Reviewed by John J. Kinder (University of Western Australia)
Published on H-Italy (April, 2019)
Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")
Francesco Ricatti’s slim volume on Italians in Australia is a groundbreaking study that will shape the future directions of research into Italians and Italian language and culture in Australia for the next generation of scholars. The originality of the volume derives not from original archival discoveries but from the theoretical approaches Ricatti brings to his subject and from the conceptual and historical context in which the Italian presence in Australia is located.
A decade ago, studies of Italian migration to Australia began to take seriously the new paradigms emerging from migration studies in Europe and North America. Earlier histories of Italians in Australia often followed a trend evident in the earliest Italian newspapers published in Australia, in amassing evidence to justify the presence of Italians in this member state of the British Empire/Commonwealth and to celebrate their achievements in resisting discrimination to make an important contribution to building the “new Australia.”
Loretta Baldassar’s review of Gianfranco Cresciani’s revised The Italians in Australia (2003) had suggested a generational change in progress. Then reviews of the field by Susanna Iuliano and Baldassar and Matteo Pretelli marked a clear break in the historiography and hinted at new directions. In 2015 Matteo Sanfilippo set the new paradigms with an Italian perspective. Now Ricatti has comprehensively mapped out new ways of approaching the presence of Italians in Australia since 1788. Earlier scholarship is not denied or contradicted so much as reconceptualized with fresh horizons of thought and new paradigms of understanding.
Curiously, the book opens with a challenge to begin our thinking about “Italians in Australia” by reassessing what migration means, first, for the country of origin: “Italian migration history is a core aspect of Italy’s national history and is essential to understanding Italy’s lack of a strong national identity, its complex presence in the wider world, and many key features [the text says “futures” but I read this as one of an unfortunate number of typos; “social rapture” (p. 10) is surely “social rupture”!] of its fragile and contradictory relationship with modernity” (p. 1). This is the first virtue of the book: to problematize Italy’s own understanding of migration in its history. No longer can Italian historiography account for migration simply by “facing up” to the reality of mass emigration, say after Unification, and to the conditions that produced it, or by embracing the new immigrations. The economic, cultural, and linguistic contradictions that emerged in the various destinations of Italian emigration were already present in the home country. This emerges clearly in the discussion of racism and racial ambiguity in chapter 4 that moves nimbly back and forwards between the ambiguities of Italy’s own internal racial categories and the ambiguities of the new settler nation in Australia.
The theoretical framework, “Mapping Complexity: A Transcultural Approach,” is constructed in chapter 1 from a wide range of approaches. Six theoretical frames are identified: intersectionality, decoloniality, the intensity of migrant lives, orientation (which connects embodiment and emotional emplacement), the uncanny (or unhomely), and transcultural memory. These lenses converge in an axis centered on the prefixes “inter-” and “trans-,” especially “transnational” and “transcultural.” The transcultural dimension is the fundamental step in the book’s gaze on individuals, groups, cultures, and nations. The monolithic and static objects that defined the coordinates of early migration history dissolve in front of a gaze on reality that acknowledges and embraces the complexities and changing dimensions of each individual life as it is lived in networks of relationships with others, both in response to external events and forces and through the agency of response, engagement, and adaptation to changing circumstances.
Chapter 2 provides a “Historical Outline” of Italian migration to Australia. In just eight pages Ricatti condenses the essential statistical information and the primary economic, social, and political forces driving migration policy in Australia as it affected Italians. Note though that this historical summary is the second part of the chapter, preceded by an essay of similar length on the state of the art of studies on “Italian mass migration.” This is not historical background but rather paints the context within which the Australian narrative loses something of the “exceptional” character present in some traditional accounts and begins to make sense as a part of the history of Italy as well as of Australia. Established scholarship is integrated here with recent research to identify three poles of reference: migration is posited as a constant in Italian history since at least the early modern period; the internal imbalances within geographical areas of the modern Italian state are argued by Ricatti to be the fruit of the “quasi-colonial nature of Italy’s unification” (p. 19); modern Italian migration is most statistically relevant and most complex during the period between 1870 and the late 1960s (Ricatti could have cited the symbolic year of 1973, which Ugo Ascoli identified as the year in which Italy’s migratory balance became positive for the first time since Unification). This chapter will be a convenient first port of call for students beginning research projects on Italian migration to Australia.
