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Nonfiction The Upper New Review

Not Nigerian Enough, Not Italian Enough: A Place of My Own

Aminat Emma Badmus

There was a time when I struggled to find a place of my own, to experience a sense of belonging. Growing up in Italy as one of the few black kids who were born in the 1990s, I always felt that I belonged nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

I remember how badly I wanted to have a friend who was Black, actually, not just Black. I wanted to have someone who was similar to me, who was born as a Black Nigerian- Italian. Someone with whom I could speak Italian and Nigerian pidgin English, switching from one code to another without being seen as an unusual mode through which to interact.

I can still recall how my parents used to laugh at me and my siblings, especially when we were younger, because we mixed both Italian and Naija. Interestingly, for me and my siblings, blending two languages was not something out of the ordinary for us, as it simply mirrored who we were. Both languages gave expression to our plural identity and sense of belonging. For my mother and dad, it was easier. They were born and raised in Nigeria. They could fluently speak their indigenous languages and Nigerian English. If someone might have asked them who they were, they would have simply responded: “Which kind of foolish question na dis? I be Nigerian na!”

How could I and my siblings describe how we felt when we didn’t even know the words to voice our sense of unbelonging?

Do you understand what it meant at the time to grow up caught in-between two world- views, in-between two languages, in-between two cultures, in-between two countries?

I just longed to belong, to be part of something, to feel completely whole…

Instead, I was left with this feeling. A sensation that I was unable to truly comprehend or articulate as a child.

“Negri!” I can still clearly recall the first time I heard such term. I was eight years old; it has been a year since I returned from Nigeria after spending two years there with my brother and sister. My siblings and I were finally beginning to grapple with the Italian language and a world that was whiter than what we were used to seeing in the last few years. It was funny at that time because my mother, who has been living in Italy since the 1990s, tried to teach me and my siblings how to speak Italian. I can still remember the distorted Italian she taught us. The first thing she insisted on was that we should learn how to say ‘What is your name’. For her, it was important that we developed new bonds and that we blended in with our peers at the new school we were to begin attending. So she taught us, in her own way of speaking the Italian language, how to ask for someone’s name by slowly uttering the words ‘Come ti giami tu?’. My siblings and I chorally repeated what she said, unaware of the fact that we were speaking a sporco italiano. An Italian language that, if we didn’t unlearn it, would have definitely left us in an undefined space as forever outsiders in Italy. An Italian through which doors of economic and social prestige could have been closed to us. An Italian language that would have encouraged white Italians to feel entitled to feel superior and treat us as if we were an ignorant mass of people who could not coherently put two grammatical worlds together. Fortunately, my brother, sister, and I were younger than my parents, so our minds were open to soaking up everything that we came across. We learned fast.

Yet despite the fact that we managed to blend in and move towards a space that was more Italian than Nigerian, still we were the ‘piccoli morettini’ or ‘negretti’. Forever marked by a blackness that could not be concealed. We were and are still insiders and outsiders at the same time, neither too Nigerian nor too Italian. Nothing, however, like the world ‘negro’ can shake off any doubts one might have about being fully Italian.

“Negri!” one old woman shouted to me and my brother while we walked back home from school. She looked like any other common elderly person you could meet at the supermarket or at the doctor’s office. At first, we couldn’t really comprehend what those five letters meant or the weight they carried. The history behind them. We simply left and continued our walk towards home. However, as we were about to discover, that will not be the last time we will hear the word negra/o. Those five letters will be used by those who want to attack us verbally and psychologically as a means to draw a demarcation line between the imaginary and perhaps not actually existent space within which the ‘real’ Italians find themselves and the other space, where all the rest of us are situated. A space of invisibility, a space in which everybody, both black Africans, Indians, and Chinese, is envisioned as an amalgam. Stripped out of one’s individual identity. Simply viewed as a parasite, as an immigrant who arrives in the Italian territory and threatens national unity.

Can you imagine how it felt at the time? From one day to another, after living in Nigeria for two years, we were catapulted into a world that was so white. The whiteness was such that, if one was not careful enough, it could blind you. It could absorb you and threaten to erase part of your blackness, making it lighter, making it less Nigerian.

Now you can imagine why, growing up, I longed for a friend who could truly understand me – a black Nigerian-Italian friend who shared my experiences and struggles. I yearned for someone who could empathise with the internal conflict of not knowing exactly where I belonged. I craved companionship with someone who could offer a comforting hand and reassure me that it was normal to feel this way and that you didn’t necessarily have to choose where to belong and be part of that mechanism through which people are often categorised based on national identity, race and citizenship status. Sometimes, rather than unity, national identities and spaces tend to create divisions by enacting intangible distinctions between “us” and “them”, between “insiders” and “outsiders”, between “white” and “black”, between “citizens” and “foreigners”.

As individuals, we both hold the power to shape our own destiny. We can either allow ourselves to be defined by societal labels and stereotypes, such as the five letters comprising the word ‘Negra’ or rise above them and create a new path for ourselves. It is possible to take ownership of our heritage and embrace our cultural roots while establishing a sense of belonging in spaces that transcend national borders and defy rigid notions of socio-cultural identity. Inhabiting what Homi Bhabha refers to as a liminal space or “in-between designations of identity” might thus potentially “open[…] up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (Bhabha 1994, 5)1Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge..

