I grew up more being a good listener of stories than a reader myself. I grew cradled by the voice of my nanny Sera, who was a second mother to me, spending almost half of the day with her eating what she had prepared for herself, mainly pap (corn flour) and spiced minced meat with a considerable amount of fried onions, instead of what she had cooked for me. Every day I was longing for more stories till she was at the door, with one foot out and my hand on her belly asking to stay, just a little more, ignoring that she had six children in her house in the township of Alexandra, waiting for her care. Ignoring that in about an hour she would start to work again, taking care of her own family till late, while others got to go to sleep and rest.
Stories where often accompanied by lullabies and rhymes in her own language, Sesotho. I still remember this one:
Noyana tse peli
Engue ke mantso
Engue ke mosoeu
The time my family and I had to travel for a journey or a short trip somewhere in the country or overseas, I terribly missed her. I missed her stories and her voice through which every single character had a special tune. Her voice sounded in my ears every time her face appeared in my mind. Missing her, I had become an avid reader myself. Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Louise May Alcott, Frances Burnett, Stevenson, Kipling, Jack London, and Victor Hugo were some of my first important reads. Also because of Sera, with her warm presence, I remember my childhood so vividly with no wrinkles as if the time passed left no sign on it.
It’s hard to establish exactly when I started writing. I can’t be sure of the year but I would surely identify the experience which lead me to words with my first migration to Europe. Since birth, I grew up in South Africa when the country was isolated from the rest of the world due to racial segregation. Leaving in the mid-80s when it was still struggling for democracy, at a very complex age like teenager hood, wasn’t an easy experience for me.
Leaving what I had considered my country, leaving my affections, my friends, my nanny Sera, leaving my being a witness of the enormous grief that was racial segregation ignored by the rest of the world, leaving the country totally isolated in its pain, I fell apart. I found myself in a different world, even though it was the place where my family came from, Italy. To me it was like being thrown in the mouth of a ferocious beast always hungry of innocent and unarmed preys, without any possibility to escape and set myself free.
No possibility except writing.
I started writing poems and short stories, interpreting my interior world through metaphors and trying to explain the impact that the new life had on me. I felt healed, somehow. Later in life, reading Alice Walker I came to realize that the only thing which can “save us” (from anything) is awareness, and awareness is nicely brought by stories, because stories have a wider space where anyone can fit in. Stories are flexible, transcultural; they don’t have barriers, nothing to decode, they just tell us how it is.
However, I soon realized that my writing was far too attached to my tight little closed interior world, and I found that it was not enough for me. I needed a larger view on the experience I was living; I needed to connect with the loss that was still haunting me with all its grief.
So I can say stories came to look for me and I looked for them, in a sort of mutual connection.
I remember the first year in school when I reached Italy. It was tremendous, alienating. I remember my schoolmates describing South Africa in a way I could not recognize the country I loved. They talked about it pretending to know it better than I. They barely even knew where South Africa was on the map. I told them that it was simply at the South of the African continent, but still they didn’t get it and continued to annoy me with questions of no means. They pointed at me as a girl going to school following a long muddy path in company of elephants and zebras. Well, I wouldn’t mind, but it was not like that. It was not real. I attended a normal school in Houghton, Johannesburg. Of course it had a green field, but was quite different from being any kind of wild bush. South Africa was out of the collective imagination of people, surely due to the political and economical isolation during the apartheid regime, but also because at that time Africa was still a mysterious place, far away from the Italian reality, not like today where thousands of African immigrants live and work in Italy and somehow are integrated (even though I often stumble upon some people who still have a distorted concept of Africa).
So I realized how much I was isolated, alone and lost. No one could recognize the place I grew up in. No one could share a different thought than the exotic way of knowing Africa. None knew about apartheid. How could I let them feel the extraordinary cultures that South Africa was trying to carry and promote, even from under ways!? Hard to believe I was alone. I remained alone for many years till I found an answer to all my questions. Going back and telling the truth. I decided to go back, to return “home”, as I always called South Africa, to return to my school, to my city, to my second mother Sera, my beloved nanny. To go back to the place where History has had a huge impact on everyone’s life since the XVII century. That is how my personal writing took new forms. It became a journalistic writing reporting on a country and a continent which was like a ghost, hidden, invisible to many in the northern part of the world, what we so easily call the Western World.
I travelled all the way to South Africa and all around Eastern Africa trying to connect to that womb from which I was “exiled”, without even knowing the meaning of this word. I just knew that my family made a choice and I was suddenly swallowed by it.
In 1994 when the country was ready to make the dreamt change, I returned home. Going back home was an exciting, difficult and compelling experience. I had to find a new language that could accept me back, that could translate the many changes I’ve passed through in my life as an immigrant. If I think at my writing, I can easily find a common thread in all my works: “return” is the file rouge. In all the past years, I always had this need to go back and forth and feel the return as an uninterrupted dialogue among the different “I” that lived in me.
Once I had been back and forth from what I considered home, I started realizing how ‘belonging’ had nothing to do with a geographical place, as well as roots. I started being aware that roots are inside us, that we bring them wherever we go and that is the easiest way to deal with the experience of loss and dislocation. I love Edward Said’s words quoting a XII century Saxon monk who said: The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.”.
I should say I’m longing to fully identify in the third man; the process is still on the way. Certainly there is a place for which I feel a certain affection and this basically is South Africa, but I’m trying to be more and more confident with the idea of identity as a portable treasure, something that can’t just hold on one physical place. In all this emotional turmoil, writing is the real place where all the complexity of emotions, feelings, and ideas are translated, and this to me is the only secure path I can walk towards: stories, writing. French philosopher Jean Grenier said that in everyone’s life, especially at its beginning, there is a moment that changes everything. Living and growing in South Africa has been that moment for me. From there my writing started …