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  1. #1!
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    05 Mar 2002
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    Talking Cattivissimo...come sempre

    Old South/New South: Southern Italians in Australia.
    By Elida Meadows

    Not long ago at a social function I was introduced to a man who teaches music at a university in Sydney. He professed a great love of Italy and all things Italian and for a few moments we had a very pleasant conversation on this topic of mutual interest. Then he leaned towards me and said confidentially, “Of course, the real Italians are from the North.”

    I was surprised although I had heard this or something similar many times before. But where once such a sentiment would have rendered me speechless and all too aware of my “inferior” Southern ancestry, this time I was able to make a response. I had finally spent some time researching the backgrounds of my parents and so I was able to tell this man that the word Italy was derived from the name of certain pre-Roman Southern tribes. “If anything,” I said, “the real Italians are Southerners.”

    Nonetheless, I have never been very comfortable with notions of ownership or authenticity. I’m not sure I know what it means to be a “real” anything, but I am interested in how this idea of Southerners as not being “real Italians” originated and, more pertinently, why it is still being propounded in Australia today.

    Every country has its own national mythology which serves many purposes – too numerous to go into now. But amongst them may be to promote the country in question as a great travel destination or a viable place in which to invest. Accordingly, Italian national mythology promotes a consumer product which is “Italy” as a place abounding in both natural and cultural beauty, a place where Roman and Renaissance monuments and artefacts sit side by side with the ultimate in modern design and technology. I could go on. At this point, however, it becomes clear that the South, the deep South in particular, does not fit into this myth. There are countless sources today - books, cooking programs, videos, films which celebrate this Italy of the myth. The South features very little or nowhere within them. When the South is referred to, it is usually in terms of disparagement.

    Such is the denial of the South, that even its history is ignored by the national myth. It is surely not overstating the fact to say that part of Italy’s international reputation is built on the histories of the Romans and the Renaissance. These histories are marketable products that help “sell” Italy to the tourist. The South, with its ancient Greek history featuring what are arguably iconic phenomena, such as Scylla and Charybdis and the Fata Morgana, the city of the Sybarites and the place where the adult Pythagoras lived and taught - and more - is denied even its historical significance. To cast one’s gaze at it today, even in search of an idealised past, would be to confront several unpalatable issues - issues which perhaps have more to do with the global North/South divide than with mere Italian regionalism.

    In his much-quoted work, Mythologies, the French philosopher Roland Barthes asserts that myth transforms history into nature.[1] Throughout its modern history, the South has remained poverty and crime ridden. Many analysts have suggested causes, both geographical and historical for this situation, but it is in the reductionist character of the national myth to ignore all of these and to assert that the South is in such a condition because Southerners are by nature “inferior”. They are therefore not “real Italians”.

    From the Northern perspective the claim of being “real Italians” is a way of claiming an identity that is European rather than Mediterranean. Eurocentric universalism, as described by many post-colonial theorists, takes for granted the superiority of the West, whilst rendering inferior that which is not. The Italian South – the deep South - is too close to this “other” identity. One travel writer noted in 1968:

    And still you cannot escape the sensation, when you venture towards Calabria, of straying into lost territory, of crossing an invisible frontier into a land which breathes the perfumes of Arabia, or at least a bouquet d’Afrique.[2]

    This observation, not an unusual one even today, may be the answer to the kind of “border panic” which is engendered in the North by characteristics of the South which seem to have more in common with the Levant than Europe.

    In his seminal work, Orientalism, Edward Said identifies a tendency in the Western mind to create, in representations of the East, what one commentator describes as a repository or projection of those aspects of themselves which Westerners do not choose to acknowledge (cruelty, sensuality, decadence, laziness and so on).[3] This position renders the people of the East homogenous, non-individuated, their actions deemed to be determined by instinctive emotions (lust, terror, fury, etc) rather than by conscious choices or decisions.[4] Furthermore, their emotions and reactions are always determined by racial considerations (they are like this because they are asiatics or blacks or orientals).[5]

    Or terroni. Remarkable how Southern Italians have been similarly popularly portrayed.

    The Southern Question, as it has been referred to, is not only the problem of regions that remain mired in an inglorious history of feudalism and misery - despite all attempts to redeem them - but also the problem of a South that does not reflect the image Northern Italians may want for their country. The negative image of Southerners that this phenomenon promotes has not remained confined to the Italian peninsula but has travelled with Italian immigrants to Australia.

