Stephanie Malia Hom on Italy’s Migration Crisis

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 While the physical #ISA2020 Annual Conference has been canceled, we’ve created this new online portal so you can take advantage of the book deals normally only given to conference attendees. Our featured International Studies books are now available to everyone with our special virtual booth forty percent discount—use the promo code 09EXP40 to save. Enjoy!

We asked author Stephanie Malia Hom three questions about her new book Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention, and her research on Italy’s colonial imperialism in Libya.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book? 

When I was conducting my first field visit to Lampedusa, a tiny island known to be the epicenter of Italy’s migration crisis in the Mediterranean, I felt like I was being stonewalled at every turn. No one would speak to me about the sbarchi, or landings, of hundreds of thousands of migrants who were fleeing violence and persecution in sub-Saharan and northern Africa and crossing the sea in an attempt to arrive in Europe. Despite the fact that I spoke Italian fluently and had lived in Italy long enough to understand the country’s cultural norms and values, I was having trouble breaking through to anyone. Frustrated, I went for a coffee at the café closest to my apartment. The barista started to make small talk and asked where I was from. “Honolulu,” I answered. And then, everything changed. “Ah, you’re an islander, so you understand,” said the barista. With that proclamation, we established a solidarity between islanders and started to “talk story,” as we say in Hawai‘i. This was the cultural key that opened many doors that once seemed to be so firmly closed and greatly advanced my research on Lampedusa.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

It took me ten years to write this book, and about halfway through the process, I started to read American authors voraciously, and in particular, works of fiction and essays. I was awed by the masterful prose of Cormac McCarthy, the ingenious wordplay of David Foster Wallace, the inventive structures of George Saunders, and the panoply of feelings that Joan Didion could invoke with a mere sentence. Their influence focused me on the craft of writing, and it is telling that my authorial voice in this book is very different from my previous publications. Had I known the power of reading so far afield at the beginning of writing my book, I would have done so much earlier. Now, when I write, I am always reading a work of literature at the same time.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of International Studies?

People often ask me how to categorize my scholarship. It is history, anthropology, critical theory, literary studies, journalism, political commentary, or what exactly? My undergraduate degree is in international relations, and I credit this training as the source of my ongoing fascination with the nation-state, a concept so complex that it is necessary to study it from many disciplinary angles. In my book, Empire’s Mobius Strip, I explore how the Italian nation-state mediates the relationship between empire and migration, with the control of mobility being key for the consolidation and exercise of state power. I believe the field of international studies can be deepened and expanded by embracing approaches from other disciplines, for in telling the story of the nation-state from many angles, it will resonate in many directions, and hopefully, to many new audiences.

Stephanie Malia Hom is Executive Director of the Acus Foundation. She is author of The Beautiful Country and tweets @empirestrip.

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