Sabina Perrino on her book, Narrating Migration

Narrating Migration : Intimacies of Exclusion in Northern Italy book cover

Interview by Daniela Narvaez

Daniela Narvaez: In your book, you reflect on your own experiences as a way of discovering intimacies of exclusion. You start by sharing with your audience that you conducted many interviews in several hospitals as part of a project regarding Senegalese ethnomedicine in West Africa. From this experience you had the opportunity to interview participants who, like yourself, spoke standardized Italian and Venetan. Can you please share more with us about your decision to turn your attention to Italians and their narratives? What led you to start thinking about narrations and their relationship to racialized ideologies?

Sabina Perrino: First of all, I would like to thank you for these lovely questions. In the early 2000s, I was studying the fate of Senegalese ethnomedical practices both in Senegal and in Northern Italy. I was interested in examining how Senegalese ethnomedical practices were adapting to or changing in transnational contexts such as Italy. Ultimately, my goal was to compare them with the ones that Senegalese migrants had available back in Senegal, before migrating to Italy. However, when I started to collect data in northern Italian hospitals and elsewhere, I immediately realized that there was another important ideological layer that needed to be studied: how northern Italian doctors, nurses and ordinary people were reacting to the arrival not only of Senegalese migrants to Italy, but of migrants and refugees’ arrival more generally. Besides sharing stories of migrants’ behavior in hospitals and of the use of their medicine together with Western biomedical cures, northern Italian participants started to share stories about their own anxieties around the changes that the Italian society had undergone since the 1970s when new migratory flows started to enter Italy. Many of my collaborators shared stories about their resistance to these new waves of migrants, often made racialized remarks, and, overall, enacted strong ethnonationalist stances. After my dissertation was completed, I then realized that it was the appropriate time to turn my attention to Italians and to listen to their stories to study these ideological shifts in Italian society. It was the early 2000s when I started to collect these stories, a moment in which, coincidentally, right-wing political parties, such as the Lega Nord (Northern League), were just at the beginning of their path of success across the country.

Daniela Narvaez: In your book, you have shown that through various initiatives, such as using Venetan in public signage, the creation of grammars, dictionaries, folktale- and proverb-themed books, among other efforts, Venetan has been recently linguistically revitalized. However, you also illustrate that this revitalization is not an isolated effort but has been transformed into a political emblem of regional group membership. You explain that “language revitalization initiatives in Veneto have gone hand in hand with the enactment of exclusionary stances concerning migrant groups and other people who are believed not to be fluent in the local language”. What are the challenges and consequences of regional language revitalization in these situations where language is being promoted among their speakers on the one hand, but on the other is being used as a political tool that creates intimacies of exclusion? How do you see your book speaking to the current political moment worldwide in which, as you point out, exclusionary stances and negative stereotypes about migrants circulate at a fast pace?

Sabina Perrino: I would like to start by quoting one of Alexandra Jaffe’s last articles entitled “Poeticizing the Economy: The Corsican Language in a Nexus of Pride and Profit” (Jaffe 2019, 19), in which she keenly argues that any research on language revitalization needs to also include issues of “commodification, authenticity, performance/poetics and place.” Her research emphasizes that such revitalization processes always have economic and sociopolitical objectives as well. In this respect, language revitalization efforts are fluid processes in which power and economic dynamics, political aspirations and language ideologies play pivotal roles. Jaffe’s work on language revitalization in Corsica adds important layers to the study of minority language contexts “where discourses of language politics and revitalization have historically been centered around pride and cultural rights” (Jaffe 2019, 10), illustrating how language revitalization practices are vital, heterogeneous, highly variable, contextualized, and unpredictable processes.

