Ribka Sibhatu was born on 18 September 1962 in Asmara, Eritrea, where she attended Italian school until 1979 when, having rejected a marriage proposal from an Ethiopian politician, she was sentenced to one year in prison for opposing Marxist ideology. After serving 10 months, she managed to flee to Sudan with the help of her brother and, in 1980, moved to Addis Ababa where she completed high school. During that time she met her future husband, a Frenchman with whom, in 1986, she moved to France where her daughter Sara was born. Despite residing in Lyon, she enrolled remotely in the Faculty of Foreign Languages at La Sapienza Unversity in Rome as she would not have been proficient enough to pass the French language examination required by French universities. After her marriage ended Sibhatu moved to Italy where she continued her studies obtaining a doctorate in the Sociology of Communication from the same university.
Throughout this time, Sibhatu had been writing poetry, using a poetic form originating in the Eritrean tradition, known as ‘aulò’ (an oral poem which is recited at public events such as weddings, funerals, and commemorations). The ‘aulò’ can then be memorised and re-interpreted to create new ones to suit different circumstances. Usually performed by men, this genre carries a socio-political critique and is marked by rhetorical tones. Sibhatu appropriated it by performing it as a female poet and using it to narrate personal stories about ordinary people. In 1993, she published the book Aulò. Canto-poesia dall'Eritrea [Aulò. Bardic Poems from Eritrea] with the Sinnos publishing house series 'I Mappamondi' [The Globes]. Aulò was originally written in Tigrinya, a Semitic language spoken in the Tigray region of Eritrea, and then translated into Italian by the author herself. It is a complex autobiographical work that explores the themes of identity, freedom (or lack thereof), and exile. It also includes poems, proverbs, and songs belonging to the Eritrean tradition. A third edition appeared in 2009. Sibhatu’s Aulò and Shirin Ramzanali Fazel’s Lontano da Mogadiscio which followed in 1994 (Far from Mogadishu, 2016) were the first books written in Italian by authors from former Italian colonies, both women.
In 2009, Aulò was used as a starting point for the documentary Aulò. Roma postcoloniale [Aulò. Postcolonial Rome]. Written by Sibhatu with Simone Brioni, the doumentary was directed by the latter with Graziano Chiscuzzu and Ermanno Guida, and released in 2012 by Kimerafilm. The documentary, following Sibhatu’s life, retraces the interconnected history of Italy and Eritrea, at the same time shedding light on the Eritrean community in Italy. The DVD of the documentary was published together with a volume of Sibhatu’s poems, Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! Poesie di nostalgia, d'esilio e d'amore [Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! Poems of Nostalgia, Exile and Love].
In 2004, Sibhatu published Il cittadino che non c'è. L'immigrazione nei media italiani [The Citizen Who Does Not Exist. Immigration in Italian Media], which stemmed from her PhD thesis on the representation of immigrants in Italian media. In addition to various projects conducted in other parts of the country, she worked with Rome’s City Council from 2002 to 2005 as a consultant for inter-cultural policies. Since 2006, she has also collaborated with the Italian Ministry of Education as a member of the Scientific Committee for Inter-Cultural Affairs. Sibhatu was selected to represent Eritrea at the Poetry Parnassus held in London to celebrate the 2012 London Olympics. It was the largest poetry convention of all time with 140 poets, storytellers, and rappers representing their countries, gathered together to perform their work. Sibhatu sat alongside authors of the calibre of Seamus Heaney from Ireland and Wole Soynka from Nigeria. All poems were subsequently translated and collected in the anthology The World Record, edited by Neil Astley and Anna Selby, and published by Bloodaxe in 2012. In the same year, her book L’esatto numero delle stelle e altre fiabe dell’altopiano eritreo [The Exact Number of Stars and Other Eritrean Fables] was published by Sinnos. This is a collection of traditional Eritrean fables and, as Aulò, it presents the Italian and the Tigrinya version in parallel, with illustrations by Luca De Luise.
In July 2020, the Poetry Translation Centre (London) published Aulò! Aulò! Aulò!, a collection of Sibhatu’s poems translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely with an afterword by Sasha Dugdale. The launch of the volume was accompanied by a series of online events. Ribka Sibhatu, poet and writer, continues to contribute to the cultural exchange between Italy and Eritrea and, more broadly, between Italy and the Horn of Africa.
Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! Poesie di nostalgia, d’esilio e d’amore/Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! Poems of nostalgia, exile and love ed. by Simone Brioni, transl. by André Naffis-Sahely (Rome: Kimerafilm, 2012; sold together with the DVD of the documentary Aulò. Roma postcoloniale, directed by Simone Brioni, Graziano Chiscuzzu, and Ermanno Guida)
Il numero esatto delle stelle e altre fiabe eritree (Rome: Sinnos, 2012)
Scritture migrate [with Clementina Sandra Ammendola and and Hu Lanbo] (Rome: Sinnos, 2008)
Poems published Individually (Selection)
‘Al sicomoro’, ‘Da lontano’, ‘Dkala’, ‘Perché no?’, ‘Sara’, and ‘Son tornata’ in Quaderno africano I (Florence: Loggia de’ Lanzi, 1998, pp. 78-84)
‘Il caffè di Abebà’ (Il Caffè, 1, 1994, p. 2)
‘Cara Roma’, ‘Parola’, and ‘So’ bella nera’ in Scritture migrate by Clementina Sandra Ammendola, Ribka Sibhatu and Hu Lanbo (Rome: Sinnos, 2008, pp 27-30)
‘Illusione’ and ‘Le ferite’ in Alì e altre storie: Letteratura e immigrazione ed. by Raffaele Genovese, Paolo Giovannelli, Felice Liperi, Angiolino Lonardi, and Maria Chiara Martinetti (Turin: Rai-Eri, 1998, pp. 97-98)
‘Parola’ and ‘Sono’ in L’Afrique coloniale et postcoloniale dans la culture, la littérature et la société italiennes: représentations et témoignages ed. by Mariella Colin and Enzo Rosario Laforgia (Caen: Presses Universitaires de Caen, 2003, p. 245)
‘Una battaglia con due eroi: Dejazmach Bahta Hagos e il maggiore Pietro Toselli’ [poems and introductory notes] in Africa-Italia. Scenari migratori ed. by Maria Paola Nanni and Franco Pittau (Rome: IDOS, 2010, pp. 115-116)
Aulò: Roma postcoloniale by Simone Brioni, Graziano Chiscuzzo and Ermanno Guida (Rome: Kimerafilm, 2012; sold together with the volume of poems Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! Poesie di nostalgia, d’esilio e d’amore/Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! Poems of nostalgia, exile and love ed. by Simone Brioni, transl. by André Naffis-Sahely)
Il cittadino che non c’è: L’immigrazione nei media italiani (Rome: EDUP, 2004)
‘Il cittadino che non c’è. L’immigrazione nei media italiani’ in Incontri: Spazi e luoghi della mediazione interculturale ed. by Massimiliano Fiorucci (Rome: Armando Editore, 2004, pp. 76-114)
Translations into Foreign Languages
Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! [a collection of poems translated by André Naffis-Sahely] (London: Poetry Translation Centre, 2020)
Individual poems translated by André Naffis-Sahely for The Poetry Translation Workshop, Poetry Translation Centre, London:
‘In Lampedusa’ [Translation of ‘A Lampedusa’ by André Naffis-Sahely] (‘The Great Flight’, Modern Poetry in Translation, 1, 2016)
‘Three Fables’ [Translated by André Naffis-Sahely] (World Literature Today, 88, 5, September-October 2014, pp. 41-44)
‘Why not?’ [Translation of ‘Perché no?’ by Chad Davidson and Marella Feltrin-Morris] (Metamorphoses, 14, 1-2, 2006, p. 208)
Benchouiha, Lucie: ‘Hybrid Identities? Immigrant Women’s Writing in Italy’ (Italian Studies, 61, 2, 2006, pp. 251-262)
Brioni, Simone: ‘Across Languages, Cultures and Nations. Ribka Sibhatu’s Aulò’ in Italian Women Writers, 1800-2000: Boundaries, Borders, and Transgression eds. Patrizia Sambuco (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, pp. 123-142)
Cantalupo, Charles: War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (Dar El Salam: African Books Collective, 2009)
Parati, Graziella: ‘Living in Translation. Thinking with an Accent’ (Romance Languages Annual, 8, 1996, pp. 280-286)
Polezzi, Loredana: ‘La mobilità come modello: ripensando i margini della scrittura italiana’ in Studi europei e mediterranei eds. Armando Gnisci and Nora Moll, Studi (e testi) italiani, Vol. 22 (Rome: Bulzoni, 2008, pp. 115-128)
—: ‘Mixing Mother Tongues: Language, Narrative and the Spaces of Memory in Postcolonial Works by Italian Women Writers (Part 2)’ (Romance Studies, 24, 3, 2006, pp. 215-225)
Ponzanesi, Sandra: Paradoxes of Postcolonial Culture: Contemporary Women Writers of the Indian and Afro-Italian Diaspora (New York: SUNY Press, 2004)
—: ‘Post-Colonial Women’s Writing in Italian: A Case Study of the Eritrean Ribka Sibhatu’ (Northeast African Studies, 5, 3, 1998, pp. 97-115)
Romeo, Caterina: ‘New Italian Languages’ (Italian Studies in Southern Africa/Studi d’Italianistica nell’Africa Australe, 21, 1-2, 2008, pp. 195-214)
Interviews/in the Media
Comberiati, Daniele: ‘Un grido da Asmara. Autobiografia e liriche di Ribka Sibhatu’ in La quarta sponda. Scrittrici in viaggio dell’Africa coloniale all’Italia di oggi (Rome: Caravan Edizioni, 2009, pp. 124-136)