Sunday, May 26, 2013

A conversation with Professor Clarissa Clò

                                           Part I

 Issayas:  Would you briefly tell us about yourself?

My name is Clarissa Clò and I am an Associate Professor and Director of the Italian Program in the Department of European Studies at San Diego State University. I specialize in Italian Cultural Studies and my research interests include feminist and queer theory, migration and postcolonial studies, film, music and popular culture. I have written on The Battle of Algiers and Lion of the Desert, Italian documentary film-making, music subcultures, circum-Atlantic performances, Italian American women writers, Mediterranean Studies, youth cultures and postcolonial literature in Italy. My work has appeared in publications in Italy and the United States, including Annali d’Italianistica, Diacritics, Diaspora, Forum Italicum, Il lettore di provincia, Italian Culture, Italica, Research in African Literatures, Studies in Documentary Film and Transformations. In addition to teaching and research, I am active in my local community. I am on the Board of Directors of the San Diego Italian Film Festival and on the Italian American Academy of San Diego. I am originally from Modena, Italy.

Issayas: Who was Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi?

Prof.Clò: Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi was the wife of Colonel Domenico dei Marchesi Pianavia Vivaldi, an Italian officer who was put in charge of the Italian contingent in Asmara in 1893. She accompanied her husband to Africa and spent three years in Eritrea, as the title of her book suggests, from 1893 to 1895. She is regarded as a “female colonialist pioneer”  (Cristina Lombardi-Diop 173).

Issayas: Why is her work important?

Prof.Clò: Her work is important because female narratives are rather scarce in Italian colonial literature so her book represents quite an exception to this rule and provides us with a rare opportunity to access the colonial world the point of view of a female colonialist. Whereas she still had quite a few limitations and restrictions as a woman in terms of freedom of access to public discourse and public spaces, she was still able to enter private spaces inhabited primarily by women that men would not have been able to navigate.

Issayas: What is the significance of her book : Tre Anni in Eritrea in Italian (colonial) literature?

Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi's book: Tre anni in Eritrea

Prof.Clò: It is important to note that Tre Anni in Eritrea was not just a colonial diary, so to speak, but also contained a collection of photographs taken by the author herself during her stay in the colony. The volume is therefore quite a “document” on so many levels. Before publishing it in 1901 with a popular Italian editor at the time (Cogliati), excerpts of her diary appeared in one of the most important periodicals of the time L”illustrazione Italiana.

I’d like to remark that Italian colonial literature, like today’s Italian migrant literature, was not really considered an important component of Italian literature in general and has only recently become the focus of research in Italian Studies. Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi’s book has attracted the attention of a few scholars in the field precisely because of its unique but rich status (Lombardi-Diop, Polezzi).

The way I and other scholars discuss Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi’s work is in terms of the opportunities that relocating to Africa afforded the author, who otherwise as a woman, albeit a privileged one, would have been subjected to much more social control and restriction in Italy. In the book the author is certainly romanticizing Africa, but she is explicit about the possibilities that living in the continent opened up for her. As a woman she inhabited an ambivalent position. She was the “patriot mother of the nation” as Cristina Lombardi-Diop has defined her (174) and the champion of colonial enterprises like her philanthropic work. The nationalistic rhetoric prevalent at the time is undoubtedly present in her diary. As the wife of a colonel she followed her husband to Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, when the European “scramble for Africa” was in full bloom and the project of Italian nation–building was under way. Under these historical circumstances one would hardly expect Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi to exhibit a different ideological position. In this sense, as Loredana Polezzi has argued, this text is “symptomatic” of its time (195).

Yet, at the same time, passages of her book voice a certain criticism of the work of Italian authorities. For all her patriotism, Vivaldi betrays her doubts about the success of the Italian colonial venture and, after the failure to establish a permanent settlement for Italian emigrants, she hints at the responsibilities of the Italian institutions in this matter.

So, on the one hand, through her writing she appropriates the colonial genre that was until then a masculine one, and offers us quite a rich array of subjects and topics. For instance, Tre anni in Eritrea includes notes on botany, geography, history, politics, jurisprudence, and economics that make the author figure as a scribe and an organizer of colonial knowledge.

On the other hand, her position as a woman, and therefore as a person without full citizenship and enfranchisement at home allows her to observe and criticize institutional flaws in the colony that she would not have had a chance to voice in Italy. This is a contradictory position she is living in.

Thus I approach Pianavia Vivaldi’s travel narrative as a colonial text both typical and exceptional, written by a privileged Italian (white) woman that both reinforces and undermines dominant ideological discourses and attitudes toward Italian culture. The tensions produced in her text can, indeed, derive from the very gender of the author. Collecting information and knowledge about the new colony, and thus acting as a surrogate for colonial state power (Lombardi-Diop 173),is also a way for Pianavia Vivaldi to legitimize her authorship and her appropriation of an official masculine role (Lombardi-Diop 179) that would have been precluded to her in Italy.

Issayas:  Raymond Jonas in his book The Battle of Adwa mentions that Rosalia (according to her) was fascinated by Bahta Hagos and he in turn was infatuated with her. Is there any mention of this in her book? Would you expand on it?

Degiat (title) Bahta Hagos (Agos)

Prof.Clò: In Tre Anni in Eritrea Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi dedicates one chapter specifically to Batha Agos (Hagos). Although her language approximates what Jonas discusses in his book and in fact mutual infatuation, almost admiration, is probably the correct way to describe their relationship, the chapter is framed around Batha Agos’ betrayal of the Italians. The chapter is rather detailed. Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi recounts the political biography of Batha Agos, his insufferance with local despotic lords, his decision to side with the Italians and his supposed reasons for turning his back on them. In her telling, she displays knowledge of politics, policies and economy. She tells that Batha Agos lied to his people when he implied that his revolt was meant to benefit them and not himself. She also mentions that Batha Agos died in combat, although he did not deserve it (243). It is not clear if she meant that he did not deserve to die or that he did not deserve such an honorable death. Regardless, she also states that she was relieved that his death did not provoke a vindictive reaction on the part of the natives.

Next, part two.