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The Creative Clamor of Igiaba Scego’s ‘Beyond Babylon’

Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Detail from a painting by Daniela Melli from a show of street art at the Palazzo Velli entitled “Exit—Migrate in the Arts,” Rome, Italy, January 2019

The epic quest that sets Beyond Babylon in motion is not for a place, or a sacred animal, or a precious object. What has been lost and must be found, what must be regained in order to set things right, is something far more elemental, also more elusive, given that it is something most people readily “see” and therefore don’t have to go looking for. The quest, in this case, is for color, and for one shade in particular: red. Zuhra, one of the novel’s two central female protagonists, has been deprived of her ability to experience, perceive, or distinguish color. Sexually molested as a child, this young Roman woman doesn’t see a red stain on her underpants when she menstruates, but a gray one. Her blood, representative of her fertility, her physiological female identity, has been visually muted, altered, literally drained of significance. While her loss of innocence at the hands of a predator can never be restituted, her second loss, represented by a state of exile from the multi-hued world, imbues her with a heroic mission.

Beyond Babylon is a variegated tapestry that unfurls over more than 400 pages and weaves together myriad stories, voices, settings, and time periods. But red and gray, and the contradictory realms they symbolize, are the two dominant threads. Red: a primary color on the spectrum, representative of life and death, of anger and love, of communism, of Catholic cardinals, of brides in the East. Gray, on the other hand, is absent from the color wheel. A singular shade that has no opposite, it is the color of in-betweenness, of imprecision, of shadows. A mixture of black and white, gray may be seen as a compromise, as ambiguity, as a meeting point between extremes. Gray is the color of cities, of asphalt and cement. Of sobriety but also impurity, given that it is not an independent tone, but a meeting point of both.

Colors have always been freighted with meaning: political, aesthetic, psychological, emotional. They are linked, in almost every culture, to rites of passage and to ceremonies of all kinds. In the Middle Ages, when each panel of a fresco told a separate story, each color had a value. Color, in this sense, stands for language itself. And, of course, there are the colors that we human beings are born with: the various shades of our skin, distinctive and indelible, that also tell a story, that indicate our genetic heritage and mark us from birth to death.

Beyond Babylon is a novel that interrogates language, race, and identity from beginning to end. Both Zuhra and Mar—the other central protagonist in the novel—are Italian women who are black. Zuhra is of Somali origin. Mar is half Somali and half Argentine. Both deal with color as a marker of race. Both struggle with what it means for them. As black women in a predominantly white country, they stand out and also feel invisible. If the inability to see colors is a source of frustration for Zuhra, her spirited telling of the story—in a series of red notebooks, she makes a point of saying—opens the reader’s eyes to what it means to be a black Italian woman: an element of Italian society that few see clearly, and some don’t recognize at all.

Like most literary quests, the search to regain color involves a journey, in this case, from Rome to Tunisia, where Mar and Zuhra have been sent to learn classical Arabic. This destination is itself described as a sort of “gray” in both the geographic and cultural sense, a nether-zone between Italy and Africa. But nearly everything in this novel is the product of mixture, of convergence, of hybridity, also of doubling. Everything is itself and also its counterpart. Mar and Zuhra are two sisters. They have two mothers. The two pairs of women occupy the center of two stories that themselves intersect in the novel. Interestingly, there is only one principle male figure, and he is connected, albeit in absentia, to all four of these women.

If, as the writer Michela Murgia says, everything that is unique can be regarded as fascist, the novel declines male power politically, a power that also stands for Italy’s colonial past under fascism: its imperial aggression and conquest, in Africa, under Mussolini. Beyond Babylon is a novel that insists upon miscegenation and multifariousness, on blending and blurring, on the freedom to not be a certain way. It resists the unifying force of fascism, and rejects the ideal of having only one identity, whether it be national, cultural, sexual, or otherwise.

The novel is steeped in bodily imagery and thick with bodily traumas. In Rome, a city known for its appreciation of the quinto quarto—the parts of the animal most people ignore, prized in Roman cooking—this focus on the body and its functions, its innards, its mysterious and occult workings, its cramps and urges, is particularly resonant. This is a novel that talks openly about defecating, menstruating, vomiting, fornicating, and evacuating—not just urine and feces and uterine linings, but also life itself, in the course of an abortion. It can claim Rabelais as an ancestor, and Boccaccio. It elevates what society tells us to keep to a private sphere, and makes it the subject for literature.

