Catherine Sorba belongs to a generation that has the feeling of never quite being at home, nor away. “Corsica is a small country,” she said, committing the common mistake of labeling her homeland -- a department of France -- its own country. “The beauty is not always enough. There is a dissatisfaction -- a need to flee. Historically, Corsicans were adventurers and vagabonds; we vanished in the maquis,” she mused. The maquis, a mountain thicket peculiar to the Mediterranean, became the hiding spot du jour in a land where vendetta-as-justice plagues generations of households with its promise of mutually assured destruction. “This was a nomadic existence sometimes attached to a sentiment of exploration and other times to one of escape.”
Certainly, Sorba’s Corsican heritage is a story of both. Born to an Italian–Maltese mother, Sorba never met her Corsican father, who left when she was a year old. “I started to ask a lot of people about Corsica, curious about the country that could never achieve peace,” she said. As a videographer and leading member of the current renaissance in Corsican culture, these are questions she is beginning to answer, and across various platforms: film (Searching for Paoli), books ("Paoli City") , and a developing USA/CORSICAN CONNECTION web series. Although these efforts are significant, they are not unique. With the popularity of digital media, the Corsican cause opens the curtain on its virtual stage -- a debut centuries in the making.
Until recently, the polyphonic choral tradition of Corsica, an improvised style of a capella performance, lived only in the forested landscape of its origins. This is the mountainous terrain where apparitions haunt isolated shepherds and trees command reverence as incarnations of the dead. The ancient tradition -- a layering of quivering, ethereal voices -- was intended to dissolve into the open Corsican horizon.
Now, the song reverberates against the New York skyline as Michel Madie, a high-end New York realtor, Corsican immigrant, and baritone, chants above a chorus of three sopranos in the heart of Central Park. These are only four self-identified Corsicans in a diaspora of thousands.
The economic instability of the small French territory has flung its citizens as far as Puerto Rico and Taiwan. According to the Localized Regional Unemployment Ratesed Regional Unemployment Rates, just over 14 percent of Corsicans were unemployed in 1997. Yet, Corsica has had a 3.1 percent average growth in GDP -- the fastest rate in all of France. And still the rate of departure from the territory keeps growing despite this economic upswing. From their forebears, Corsicans inherit the wanderlust initially born of economic necessity.
Ambition, rather than necessity, has driven this most recent exodus. “This is not the same immigrant who fled the economic crisis. These days, young people leave by choice,” said Patrizia Gattaceca. She co-founded the Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses, a female trio that has performed at the 1992 Winter Olympics and with the likes of John Cale and Patti Smith. She travels frequently for her music, but Corsica remains her home. “If you need medical procedures, or are interested in a particular career, it is difficult to flourish in Corsica.”
Today, there are approximately 300 Corsicans in New York, the Corsican American Association estimates, with the proviso that these statistics are barely ballpark figures. In such headcounts, Corsicans are rarely separated from French émigrés more generally. “All we know is that we have more international Corsicans than we have inside the island,” said Sorba. Outside of their 8,000-kilometer island, Corsicans have left no official trace in the world.
But this is changing. From its New York base, the Corsican American Association is spearheading an initiative to connect the island’s scattered expatriates through a global news network that would also act as a makeshift census. The mission is to erase differences; "I call it 'here and there' it doesn't make a difference," says Patrick Ottomani, the Association's president and the Retail Director of Berluti, a luxury shoe brand. In its earliest stages, this network aspires to become a fully functional news provider with a focus on hyphenated Corsicans. “A community will exist internationally. Corsicans will know what fellow expatriates are accomplishing,” Ottomani said. This emphasis on transnational communication also promises interaction with the Corsican island and its internal economy. "Today, everything is linked. Today, you can't live as an island."
A 2011 study shows that Corsicans have embraced the digital age and are, in fact, the most prolific shoppers in France, Le Parisien reported. In 2010, some 68 percent of Corsicans made an online purchase monthly -- a likely symptom of the island’s limited number of vendors and resources.
