Jennifer Burns. Migrant Imaginaries: Figures in Italian Migration Literature. Italian Modernities Series. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013. 220 pp. $56.95 (paper), ISBN 978-3-0343-0986-8.
Reviewed by Anita Pinzi
Published on H-Italy (September, 2015)
Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")
Migrants and Their Imagineries
Jennifer Burns’s Migrant Imaginaries: Figures in Italian Migration Literature is a rich analysis of a set of major literary figures articulated in narrative texts written in Italian by first-generation migrant writers. Focusing as it does on the imagological specificities of these texts, Burns’s work highlights the shaping of a figural migrant aesthetic and indicates the extent to which, through the use of the Italian language, such aesthetic conveys a new transnational quality to the very body of Italian literature.
Burns takes into consideration only novels and short stories by first-generation migrants and analyzes five major literary figures, each one broadly informing a chapter. This separation is declared to be functional to the clarity of the analysis, but the reader is guided through the interconnections of all figures in the literary texts. Each chapter is theoretically anchored to major voices in the critical fields of postcolonialism, postmodernism, and gender studies, through the lens of which an ethnically transversal portion of migrant literature is analyzed, with the intent of offering possible modes of reading it.
The first chapter, “Identity,” focuses on the construction and continuous negotiation of migrant identities at the intersection of physical, cultural, and linguistic dislocations. Drawing from Michel de Certeau, Sara Ahmed, and Homi Bhabha, among others, Burns remarks on a constant tension between sameness and otherness that is embedded in the endless transformation of migrants’ identities. Identity mostly relies on the act of recognizing the world and being recognized by others.
The second chapter, “Memory,” analyzes the narrative tensions between the act of remembering the past by bringing it into the present and the desire to forget a past that has been difficult. Nostalgia, trauma, and oral modality are some of the elements at play in the process of writing migrant memories, and the pivots of a specific and exclusive selection of events to bring from the past into the present life of the migrant self.
The third chapter, “Home,” articulates the concept of home in terms of an imagined and instable reality. Drawing from Certeau, Burns states that the concept of home is a construction based on affective, cultural and political memories; home is the invention of an origin that serves to compensate the sense of lack and loss experienced by the migrants in their displacement. Drawing from Ahmed, home is also an instable concept, as it is constantly renegotiated through the experience of the present and through the desire to be elsewhere.
The fourth chapter addresses the images of “place and space.” In opposition to the image of home, which is linked to the country and culture of origin, this chapter moves the discussion toward the migrants’ experience of Italian landscapes and cities. Burns draws a distinction between the terms “place” and “space,” the first referring to an identified and named location and the second indicating the experience of spatiality and movement across an indeterminate area. On the footprints of Marc Augè’s theorization of postmodern non-places, Burns underlines how migrant narrative privileges the rendition of places of passage and anonymity, such as stations, parks, and streets. Walking through these spaces without a defined itinerary underlines the migrants’ constructive attitude to use the new urban space to satisfy their aspirations.
The fifth and final chapter, “Literature,” analyzes the act of writing and reading literature both as a vital theme in migrant literature and as a part of cultural production in the larger panorama of Italian literature. Burns states that coming to writing is portrayed as a way to escape oppression and enter a space of voice, while also serving as a way to reknit historical accounts from marginal or overthrowing perspectives. When it comes to language, migrant texts operate a multiple decentralization of Italian, through interlinguistic interferences and through practices of intercultural accommodations necessary to the readers.
Burns’s text accomplishes the objective of formulating a set of transversal questions and indicating possible interdisciplinary and transnational approaches for the understanding of this set of Italian migrant texts. The analysis of the relevance and recurrence of narrative figures, their circulation across borders, and the displacement of Italian language and literature out of the national borders of the nation-state are the privileged indicators of a creative process that makes Italian literature a transnational expression. Burns’s text powerfully registers the formation of a literary world that is channeled by the Italian language and that becomes part of the Italian literature while making it a transnational entity.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-italy.
Anita Pinzi. Review of Burns, Jennifer, Migrant Imaginaries: Figures in Italian Migration Literature.
H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.
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