The multifaceted model outlined in chapter 1 and the historical account of chapter 2 are then combined in a series of studies of specific aspects of the experience of Italians in Australia: “Work and Socioeconomic Mobility” (chapter 3) and “Racism and Racial Ambiguity in a Settler Colonial Context” (chapter 4). The implications of how research into these areas will look when conducted in light of the stances outlined in the general theory are worked out in detail.
These chapters establish new ontological claims and heuristic lenses. Chapter 3 reads the economic history of migrants in Australia in terms of agency, especially in terms of women’s work, inside and outside the family unit. It is argued strongly in chapter 4 that Italian migration can no longer position itself comfortably outside the colonial–Indigenous pair. While Italians certainly endured considerable discrimination and injustice based on racial hierarchies, they must accept their own role as part of the colonial system that committed great crimes against Indigenous Australians. This new understanding of the racial ambiguity of migrant groups is occurring also among other migrant groups. One recalls the powerful statements about Irish migration made by Irish president Michael Higgins during his visit to Australia in 2017.
Chapters 5 and 6 proceed to examine what are almost case studies. Noteworthy in the analysis of “Family and Generational Negotiations” (chapter 5) is the notion of agency, picked up from chapter 3, and applied to pluralistic forms of family life. Particularly interesting are the remarks on marriage by proxy, read as an eloquent example of transculturality. Chapter 6 is titled rather grandly “Transnational Ideologies and Transcultural Practices” and is less convincing, since in trying to cover language, religion, politics, and ethnic media the brief sections of the chapter (which the author acknowledges are summary at best) give only a partial and sometimes superficial account of the major research on each topic.
Ricatti’s book is courageous in applying to Italian migration theories and paradigms that have not been applied before in such a comprehensive and coherent way. The book is a first step and there is much to be worked out and worked through. For example, settler colonialism is invoked, almost in passing, in early chapters but this approach, though suggestive as a general frame of reference, is so selective in its detail and application as to make its appearance in the book unhelpful and in need of much substantiation. On certain subjects, the description falls back on clichés that suggest an unspoken bias and rob the analysis of potential bite: the phrase “devout Catholic” (p. 80) is one that is popular in the Australian press but one wonders what the adjective actually means and whether the phrase itself is anything but a put-down.
Throughout the book one hears the call for new scholarship to evaluate the long and complex history of Italians in Australia beyond the rhetoric of justification and celebration through the tropes of sacrifice and hard work, male agency and female passivity, isolation versus integration, and build a new “transcultural history of resilience, resourcefulness and creativity” (p. 135). This project is inspired as much by the desire to honor the stories of migrants and their families as it is by the need for scholars of the past to contribute to changing social and political responses to migration in present-day Australia. This slim volume has already made its presence felt. A 2018 story in the Guardian about the response to the shooting of Melbourne cafe-owner Sisto Pellegrini drew heavily on Ricatti’s analyses.
The book is published in Palgrave’s new Studies in Migration History series and follows the format of volumes in the series. Each chapter is presented as an autonomous unit, with its own DOI. Bibliographical references appear at the end of each chapter.
. Loretta Baldassar, “Transnational Times,” review of The Italians in Australia by Gianfranco Cresciani, Australian Book Review, 257 (December 2003/January 2004): 27.
. Susanna Iuliano and Loretta Baldassar, “Deprovincialising Italian Migration Studies: An Overview of Australian and Canadian Research,” FULGOR: Flinders University Languages Group Online Review 3, no. 3 (2008): 1-16; and Matteo Pretelli, “Gli italiani in Australia: lo stato dei lavori,” Studi Emigrazione 46, no. 176 (2009): 779-92.
. Matteo Sanfilippo, Nuovi problemi di storia delle migrazioni italiane (Viterbo: Sette Città, 2005).
. Ugo Ascoli, I movimenti migratori in Italia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1979), 57-60.
. Jeff Sparrow, “Australia’s history of anti-Italian racism echoes grotesquely in rhetoric about Sudanese people,” The Guardian, November 20, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/20/australias-history-of-anti-italian-racism-is-a-grotesque-echo-of-rhetoric-about-sudanese-people.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-italy.
John J. Kinder. Review of Ricatti, Francesco, Italians in Australia: History, Memory, Identity.
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