of the vulnerability of black people in Europe: “James goes jogging with a knife,/ ‘cause he thinks he might need it/ when he goes jogging and outside there are skinheads standing at the corner”. The knife is not only a weapon of self-defence in the face of blatant and violent racism but also symbolic of the need to take up arms against much subtler attacks to one’s own dignity. Philipp Khabo Köpsell’s verses speak up against prescriptive ways of conceiving identity, against the everyday racism experienced by Germans who, because of their looks, skin colour or religion, are not perceived as ‘authentic’ Germans: “I, German like Kartoffel and Buterstulle/ languages I switch and codes/ I am like you –/ Diaspora./ Exile seed of comrade trouble/ and that here, that black earth/ is and was and stays/ my land.
This is yet another statement, another way of affirming belonging.
It is somehow arbitrary to put together under the same umbrella these very different texts. These are different literary genres, the authors come from different linguistic and cultural contexts, adopt different narrative strategies, address different readerships. And yet, their primary concerns and the stands they take do have quite a lot in common, and it is this fundamental link which constitute a common ground in the literatures of the African Diasporas.
Because they are situated at the crossroads of continents and cultural heritages, because of their inherently rhizomatic nature, and because of their epistemological multi-perspectivism, the literatures of the African Diasporas make a crucial contribution to contemporary culture, not only at the artistic level of aesthetic exploration (where a particular narrative refinement and a great deal of experimentation are to be found) but also at the level of hermeneutic exploration, that is, in the analysis of human behaviour and social institutions, and at the level of ideological exploration, both in the form of scrutiny of the nature and origin of ideas and in the form of an innovative drive and a visionary quality in the envisagement of future configurations. In Europe these literatures intervene exactly where the set of dominant discourses constituting the core of the continent’s self-definition fear to tread, that is, in acknowledging the existence of racism in our society and analysing its dynamics and impact, and in highlighting the productive potential of cultural exchange and of non-essentialist notions of national identity as well as the fulfilment of the every-day practice of conviviality, presented not as a possibility to be debated but rather as an essential element of human history.

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