The présence Africaine in the Italian academia

By Marco Medugno

Postcolonial theory, in Italian academia, is a young field of study. Colonialism has similarly received little attention in literature, from both authors and scholars, going almost unnoticed in the public discourse and academia, until recent publications started to address the long-lasting legacy of imperialism and its role in shaping the Italian national identity, especially during the Fascist period. It is almost implausible that the period of Italian colonialism, roughly stretching from 1869 to 1960, has been overlooked for decades since the Second World War and still, regrettably, remains an under-studied area in the Italian academy and a problematic topic in the public and political arena. When that chapter of history is discussed, the tone is apologetic, if not dismissive. Italians still fashion themselves as those who brought development and investment to Africa. Although more limited in both time and space than British or French colonialism, Italian colonialism was a period of massacres, oppression, and racism. It had an unquestionable impact, both in the metropole and in the colonies, that still resonates today. Scholars, especially historians, have started to investigate this impact from the mid-1980s (Giorgio Rochat and Angelo Del Boca), but only in the mid-1990s and early 2000s did postcolonialism as a scholarly field made its appearance in literary studies in Italy.

What are the reasons for this delay? Scholars such as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Mia Fuller, Derek Duncan, Sandra Ponzanesi, Valeria Deplano, and Cristina Lombardi-Diop have tried to explain the historical, political, and social causes that concealed colonialism from public discussion and academic interest. Most of them are connected to historical factors, such as the absence of mass migrations from the former colonies to Italy and the lack of any trials against Fascist officials who fought in the African territories during WW2; there are also socio–political reasons, such as the myth of Italiani brava gente [good people], which helped to globally re-establish Italy’s reputation as a democratic nation after twenty years of Fascist dictatorship. 

Book cover for Bollati Boringhieri’s translation of Edward Said’s Orientalism

In the field of literary studies, Roberto Derobertis, in his short but telling article, ‘Da dove facciamo il postcoloniale?’, examines the consequences of this delay in Italian academia. He suggests that Italian postcolonial studies are founded on ‘missed debates and gaps’, so that the corpus of postcolonial works that is growing in Italy lacks consistency and is reliant on paradigms elaborated in other colonial contexts, such as the Anglophone and the Francophone. For example, Edward Said’s ground-breaking work Orientalism was translated into Italian only in 1991 (Bollati Boringhieri), thus causing a delay to the response to the productive debate engendered by its publication in 1978. Still today, Italian readers and scholars have limited access to well-established works of postcolonial scholars, as only a few texts (and primarily Anglophone) have been translated. Ironically, one of the main theoretical backbones of Said’s work is the thought of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937).

Due to this absence of engagement with postcolonial scholars’ theoretical works, the postcolonial paradigm has never been used systematically to analyse the literary and cultural production in Italy. Indeed, only a few monographs and comprehensive studies have explored alternative readings of Italy as a postcolonial entity and have suggested a coherent theory to apply to the Italian case. Moreover, the authors of these studies often teach or work outside Italy, mainly in the UK and the US, meaning that the departments of Italian studies have failed to incorporate the postcolonial paradigm into their curricula. This reluctance to engage with postcolonial studies has prevented Italian academia from developing an exclusive and well-framed postcolonial theory, specific to the Italian context. 

Front cover of a 1936 text featuring pictures of the regions of the Italian Empire

In this scenario, we can clearly identify blind spots and absences in Italian postcolonial studies. There is still much work to do ahead, especially in the fields of literary studies. The analysis of the representation of Africa in Italian literature, but also in newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and other media, has just begun, but is crucial for understanding how the ‘concept’ of Africa, fashioned during colonialism, still persists to this day. Postcolonial studies are also instrumental in re-reading the canon and decolonising it. It is fundamental to show that colonialism, more than forgotten, has been like a ghost, almost invisible but definitively present, in literature and in our every-day life too.     

The Croce del Sud Hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia, 1933

Another way to look at colonialism, which is still largely ignored, is to focus on the former colonies and place geography at the centre of the literary enquiry. Thus far, postcolonial interventions ‘have become so accustomed to thinking of the novel’s plot and structure that […] they have overlooked the function of space, geography, and location’ (Said 1993, p. 84). As in Somalia’s case, we are still missing an exploration of the forms of resistance coming from Somali people during colonialism and its aftermath. Italy, in fact, officially ruled Somalia until 1960, but the relationship between the two countries continued until the beginning of the Somali civil war in 1991. Of this other piece of history, quite exceptional in the postcolonial context, we still know very little, even though the body of works by Somali writers, especially from the diaspora, is growing and, in some cases, has received international acclaim, as in the case of Nuruddin Farah and Nadifa Mohamed. Both these authors show us how the ties with Italy are far from receding and how we should listen to the voices able to speak about a past which has been blotted out from Italy’s national consciousness for far too long.

