post Gabriella Ghermandi

June 28th, 2008

Filed under: Literature Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 15:46

Gabriella Ghermandi: Author and Performer with a Native Soul
by Claire Lavagnino

These lines were uttered by Ethiopian-Italian author Gabriella Ghermandi during her recent visit at UCLA to illustrate how “Through my story you can see how history can pass through people’s lives.”

The author’s first U.S. tour began in April (2007) in Wisconsin, included stops in Los Angeles and San Diego, and concluded in May in Colorado. Ghermandi performed her work, All’ombra dei rami sfacciati carichi di fiori rosso vermiglio (In the Shadow of the Shameless Branches Laden with Bright Red Flowers), in its original Italian version. It recounts the story of a young girl and her family during the late 1970s regime change in Ethiopia. Through Ethiopian songs and expressions, the artist radiates the emotions and communal experiences of her protagonist. Learning to ride a bicycle becomes a collective event and one of conscious appreciation of Ethiopian culture, just like gathering with family and friends to watch television. The work also depicts the influence of Italian colonialism on Ethiopian society. Ghermandi based her performance on the Ethiopian tradition of qene, a style of speech that creates double meaning of words and images, where one meaning remains on the surface while the other exists on a much deeper level.


Gabriella Ghermandi’s writings, performances, and life resonate the interwoven and distinct cultural and political histories of Ethiopia. Her visit to Los Angeles, the U.S. city with the second largest Ethiopian population, demonstrates the far-reaching and significant impact of these histories.

Born in Addis Ababa in 1965, Gabriella Ghermandi lived in Ethiopia until she was fourteen, when her mother, upon her husband’s death, moved the family to Bologna, Italy. Both Ghermandi’s mother and grandmother, born and raised in Eritrea, endured the devastating consequences of Italian discrimination and racial laws. Her Eritrean grandmother fell in love with an Italian officer and became pregnant with Ghermandi’s mother. Because of that, the author’s grandfather was seized by the Italian army and never returned to his family. Ghermandi’s mother faced further racism at the Italian convent school she attended, where children of mixed origins were regarded as “the fruit of the devil.” After fascist rule, Ghermandi’s mother, who had meanwhile moved to Addis Ababa, was able to legitimately marry an Italian and had children. Her father, called to Ethiopia to fight against the British, decided to stay despite civil war and revolution. He considered Ethiopia his country and wished to be buried there.

Once in Bologna, her father’s city of birth, Ghermandi felt lonely and homesick. In a city where, “People can watch you from the windows, but they never come to meet you,” Ghermandi longed for the sense of community she knew in Ethiopia. Her teachers and classmates, however, in an attempt of flattery, would say, “You could look like a girl from Sicily or Calabria.” Ghermandi responded: “How can you say that I’m like the others. You know that I have an entire country behind me, which is so different.” It was at this point that the author started writing. In school compositions, she noted, “I always tried to say something about Ethiopia.” In the Italian language, she discovered a way to create a home, a space in which she could gather the histories and traditions of Ethiopia and share them with others.


“At the beginning writing was curing my homesickness,” stated Ghermandi. “It was the place where I could put my home in words.” As she wrote and made trips back to Ethiopia, the author’s homesickness subsided. She began writing short stories professionally and eventually embraced oral performances because she claims, “I want to meet the people who read my works.” Her oral performances and writings capture the personal experiences of Ethiopians who, many for the first time, tell their stories of incredible courage and sacrifice during Italian colonialism.
Ghermandi’s visit could not come at a more important time. Visiting professor at UCLA Alessandra Di Maio has been teaching courses for the past year on issues of postcoloniality, the African diaspora in Europe, and emergent migrant literature in Italy. She invited Ghermandi because her works link personal and compelling accounts of colonialism to postcolonial identities and relationships. “Ghermandi’s art testifies to the fact that Africa and Italy have been involved with each other, for bad and good, longer than the Italian national discourse cares to remember. At its best, this liaison has produced powerful, imaginative voices such as Gabriella’s, whose echoes may resonate familiar to many people across continents and idioms”.

In Italy, school children learn little about their country’s invasions of Ethiopia and the seriousness and extent of these occupations both in past and in recent events. The most common approaches to Italy’s role in the Horn of Africa include ridicule of Mussolini’s ineffective and insignificant attempts to reconstruct an Italian empire and emphasis on the benign nature of public works projects for both Ethiopian and Italian populations. In fact, these views were expressed by one Italian professor who attended Ghermandi’s talk at San Diego State University—a testament to the need for personal accounts and open, reflective and critical discussion to supplement or supplant national myths. The author reminded the professor that “700,000 people were killed out of a population of ten million.” In the past few decades, since governmental archives during Italy’s colonial period have been opened to the public, more material has been published on the use of concentration camps and poisonous gas in territories colonized by Italians. However, general public knowledge of, and engagement in, these arguments remain low.

The author warned, “If you do not have the mistake under your eyes, you are going to make it again. We are not doing this in Italy, in Ethiopia and in Eritrea. What is happening now in Ethiopia and Eritrea is something that comes from that [colonial] period.” There’s always a message of hope in Ghermandi’s works. Prof. Clarissa Clò, who hosted Ghermandi at San Diego State University, comments, “Somehow people are able to shape the most oppressive of situations.”

Ghermandi closed her visit at UCLA by reading from her first novel, Regina di fiori e di perle (Queen of Flower and Pearls), which has been published in Italy by Donzelli. In the novel, the writer artist incorporates fukarà, warrior songs, which pay homage to women’s role in the struggle against oppression. A historically based woman warrior is the protagonist of the story.

For further information about Ghermandi’s work, her website houses many of her short stories and performances as well as family photographs.


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