The female body as a locus of sexuality, of autonomous pleasure and freedom, is most brutally negated in the act of cliterodectomy, which this novel also talks about. This brutal act of mutilation, designed to erase a woman’s pleasure, to silence it, brings us to the myth of Procne and Philomela, among the bloodiest in Greek mythology, which strikes me as Beyond Babylon’s literary point of origin. The key elements in that myth are two sisters, violence, and language. And the salient plot points, as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, are these: Philomela’s tongue is cut out by her brother-in-law, Tereus, King of Thrace, to keep her from telling people that he raped her. She resorts to identifying him anyway, by weaving the story into a tapestry. When her sister Procne learns the truth, she kills Itys, her son with Tereus, and secretly feeds him to his father. When Tereus realizes what his wife has done, he attempts to kill both women. All three are transformed, in the end, into birds.

The distressing moral of the story: a powerful man’s desire is claimed through violence; a woman’s right to condemn that violence is violently cut away. But if read carefully, Procne and Philomela’s tragedy is as much about female empowerment as it is about victimization, with willful communication as the fulcrum. In Ovid’s version, the tool with which Tereus extracts Philomela’s tongue is a pair of forceps: an implement connected, also in modern civilization, to difficult births, also to abortions. But her severed tongue is described as having a soul. It is transformed into a nightingale, a creature known for its exquisite nocturnal singing. It is only the male nightingale that is able to produce song. The female of the species, like Philomela, has no voice. Incidentally, John Keats, who wrote his celebrated ode to that bird, lies buried in Scego’s city.

Fortunately, the fates of Mar and Zuhra are not as tragic as their mythological predecessors. Beyond Babylon, ironic, ebullient, and melancholic in turns, is more comic than tragic, clamorous in spirit as opposed to a lament. Yet the points of connection between this novel and that myth are numerous, even down to a repulsive act of cannibalism, albeit in the animal kingdom, unforgettably described: a pigeon that devours chicken, at Rome’s Termini train station. In some sense, the real protagonist of Beyond Babylon, beyond the two sisters themselves, is a specific part of them: their tongues, lingua in Italian, the same word for language. Language, in this novel, is a central plot point and an ongoing theme. The story revolves repeatedly around what it means to acquire a foreign tongue, to lack an authoritative tongue, to navigate the plethora of languages that both distinguish and divide the human race. It is about seeking the language of our ancestors while simultaneously ingesting the language of our surroundings. It is about the collision, and also the coherence, brought about by the intersection of two contrasting strands.

The act of weaving, in Greek mythology, gave many women a way to subvert the power dynamic in a male-dominated world. In Italian, trama is the word both for plot and for the weave of fabric brought about by the intersection of warp and weft. The artist and writer Isabella Ducrot reminds us that Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, analyzes language in terms of a weaving formed by a weft of words—syntagmas—around a warp of rules, or paradigms. Ducrot observes that while the weft has been associated, since Plato, with masculine power, the realm of the warp belongs to female narration, which is inherited, unbroken, and ongoing: “The uninterrupted flow of memories and recollections of oral tradition was certainly kept alive by grandmothers, nannies and mothers who, while rocking infants and performing their eternal daily tasks to the rhythm of songs, nursery rhymes and lullabies, have woven the history that women have lived.”

The principal languages in this book are Italian, the language in which it is written and in which the main characters speak, and classical Arabic, which both sisters are studying. But Spanish, Roman, Somali, and English are also mixed in. The book interrogates language both as a charged aspect of identity as well as a fleshy part of our body, rooted in our mouths, allowing us to speak and taste, to give and receive pleasure. Given that the book asks the question—What is language for?—the book also answers: Language is for telling, for revealing. The book celebrates diverse modes of telling, singing, speaking, and writing. It documents histories and herstories, preserved and handed down, especially between women.

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Language is freedom, but language is also a system, a form of authority that can also oppress. The epilogue to Beyond Babylon is an eloquent and rousing manifesto for anyone who has lived among and between languages, and who therefore cannot claim to have an unadulterated or exclusive relationship with any one tongue. It speaks to all who feel linguistically compromised, crippled, mutilated, who experience the shame and alienation of this. If being deprived from the governance of a mother tongue amounts to a form of linguistic nomadism, Beyond Babylon reminds us that this is also a form of freedom. It asserts the authority of an alternate system that is mongrel as opposed to noble and pure. As Zuhra succinctly puts it, “I don’t speak, I mix.” This is her definitive overturning of linguistic patriarchy. Her hymn to all that converges and combines. Her anthem to languages that grow out of the cracks, and stem from unsanctioned sources.