Recent events (from the European migrant crisis to the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of symbols of colonialism and slavery) had a strong impact both at the global and local level (see, for example, the defacing of Indro Montanelli’s statue in Milan after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was removed in Bristol). These events have also shown how it is essential, in this particular moment more than ever, to face the past and its legacy, especially for nations such as Italy, which are experiencing a new rise of racism towards those Libyan, Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian ‘immigrants’ whose migrations are linked to the colonial past and its ongoing impact in the present. Drawing inspiration from Said’s words, what we should do now, as teachers and scholars, is to urge students – and ourselves – ‘to situate [one’s own identity, history, tradition] in a geography of other identities, peoples, cultures, and then to study how, despite their differences, they have always overlapped one another, through unhierarchical influence, crossing, incorporation, recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and, of course, conflict’ (1993, pp. 331–332).

References and a mini bibliography on Italian colonialism

Ahad, Ali Mumin. (2017) Towards a critical introduction to an Italian postcolonial literature: A Somali perspective. Journal of Somali Studies 4 (1–2), pp. 135–159.

Aidid, Safia. (2011) Haweenku wa garab (Women are a force): Women and the Somali Nationalist Movement, 1943–1960. Bildhaan 10, pp. 103–124.

Andall, Jacqueline, and Derek Duncan. (2005) Italian Colonialism: Legacy and Memory. London: Peter Lang.

Ben-Ghiat, Ruth, and Mia Fuller. (2005) Italian Colonialism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chambers, Iain, ed. (2006) Esercizi di potere: Gramsci, Said, e il postcoloniale. Rome: Meltemi.

De Donno, Fabrizio, and Neelam Srivastava. (2006) Colonial and postcolonial Italy. Interventions: Journal of Postcolonial Studies 8 (3), pp. 371–379.

Deplano, Valeria. (2018) Per una nazione coloniale. Il progetto imperiale fascista nei periodici coloniali. Perugia: Morlacchi.  

Gnisci, Armando. (2003) Creolizzare l’Europa. Letteratura e migrazione. Rome: Meltemi.

Lombardi–Diop, Cristina, and Caterina Romeo. (2012) Postcolonial Italy: Challenging National Homogeneity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mellino, Miguel. (2006) Italy and postcolonial studies. Interventions 8 (3), pp. 461–471.

Palumbo, Patrizia. (2003) A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture From Post–Unification to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Parati, Graziella. (2005) Migration Italy: The Art of Talking Back in a Destination Culture. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

Portelli, Alessandro (1999) Mediterranean passage: The beginnings of an African Italian literature and the African American example. In: Maria Dietrich, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Carl Pedersen, eds. Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 282–304. 

Sinopoli, Franca, ed. (2013) Postcoloniale italiano. Tra letteratura e storia. Aprilia: NovaLogos.

Said, Edward. (1993) Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus.

Tomasello, Giovanna. (2004) L’Africa tra mito e realtà. Palermo: Sellerio.

Virga, Anita, Brian Zuccala et al. (2018) Postcolonialismi italiani ieri e oggi. Special issue of Italian Studies in Southern Africa 31 (1).

[Marco Medugno has recently obtained his PhD in English literature from Newcastle University, with a comparative project on Somali diasporic authors writing in English and Italian. He is currently teaching Fictions of Migration at NCL and working on a project about the reception of Dante in the African Anglophone literary context.]

Decolonial? Postcolonial? What does it mean to ‘decolonise ourselves’?

By Michael Tsang

I wish to use the first post of this blog series to offer some preliminary thoughts on the terminologies of the ‘decolonial’ (and ‘postcolonial’), in order to get the sharing and conversation started. As I will explain below, sharing, after all, lies at the heart of the project of decolonisation for me. If we need to decolonise ourselves, we cannot do so by keeping our thoughts in our mind; we need to say them out loud and start conversations based on them.

My involvement in the ‘decolonial’ is also informed by my role as a member of Newcastle University’s Postcolonial Research Group. As a sharp-eyed reader would notice, however, the word choice here is ‘postcolonial’. An important starting point for me, then, is to clarify the meanings of ‘the decolonial’ and ‘the postcolonial’, and to understand what convergences and divergences there are between these two terms. The following will be my current reflections on these questions: What does it mean to ‘decolonise ourselves’ in the current context and how can existing theories help us understand this movement better?

