RDL Polaf n° 163 – Taliani (Simona). Il tempo della disobbedienza. Per un’antropologia della parentela nella migrazione. Vérone, Ombre Corte, 2019, 208 pages
Taliani’s book, which is based on a twenty-year ethnographic and clinical practice in the context of Nigerian migration to Italy, offers a multifaceted and dynamic account of the flows of power that intersect the “presence” of Nigerian women in Italy.
The first two chapters are devoted to the oldest part of the author’s research, which began in 1996 at the Frantz Fanon Centre, an ethno-psychiatric clinic in Turin: the psychopathological, economic and social effects of witchcraft rituals based on the creation of an object-fetish (generically labelled as voodoo or juju) on bending Nigerian women to a system of sexual exploitation and brutal violence that aims to extracting value from their bodies for as long as possible before they find a new life through migration.
The author explores the complex family-like bonds the ritual creates between a girl and her madame. Reflecting on the kind of economic transaction embedded in the ritual process, Taliani discovers that the dependency ties established through the ritual are both of lineage (mother/daughter) and of alliance (with the divinity), an ambivalence that contributes to causing the women to be invaded by confusion, fear and panic, which are the emotional prerequisite for their subjugation.
Taliani not only explores the knowledge-power nexus, but wants to know in order to achieve a healing, liberating power – together with the suffering women and their internal resources – which “opens up the possibility of interpreting, and shaping, a present time that is livable” (p. 97). The key question of the book is: “What kind of knowledge does power need in order to control people, and what kind of knowledge to free them?” (p. 16).
The second part (chapters 3-5) is on her more recent research, which she carried out in Turin and Naples in the last ten years, on the experience of “dispossessed maternity”. This is a form of domination experienced by Nigerian women who have emancipated themselves from dependency through childbirth, but end up being evaluated and violated by the state machine, which applies a “pseudo-diagnostic architecture” (p. 139) to deciding their status as good or bad mothers and, in many cases, to separating children from their mothers, acting as a “Sorcerer State” (p. 149). For Nigerian women in migration, maternity means having someone who is dependent on them (the debt of life), and someone who shares their destiny, and also represents a way of break the common identification with prostitution. On the other hand, the institutions, which base their evaluation on a single standardised normative model of mother-child relationship, do not recognise the vital forces behind the heterogeneous and ambivalent construction of motherhood performed by the Nigerian migrant women, and label them as pathological. Thus, the resulting adoptions end up by producing the social death of those mothers.
In this case, too, Taliani positions herself next to the dispossessed women and looks for their internal resources: “From what resources of their language and culture do they draw the words to translate their experience and not to succumb to the ill-fated forces that assault them?” (p. 18).
Through her analysis of the act of naming children, Taliani interprets the myth of the ogbanje – the liminal figure between human and spiritual worlds, the child who was born not to stay, who knows his or her mother, returns to her womb and disturbs the family – as an evocative and performative tool that helps narrate and deal with the loss of children at the hands of the State.
Through the ogbanje myth, the mothers are certain that they will keep a vertical bond with their children, albeit from afar, because sooner or later they will return, by the power of their racial bond. According to Taliani, the reappropriation of the racial stigma contributes towards the decolonization of motherhood, but the most endangered bonds are those between brothers and sisters, whose reciprocal recognition depends on their mother’s powers of recollection alone. For this reason, for the mothers, raising questions about their stolen children in public becomes a ritual that stubbornly aims to maintain these bonds.
By articulating the analysis the two phenomena – witchcraft through fetish and ritual and the state-led breaking of family ties – Taliani overcomes the dichotomies between tradition and modernity, and magic and rational, and focuses on temporality and the effect of power over the women and their descendants: to be acted by forces that use exoteric knowledge to produce suffering.
The great value of this book lies in the author’s painstaking attention to the internal resources and the attempts at subjectivation on the part of the suffering women, who are never reduced to mere victims.
The anthropological archive is also used by Taliani as a tool for intervening in the world of these women, at the intersection between their fragmented internal resources and shared anthropological knowledge, as a set of concepts, cultural schemas and interpretations that can be used and assembled not to “demonstrate” a culture or “classify” cultural objects, but to pursue the specific goal of healing. This means that the researcher positions herself next to the protagonists of the ethnographic and clinical encounter so that they can work together with fragments, splinters and shreds with no predetermined interpretive schemes, and return them in the ethnographic writing as a “drop of splendour” (p. 22).
Against those anthropological approaches, which go round in circles to deconstruct ethnopsychiatric practices and the risk of essentialising culture, Taliani shows us the fragile fabric of gestures, words, actions and gasps that inhabit the ethnopsychiatric setting, a process that is barely intelligible to an external observer who does not share the same objective: to find a strategy to make people give a name to something that they experience as unnameable, scary and threatening. Taliani convincingly demonstrates the strategic use of cultural fragments, not in any way to return to an allegedly uncontaminated culture of origin, but to assemble a temporary “space of narratability” (p. 84) to overcome the crisis. The author takes up a position in the muddy and suffocating corner of suffering and concrete power relations, from where the plain surface of highly coherent accounts of social and cultural phenomena appears to be impracticable, if not actually epistemologically violent. According to her approach – a dynamic and critical ethnopsychiatry – healing depends on fighting witchcraft on the same ground, managing the same “forces” and reversing their effects. Looking for “unviolated” internal resources is an act of resistance against the pathologisation of suffering, which is always socially rooted.
A further strength of Taliani’s book is its accurate reconstruction of the genealogies of practices and systems of domination that can be traced back to the colonial era. This historicisation of the moral economy of violence perpetrated along migration path is fundamental for demonstrating the inadequacy of the pathologising models used to interpret suffering in the migration context.
One aspect that arouses the reader’s curiosity, but has not been developed in the book, is the possibility of interpreting the relationship established between the women and the researcher/healer through the lenses of symbolic kinship and economic transactions (such as debt or pawnship) as applied by the author to the relationship between madams, women, and children. The question that remains open is whether, if the ethno-psychiatric healing act entails “bringing someone back to life” (p. 21), there is any debt (of life?) at stake in that specific relationship when the healing process is to some extent effective.
AMM (Archive of Migrant Memories), Rome