On Thursday May 9th Teresa Fiore, Associate Professor and Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair State University, was a guest of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, where she presented her book, Pre-Occupied Spaces: Remapping Italy’s Transnational Migrations and Colonial Legacies published in 2017 by Fordham University Press.
The book addresses the topic of transnational migrations from, and to Italy in the 20th and 21st centuries. Two years after its publication, Fiore claims that the book “still creates an occasion to speak about migration.” Indeed, the book came out when migration was not only an “academic” topic, but also made headlines, was in everyone’s conversations, and even influenced political agendas.
The book starts with the consideration that Italy was born through the unification of many small states and kingdoms. Italy has a history of fragmentation and is still grappling with the ideas of “unity” and “national identity”. In light of all these processes, what does it mean to be Italian?
In the first century after the unification, about 27 million people left Italy. The majority of those went to the US; there is a reason why the saying “lo zio di Brooklyn,” (“the uncle from Brooklyn,”) became so widespread. But they also went to Argentina, Brazil and France. Some Italians, as a remembrance of the Italian colonial past, moved to Libya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Albania. All of those Italians create a diaspora, which constitutes “the largest emigration from any country” according to the historian Rudolph Vecoli. This diaspora grows as the Italian population expands in those countries, to the point that Italian communities abroad have been even called “colonies” with a clear political connotation.
However, in a very short period of time in the 70s, Italy evolved from a country of departure to a country of arrival. There are currently 5 million immigrants living in Italy. The percentage of immigrants in Italy is in line with the trend in other European states, with the only difference being that Italy wasn’t a colonial state in the strict definition of the term.
This means that the myth of invasion that has been spreading in Italy is a false myth, and the sense of emergency that some are trying to create is a manufactured sense. In Italy, there is a widespread feeling of preoccupation, alarmism, while the fact that Italy has a history of migration and that migration has been the history of Italians is being forgotten. The space, which is central in the book, is “preoccupied,” alarmed by the arrival of those people, but also “pre-occupied” by the history of Italian immigration and emigration. The stories of Italians in the first century after the unification are not too dissimilar from the stories of current migrants to Italy; they all left home, risked and lost their lives in the sea, and had to fight to integrate.
The book ends by proposing a third meaning of “pre-occupied,” which is “busy.” Fiore explains: “Instead of developing harsher and harsher rhetoric against immigrants, Italy should be pre-occupied [busy] with defining legal access routes for traveling migrants, based on the past and contemporary opportunities given to Italians abroad for whom permits and visas are seen as an entitlement.” Also, “while adding Italians in the diaspora to its national records of citizens and voters, Italy should also be pre-occupied [busy] with defining a citizenship law that protects immigrants living in Italy (and a political asylum system that grants full protection.”
Thus, let’s all be pre-occupied in this last sense of the term, and, to put it in Fiore’s words, create a space that “can dispel preoccupation.”