Before Igiaba Scego’s novel, Adua, even begins, what’s instantly striking is the “Contents” page, which reveals a trio of chapter titles – “Adua,” “Talking-To,” “Zoppe” – that repeat over 30 chapters. Adua is the daughter, Zoppe the father, and the “Talking-To” segments are Zoppe’s admonishments of Adua which, ironically, link the two more closely on the page than they ever were during their lives.
As the narrative opens, Zoppe is dead and Adua holds the deed to the family home in Somalia, relatively peaceful after decades of upheaval. After 37 years of living in Rome, Adua is unsure whether she will return to her birth country: “I wonder if I ... will be able to build what future I have left in our land.” Her current life includes a younger refugee husband, whom she refers to as “a Titanic, someone who’d risked drowning at sea to come here.” Adua is fully aware that their relationship is conspicuously practical: “He needed a house, a teat, a bowl of soup, a pillow, some money, hope, any semblance of relief. He needed a mama, a hooyo [mother], a whore, a woman, a sharmutta [prostitute], me.”
Lacking true companionship, Adua regularly visits nearby Piazza della Minerva, where she talks to a “little marble elephant holding up the smallest obelisk in the world.” Dismissing the strangers who point fingers “’at that black lady talking to herself,’” she confides, “I need to be heard, otherwise my words will fade away and be lost.”
When Adua was “seven or eight years at most,” Zoppe cleaved her from the caretakers Adua and her sister believed were their parents, unaware that Adua’s birth had caused her mother’s death. While her sister readily “bowed to this new father,” Adua was whipped into submission and fainted. “When I came to,” she recalls, “I had become an actress. No one would ever see my real face again.” At 17, Adua flees Somalia – and her domineering father – chasing promises of film stardom. Her one-and-only celluloid performance costs her “everything,” and yet she must continue to survive in an unwelcoming foreign country for decades to come.
Zoppe, for all his estrangement, is not unlike Adua. He, too, was a motherless child, and left Somalia for Italy to work as an interpreter, “a linguistic ambassador.” Zoppe’s ability to speak Italian, as well as “Arabic, Somali, Swahili, Amharic, Tiginya, and several minor languages ... [made him] useful in the coming war,” what would become the Second Italo-Abyssinian War of 1935-1936. As an African in Rome in the 1930s, Zoppe thought he “was a miracle"; the local military police, however, react differently and imprison him without cause. Surviving vicious torture, he returns to Somalia, where he works – with considerable success – as a translator in Mussolini’s regime.
Perhaps from guilt, from doubt, or from anger over his inability to protect his child from violent humiliation despite what he already suffered, Zoppe is unrelenting in his criticisms and warnings leveled at this daughter. His “Talking-To”s include his justification for Adua’s forced infibulation, even as he admits that his late wife would never have allowed such mutilation to occur; that butchery will signal the unbridgeable separation between father and daughter. As Adua and Zoppe’s diverging narratives highlight their mutual failure to communicate, the interstitial “Talking-To”s reveal a longing to understand, to connect, even to forgive.
The Italian-born daughter of Somali parents, Scego, who is also a highly-regarded journalist with a PhD in education specializing in postcolonialism and migrant experiences, writes with forthright simplicity and unblinking honesty. Her unadorned sentences – concisely rendered from the 2015 original Italian by Milan-based translator Jamie Richards – might initially suggest a straightforward narrative of generational family dysfunction, but Scego’s ending “Historical Note” clearly suggests something more substantial than mere storytelling. Scego notes “three historical moments” that define “Adua”: “Italian colonialism, Somalia in the 1970s, and our current moment, when the Mediterranean has been transformed into an open-air tomb for migrants.”
In just over 200 pages, Scego exposes the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized over decades, addresses the personal price of working for (in collusion with?) the colonizer, and examines the ongoing status of peripatetic refugees arriving on Italian shores – at least those who survive the treacherous journeys. Bearing witness through fiction, Scego’s “Adua” gives urgent voice to the silent caught between shifting loyalties, abusive power, and nations at war.