    As early as the late nineteenth century, the Queensland government debated the desirability of allowing Italians into the state to work in the sugar cane industry. The upshot was a decision that only Northern Italians were suitable. According to a book by Nino Randazzo and Michael Cigler:

    No further demonstration is needed to show that the discrimination between north and south Italy in Australian immigration policy, had its roots in that uncivilised debate in the Queensland parliament almost a century ago.[6]

    Similar debates followed in other states, but by the early 1950s Australia was experiencing mass migration from Southern Europe - due mainly to economic imperatives on both sides. The notion of the superiority of the Northerner, however, remained. A Department of Immigration report of the time stated that the Southern Italian has never been held in as high esteem as the Northerner. It has been found that generally he is not as good a type physically or mentally.[7] The Assisted Passage Scheme of the time was consciously aimed at the more “Alpine”, or “Northern”, or “Aryan” category. According to an interview with an official of the time:

    The strictest selection criteria were applied to Southern European countries…and they were applied in particular to unassisted migrants. Such things as height, skin colour, “completeness” if a person had one joint of a finger amputated or cut off or something like that, that was enough for them to be rejected….there was a marked preference for Northerners [as opposed to] Southern Italians.[8]

    The idea of the “superiority” of the Northern Italian has been reinforced over time through a variety of sources and is not simply evident in documents relating to official government immigration policy. It was even reflected in Australian fiction, as documented by Roslyn Pesman Cooper in an article which examined the period from 1900 to 1950. In this article she wrote:

    Italians are by no means represented as inferior people not to be taken seriously but everywhere, including in writing where racist attitudes are parodied and criticised, it is taken as unquestioned dogma that there are two kinds of Italian, northern and southern, and that the latter are not acceptable.[9]

    It is difficult to comprehend the idea that one could be considered ‘not acceptable’, while at the same time being ‘by no means [my italics] represented as inferior’. Especially as one of the texts quoted is Eve Langley’s novel The Pea Pickers, in which a Calabrian character is described as short and dark with a simian face, who moved the heavy lower part of his face with animal rapidity and looked as though he might spring at my throat and not even feel that he was doing it.[10] At the very least, this could certainly be described as a depiction of animal baseness, particularly as in another of Langley’s books, White Topee, an Italian from the north is described in somewhat more flattering terms. This is the character Domenico, this Alexandrian from the cold north, a supple man intent on power, with his fine mocking mouth, aristocratic smile and slender hooked nose.[11].

    There exists a wide variety of sources containing descriptions of the preference, overt or implied, for Northern Italians as “superior”. The authors of many of these, however, often stop short of acknowledging the consequent reinforcement of a Southern stereotype and its implications for Southern Italians in Australia. This kind of coyness is also evident in a 1977 study by Rina Huber. She documents Northern immigrants’ perceptions of the “inferiority” of the Calabresi in their community and yet notes, somewhat disingenuously, that Southerners tended to be touchy about their origin[12], quoting a Calabrese as claiming to have come from somewhere south of Rome.

    It would surely have been more surprising to have found no such sensitivity. Southerners and their children have been faced again and again with the unpalatable stereotypes of the meridionali. To this day, there are ample examples to be found - simply too many to document within the framework of this paper. Look in travel books, La Fiamma, talk to Italians[13]. What sort of identity are Southern Italians claiming when acknowledging their backgrounds?

    Italian migrants to Australia have come from a country which is still struggling with the concept of unification. A country where the main perceived block to a sense of cohesive nationhood is the problem of the South. They have migrated to a country with, in effect, no national identity. In his essay, “Inventing Australia” Richard White has suggested that all versions of an Australian national identity are inventions, artificially imposed upon a diverse landscape and population, and a variety of untidy social relationships, attitudes and emotions.[14]

    Indeed, all versions of national identity everywhere – including (and perhaps especially) in the so-called “Old World” - can be said to be inventions. The ‘nation’ as a social construction is a relatively modern invention and a highly unstable entity. On the other hand, the construction of the nation as a somehow ‘natural’ phenomenon is a powerful tool in the operation of the hegemonic state.

    This myth of nationhood, masked by ideology, perpetuates nationalism, in which specific identifiers are employed to create exclusive and homogenous conceptions of national traditions. Such signifiers of homogeneity always fail to represent the diversity of the actual ‘national’ community for which they purport to speak, and, in practice, usually represent and consolidate the interests of the dominant power groups within any national formation.[15]

    For the second generation of Italians in Australia this has created a challenge that might appear problematic at the very least. To begin with, this generation has had to struggle to secure some kind of Australian identity. This was almost impossible in the 50s and 60s when assimilationist policies deemed Australian identity British and the insistence was on an exclusionary myth of national unity. With the official adoption of multiculturalism in the 70s, it became at least nominally easier, but in reality it was probably in the aftermath of the immigration debates of the 80s that children of Italian immigrants were finally able to define themselves as “Australian”. And only then because it was during that period that Australian identity came to mean “not Asian” as opposed to “British only” or “British and Northern European”. Turning its attention to the Italian part of its heritage, this second generation might easily conclude that Italian identity may often mean “not Southern Italian”.