The popularity of new media also remedies a greater problem: the fragmentation of an already marginal people dispersed by mass emigration. Social platforms such as Facebook and iOS applications have inspired a slew of networks dedicated to all things Corsican. Groups on Corsican historical documents, e-commerce, and sports refresh expatriates with breezes of the island experience, A Facebook group devoted to Corsican folklore, for example, presents myths such as that of Fontanaccia Dolmen, a megalithic house of cards said to be the Devil’s forge. Another group called, Mandevilla=Amiante a Bastia, is steadfast in its fight against asbestos-infested construction zones, posting air quality assessments and notes from the regional prefect alongside status updates that ask, “Who is going to pay?”
Media companies have capitalized on the seeming omnipresence of Corsicans on Facebook. The French communications firm, Solocal Group, launched ZoomOn Corsica -- a Facebook group of more than 30,000 followers -- exclusively on the social network, forsaking other channels of exposure. “Our presence on Facebook is the key to our brand strategy and a symbol of the digital evolution...we hope to give practical local information, which has been the crux of our activity through the years, by focusing on the 'social' aspect,” ZoomOn said in an interview with Journal de la Corse.
Mingling within virtual media has gained a sheen of reality as sharing via Pinterest, Twitter, Google+ allows users a certain continuity -- the ability to carry the same e-identity across various platforms. Activity on Google is attached to Facebook ads, applications such as Vine and Instagram are directly connected to Facebook, and any given website activity can be resumed on a tablet or smartphone. ACORSICATV -- a web-based video channel -- is available on the iPad as is the LinkedIn group entitled, “Corsica Diaspora,” which has inspired such threads as: “The Corsicans of Provence”, “I am trying to develop a Corsican network in Asia…Anyone around?,” and a call for participants in the film, Decolage Horaire -- or Jet Lag -- a turn-of-phrase that pokes fun at the ants-in-pants movements of migrant Corsicans.
Gattaceca had an explanation for this widespread adoption of new media. “Overseas,” she said, “Corsicans carry a fantasy for the ancient, mythical Corsica. The Internet, in a sense, fulfills this longing and provides an online network where foreigners can directly meet.” She herself is an avid follower of Corsican literature blogs. “We have adapted the virtual to our needs.” One of her go-tos is a blog dedicated to the Corsican poet Jacques Fusina, which aggregates user-generated poetry. “Young people started a dialogue on improvised poetry -- something that was rapidly disappearing. Because of this website, they could honor their traditions." This was accomplished through the innovative use of chat to compose poetry instantaneously. "It’s truly the meeting of tradition and technology."
With over 1,278 users, living in 453 cities of 79 countries, Corsicadiaspora.com is arguably the most immigrant-centric of these developments. Although it is mostly geared towards Facebook users, Corsicadiaspora.com allows anyone with an internet connection to record her movements on a world map. Most users have two locations: their current city and their home in Corsica.
For Allison Bruel, a social work student at Lehman College, this dual-belonging is not just a virtual reality. The 24 year-old carries a large ram engraving on her keyring, where she keeps the three keys to her family’s home in the village of Castellare-di-Casinca and the one to her apartment in Astoria underneath them. “These animals started disappearing from Corsica thirty years ago,” Bruel said of the ram -- an emblem of the island’s losses, ranging from the elusive endangerment of its cultural identity to far more palpable ecological damages. “Just recently, they started reintroducing them."
Her diaspora experience has been an especially busy one. After high school she spent nine months in Brighton, England, learning English and then continued her studies in Australia, where she spent nine months training for the TOEFL, or Test Of English as a Foreign Language -- an assessment required of foreigners who want to teach in English. Now, even after three years in New York, Bruel still forages the beverage aisles, searching for Corsican beer.
Initially, Bruel registered for Corsicadiaspora.com out of curiosity. With a network of only 25 New York Corsicans and no more than two registered users from her home village, the website is proving an insufficient address book to the wandering society.
Such has also been the case for Alexandre Oppecini, an international actor-director who has a minimal presence, yet incredible use, for the site. "Corsica is a small community where people talk a lot and very fast. When everyone learned I was going to New York, they gave me the contacts of the immigrants they knew already settled there. Now, I use email and social networks to reconnect with Corsicans. It is funny,” he said, “because I got the chance to meet people in New York much easier than if they had been in Corsica."
Oppecini has dedicated most of his work to the island. His upcoming productions include a multilingual play on Sampieru Corsu, a Corsican general, patriot, and statesman famous for intercepting a Genoa-bound boat carrying his wife and her lover. Without much ado, he strangled her for adultery, and is said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Othello. Even more interesting than this famous tragedy is its political backdrop: the 16th-to-18th century revolution for Corsican independence as Genoa, England and France dug their flags into its fertile soil.