Focusing on the revitalization of Venetan, the local language of the Veneto region, I show how this language has been revitalized through politicization (especially, after the Lega Nord political party started a strong anti-immigrant politics) and aspirations for autonomy from the Italian state. This emerges more clearly if one looks at the history of this region, as I explain in Chapter 2 of my book. Over the last fifteen years, Veneto, one of the twenty regions of Italy, has become an embattled region trying to obtain regional political and linguistic autonomy. The arrival of migrants in Italy has created new demographic configurations and has pushed certain language promoters to be more active in re-establishing their historical and artistic traditions and in officially recognizing the use of their language, such as Venetan. This creates intimacies of exclusion at various levels and in various ways. Throughout the stories that I have collected in the Veneto region, for example, there has been a common thread related to the value of their local language: Venetan has been part of an important history for centuries and thus, in my collaborators’ perspective, deserves more recognition in Italy and among the transnational communities of Venetans who live in different locations across the globe. There are, indeed, various associations promoting the use of Venetan in many communities of practice abroad as well—in the United States, in Australia, in Venezuela, and so forth. Furthermore, Venetan has been recently revitalized not just through the publication of several dictionaries and grammars, folktale- and proverb-themed books and poems, but also through politicized signage such as emblems in flags, websites, posters, and so forth. These various signs show that the revitalization of Venetan is not an isolated endeavor; rather, it is infused with images, textual artifacts, significant colors, and many other facets of people’s everyday lives.

Daniela Narvaez: You mention that you believe that “intimacy…is a fluid and shifting concept, which can be positive at times and negative at others”.  You also state that “intimacy plays key roles in shaping people´s sociocultural identities and can act both at an individual level and at a more collective level”. Can you elaborate on the significance of the concept of intimacy in your book?

 Sabina Perrino: Intimacy and of intimacies of exclusions are foundational in Narrating Migration. I’ve been curious and fascinated about how individuals perform intimacy, or don’t, in their daily lives since the beginning of my career. I shifted from studying intimate relations between healers and patients in Senegal, for example, to examining intimacy across spatiotemporal scales in my latest research on migration narratives in Northern Italy. Intimacy is indeed a very fluid, by-degree notion. In a recent chapter of ours, Sonya Pritzker and I have defined intimacy as “an emergent feeling of closeness in combination with significant levels of vulnerability, trust, and/or shared identities, that can vary across cultures as well as in time and space” (Perrino and Pritzker 2019). From this perspective, we can imagine intimacy as continuously changing along a spectrum: from positive and peaceful feelings of closeness, it can change into feelings of detachment, negativity, and distance. In this respect, intimacy is a social process that is not limited to sexual or romantic relations but is much broader and is part of our everyday lives. We can think about the present times, for example, and how the idea of being intimate is changing fast through the new rules of social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My book uses the notion of intimacy to show how participants can experience it both at an individual level and at a more collective level. It is through these analytical tools that I was able to explore how various senses of exclusion and inclusion are enacted discursively in northern Italians’ storytelling practices and how certain communities of practice prefer to elevate boundaries to, as they saw it, defend themselves from the arrival of migrants. This is how this notion is also connected to the (co)construction of individuals’ sociocultural identities.

Daniela Narvaez: Regarding the methodology you used to gather interviews and specially to transcribe them, you said that you used different types of transcription formats depending on the patterns you wished to highlight in your book. What were the main challenges you had to confront and the biggest decisions you had to make to illustrate the participants’ voices and stances? Why are these decisions important to consider?

Sabina Perrino: Collecting and transcribing video- and audio-recorded data always entails key methodological and ethical choices. The transcription conventions used in my book are based on the patterns that I needed to emphasize in my various analyses. For example, if I need to highlight interactional patterns such as the use of laughter, overlap and latching, I make sure to add the relevant transcription symbols or abbreviations consistently in that particular transcript. Sometimes, I just used a more reporting style in my transcription especially when the content had more relevance than the interactional dynamics between interviewer and interviewees. Representing participants’ voices is always a selective process that researchers have to face when they publish their analyzed data. I tried to contextualize the data that I used as much as possible, to add key elements to interpret the data with objectivity. However, this is always a challenge since analysts filter their data by selecting the transcribed portions they wish to use, the data they transcribe, and so forth. These are certainly important decisions that I had to make while following ethical principles to protect research participants’ privacy and identity.

Daniela Narvaez: In chapter 3, you explain the importance of chronotopes as a way to “analyze the entwined temporal and spatial dimensions in narrative practices”. You have extended the chronotope concept to what you call “participant transposition”. How do you connect these concepts to the analysis of narrations? What were you able to unveil or perceive, regarding ideologies and identities, that you might not have without these concepts?

