To remember Carla Macoggi, in the tenth anniversary of her passing.Translated by Pina Piccolo, first published in la Macchina Sognante, issue 23 on January 1, 2022
Getting my thoughts in order. July seventy-seven my first time in Italy. Three months at the home of Terza and Astolfo. November seventy-seven in Africa, again. In the summer of the following year, the West forever. With Romana. A few days in Rome, almost a month in the Apennines. And then to Bologna. Without Romana. At the home of a nun dressed like a nun and one dressed like a plainclothes correctional officer. September 19xx at Lucrezia and Gregorio’s home. December 19xx again in my frescoed house in Bologna until a few days after my eighteenth birthday. And then all the desertion and abandonment in the world, bearing Romana’s signature. Something I would have never encountered if I had stayed in Africa. Today, in the year 19xx, was like any other day in my twenty-four years of life.
I lay down on the bed and, without even going under the sheets, I lay down like a stone. (The Nemesis of the Redhead, p. 88).
For anyone wishing to address the vast question of the “postcolonial” in literature, crossing through Carla Macoggi’s writing is a necessity. It is almost a compulsory step that allows one to penetrate an intimate space containing the unfolding of a deep and irrepressible pain, imprinted on the body of authorial subjectivity itself. Pain that turns into the tracks left by the violence linked to the colonial experience and its subsequent fallout or ‘afterlives’, even many years after the end of that experience, in a territory only seemingly less hostile but, nevertheless, actually marked by abandonment, loss and deep trauma.
This is a trend in Italy in some recent books written by Afro-descendant authors and some who are not. I am thinking of Sangue giusto by Francesca Melandri, but also of novels by Igiaba Scego, Cristina Ali Farah, even Erminia Dell’Oro (I wrote about her latest novel here: https://www.labalenabianca.com/2021/11/08/su-nel-segno-della-falena-di-erminia-delloro-jessy-simonini/). The “colonial past,” opaque and difficult to locate, flows back into the present, making itself a living thing, appearing as a concrete reality that the author’s subjectivity must come to terms with. Not a colonial past, but rather a “colonial present” determining a trauma by colonizing, in its turn, the body, and configuring itself as a deep fracture in one’s identity (“subdividing a man” is Urqhart’s formula in the epigraph opening Macoggi’s novel La nemesi della rossa. It is undoubtedly so, for Carla Macoggi who is transfigured into the character of Fiorella, “the redhead” to be sure, who at the beginning of Nemesis wants to find out the truth about the first years of her life and the long concealed circumstances of her arrival in Italy in the late 1970s:
Fiorella went to the bureaucrats. With a question that was both formal and naive.
-Tell me what it says in your records. About me. Tell me what happened during those years when I was unhappy and unable to have answers to my questions. […]
No, no. I lived a life that was not mine. Nothing that is written there speaks of me. Nothing that is written has ever been crossed by the motion of my heart and the flow of my blood.
Today we are left with only a few writings by Carla Macoggi, including two volumes published by the Sensibili alle foglie press, I am referring to La nemesi della rossa and Kkeywa. Storia di una bambina meticcia, both being novels that have stirred the interest of critics and readers alike. We are also left with some other materials preserved in one of her blogs, almost like a crystallized trace of her rapid passage on this earth: https://cmacoggi.blogspot.com/. The last article dates back to the summer of 2011, more than a decade ago. In the last years of her life she had settled in Imola, an opaque town in the province of Romagna, and passed away there in 2013. She had come to Italy in the late 1970s, having been born in Addis Ababa in 1965 from the union between an Ethiopian woman and an Italian man.
Over the past few years, a number of critical studies dedicated to her writing have appeared, including those by Carla Cornette (https://www.gendersexualityitaly.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/13.-Cornette-Carla.-Colonial-Legacies.-AuthorApproved123120.pdf ) and Teresa Solis (https://revues.univ-tlse2.fr/pum/lineaeditoriale/index.php?id=477). In addition to the aforementioned papers, Carla Cornette has produced a doctoral thesis-discussed in 2018 at the University of Wisconsin- containing an analysis of Macoggi’s literary production, along with that of two other Italian authors of African descent, Scego and Ali Farah.