Oppecini is also developing his first movie in Corsica called Sur Tes Traces, or Pursuing Your Roots -- a confrontation between a son and his violent father. "It is about freeing ourselves from the wrong patterns of our families. In Corsica, family and religion are heavy crosses to bear," Oppecini said. "It is important to understand that it can be a prison you need to free yourself from.” For Oppecini, freedom has become a euphemism for displacement. His travels include extensive visits to London, Rome, Lisbon, New York, and Barcelona. “I loved the cities, but I was never as moved as when I watch the sun rising over Italy on the Mediterranean Sea.”
Evidently, the Corsican culture is more often lived outside the island. What Michel Madie attempts to replicate is the experience within its borders. “Let’s faint in unison soon,” writes Madie, in an email to his group. “We imitate our ancestors,” he said, “and I am sure it is good for them as I can hear them flip in their sarcophagi -- the pure nostalgia of the great and vulnerable moments of quacking sounds in my living room with a group of courageous throats.” Even in Central Park West, the many-voiced polyphonie carries as its sullen echo the history of a troubled nation.
A trip to Musée Maison, the Harlem residence and showroom of the ‘Spiderman of Hamilton Heights’ -- Luis Da Cruz, rubbish artist, trapezist and apprentice to couture designer, Pierre Cardin -- seems to resist any matter-of-fact introduction. But there you have it. This was Patrizia Gattaceca’s destination as she was led through Manhattan’s A train by Peter Carlaftes and Kat Georges, her publishers at Three Rooms Press. Catherine Sorba, her husband and three children -- uprooted Parisians and temporary guests to Cruz -- were hosting an Easter brunch.
The brownstone was truly an artist’s residence -- as if Luis Buñuel had dreamt up Feng Shui and put it in Harlem. Under open entryways, you could make out the hinges that once held doors; a toilet was placed indiscreetly at the end of a stairway, and trapeze circles were hung, mobile, on the bedroom ceiling.
This was where Cruz greeted Gattaceca, Carlaftes, and Georges. In the next “room” lay a bathtub that was draped in strings of sanitary napkins and tampons. “It has to do with Venus,” said Cruz. “People think this stuff is disgusting. They think it is so gross but I do not.”
Originally from Portugal, Cruz has taken the idea of an ‘open’ house quite literally. He regularly invites strangers into his home wherein everything -- including his art and furniture -- is for sale. For an upcoming exhibit, Cruz is eyeing Corsican real estate, searching for a home that has survived the blasts of nationalist bombs. “A bombed house?” repeats an incredulous Gattaceca, “Well, [you] won’t have trouble finding any.”
As the bombings of December 8, 2012 announced to the world, Corsican secessionists will not submit to foreign company without a fight. Reuters reported that the attacks targeted more than 17 unoccupied vacation homes. Militant secessionists, known for their violence against foreigners, have been linked to these attacks and to Corsica’s claim to the highest murder rate per capita in Europe. While Corsican nationalists and extreme autonomists are considered to be mutually inclusive, the former has made it a point that the celebration of Corsican culture does not rely on its independence from France. On a global scale, a peaceful crusade has been mobilized, led by singers like Gattaceca. It’s called the Riacquista movement -- an initiative for the revival of Corsican language and culture.
After 244 years as a French territory, Corsica has struggled to maintain its fierce culture and traditions. According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous people, of the island’s 260,000 inhabitants, only 150,000 speak Corsu, the island’s endangered native tongue, diluted under strict French laws forbidding bilingual education. It was not until 1982 that the Corsu language became part of the island-wide education curriculum. Marie-Noelle Argenti, a Corsican-born, Parisian-bred, physical therapist living in New York learned bits of Corsican from her parents. But as schoolchildren in Corsica, the practice was to beat any student who spoke it.
In the atrium of her Upper West Side apartment, Argenti’s animated hands tell of her eight-year return to Corsica, spent doing theatre and seeing patients in the mountains, some of whom, especially the elderly, grew superstitious about her talents. There is heat in your hands, they would say.
