African Women Voices
Being Italian and Congolese is like having a relationship with two people. And since I love them both, there is always a sense of betraying one while making love to the other.
My threesome started back in the 80s, when my parents went to Italy as students. As I met people who were detained in UK centres, and apparently tortured, at an event organized by Amnesty International for the Refugee Week, I realised my story was a luckier one. There was no detention, police or illegality for my family. But it was no piece of cake either with the racism, language issues, ageism and ignorance.
Professor John Rex was a South African expert in race and ethnic conflicts in the UK. I came across his theories on social conflict while researching for my photography project. The way Professor Rex saw it, migration inevitably brings conflicts. This is because neither the migrant, nor the host can easily adjust to each other.
But once the migrant settles and have a family, conflicts don’t only come from the outside. The conflict is inside the new generation, in the single newborns. They become this sort of hybrid that doesn’t really fit anywhere.
Kids are good when you are trying to be included in a society. As for me, not only I was a cute kid, I was an Italian kid, who gained her right to be so by being born in the country (rules have changed now). And this simplified things, at least on a bureaucratic level. Because then I had to answer questions like ‘If you are Italian, how come you are black’ or ‘If you are Italian, how come your name is K A B U T A K A P U A?’
I never really felt Italian. I have never really supported the national football team or sang the anthem with the hand on my heart. And that’s not because I wasn’t accepting my nationality or I was feeling an outsider, but simply because (as I discovered years later), the definition of “being Italian” didn’t fully fit me.
Since I came to the UK people have thought of me as coming from the Caribbean, South Africa, Spain (!), Jamaica, Nigeria, and France. I had to go to Turkey so that someone would guess my origins and scream “Congo!” at me.
That would have bothered me as a teenager but my process of identification is much more evolved now so that, the nationality people might attach to me doesn’t bother me.
Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński considered it vital to meet “the other:” people from different cultures and ideas. To facilitate this meeting he once said that wherever he was going he would allow people to call him however they felt comfortable with. So I copied him.
I’m Beatrice in the UK, Béatrice en France and Beatrice in Italia (I do refuse to be called Beatriki in Greek though). I have been a “Lula” for Mandarin speakers and Kabu for some lazy friends.
On one hand I became immune to people’s mispronunciation of my name. On the other hand the reason I can swap from one appellation to another, is because the funny pronunciation of my name doesn’t change my identity. But that’s as long as you know who you are. And how can you know that?
In his recent article for Time magazine, Jose Antonio Vargas said that in the period he revealed he is an illegal immigrant in the US yet a staff member of the Washington Post, the most important way to brainstorm about himself was being questioned by people.
That’s not my method since people have asked me: “You are Italian! So… you speak Italian?” and “Are your hair growing with braids?”
Instead I got closer to this scary and way too serious thing that was my identity. I asked questions about Congo and started filling my Italian cultural gaps. I did interact with people, but mainly to add more silly comments to my collection and fool them when they were guessing my origins. In some ways it’s like having a twin sister; you can swap from one identity to another. I got to the point when I detached myself from both of them and see them from the outside.
It’s like you are dead and can see both the spirits that were part of you, you can see them much clearer. One could not leave without the other and I cannot leave without both of them. That’s when the threesome starts. And that’s how I fell in love.