by Igiaba Scego
translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards
New Vessel Press, 171 pages
reviewed by Jodi Monster
The title character of Igiaba Scego’s novel Adua is a Somali woman caught in history’s crosshairs. Born to an ambitious, mercurial man, a translator who sold his skills to the Italians during Mussolini’s pre-WWII push to expand his African empire, Adua’s life is shaped by choices she didn’t make and subject to forces she can’t control.
Scego, an accomplished writer and journalist who reports regularly on post-colonial migrant experiences, wants to shine a bright light on these forces. Born in Italy to Somali parents, her father having been ousted from his government post by Siad Barre’s 1969 coup, Scego has more than an academic interest in the relationship between these two countries, and in the aftereffects of Italy’s imperial violence in East Africa.
Born in Italy to Somali parents, her father having been ousted from his government post by Siad Barre’s 1969 coup, Scego has more than an academic interest in the relationship between these two countries, and in the aftereffects of Italy’s imperial violence in East Africa.
In the atmospheric novel she’s crafted, the circumstances of Adua’s early life are not entirely clear. Her mother died in childbirth and, for reasons the novel doesn’t explain, her youngest years were spent in the care of a nomadic couple she loved. She was terrified on the day her biological father, Mohamed Ali Zoppe, arrived to reclaim her, and she was heartbroken to leave the bush and the innocent joys she’d known there. “[It] was the end of a life, an ominous change in destiny,” Adua says when Zoppe takes her and her younger sister to his home in Magalo, a provincial city where he lives with his new wife. Here Zoppe sets his daughters at the mercy of his adolescent bride, “a girl with braids and her first period,” giving her broad authority to destroy the quality of two younger girls’ lives.
Separated from the only family she’d ever known, ill at ease in an unfamiliar city, and because of her father’s political affiliations, something of an outcast at school, Adua finds herself fearful and alone. But there’s a movie theater in town, and soon the dreams offered up by the old movies shown there replace Adua’s fantasies of a return to her beloved bush. “I wanted to dream, dance, fly. I wanted to escape… Italy was kisses… Italy was freedom. And so I hoped it would become my future,” she says, bewitched by glamor and the tantalizing hope of romance.
Several years later, after her father is arrested and the few friends she’s managed to find desert her, Adua’s a sitting duck for the black market trader who promises to make her a star. She follows her naive dreams to Rome where she’s exploited before she’s tossed aside, left with only a Bernini statue in the Piazza della Minerva to listen as she counts her regrets.
“No one had ever told us colonialism was the problem. Even those who knew the truth said nothing,” Adua laments in a line that lays bare her situation, because it’s not just colonialism that has hijacked her life. She’s also up against racism, misogyny, and the intimate savagery of a father who’s unable to make peace with his own failures and misdeeds, and the extent to which he, too, has been the victim of colonialism’s brutal constraints. “Maybe I owe you an apology. But I can’t. I don’t know how to use certain words,” Adua imagines her father might say, because in as much as she’s been tortured by his shameful silence, she suspects that he has been too. Left unspoken is the idea that while an examination of the past would not wipe it away, an understanding of it might prevent its repeat; and this, in the end, is the hopeful call of this novel, the spirit that animates its every page.
Left unspoken is the idea that while an examination of the past would not wipe it away, an understanding of it might prevent its repeat; and this, in the end, is the hopeful call of this novel, the spirit that animates its every page.
It’s also the spirit that nearly undoes it, however, because Adua can sometimes read more like a catalogue of trials than a rich, well-told story of an ordinary woman’s extraordinary life. This is true right up until the end, when after many solitary years in Rome, Adua takes a husband, a much younger refugee displaced by the latest round of fighting in Somalia’s seemingly endless civil war. This union is not about love, however; rather it’s about rescue, for both of them, from loneliness and desperation. It’s also about the author’s desire to explore the power dynamics within migrant communities, wherein more established members will sometimes distance themselves from new arrivals, compounding their dislocation.
By novel’s end, when the fighting in Somalia subsides and Adua learns that her father has died, having left her his house, for the first time she contemplates a return to her homeland. And this, finally, is the moment she’s been waiting for—the chance to choose for herself the course her life will take.
Jodi Monster is an aspiring novelist and founding member of Our Writers’ Circle, a thriving and diverse community of emerging authors. She lived and raised children in The Netherlands, Texas, and Singapore before returning to suburban Philadelphia, where she currently lives.