Now her hands fiddle through a Kusmi tea chest before finally settling on the Darjeeling green tea. Argenti, who left Corsica for Paris at 9-months old, has transplanted the supernatural customs of her homeland. “My grandmother had a remedy for everything,” she said. “If I was sick, sunburnt or cranky, she would pray with a plate of water and slowly mix in oil, all the time muttering. Then she would interpret the droplets.” After seeing a deep flesh cut disappear under her grandmother’s spell, Argenti decided to learn the ancient charms; her godmother sent a thorough letter of instructions and when a friend was going through a divorce, Argenti turned to the ritual, getting severe chills. Don’t do it anymore, her godmother told her, you are too sensitive.
Argenti steeped a teabag in her porcelain cup, its insides ringed with a previously finished drink. She is interrupted by Andrea, her toddler, couriering a sticky-note from her hidden 9-year-old son, Raphael, studying in another room. “From: Raphael To: Maman,” the note says, “What is salsa?”
“C’est une danse,” Argenti replied to the wall. The two boys attend a bilingual public school. While Argenti thinks French and English are quite enough, Raphael has been asking to learn Corsu.
Argenti's husband, Patrick Ottomani, is developing a Corsu language school for the first and second-generation children living in the New York area. On an international scale, this resurrection of the Corsu language is led by traditional polyphonic singers like Gattaceca, who this past September released "Isula D'Anima" or "Island Soul." This book of bilingual poetry, written in Corsu, translated to English, is the first of its kind. “Corsu is just beginning its campaign as a legitimate language, ” said Gattaceca, “Being a singer, I have had the opportunity to travel with my language and my culture [but] we are still lacking legitimate exposure.”
Carlaftes, a child of the ‘70s, lived in the Bronx before becoming the “Duke of Dada” -- an author, screenwriter, and performer with a penchant for nonsensical art. More immediately obvious than these endeavors is his talent for extracting inside jokes from every offhand remark -- especially with Gattaceca who speaks little English. Carlaftes himself does not understand French but is quick to repeat any words he may recognize -- words like “agile” and “mouvement.”
The creative union between Gattaceca and Three Rooms Press was instantaneous. “We found her singing on the Internet, of course, and it was love at first sight with her work. So we made it a point to visit the island because we had made contact with her and we were able to come up with a project that, within one year’s time, was completed and fulfilled. It could not be more perfect, artistically.”
Although the book’s Corsican tour has ended, Gattaceca is offering poetry readings in several large cities including New York and Paris. Her visit to New York began with a March 25th performance at Le Poisson Rouge -- a Greenwich Village fixture that has previously presented Lou Reed, Norah Jones, and Yoko Ono. The set began with Gattaceca vocalizing in the language that few in the room could understand, let alone speak. Her audience, mostly members of the Corsican American Assocation, clung to the bar; legs were delicately folded and unfolded, a cough was stifled, and wine glasses were set down as Gattaceca hummed her way to high notes, closing her eyes every so often. This was followed by a reading from her book, conducted in a trio: Corsican, English, and French.
The following day, on the 26th, Gattaceca was interviewed on Sorba’s radio podcast, a Skype conversation streamed directly to Radio Paese 93.1 in Corsica. Radio Paese, produced mostly in Corsu, advertises its Wednesday services as, "an antenna for diffusing messages of support to Corsican political prisoners. To leave a message call: 01 48 59 22 12." Every other week, the station opens its airwaves to a member of the Corsican society, as it did for Gattaceca. Sorba hosts various interviews and also uploads them to Vimeo".
Still, international attention has found an uncomfortable place on the island. Secessionists militants warn that standardizing and broadcasting the minority culture undermines its authenticity. A 2011 study conducted at Emory University found that these secessionists highly disapprove of the cultural renaissance that they helped build. In a review of Corsican nationalism, Jean-Louis Briquet, research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, writes: "Corsica is the only French region in which protest movements based on demands about identity have managed to establish themselves in the political scene in the long term."
Ironically, the main threat to Corsican identity is also its lifeblood -- the tourism industry. When the weak agrarian economy forced a mass outmigration to mainland France in the 1930s, the country reacted by stimulating the economy, pumping funds into the tourism industry and effectively strangling the local culture. This created a widespread disdain for France. Although secessionist sentiments are considered radical, and most Corsicans acknowledge their reliance on the continent’s economy, few are enthusiastic to surrender their inherent right to environmental, cultural, and economic determinism. These are the rights that Corsica’s nationalist and secessionist movements have been negotiating with France. They can claim several victories: Corsica was granted its own assembly of counselors in 1982, a collectivity (Collectivité Territoriale de Corse) which, under the Joxe law, gave Corsica more powers than other French departments in 1991. Still, this gesture did little to acquiesce secessionists, many of whom require complete self-determinism.