The aforementioned studies testify to some critical interest in Macoggi, albeit in foreign academic settings, a sign of how very difficult it still is to graft a postcolonial discourse into Italian academia, especially in the literary sphere. Carla Cornette, who identifies Macoggi’s production as part of a semi-autobiographical writing (a definition that can certainly be shared), argues that:
By hybridizing fact and fiction in the form of semi-autobiography, the author submits her personal experiences as representative of the collective, as allegorical for other disenfranchised women and children whose families are fractured whether by war, poverty, differential access to migration, or international adoption, as in her case. This analysis proffers a heuristic line of inquiry for the interrogation of additional texts of Italian postcolonial literature that feature how abject positionalities (as configured by race, economics, gender, geography), statuses which were essential to the construction of modern nation-states and still dictate blood-based notions of citizenship in Italy, are determined in making or breaking some familial relations (Carla Cornette, gender sexuality Italy, 7 (2021), p. 188)
It seems to me that in the above quote she is offering an effective working outline, an operational possibility that is useful not only as far as Macoggi’s writings are concerned, but also for other postcolonial writings or narratives published in recent years. To add a further element to this insight, it can perhaps be said that Macoggi’s texts crisply express the reproduction of colonial dynamics even in non-colonized territories, far from those countries in East Africa colonized by the Italian state, many years after the end of that historical phase. Erminia Dell’Oro, who is perhaps the best-known author (although belonging to a completely different generation), sharply reproduces the colonial mechanisms of domination that persist in the Eritrean capital, Asmara: see Asmara, addio (recently republished by Tartaruga) or even her most recent novel, Nel segno della falena. Macoggi, on the other hand, shows how colonization can continue long afterwards, in Italy, as a form of domination and annihilation of identity of particular subjects. In both novels, colonial violence is first and foremost perpetrated by Romana, who is responsible for Fiorella’s uprooting, but it is also practiced by many other characters who pass through Fiorella’s life, taking advantage of her, emotionally abusing her. About Romana, responsible for wrongdoing, Macoggi writes:
Selamawit [the African mother of the protagonist] signed all the papers that were placed under her uncertain hand, and Romana gave a few coins to the false witnesses and extras who were participants in that farce, which was registered as a certificate of adoption by the Court. Romana promised the Ethiopian state that she would be Fiorella’s new mother. She had bought Fiorella. For nothing.
The character of Romana is the crucial node in the narrative as she embodies both “systemic” colonial violence and the more personalized violence of a woman who tears a daughter away from her mother (“the ‘adoption’ was the first official annulment of Fiorella’s mother”). But the same violence can also be traced to the other figures who succeed each other in Fiorella’s life: they are not simply symbols of systemic or structural racism, but for all intents and purposes, traces of the colonizer’s violence that is exercised deliberately for the umpteenth time, on the colonized. In this case, it is even stronger, even more painful and traumatic because it is a harbinger of a severance, an erasure indeed.
