2022 Fall Blog Culture and Identity Envoy Italy Race Shreya Sridhar Temple Rome

Race in Italy

This prose-poem was inspired by the “Race in Italy” discussion with Gaylor Mangumbu and Angel Alessandri on the Afro-Italian and Asian-Italian experiences respectively. Both spoke to how language and the ways in which they were defined on the basis of their race affected their attempts to try to create a home within Italy, and I recognized the same theme in my family’s own experience, albeit in the United States instead. In an attempt to merge those sentiments, I created the piece below.

My cognitive psychology professor liked starting his lectures with a question. It was a good way to engage with our higher thinking, he said, as if he somehow knew how scared I was to think too hard about anything presented as a statement at the time.

How much of our lived experience is dictated by language? Is it possible to know something we don’t have the words to express?

If there’s a word for love in Tamil I’ve never heard it, though it is the language that lulled me to sleep and counted off the streets between our old apartment and my sister’s elementary school. I know ‘come here’ and ‘six’ and ‘have you eaten yet’ but not so much in the way of ‘I’m proud of you’ or the ever elusive ‘I love you’.

In many ways, the question becomes: is it possible to be loved when my mouth has never shaped the words, nor seen it on another? Is it possible to be hated when no words are uttered at all, just dirty looks and fumbling fingers trying desperately to grasp at stability through the slurs that dig into their teeth like cavities?

Maybe not, something within me says. But it will feel like it is, so what really is the difference?

I tell them gargling salt water might help the words come unglued from their throats even though braving the salt of the ocean has only ever done the opposite for me.

When ships pull into harbor, easing from the mist onto land that has been yearned for for weeks on end, I wonder what the dock calls them. It is the lighthouse that guides the ships on their journey, yes, but the docks that welcome them, that will hold their oars at bay when their sails begin to wonder if home was quite as salty as this new place is.

Italy has 400 lighthouses dotting its shores, all beckoning without words. There’s a romance in the idea until one stops to wonder if there are words at all, or if ships are called in only to be questioned at the shore, where no answers will truly suffice because they slip out in a tongue that’s never recognized.

Instead, they will be ushered through by the name written along the sides of their vessels, the name they cannot choose nor read themselves but that lighthouses broadcast so brightly it blinds all those who may have known it by another.

Boarding is never quite as hard as disembarkation, the realization that from this point on you are more deck than cabin, more painted name than known, more what they say than what you are; the truth is only the truth for as long as you believe it and lies can be so much louder when there are miles of waves drowning out the sound of your mother tongue and it’s a shame to have a boat’s name when you’ve walked hours inland but better that than to be ignored right?.

What’s a little more when you’ve already given everything?

Just a little more is inconsequential when you have already given everything.

Growing up, my neighbor had two pet parakeets that he would allow to fly uncaged for a few minutes everyday. I asked him why, how he trusted that they would come back.

Birds are the truest migrants. He told me. But as long as I make their home kind enough, they’ll know to return.

Their cages are nothing much, just a swing and some perches, food at the bottom, names hand painted on charms hanging on the outside with twine. The parakeets don’t actually know their own names—I’d ascertained as much through experimental calls into the evening air.

But they know the sound of the patio door sliding open, know it’s time to come home when it does. They know the familiar little cage and the shrubs that are always cut lopsidedly and the birdseed I’ve undoubtedly spilled on the table in an attempt to feed them, and they chirp for having found their way back to it all, again and again, despite having every chance to choose otherwise, they sing for having found a place that will never understand the words they say but listens anyway.

Maybe home will never be perfect, and the ocean will always be a blanket, and our names will never sound the same again. Maybe that’s okay.

Maybe home is simply where we have the courage to sing and the confidence that we are being heard.

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