"France needs to leave us alone,” said Sam Agostini, a 20-something art sales manager who divides his time between New York and Paris. After a few minutes at Voce Di -- a design emporium in the heart of SoHo -- co-founder Giorgio Stefano approached Agostini’s desk with a smile on his face. “Why don’t you tell us what you have in your bag,” Stefano says, responding to his own request without delay, “There is a knife in his bag.”
The knife -- which was never removed from its holster -- was given to Agostini by his step-brother and functions as more of an heirloom than a weapon. "When you get very close to someone,” Agostini explained, “you give them a knife which is basically saying, 'you can kill me at any time.’ It is complete trust.” In exchange, he said, the custom is to offer the giver a penny. The inherited knife, like the inherited vendetta, hints at a culture that cannot separate violence from family.
Born of an inefficient, absent leadership, the vendetta system of justice obligates a family to retaliate against every insult. Ancient feuds still survive today, with vestiges of the custom shadowing Corsicans as far as a canvas bag in a SoHo design studio. In Corsica, Agostini explains of the knife, “That would be the best gift I could give.”
Porto Vecchio, Agostini’s hometown, "lives," in his words, only three months a year. The native population of 15,000 multiplies to 200,000 during the summer -- an influx that ravages the landscape with construction projects. This figure promises to multiply exponentially this summer as Porto Vecchio will be the starting point for the 2013 Tour de France, the latest olive branch from the "Continentals." The bicycle race passes through Corsica this June and symbolizes the region’s value to the country and vice-versa.
Corsicans like Agostini see no economic possibility for a completely liberated Corsica, and understand the need to rely on France. Even so, Agostini can appreciate the role of his more impassioned compatriots: “Secessionists take action and protect the rest of Corsica,” he said.
But clearly not in the view of the French. “There is without a doubt a kind of racism in the attacks," said Manuel Valls, the French Interior Minister, in an interview with iTele. Certainly, there is ethnocentricity in the secessionist efforts to contain the island’s identity within its borders. But within the spectrum of Corsican nationalism, the secessionists sit at one end of the table, rebellious and romantic in their ideals, silently eyeing the gregarious Riacquista at the opposite end. Proud and realistic Corsicans, such as Agostini, sit comfortably in the middle of this domestic tension.
“It is a new war,” said Gattaceca in defense of the nationalist campaign, “People are exasperated and want democratization. This is not what violent incidents are achieving; they are geared toward opportunism.” The peaceful crusade that defines Corsicans abroad stands in direct contrast to the violence that defines the island -- a discrepancy that is striking, considering that their goals largely overlap.
Still, the secessionist’s tendency toward violence only depreciates a very reasonable contention: Does promoting Corsican beauty and charm -- not only an impulse of a proud people but also an economic necessity -- choke the very virtues it advocates? No, says Argenti, who resents the violent image perpetuated by secessionists, who see themselves as Corsica’s vigilantes. “The secessionist movement has become about money and crime -- not about culture. The culture is in our land and in our nature. But with everything that is happening now, the crimes and the killings, Corsica is dirty. When you love something and you think something is really beautiful you want to share it.”
Gattaceca’s ideals of enticing foreigners to visit Corsica through the power of her music risk exposing its largely untouched landscape to the scars of development. “When we were in the hills in Bastia,” said Carlaftes, “You walk up to the dirt street where Patrizia’s parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are buried and Patrizia knows she is going to be buried there. You look around and there is another village, maybe a 10-hour walk away, where the people know where they will be buried and can see the people they come from. That’s how these people have evolved. We do not know anything about this in America. We do not know if we will be married tomorrow.”
Turning to digital networks, these immigrants are working to tether themselves to their Corsican heritage, however remotely. “In this trajectory, Corsicans are in different countries, pursuing different histories,” said Sorba, “But as modern means minimize distance, we can evolve without losing our roots.” Unlike the refugee, the immigrant by choice carries the guilt of desertion. This is the immigrant that, alongside the Riacquistu and various online initiatives, is building a monument to her native Corsica.