In invoking Babylon in the title—a real place on earth, with religious and historical import, Scego confounds past and present. Babylon is perhaps a container for all the places in the book: an ancient Mesopotamian city, once a flourishing kingdom that fell into ruin, now part of Iraq and the Arab world. Babylon was a city destroyed and rebuilt, that contained one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. A counterpart to Rome, it represents past glory, ruin, confusion, commercialism, and corruption. Like Rome, a river once ran through the middle of it. And like Rome, it is a city associated with, or likened to, a prostitute.

Scego’s Babylon also refers to the resonance that city has in Rastafarian religion, and in Bob Marley’s celebrated song of protest: “So let the words of our mouth / and the meditations of our hearts / be acceptable in thy sight.” Based on Psalm 137, it is a song of tormentors and captors, of suffering at the hands of the merciless, the courage to sing in a foreign land. Music, of wide-ranging genres, is central to Beyond Babylon. It is a song by Tinariwen, musicians from Northern Mali, heard on her iPod, whose words elude her but whose meaning she nevertheless appreciates, that prompts Zuhra to write her story, thanks, she says, to a “rhythm that transports me into a cosmic chaos that appears to be my own.” But nested within Babylon is the name of another biblical place: Babel, legendary for its tower, and its lesson: our plurilingual condition, meant to punish the human race.

Scego’s novel is both a tower, constructed layer by layer, and also a great sprawl. It is in fact neatly organized into five chapters with eight alternating sections always in the same order. The prose is distinctive for its terse energy, its staccato rhythm, all the more interesting given that Beyond Babylon is a porous, maximalist torrent that seems to overflow its margins. Geographically, it roams from Rome to Buenos Aires to memories of Mogadishu. It straddles different time periods, different story lines and points of view. Its register, lyrical and slang, effusive and abbreviated, tender and acerbic, brims with highs and lows. It is hip and irreverent and it is also baroque in sensibility, another element that ties the book to Rome. Those who read this novel will come to know, intimately, a Rome beyond the conventional, beyond the stereotypes. It is a Rome full of immigrants, full of people who contain different worlds within them.

Beyond Babylon is novel both rooted and rootless, original but clearly stemming from others. In addition to Ovid and the epic quest, it grows out of novels like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia: urban, coming-of-age novels written by young writers (Beyond Babylon was published in its original Italian in 2008, when its Roman-born author was thirty-four), growing up with double perspectives, with the challenge of constructing a hybrid identity, of asserting the validity, also the authenticity, of being culturally and/or racially “mixed.” It is about the anguish of not being white or of not being black enough, about being Italian and not being accepted as Italian. It is about falling short, feeling excluded from conventional identities, feeling at once enriched and annihilated by the intersection of elements.

Another frame of reference is an overtly feminist one, as explored in the novels of Margaret Atwood, the poetry of Anne Sexton, the stream of consciousness narration experimented with by Virginia Woolf. A third source is distinctly Roman: Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had an outsider’s perspective and represented the underrepresented of the city, and Elsa Morante, who wrote with a similar force and range—novels of “grande respiro” as it’s said in Italian—and wrote with particular insight about the fraught relationships between mothers and daughters, one of the most moving themes in Beyond Babylon, which pays careful attention to the experience of daughters who do not resemble their mothers, who feel estranged from their mothers, and who insist, in spite of such gaps and obstacles, upon a vital connection with the women who gave them life.

There is no better time than now to bring this novel into English. Now, when women’s voices are being heard in a new way, when the silence surrounding sexual abuse is being shattered, articulated, exposed. Now, when the question of Italy’s identity in relation to the rest of Europe is increasingly in peril because of growing populism, growing xenophobia, and racially motivated crimes. Now, when those in power in Italy call to keep out foreigners and close its borders—an attitude unfortunately mirrored in other parts of the world—is the moment to read Beyond Babylon, a book that insists on all that is open and flowing, coalescent and coexistent. For the babel of plurilingualism, far from a condemnation, is in fact what enriches and ennobles our natural state. This is a novel not only about the importance of living astride more than one language, but about a woman writing herself, with her own words, and thus her own language, into being. The word babel has come to mean “incoherence” in English, but it is Hebrew for “confusion.” And Scego has written a novel that takes the act of confusion—literally, the melding together of disparate elements—to its highest and most articulate level.


This essay is adapted from the author’s introduction to Beyond Babylon, by Igiaba Scego, translated by Aaron Robertson, to be published by Two Lines Press in May.