The postcolonial

At the outset, the difference between ‘postcolonial’ and ‘decolonial’ is one about academic discipline. As the South African postcolonial scholar Benita Parry (2004) insists, ‘postcolonial studies’ was first called ‘colonial discourse analysis’ and had its roots in the late 1970s, particularly with the publication of the Palestinian-American critic Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism (1978). The name ‘colonial discourse analysis’ shows clearly that postcolonial studies was first and foremost an analysis of discourse. Hence, the subsequent attention of the field has focused on the study of the political, economic, social, cultural, and historical impact of European colonialism as registered through texts such as literature. Postcolonial research often focuses on experiences in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, and notable critics in addition to Said and Parry include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and others.

Through years of research and self-reflection, postcolonial scholars have identified that even after independence, structures of dominance and exploitation are often perpetuated by the new native elites. It is in this light that, since the 1990s, the prefix ‘post’ in ‘post(-)colonialism’ is understood not as a temporal marker for a clear-cut transition after independence, but as a marker of relationship that registers the ongoing effect of colonialism on a former colony (see Shohat 1992). To express this idea, postcolonial scholars have collapsed the hyphen between ‘post’ and ‘colonial’: today, the general interpretation is that the hyphenated ‘post-colonial’ specifically denotes the time period after a colony has gained independence, but the unhyphenated ‘postcolonial’ refers to a complex understanding of the post-independence period as being continuously constituted and affected by structures and institutions imposed during the colonial era.

The decolonial

Decolonial thoughts may come from a different disciplinary tradition and have a different geographical focus, but coincidentally, many ideas in the decolonial school echo those in the postcolonial stream. The Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano is said to have come up with the concept of the ‘coloniality of power’, having studied Latin America extensively since the 1970s. Quijano’s thoughts later came to be circulated in Anglophone academia thanks to his work being translated into English (see e.g. Quijano 2000) and taken up by the Argentine critic Walter D. Mignolo.      

Cover of On Decoloniality

One key understanding of the ‘decolonial’ is that decolonisation does not equal decoloniality. As Mignolo puts it, decolonisation was a project in the second half of the 20th century for native people in regions of Asia, Africa, and South America to take back control of the state. This project was half a success and half a failure, because they also found that native elites who replaced the colonisers still clung on to and perpetuated the exact same structures of privilege and institutions of exploitation. In comes decoloniality, which seeks to understand the close-knit relationship between the colonial condition and the imposition of a Western logic of ‘modernity’ as a consequence of colonialism. Hence, ‘decoloniality’ is not so much a political project than it is an epistemological one: to ‘delink’ ourselves from the structure of knowledge imposed by the West, and then to ‘reconstitute’ our ways of thinking, speaking, and living. We may be tempted to think that, being a sociologist, Quijano’s ideas were more suited to social science research, but Mignolo and many scholars have tried applying the decolonial to literary research on Latin and South Americas. The gist, as Walter Mignolo writes in On Decoloniality, is to understand decoloniality as a ‘praxis’ of ‘undoing and redoing’ (Walsh and Mignolo 2018, p. 120).

The postcolonial and the decolonial

One text that discusses the conceptual interaction between the postcolonial and the decolonial is the sociologist Gurminder Bhambra’s essay, ‘Postcolonial and Decolonial Dialogues’ (2014). Bhambra points out that both the postcolonial and the decolonial are concerned with the troubling notion of ‘modernity’, or, to be precise, with the way the West imposed a ‘universal’ model of ‘modernity’ on other parts of the world through imperial invasion and colonial governance.  

Although there are minute differences between these two words, a more productive understanding of these differences is to see them as different perspectives that could be used as tools to facilitate our analyses. While it may be the case that you are more familiar with one theory than the other depending on the discipline and context you study, there is no reason to propose that either is superior to the other. Instead, it will be helpful to realise that both theoretical strands have evolved over a long period of self-reflection and constructive debates among scholars. Unfortunate it is, then, that in an interview a few years ago Walter Mignolo was still seeing the ‘postcolonial’ as a purely temporal category when he says ‘what comes after X has to be conceptualised as post-X’ – much postcolonial research has long argued against a facile temporal understanding of the prefix. The lesson to take away here is that whichever theoretical school one is trained in, it is always more fruitful to learn from the rich debates in different fields and to discover common ground to work on, rather than to make assumptions about each other that may eventually cause divergences.

To de-colon-ise

But if postcolonial and decolonial theories have already been in development for decades, why are we still talking about the project of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ today? In what ways are these theories relevant to the current context in which we talk about ‘decolonising’?

