From Routes to Roots: Afrosporic Voices in Italy
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From Routes to Roots
Afrosporic Voices in Italy

In the film Pummarò, released in 1989 and presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990, a medical student from Ghana embarks on a long and difficult journey through Italy in search of his disappeared brother, known as Pummarò. Through Kwaku's experience of racism and alienation and a failed love relationship with a white woman, Italian director Michele Placido presents a gloomy picture of the life of African immigrants in Italy and leaves little hope for the possibility of successful integration of black people in the Bel Paese. After finding his brother dead in Frankfurt, the protagonist finally leaves Europe for Canada, a more promising place for an educated migrant. Italy, as the subtext of the film suggests, is unprepared to receive new citizens and can only be a land of passage, a mere gateway to El Dorados located elsewhere. In fact, the fate of Pummarò—a tomato-picker in the south of Italy (his name literally means "tomato"), pursued both by the police and by the camorra (the local mafia), who in the end is mysteriously killed—evokes a real event which took place in the same year as the movie was filmed: Jerry Essan Masslo, a refugee from South Africa, was killed by a local band in Villa Literno on 25 August 1989. Masslo, who had lost part of his family in the racial conflicts of the apartheid regime, had arrived in Italy two years before, seeking a better life, and was working as a tomato-picker in the small agricultural town north of Naples. This tragic event shocked Italians, a people who have traditionally perceived themselves as non-racist and compassionate, due partly to a version of Christianity which stresses solidarity as a core value and partly to the typically Italian long-entrenched dissociation of the People from the State, which explains (but does not justify) the collective amnesia regarding the atrocities of Italian colonialism in Africa. Masslo's death constituted a crucial moment in the history of African immigration in Italy; it forced the country to face its faults, opening a long-needed debate on the living conditions of immigrants, provoking reactions from intellectuals and politicians, and making the presence of allogeneous groups (especially African ethnicities) on Italian soil suddenly visible. In the same year as Pummarò brought to the screen the plights of immigrants, the question was addressed by immigration legislation 39/90, known as the Martelli Law, which issued residence permits for foreigners who had arrived before 1989, thus legalizing the position of clandestine workers. Italy had finally been awoken. The supposedly mono-cultural, mono-religious, and mono-chromatic country was never going to be the same again. The presence of new citizens had to be acknowledged, their diverse heritages incorporated, and, consequently, the notion of Italianness revised.

Following the tragic death of Masslo, the year 1990 not only witnessed the Italian response to its newly acquired multiethnicity, but also saw a number of immigrants finally [End Page 653] taking the floor and becoming active agents in the public arena by telling their stories and making their plights heard. Three extended narratives were published (all by Africans), recounting in first person the migratory journey to and through Italy and the process of adjustment to the Bel Paese, which was revealed to be all but beautiful and welcoming in the eyes of the newcomers from impoverished African countries. Moroccan Mohamed Bouchane's Chiamatemi Alí [Call Me Alí], Senegalese Pap Khouma's Io, venditore di elefanti: Una vita per forza tra Dakar, Parigi e Milano [I, Vendor of Elephants: A Life by Force between Dakar, Paris and Milan], and Tunisian Salah Methnani's Immigrato [Immigrant] marked the emergence of what is now commonly referred to as migration literature, a genre which has been proliferating ever since with striking vigor. This genre is constituted by a corpus of works produced by authors—from different countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, eastern Europe, and the Balkans—who, in the majority of cases, learned Italian as adults, who decided to adopt the new language as a literary tongue as a means of integration in the host country...