Beyond Mogadishu: Shirin Ramzanali Fazel on Migration, Languages, and Reclaiming Her Voice

Interview by: Eliana Trinaistic, Social Impact Manager

Shirin Ramzanali Fazel (1953) is an Italian writer of Somali and Pakistani origin, one of the pioneers of the movement known as Italian Migration Literature (letteratura italiana della migrazione), whose writings have been studied both in Italy and abroad. She was born in Mogadishu at the time of prosperity, tolerance and peaceful living amongst nations, including Somalis, Arabs, Sikhs and Chinese. In 1971, with her husband and young child, she had to leave her country for Novara, Italy, joining the first wave of Somali refugees. Over the years, Shirin moved across different continents, but always kept her home in Italy. She currently lives in Birmingham, UK.

Her first novel Far from Mogadishu (Lontano da Mogadiscio, Roma, Datanews, 1994) is considered a milestone of Italian postcolonial literature and it describes her experience of migration to Italy and the effects of Italian colonialism in her native country. It was revisited in 2013 to be expanded in both Italian and English, translated by the author.

Shirin’s second novel Clouds over the Equator (Nuvole sull’Equatore, Cuneo, Nerosubianco, 2010), deals with the issue of meticciato and race discrimination, a crude legacy of the Italian colonial government. She has also published a number of short stories and poems in various anthologies and magazines. In 2017, Shirin published a book of poetry entitled Wings: Poems.

Shirin was part of the advisory board of the project ‘Transnationalizing Modern Languages’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (http://www.transnationalmodernlanguages.ac.uk/) and has led various creative workshops in the U.K. and in Namibia.

With an expected publication for 2019, Shirin has contributed a short story titled The Guest to the anthology “Fictional and Critical Stories in Transmigrations through Italy,” a co-edited volume with Graziella Parati and Ron Kubati.

In 2020 the book Scrivere di Islam. Raccontare la diaspora (Writing About Islam. Telling of the Diaspora) will be published with the Ca’ Foscari Editions – Venice. We connected with Shirin at the Memories of Mogadishu Conference, for which MCIS Language Solutions was a sponsor. There we got the opportunity to discuss translation, immigration and how languages influence creative processes.

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We are going to start this conversation with something a little obvious, but we need to know, how did you become a translator?

I am not a professional translator, meaning I do not have official translator training.  Translation came out of the necessity of reclaiming my voice rather than a professional choice. I lived in Italy, then the U.K., and I realized that living somewhere where all voices speak English, nobody, including Somali diaspora, will find out about my work unless it is translated.

Initially, I was not confident about translating [my work] myself at all, but the cost of translation was prohibitive, so I decided to do it by myself. It was also a way for me to survive, adapt and eventually test my voice within a new context. Being the author and self-translating my own work gave me the freedom to write almost a new text. The first edition of my book was published in Italian in 1994. The second edition that came out in 2013 was in English, but as I was translating, I was also adding new materials so I had a few new chapters written in English only. And then I also had to translate those back to Italian.

How is it different to write in Somali and Italian versus writing in English?

First of all, the Somali that I learned as a child was still a largely oral language. Certainly, the Somali language was not written. The official Somali Latin alphabet used today was adopted in 1972, at a time when I had already left the country. In that sense, my primary written language and the language of my books is Italian. However, my childhood memories are “stored” in the Somali language, so I often use Somali words to capture the richness and texture, and Italian words to keep flavor. I used footnotes in my first edition of Lontano da Mogadiscio, but nowadays this is not common, so I enclosed explanations, sometimes entire sentences, brackets next to the word from a different language I needed to use.

Writing in English was a different story. At the beginning, as many just starting with English know, English could feel a bit “technical.”  It took some time for me to discover the richness of the culture and beauty of the English language. I learned about its depth first when I started to translate my work which eventually led me to write poems in English.

However, the process is never easy because one language almost never translates directly into another. For example, my poem Wings that was originally written in English was translated into Italian as Broken Wings (Ali Spezzate), and I was, in fact, asked by students and translators why I changed it. The only reason was that in Italian I needed to express the feeling of being broken, while yearning for freedom, while in English the noun wings itself felt sufficient to convey this meaning.

What else changed since you have been spending more time outside of Italy?

Well, the political situation has definitely changed since the 1970s when we first arrived in Italy. Over the last decade especially, we have been seeing more animosity in the media, creating animosity amongst the people. The migrants started arriving to Italy in much larger numbers in the 1980’s and their reasons largely involved the pursuit of jobs that Italians did not want or did not need to do. At that time, in the 70s especially, but also in the 80s, there was still curiosity about people dressed differently and speaking different languages. It was also the time when talented journalists were working in the media, building narratives that were positive and supportive of curiosity, exploring the invisibility of immigrants. This all changed, save for the invisibility of immigrants – that remained exactly the same.

In Italy, we have a second and third generation of immigrants now who are still without citizenship and status, without passports. Curiosity and civilized language in the media are almost extinct, so the narrative has changed immensely. Bullying and abusive language in the media permits bullying and abusive actions on the streets. And one thing that nobody wants to talk about is that when you cut funds to non-profits and NGOs working with immigrants, in any country, local jobs are lost too. There are many people, a disproportionate number of young people, working in those non-profits and NGOs helping newcomers’ communities, and it is them whose livelihoods will be affected by budget cuts and the language of right-wing ideologies. Historically, Italy and Lampedusa in particular, have been on the first line in providing resources to immigration waves coming from Africa. Yet, because nobody was prepared for the volume and for the sheer number of people who arrived, we have the situation we have. It is not about the people who came. Italians were just not ready for what came. 

And your move from Italy to England, was it partially motivated by this change of sentiment toward immigrants in Italy?

No, not exactly. My primary residence is still in Italy and Italy will always be my home. What happened was that my daughter began her studies in England so she invited me to stay with her. And as I stayed longer and longer over the years there was a whole new world that opened up to me. It really helped that Birmingham is also a multicultural city and also not too big. Birmingham has structured communities and neighbourhoods, mosques, churches, and places of prayer. But you will also find very mixed neighbourhoods, and people from Ukraine, India, and Afghanistan all living next to each other…

Next to Somali-Italians?

Yes, next to Somali- Italians too.  What really changed the city for me was joining Writers Without Borders. This is a Birmingham-based group of writers coming from different cultural backgrounds. We meet regularly and creative alliances, and friendships form. Another thing I have been invited to is the biannual Translation Festival with the University of Exeter, which is held at the Exeter Library, Exeter Phoenix and Royal Albert Memorial Museum. It is supposed to take place in September of this year. I do not believe they have details posted on their website just yet, but I am very interested to find out more about various linguistic communities here in Birmingham and to have an opportunity to work on some partnership projects with translation students.

Seeing your continuous ability to reinvent yourself and the work you do, what would be your message to aspiring immigrant writers?

If we are scared to fail, we will never start. The only sure way not to make mistakes is not to start.

But if I could, I would encourage you to start to speak and write and also be amongst the people who speak the language you are learning, because they understand the music of the language you are just learning. When you spend more time with people, especially when you open your work and become vulnerable, if you read it aloud, of course people might correct some details of your music and rhythm but only because they care for it. This is their music too and this is how, in return, you will create better music while bonding with people, art and language. One thing I am sure of is that you should not be alone with your process.

For example, when I joined Writers without Borders, I volunteered to do public readings and I was very scared at first, but after a while, the fears were gone, Instead I was left with this sense of bonding as well as knowledge of communities I knew nothing about before.

This is where we get encouragement from – bonding with people who help us to keep the music of languages flow.

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