It seems to me that Macoggi’s writings are aimed at the search for a truth, or rather the truth about one’s own origins and one’s own “identity,” if this word still means anything; a search that appears to be accompanied or even performed by the writing itself, that is revealed in its making, in its very expression as a quest for meaning. This quest includes a demand for self-subjectification and recognition, thus generating a very deep wound, distributed like a nervous system throughout Fiorella’s psychological life. The need to understand, to know, pushes her toward the paths of trauma and deep deconstruction of the self. And the act of writing is to be understood as an attempt at “recomposition” (p. 18, Nemesis), not so much of a “story,” but rather of oneself:
I want to set order to this confusion. Write to clear inaccuracy. Rethink everything to erase disarray. Remove with words the inconsistency of life. New words to replace those never uttered, never spoken, words that have become painful silence. Silence so intense that it became irrepressible pain. Up to bordering on a sense of death. Until it became real death (p. 19, Nemesis)
It has become clear by now, that in my opinion, Macoggi’s work, in spite of its meagreness, can by no means be reduced to the category of migrant writing, and neither is it only part of postcolonial studies, a tendency that is very slowly contaminating Italian literary discourse. Since Macoggi did not consider herself a “migrant” at all, but rather a full-fledged Italian, what critics actually need to do, is to divest themselves of all categories, consider the text only for its literary merit, grasp its lyrical fluctuations, and highlight the transparency of this semi-autobiographical writing that testifies to the writer’s profound inner turmoil. And we must consider her an Italian author, while not forgetting how dense and structurally problematic such category truly is From Kkeywa, p. 43:
When I was nine years old, we were on our third move. Each time I lost something: a hair clip, a colored pencil, a notebook, a drawing. But no one could separate me from three objects that my father had given me: an abacus with colored balls, that he had used to teach me how to count, the national commemorative medal from a war he had participated in as a young man, which was kept in its sober, dark case, and the olive-green passport that bore the words Italian Republic written on the cover, in gold lettering.
As someone who frequently visits archives, indeed likes to frequent them for study and research, I was greatly struck by the material dimension of Carla Macoggi’s search for self, expressed through documentary sources. This is evident in both Nemesis (p. 13) and Kkeywa (p.9) where photographs of archival documents related to her past are featured. These documents, formally original, “authentic” as an expert of diplomacy would put it, actually contain a deep falsification: what is written on the document does not correspond to reality, to Fiorella’s real life. The archives then become the center of a falsification, a structure that is complicit in that concealment and erasure that I mentioned earlier.
They are “your archives,” Macoggi writes at the beginning of Nemesis. Yours, because they are a thing that belongs to others, to bureaucrats, perhaps the accomplices of her trauma.
Walking around Imola a few years after Carla Macoggi’s death, I look for something to connect me with her, but I can’t find it. I never knew her. I have, however, met people who were friends with her. I have had gifts of her books and objects that had belonged to her, but mostly some memories, some splinters of her life. In the future I will write more about her, from a literary critic standpoint, in a more accomplished way, especially if it may be helpful to understand something new about her writing and the life that glows in those pages.
Oddly enough, in the center of the city of Imola stands a statue dedicated to Francesco Azzi, a lieutenant during the Ethiopian War, a convinced fascist who had joined early on, and who was awarded a gold medal for military bravery for the following reasons, described in a plaque:
In a long and fierce battle over impassable terrain, he identified a small enemy fortification and galloped toward it, leading by daring example the spahis [cavalry units recruited among the colonized in Libya and Algeria] in his battalion. Overcoming the wall of defense with irresistible impetus and discharging all the rounds of his gun, he rushed into the midst of an enemy position that was superior in strength, charging them with his saber and routing them. Mortally wounded, stoically aware of the severity of his wound, he pushed away the attendant who tried to rescue him, shouting, “Leave me and keep firing at the enemy.” He then expired the next day, after extolling the combat and victory with manly words of pride. Splendid example of legendary bravery. Selaclaca, December 25, 1935.
Under Azzi’s statue, reading about his “legendary bravery,” in this anonymous, gray city, far from Addis or Selaclacá, I find that point of contact I was seeking, the fuse; I find a trace of Carla Macoggi and it becomes all the clearer why I should read about her, make others read her, and continue writing about her.
Jessy Simonini was born in 1994 in the province of Bologna, Italy. After pursuing doctoral studies in Medieval Literature at the ENS in Paris he is currently completing his Ph.D. in Italy. “Campi di battaglia” is his first poetry collection. He is is a frequent contributor to literary journals and conferences, both with his literary criticism and poems.