Ricatti’s Italians in Australia: History, Memory, Identity is a detailed work by a discerning historian of Italian migration to Australia. By presenting relevant elements of the migratory experience over the past 150 years, along with socio-economic mobility, disorientation and reorientation, and identities, the work contributes to the study of Italian migration to Australia. Social facts of Italians in Australia, including racism, language, gender imbalance, daily family experiences, and aged care, are re-examined by a historian whose motivation is to challenge previous work and encourage research to look beyond the local. This is done with approaches and theories that interconnect with and relate to matters of transculturation, decolonialisation, and intersectionality.
The book is well structured, with seven chapters in which Ricatti invites the reader to reflect on the position(s) that Italians have occupied within the national history of Australian, seen in a contemporary global context. Among Ricatti’s priorities, mapping the complexity of a transcultural approach in order to reconceptualise the histories, identities, and memories of Italian migrants is one.
The introductory chapter includes the notion, coined by the author, of «the intensity of migrant lives’ (p. 10) in which «intensity» (a word that etymologically incorporates «intention» and «tension») signifies a conception of migrants’ intentions to improve their living conditions, and also their tensions (e.g. the difficulties of being in-between different cultures). It is worth highlighting that such «intensity» is interpreted in an existentialist sense, especially when Ricatti claims that intensity could allow profound changes related to the existential and social rupture of migrants’ transcultural identities.
The second chapter provides an articulate historical summary supported by demographic data, structured in terms of three coordinates (the persistence of Italian migratory networks, the «quasi-colonial» nature of Italy’s unification, and the disequilibrium between north and south in Italy)(p. 17). This chapter includes also reflections on the long history of Italian migration, and the author’s view that the recent increase in migration might be a sign of the reactivation of dormant migratory strategies and transcultural competencies that are deeply rooted in Italian transnational history.
«Work and Socio-economic Mobility» is a chapter related to issues of work and class exploitation. Among the key concepts is that of sistemarsi (the achievement of a comfortable stability), something that migrants may plan, but is in fact often constructed and imagined, and most importantly something that is characterised by being circular, rather than being a unidirectional migratory strategy. In highlighting the ability of Italian migrants to adapt and adjust to the postwar opportunities in Australia, Ricatti stresses the skills of a group defined by their peasant background; limited literacy and knowledge of English, victim of the dominant racism and governmental opportunism. Ricatti’s narratives on Italian women working in Australia are also rich in detail and analysis.
The fourth chapter places a decolonial frame to the study of racism. Starting with an explanation of the Australian antipathy towards Italians (especially southerners, believed to be «between white and black»), based on Darwinist motifs, Ricatti highlights the Australian obsession with whiteness, and how this obsession continues undisturbed during multiculturalism to the present day (p. 55). Ricatti sees such discrimination influenced by colonial racism and being embedded at the core of the Australian nation, in dominant social practices, popular ideas, and national culture.
In describing racism, Ricatti analyses the strategies Italian migrants utilised in response to discrimination, in particular their constant attempts to be recognised as just as «white and respectable’ as the dominant Anglo-Australian majority, and be different from the others, darker, and more subaltern. Such a dynamic of «whitening’ resided in the propensity by northern Italian migrants to insist on their «whiteness» and to distinguish themselves from the «peasant», less trustworthy southerners, especially the calabresi (p. 53).
Ricatti emphasises the role of Italians in the dispossession of First Nations’ land and the continuing bias against Indigenous people, while also drawing attention to the numerous positive relationships between Italians and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The author emphasises how the of idiosyncrasy towards southern Italians was a common strategy of northern Italian migrants to align with the Australian racist discourse, and how both southern and northern Italians have applied this strategy to the Indigenous peoples of Australia and other ethnic groups, especially Asian and Muslim migrants.
In his fifth chapter, Ricatti recognises the complexities present among Italian-Australian families and criticises previous literature that tended to oversimplify their values (e.g. assumptions on the patriarchal structure and amoral nature of Italian families, or crystallisation or core values among the Italians of South Australia). The last section of chapter five revolves around the implications of the ageing of the Italian migrant population in Australia, where matters of longing, belonging, nostalgia, and caregiving are essential in understanding the «Italian way» of caring for the elderly (p. 92).
In the final chapter Ricatti re-stresses the importance of reinterpreting key aspects of Italian migration history through a transcultural reconceptualisation that would benefit areas of Italian studies by reconsidering migration history and public memory in a more critical way.
This book is a valuable contribution to the study of Italians in Australia and the roles they have played through its history and within a global context.
University of South Australia