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Interview: Nadeesha Uyangoda – “I’ve plenty of time to write now.”

The Only Black Person in the Room author talks about life in Milan during the lockdown. 

Nadeesha Uyangoda’s first book is a memoir/personal essay about racial issues and identities in Italy. Uyangoda, 27, is a freelance journalist and currently quarantined with her mother in Milan. 

How are things?
I haven’t left my house for almost a month now. I’m working from home, which isn’t an issue for me since I’m used to it. I think those who live in the cities, in small apartments, sometimes without even a balcony are most affected by the lockdown. 

Online food shopping isn’t an easy task these days. Everyone is doing their groceries online, and there aren’t many delivery spots available. I have to go to the supermarket, and the queue is so long I’m always tempted to give up. However, there’s no shortage of goods right now, except for flour and yeast – people are cooking just to fritter away the day. 

Over the next few weeks, we’ll see if the lockdown is affecting the availability of local produce. Italian agriculture seems to be at risk because of COVID-19: seasonal workers, who usually come from abroad, stayed at home this year.

What’s the mood like?
Emotionally, there have been two moments: at first, the general mood was hopeful, cheerful even (“We’ll get through this,” “It will be fine.”) Then we started to look suspiciously and angrily at people outside of their homes. Some people have even posted pictures and footage of joggers, neighbours walking dogs, and fellow citizens doing their shopping twice in a row. Looking at the posts on Facebook pages of towns and cities, you can see the change: there’s unrest. 

Are people following the orders to quarantine?
Citizens abide by the rules, even when politicians set a poor example. I’ve seen institutional figures not wearing their masks properly, or taking them off randomly and then wearing them again. Social distancing is taken very seriously. I can’t imagine hugging another human being once the lockdown is over, not from one day to the other anyway, even if I really miss hugs.

Do you think the government acted quickly enough once they realised the virus was spreading in Lombardy?
I think the government has acted as quickly as any other Western country. However, the management of the emergency was a bit chaotic. The day before the decree putting Milan and Lombardy under lockdown was signed off, a draft of the same order was leaked to the press panicking people.

Also, the government waited too long before closing all the non-necessary industries and businesses. Until 21 March, most of the factories were still open, with workers protesting and striking over a lack of security measures in the workplace.

Since the lockdown has been in place, the self-certification form required for leaving one’s house has changed four times in three weeks. It may seem a minor issue in the larger picture, but I think it says a lot about how the emergency has been managed.   

What can other countries learn from Italy?
I don’t think other countries will necessarily learn from Italy. People are keen on underestimating the effects of COVID-19 until they find out for themselves. Boris Johnson being taken into intensive care should give the UK a clear picture of what the next few months are going to look like. 

There’s been some inappropriate behaviour lately – the Governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia for one, who made a comment about the Chinese eating live rats…
In Italy most of the politicians get away with racist outbursts, shrugging off their words either as funny remarks or political opinions. However, Roberto Calderoli has been given an 18-month prison sentence for likening the country’s first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, to an orangutan. He’s still an MP and one of the Italian Senate’s vice-presidents. 

Zaia apologised with a letter to the Chinese Ambassador in Italy. But he also said that his words were misunderstood and exploited. Yes, I do think Italian politicians get away with racism (and sexism as well — Salvini is a clear example). Italy has a problem with structural racism: Calderoli was convicted over that racist remark, however at the beginning, in 2015, the Parliament granted him immunity from prosecution for racial hate speech, backing his claims that his words were purely political opinion.

…and the promo campaign on Twitter showing life carrying on as normal in Milan, #MilanDoesntStop #Milanononsiferma, which is madness. Was there a backlash?
We all underestimated the impact and the danger of the virus. There was a backlash against the campaign – it was supported by the Mayor of Milan, as well, and he admitted to his mistakes. In the last few days, there has been a passing off of responsibilities between regional institutions of Lombardy and national government. Many people question why the area of Bergamo (about 4,500 deaths in one month) wasn’t declared a red zone like Codogno even before the lockdown.

How’s work going? I see you’ve had commissions from The Daily Telegraph. Have you been asked to take any risks by editors – interviewing or travel?
They were concerned about my safety, especially foreign editors. For many of us freelancers, assignments or speaking engagements have been cancelled or postponed due to travel restrictions. I was supposed to start a video production last month and would have had a couple of talks in April — both have been cancelled.

What financial support is available for freelancers who are ill with coronavirus or have lost work?
Some freelance journalists will be able to apply for the social shock absorbers, which consists of €600 for March. That’s the rental of a one-room apartment in Milan. 

But there are also opportunities for pitching…
I’ve seen some colleagues tweeting about the lack of commissions in the time of coronavirus. They were quickly contacted by foreign editors looking for stories from Italy — so Twitter could be the easiest way to find someone to pitch to. 

Well done on finishing your book – what themes did you want to explore?
I’ve plenty of time to write now. My first book, out this autumn, is a memoir/personal essay about racial issues and identities in Italy. “The only black person in the room” (L’Unica persona nera nella stanz). My work focuses on migration, diversity, second generations, identity, inclusivity, and blackness. I write every day. 

Do you feel Italian?
I was born in Columbo, Sri Lanka but I’ve lived in Italy since I was six-years-old. I feel Italian since I’ve been here for most of my life. 

And the story behind your name?
It means ‘goddess of the river’ or ‘beautiful, shiny river’. My uncle chose it, I was named after his mother. 

The only black person in the room will be out in autumn 2020. Read more of Nadeesha’s work at https://nadeeshauyangoda.contently.com and www.nadeeshaugyangoda.it

Photos taken in Milan, right after the lockdown decree.

By Nicci Talbot

Director, freelance journalist & copywriter

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