From such a perspective, no culture or world-view of a given society is viewed as being superior to another. As a matter of fact, several scholarly studies have demonstrated how identity is actually a social construct (Sheffer 2013;2Sheffer, Gabriel. 2003. Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sarmistha 2019)3Sarmistha, Uma. 2019 Transnational Immigrants: Redefining Identity and Citizenship. Gainesville: Springer.. As such, individuals who identify as part of a given nation are the ones to determine those who are included or excluded as members of a community. In this regard, intellectuals such as Stuart Hall have written extensively and contributed significantly to articulating the sense of fragmentation and alienation experienced by those who migrate, either due to their own decision or as a result of their parents. Hall’s works have significantly facilitated comprehension and conversations around such subjects.

At this point, one could reasonably wonder why individuals like me, who were born to immigrant parents, don’t simply choose to return to their country of origin. The answer is complicated, and I am unsure if I can adequately express my thoughts in a way that would even come close to expressing what it feels like to go through such an experience.

Nigeria, to me, is a symbol of the essential components of life – nature, warmth, and spirituality – and it is an integral part of who I am, enabling me to view the world from a unique angle. Nigeria, and above all, the plethora of female writers who have elevated the country’s creative output on a global scale, have been instrumental in creating a space, opening a virtual window that allows me to peek in and get a sense of what life is like there. Books by Nigerian authors have enabled me to no longer feel out of place. I now know that many people go through what I am feeling and this has made me more familiar with the sense of estrangement perpetually experienced both with native Nigerians and Italians

In contrast, Italy is my country of birth and embodies different values, including rationality, nature, vitality, and whiteness. As a European country, Italy has its advantages, including access to certain rights and privileges that come with citizenship and a passport. However, despite being born in Italy, obtaining these documents was a long and arduous process that took me 18 years due to the Italian law that is based on the jus sanguinis4jus sanguinis is a Latin term for “right by blood” and is synonymous “by descent”. More specifically, those with Italian ancestors have the right to claim Italian citizenship by descent. For more information on such issues, visit the following website: https://www.italiandualcitizenship.net/italian-citizenship-by-descent/ juridical system. As such, I understand the stress and frustration that can come with not having these documents. Making the decision to return to Nigeria would mean leaving behind these privileges, which can be challenging.

In addition, I strongly believe that even if I were to return to Nigeria, I would not feel a sense of belonging there either, as I am a constant stranger, wedged in a liminal space where the boundaries between states and nations are obliterated. Throughout my life, I have developed the ability to navigate between boundaries and even bend them. Initially, being situated in this space of in-betweenness made me feel uncomfortable, but over the past few years, I have come to appreciate the potentiality and empowering force of the location I hold.

Definitely, literature has played a significant role in helping me navigate the different cultural spaces I occupy, as Aminat to Nigerians and Emma to Italians. Especially, when interacting with people in different cultural spaces, I have learnt to adapt my behaviour according to whom I am interacting with. For instance, I remember initially struggling to choose which name I should pronounce first when people used to ask me in Italian: “Come preferisci essere chiamata? Aminat o Emma?” or in pidgin English: “Wetin be yo name? Na Aminat or Emma?”. Now I simply reply that they can choose to call me by whatever name they prefer because, in reality, I am both.

​​Over the past few years, I have come to embrace my dual identities, value the distinct viewpoints each cultural space offers me, and make use of my empowered position. Even if this means diverging from the monolithic and monocultural notion of identity, I am choosing to reclaim the liminal space I inhabit. I am choosing to be the symbol of a bridge that incorporates and unifies multiple ideas of nationhood within myself, along with the cultural and linguistic richness that characterises Nigeria and Italy. And, for the first time, I am ready to share it with the world.

Footnotes

  • 1
    Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.
  • 2
    Sheffer, Gabriel. 2003. Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 3
    Sarmistha, Uma. 2019 Transnational Immigrants: Redefining Identity and Citizenship. Gainesville: Springer.
  • 4
    jus sanguinis is a Latin term for “right by blood” and is synonymous “by descent”. More specifically, those with Italian ancestors have the right to claim Italian citizenship by descent. For more information on such issues, visit the following website: https://www.italiandualcitizenship.net/italian-citizenship-by-descent/

About the Author

Aminat Emma Badmus

Aminat Emma Badmus was born to Nigerian parents in Verona, Italy, in 1993. She pursued her academic studies in Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Verona. A passionate reader and journal-keeper, Aminat Emma’s interest in literature and its study led her to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Her current research focus is on contemporary Nigerian women writers, approached through the lenses of transnationalism, feminism, and stylistic analysis.

By The Upper New Review

The Upper New Review is an environmental literary arts magazine based in the Upper New River basin, which intersects the states of North Carolina and Virginia in the United States of America in present-day North America. We are seeking out place-based creative works from all over the globe.