    In a 1992 publication called Italians in Australia a group of academics pondered the question of cultural change and concluded, amongst other things, that:

    The challenge for multicultural policies today is to ensure that pressures within established ethnic groups (including Italo-Australians) to maintain cultural integrity do not lead to a new eurocentric conservatism, that excludes Asians and Aborigines.[16]

    This challenge is one facing individuals within ethnic groups, not just policy makers. Italian Australians need also to go beyond the eurocentric view that is often held by those from the North of Italy to the detriment of those from the South. Until Italians in Australia can cross the North/South divide that has followed them from the old country, they will hardly be well equipped to practice a politics of inclusion which embraces “non-European” within the definition of an Australian identity.

    The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci[17] elaborated a theory of hegemony which examined the idea that the individual is moulded into a vehicle of consent and conformity by means of the socio-cultural institutions created by the ruling classes. The objective of the hegemonic state is to establish its own point of view as “common sense”. In the current climate of market-driven globalisation, it is the market place rather than the state which sets the agenda, which decides what is and is not “common sense”. In Italy there is evidence that many Southerners have turned their backs on their Southern roots and embraced the ideology of the federalist - and at worst, secessionist – extremists of the industrial North. One journalist describes the new world view as:

    The East-West conflict is over, and the centralized state’s role as protector of the nuclear peace has withered. These are the new European faultlines: North versus South. Rich versus poor. Old versus new.[18]

    In the same article he goes on to quote an Italian colleague who writes about youth culture. The Italian journalist asserts that no one is more fanatic about supporting the Lega [the Northern League] than the children of the southern immigrants. No one is more Milanese than these first-generation Milanese.[19] For the children of Southern Italians in Australia, the challenge is to retain some sort of ethnic integrity whilst embracing the diversity of the society around us. To resist an identification as Italian that does not encompass the South and, therefore, avoid being swallowed by this ‘new world view’ which pits the rich North against the poor South worldwide.

    My mother once told me a story about the time she was a seventeen-year-old working in a cannery in Griffith. This was in 1950 and she worked with many young Italian women, the majority of whom were from the Veneto, Abruzzi and Calabria. She got on well with most of them but one, a Veneto woman, lost no opportunity to remind my mother that she came from the “low regions” of Italy. This young Venetian gloried in her claim to “alt’Italia” – literally, high Italy. Finally my mother could take no more and one day she pointed at the window which looked out on the farmlands surrounding the building. “Yeah?” my mother said. “You come from “alt’Italia? Well it’s a shame you didn’t stay there. Take a good look around. Here everything is flat!”

    The truth is probably far from this – Australia is not a level playing field however much that notion may be part of our national mythology. In that same town, at the same time as my mother was asserting herself against a co-worker’s racism, an Aboriginal mission existed on the fringes of the community. My mother, her family and their compatriots knew little or nothing about those people and were not much interested in finding out more. For Aboriginal people the struggle has remained the same, they continue to battle for land and equity whilst the descendants of those Italian migrants have finally begun to feel part of the Australian multicultural fabric.

    In the introduction to a book of his essays, Paul Carter noted that when he came from Italy to Australia he was coming from one south to another…to a country where the meaning of the south is simultaneously deepened and reversed. [20]

    In Italy the Southerner belonged simultaneously to the culture of the colonised (the South) – through local and oral traditions - and to the culture of the coloniser (the North), through the systems of state. In Australia, Indigenous people have been placed in this position by the European invasion – and Italians, Northerners and Southerners, are part of this European colonisation. A great insight into some of the issues of cultural inclusion/exclusion raised by this situation comes from the films of the American director, Spike Lee (I could find no Australian equivalent. While Black Americans have clearly been positioned by historically different circumstances than those of Aboriginal Australians, they operate within the United States as one of the most visibly marginalised groups. They also have been subject to the oppression of white colonisers, except in their case they were actually removed from their homelands in another continent). In his films Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever, Lee casts Southern Italians as different, but not so different, from Blacks, because in the end they too cannot achieve full acceptance. This re-establishes the Italians’ ties with the typifications assigned them in their homeland and as immigrants, and thereby highlights their marginality. [21]

    But it does not stop there. The Southern Italian Americans in Lee’s films seize upon that difference in order to associate themselves with the dominant culture. They, as [do] other groups selectively designated as ethnic depending on the circumstances, serve to maintain dangerous tensions between minorities, tensions that work to dissipate resistance to the dominant.[22]

    These kinds of tensions may explain why Italians and their descendants in Australia so often fail to participate in or contribute to the struggles of other minorities against racism. Why there exists, anecdotally at least, so much evidence of Italian racism against Asians and Aboriginal people. It is not really an option for descendants of Southern Italians in Australia to deny their ancestry by buying into the myth of a “higher” Italian-ness. But it is equally important that they do not turn their own insecurities against those in this country who are visibly different and engaged in the struggle for the survival of their own cultural integrity.