Linguistically, whether the word is postcolonialism, decolonisation, or modernity, it is always the noun that was used to name these theoretical or conceptual strands. The word we are using now, however, is a verb form that suggests action – ‘decolonise/decolonising’ – highlighted both by the prefix ‘de-’ and the verb suffix ‘-ise’. Informed by these morphological features, we ought to notice also that this time we are not only focusing on decolonising the colonies, but we are also decolonsing ‘ourselves’ as students, researchers, and teachers based in higher education institutions in the former colonial empire of the UK, the US, or Euro-America (the West) for that matter. This entails a critical questioning of the very power relations in which we are embedded and the often privileged positions from which we are able to speak. Specifically, I propose three main guiding actions for the project of decolonising ourselves: to act, to reflect, to learn. Three happenings last year in 2020 can illustrate what I mean.

To act: The first is the outrageous killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which sparked mass protests against police brutality and racism in the United States. These protests, which can be seen as part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement going on since 2013, underline the ever-important need to speak up against unjust and unequal treatments we see in society. These inequalities are not limited to race, but also to social class and mobility, gender and sexuality, and language and culture, because these issues always intersect each other. Nothing will change if we don’t act or speak up.   

Statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford
source: Wikimedia Commons

To reflect: The proposal from Oxford University’s Oriel College to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in June 2020 has caused much controversy. In fact, it was part of a larger wave of campaigns to remove statues of historical figures like Rhodes who had supported or were involved in slavery, racism, and colonialism. It also tied in to an earlier ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement in South Africa in 2015 to remove another Rhodes statue in the University of Cape Town. While voices opposing the removal argue that figures like Rhodes had made substantial contribution to Britain and that removing statues means ‘hiding’ history, Oriel College’s statement on the matter clearly shows that the proposal was the result of ‘a thoughtful period of debate and reflection’ demonstrating ‘the college’s 21st Century commitment to diversity’. Far from ‘hiding’ history, the removal of the statue – which is commemorative by nature – was an acknowledgement of how our intellectual understanding has evolved and improved from flawed perceptions of racial superiority in previous centuries. This is a clear example of how reflecting on our own histories and current positionings could yield productive actions that better demonstrate a commitment to values we cherish, such as equality, diversity, inclusivity, and social justice.

To learn: Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, many Asian people living in the West have been discriminated against, often facing physical assaults for being lumped together as ‘Chinese’ due to the racist nickname given to Covid as the ‘Chinese virus’, or for wearing face masks long before Western governments and medical institutions conceded to including face coverings in their coronavirus strategies. The ‘maskophobia’, as it has come to be called, reveals the West’s haughtiness in refusing to learn from existing knowledge and previous experiences that East Asian regions have consolidated after facing the SARS coronavirus epidemic in 2003. In the era of fake news and conspiracy theories, doctors have even had to debunk unscientific myths about oxygen deprivation from face masks. Judging from the success stories of controlling the pandemic in high-density Asian places like Taiwan and Japan, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to learn from and about each other.

In the span of a single year, we witness three happenings – the death of George Floyd, the removal of the Rhodes Statue, and maskphobia against Asians amidst Covid – that together reflect the urgency to decolonise ourselves. The point of decolonising for me is to never see them as isolated incidents that happened in a vacuum or only concern some of us. Instead, it is imperative to understand them as reflective of the way all our histories (histories of colonisation, gender oppression, social class exploitation, etc.) are yoked together and affect each other in the present moment. The important thing to do is to build solidarities and communicate with each other as much and as truthfully as possible, because as Asian American Studies scholar Jennifer Ho (2020) says powerfully: ‘anti-racism requires all of us to be in this together’.


Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2014) Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues. Postcolonial Studies 17 (2), pp. 115–121.

Ho, Jennifer. (2020) Anti-Asian racism, Black Lives Matter, and COVID-19. Japan Forum, 33 (1), pp. 148–159. doi: 10.1080/09555803.2020.1821749.

Parry, Benita. (2004) The institutionalization of postcolonial studies. In: Neil Lazarus, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 66–80.

Quijano, Aníbal. (2000) Coloniality of power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South, 1 (3), pp. 533–580.

Shohat, Ella. (1992) Notes on the ‘post-colonial’. Social Text, 31/32, pp. 99–113.

Walsh, Catherine E., and Walter D. Mignolo. (2018) On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[Michael Tsang is Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow based in the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University, working on a project on 20th-century book circulation between the West and East Asia (China/Japan). He is an administrator of this blog.]