Sabina Perrino: The Bakhtinian notion of chronotope, which literally means “time space,” has been central in my research. I have applied this concept to a wide variety of narrative practices that I collected both in Senegal and in Italy. The chronotopic configuration that I name participant transposition, for example, clearly shows how narratives can be creatively changed and manipulated by speech participants while the storytelling event unfolds. This is why this spatiotemporal notion is very important in my analysis. In some of the cases that I examined in my past research, for instance, Senegalese storytellers move their addressees into their stories, by transforming them from past characters into realtime persons, such as the interviewer or other co-present participants. In this way, storytellers create a certain coherence of the interaction in progress while the boundaries between the story (or the narrated event) and the storytelling event (or the narrating event) are blurred. In this way, the chronotope concept helps unveil the hybridity and the continuous movement of past characters and interactants in storytelling events. Following these insights, in my book, I see chronotopes as spatiotemporal configurations that are scalar by nature. Within this scalar dimension, analysts can better explore social types as they interact, their narrative practices, and the embodiment of their (non)emotional stances. In and through these various spatiotemporal configurations, I locate intimate relations that are co-constructed among participants during their storytelling events to better explore issues of exclusionary intimacies in interaction. In line with Woolard’s (2016) insight that chronotopes are particular types of scales, I consider these scalar processes as key analytical tools for linguistic anthropologists and researchers more generally. In this respect, to go back to your second question, intimacy, as I see it, is scalar by nature and emerges through the various stances that storytellers enact while they deliver their narratives.

Daniela Narvaez: Finally, in the last chapter of your book, you argue that language ideologies emerge through barzellette –short funny stories –code-switching and mocking extracomunitari in joke-telling and narrative practices. Moreover, you contest that multilanguage play is not only a way for expressing covert racism but also “for positioning audiences who are [the joke tellers’] hearers and can become complicit in the performance”. What do you mean by this? How does humor play an important component for your book?

Sabina Perrino: Barzellette, or short funny stories, are very complex interactional events that have existed for a long time. It is important to remember that, historically, Italian barzellette have a rich literary tradition, having existed at least since the Renaissance. Today, barzellette are mostly of sexual or political nature and involve such region-based stereotyped figures as Southerners and Northerners with funny stories about Southerners told by Northerners and vice versa. These widespread ideologies have deep historical roots and have been central in keeping Italy socioculturally and linguistically fragmented. Since the 1980s, however, given the continuous changes in Italy’s demographics, barzellette have started to feature migrants, especially Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa, and South Asia. Chinese migrants have also been targets of these jokes since the 1980s. Moreover, this trend has increased tremendously since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Studying how ideologies are first created and then subtly communicated through these speech events is thus of primary importance. In multilingual communities, moreover, humor can involve codeswitching from one language to another which can have various pragmatic ends including creating solidarity and complicity with the audience members. The fact that the storyteller codeswitches into a language that is supposedly understood only by certain members of a community of practice, makes those members complicit and thus active participants in the joke. If the joke is racialized, as we see in the examples  in my book, this complicity can be problematic. In this respect, humor plays a key role in the final chapter of my book, as you note, which is centered on the specific and powerful performativity of barzellette as they are enacted in various and varied regional settings and across different types of speech events. In face-to-face interactions, northern Italian joke-tellers usually tell their barzellette after a meal with friends or relatives, especially in large, social gatherings. One or two participants considered good barzellette tellers, or anyone who is spirited enough to perform a joke, secure attention from the surrounding audience and engage in their joke-telling practice(s). In these cases, joke-tellers help aliment sociocultural, political, and racialized ideologies in contemporary Italian society and beyond, given the unprecedented, transnational reach of these jokes. Indeed, this interactional engagement has recently emerged in digital joke-telling practices as well.

References Cited

Jaffe, Alexandra. 2019. “Poeticizing the Economy: The Corsican Language in a Nexus of Pride and Profit.” Multilingua 38 (1): 9–27.

Perrino, Sabina, and Sonya Pritzker. 2019. “Language and Intimate Relations.” In Handbook of Language and Sexuality, edited by Kira Hall, and Rusty Barrett, New York: Oxford University Press (Oxford Handbooks Online).

Woolard, Kathryn A. 2016. Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia. New York: Oxford University Press.


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