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Review: Igiaba Scego’s “Adua”

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The seductive pull of Western cinema becomes an increasing sub-text in Igiaba Scego’s visceral narrative, Adua, the story of a Somali young woman who becomes a movie star in Italy in the 1970s. It isn’t until the end of the novel, however, that Adua confesses to the lure of those films: “I wanted to be Marilyn. I wanted to Audrey, I wanted to be Katharine or at least Kim Novak. I wanted to tap dance like Ginger Rogers and do the splits like Cyd Charisse. I wanted flowers from Gene Kelly and looks full of respect from a passing Jimmy Stewart. I wanted the white clothes, the crinolines, the puffy sleeves.” (169)

She wanted another life, anything to remove her from Somalia, but what she got instead was the short-lived career of a porno-star and all of the subsequent humiliation after she realized what had happened. Which is only to say that Adua is the sad account of a young woman’s shattered expectations and escape from her culture and environment. Her one big movie, Femina Somala, was filmed after she was totally inebriated and required to act like a creature of the jungle that has a sexual encounter with a great white hunter. Besides the sex, the movie was a racist smear of African women. The director paid for her airline ticket to Italy with one goal in mind: exploiting her and making a sexploitation movie in the years after Western cinema began making porno movies for mainstream movie theatres. (Remember Deep Throat, playing in your local family-run movie theatre?)

Adua is left with nothing after the movie is filmed, but she stays on in Italy for many years; and much, much later she marries an illegal Somali man in order to save him from the authorities, from being sent back home. He’s half her age, at most, and she wonders why she “saved” him. “Every night my little man falls asleep on my droopy chest like a baby hungry for milk. I rub his head and nestle my hand in his hair. It makes him forget the cruel waves of the Mediterranean that nearly swallowed him up. It makes him forget the tranquilizers they put in the bland soup at the immigrant welcome center. It makes him forget the girl he used to love, who was raped and murdered by Libyans in the desert.” (23)

The novel skillfully juxtaposes the fate of Somali immigrants, today, seeking a better life in Europe, with that of much earlier Somalis who were often lured or sent to Italy for exploitative purposes. Adua’s beauty inspired the Italian film director to bring her to Italy. She is old enough to be her young husband’s mother, and she even refers to him as her “little husband, my sweet little Titanic,” (51) a derogatory reference to the American film. But there’s an earlier generation also, her father’s, equally used and abused. His story begins in 1934, when Zoppe is a translator for the Italians. Barely more than twenty, “He spoke Arabic, Somali, Swahili, Amharic, Tigrinya, and several minor languages….” (12) He’s brilliant obviously, but that will not prevent Italians from humiliating him, once he’s brought to Italy by an Italian Count who identified his brilliance.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the story, but Zoppe’s humiliation is actually even worse than his daughter’s. Eventually, he will come to understand that as a translator he has facilitated the exploitation of his own people. There’s an interesting parallel here with a short story by the great Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah, one of the continent’s finest writers. Years ago, Farah published a short story (“My Father, the Englishman, and I”) that draws on the same issue of how translators—who facilitate colonialism’s implementation and success—are often involved in dicey matters that require them to compromise their own people. Shades of recent accounts of Iraqi translators denied entry into the United States because of Donald Trump’s entry restrictions.

Thus, Igiaba Scego’s Adua is an indictment of one colonial power, Italy, over several generations and how it destroyed the lives of many of the people “employed” by that power. This is something we have seen before in the works of other African writers who grew up in the countries controlled by the other major colonial powers in Africa, but the story of Italian fascism in East Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eretria) has mostly been unrecorded. The novel skillfully draws together the changing aspects of colonialism over a period of more than a century, asserting the obvious: Europe’s immigration problem today is the result of the ex-colonial subjects’ desire to seek security (from war, from famine, from climate change) in what was once considered the “mother country”? Some mother.

Igiaba Scego: Adua
Trans. by Jamie Richards
New Vessel Press, 183 pp., $17.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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