    I’d like to conclude on a personal note. The daughter of Calabresi parents, I have finally overcome a sense of myself as a second class Australian, only to confront the idea of myself and my family as second class Italians. Where do I locate my “Italian” identity in an image of Italy which excludes the region of my family’s origin at best and at worst describes us as a sub-class of criminals and layabouts?

    One of my pleasures is to read the travel books of foreign commentators who have been to Southern Italy. One such that I recently acquired muses: What, one constantly hears, has a Milanese in common with a Neapolitan? The answer is: a great deal more than they will ever admit.[23] This may well be so, but until the Italians accept this idea, the division between North and South will remain. And here, in Australia, moving into a new millennium, striving for a more inclusive sense of national identity, there should be no place for old stereotypes. Here we are not Italians, Southern or Northern. Here we Australian Italians and part of a very diverse society. Here, we need to move away from the old frameworks we have relied upon for describing our condition and ourselves. To quote Paul Carter:

    We need to disarm the genealogical rhetoric of blood, property and frontiers and to substitute for it a lateral account of social relations, one that stresses the contingency of all definitions of self and other, and the necessity always to tread lightly.[24]



    [1] Roland Barthes, Mythologies. London: Granada, 1981, p. 129.

    [2] Leslie Gardiner, South to Calabria. Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1968, p. 2.

    [3] Peter Barry, Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, p. 192.

    [4] ibid. p. 193

    [5] ibid.

    [6] Nino Randazzo and Michael Cigler, The Italians in Australia. Melbourne: AE Press, 1987, p. 33.

    [7] Quoted in Robert Tierney, “The pursuit of serviceable labour in Australian Capitalism: the economic and political contexts of immigration policy in the early fifties, with particular reference to southern Italians” in Labour History, no. 74, May 1994, p. 149.

    [8] Keith Stoddent, member of the Commonwealth Immigration Department, 1949 – 1981, interviewed on the Assisted Passage Scheme in the IARP Collection at, pp. 2-3.

    [9] Roslyn Pesman Cooper, “Italian immigrants in Australian fiction 1900-1950” in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 16, no. 1, May 1993, p. 69.

    [10] ibid.

    [11] ibid.

    [12] Rina Huber, From pasta to pavlova: a comparative study of Italian settlers in Sydney and Griffith. St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1977, p. 2

    [13] A good account of prejudice against Southern Italians in Australia can be found in the “Discrimination” chapter of Stephanie Lindsay Thompson, Australia through Italian eyes. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 160-188.

    [14] Richard White, “Inventing Australia” in Images of Australia: an introductory reader in Australian Studies. St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1996, p. 23.

    [15] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Key concepts in post-colonial studies, London: Routledge, 1998, p. 150.

    [16] Ellie Vasta, et al, “The Italo-Australian community on the Pacific Rim” in Australia’s Italians: culture and community in a changing society. North Sydney, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1992, p. 230.

    [17] A good introduction to the writings of Gramsci is the text Selections from political writings, 1910-1920, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

    [18] Frank Viviano, “The fall of Rome” in Mother Jones interactive: daily news for the skeptical citizen. Sept/Oct, 1993 at html, p. 2

    [19] ibid, p. 3. The author quotes Romano Fattorossi, an Italian journalist.

    [20] Paul Carter, Living in a new country: history, travelling and language. London: Faber and Faber, 1992, p. 4

    [21] Pasquale Verdicchio, “’If I was six feet tall, I would have been Italian’: Spike Lee’s Guineas” in Differentia, issue 6/7, 1995, at, p. 3.

    [22] ibid.,p. 9.

    [23] Peter Nichols, Italia, Italia. London: Macmillan, 1974, p. 21.

    [24] Paul Carter, op. cit., p. 8.

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  2. #2
    Data Registrazione
    09 Mar 2002
    campagna lombardo-veneta
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    Ho letto solo il finale:

    We need to disarm the genealogical rhetoric of blood, property and frontiers and to substitute for it a lateral account of social relations, one that stresses the contingency of all definitions of self and other, and the necessity always to tread lightly.

    vomito poi vado a letto.

    Domani leggerò il resto...



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