Italian-Canadians - Writing from the Edge to Find the Centre
by Michael Mirolla
Can a new generation move Italian-Canadian writing from the margins closer to the heart of the literary debate? Can their voices make a difference? Is there a place in the Canadian cultural landscape for more than the “Big Tony” and “Little Tony” stereotypes? Or was Nino Ricci’s 1990 Governor-General’s Award simply a blip? Perhaps, all these questions can be reduced to one: Do Italian-Canadian writers still have a story to tell?
A spate of activity by Italian-Canadian authors, culminating in a recent string of book launches, readings and salotti letterari, indicates the answer to that last question is an unqualified “yes.” Italian-Canadians have definitely not run out of stories – and, judging from the success of these events, they are attracting ever-increasing audiences for those stories.
The list of recent publications by Italian-Canadian writers spans the entire gamut, from novels (Francesca Piredda: Bambina; DC Iannuzzi: City of Sinners) and short story collections (Darlene Madott: Making Olives and Other Family Secrets; Licia Canton: Almond Wine and Fertility; Delia De Santis: Fast Forward and Other Stories) to poetry collections (Domenico Capilongo: I thought elvis was italian; Frank Giorno: Arrivederci! Plastic-Covered Couch; Gianna Patriarca: My Etruscan Face), anthologies (Strange Peregrinations: Italian-Canadian Literary Landscapes; Writing Beyond History), and memoirs (Donna Caruso: Journey Without a Map, Growing Up Italian).
The book launches and readings took place in venues as diverse as the voices of Italian-Canadian writers themselves: from the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal to the warm, intimate spaces of the Oshawa Italian Recreation Club, from Toronto’s luxurious and high brow Columbus Centre Galleria to the tight and earthy backroom of the College Street Cervejaria Tavern, from the light-domed AMICI Museum space in Vaughan, Ontario, to more traditional bookstore launches across Canada.
What the majority of these publications and events have in common is the central influence of the experience of being and growing up Italian in Canada. These writers, be they novelists, short story writers, poets, family historians, or anthologists, are not afraid to declare to the world where they are rooted and where the well-spring for their inspiration lies. They are not afraid of the accusation (often disguised as a theoretical construct) that being ethnic means you cannot be universal. Or that being ethnic means you’re shut out of the ongoing central cultural dialogue in your adopted country.
Instead, they’ve decided to embrace that ethnicity and to use it as the basic ingredient for a mix of themes that draw their power from essential human emotions. At the same time, they are all too well aware of the ephemeral nature of the “Italian-Canadian” identifier, the marginality of that place holder, something that can only last for one generation or two, at the most. Some have already watched their children morph into unhyphenated Canadians or struggled to hold back for as long as possible the flow of entropy. So there is definitely a moment to be seized here.
Emotional Eddies and Poignant Currents
One of those who has done this to great effect is Delia De Santis. Used to staying in the background as an anthologist, in Fast Forward and Other Stories (Longbridge), De Santis creates little emotional eddies and tiny poignant currents that swirl gently through the stories, picking up bits and pieces of pain, heartache and wistfulness along the way. At her best, she makes it all seem effortless, as if the writer isn’t there and the story is practically telling itself. Whether first person or third, the characters turn into sketches that slowly fill themselves out as the tales move forward.
Often, little happens in terms of action sequences and forward movement. There are instead the types of epiphanies that Joyce would have characterized as “little errors and gestures – mere straws in the wind – by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal.” At the centre lie the objects to be slowly teased out, characters such as Gina in the title story, trying to cope with a post-divorce existence; the somersault boy and the somewhat sweaty, nervous man who warns him of a mysterious danger in “The Blue House;” and Marco whose Scottish ancestors actually underwent the reverse migration of going to Italy during the Reformation and changing their last name to Maccadonaldi!
In Stephen Hero, Joyce describes the effect thus: “Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.” In “Another Time, Another Day,” on-the-cusp-of-old-age housewife Anna struggles to achieve her own epiphany after coming up with all the reasons she should be a happy person: the lifelong stability; her husband’s faithfulness and reliability; and the benefits of a long-term marriage:
But all this reasoning, this acceptance, doesn’t necessarily stop her from going back into the past, into each day, each month, each year … into each moment wrapped up into sequences of memories. It doesn’t stop her from searching, from defining, from trying to awaken something that through some excusable fault of her own she missed. Some ultimate beauty. A revelation maybe.
This sense of trying to uncover something beneath the surface of appearance, of attempting to get at the “truth” of things, of working to unearth objects from the past that might help make sense of the here and now, this sense pervades De Santis’ mostly brief and cryptic stories. There is an almost classical synergy here between the particular, accidental (and not very singular) lives depicted and the underlying universal themes that we all seek to “lift out” in the hope of coming to understand our mortality. That it is an impossible task simply adds to the wistfulness and feelings of transience.
Arrivederci and Safe Journey
While De Santis’ characters are a community of Italians in an unnamed Canadian town or series of towns, Frank Giorno’s poetry collection, Arrivederci! Plastic-Covered Couch (Lyricalmyrical), deals mostly with the poet’s own family, their arrival in Canada, and the struggles undergone to adapt to and/or fit into the new, unaccustomed ways of doing things. Giorno’s style is simple, unadorned, that of an observing storyteller determined to record a particular period before it vanishes.
The plainness of tone and speech matches nicely the down-to-earth character of the people who inhabit the poems. At the same time, Giorno can be haunting in his images of those who are not quite comfortable in their skins, of those who wander the halls of mental health institutions in the same way they walk the streets of Toronto. There is a sense of tragicomic bemusement, of familiar landmarks taking on new meaning, and of a gap (both generational and knowledge-based) that the poems try to span.
More eclectic and wide-ranging in its approach is Domenico Capilongo’s I thought elvis was italian (Wolsak and Wynn). Capilongo’s inaugural poetry collection takes us on a tour of Japan, martial arts, the joys and perils of being a father, as well as what it means to be Italian-Canadian. Capilongo is also more experimental in his writing, setting out poems with images that flow one into the other without pause for punctuation or benefit of sentence identification. In the title poem, one verse fancifully describes Elvis as he might be if still alive today:
eyeing his blood pressure
Capilongo’s strongest point is his ability to use the ingredients for the defining of an Italian-Canadian identity to produce writing that transcends that identity. Rather than simply focusing on the more customary uncertainty about how first-generation Italians struggled to fit into Canadian society, Capilongo continues and expands the immigrant journey beyond Canada’s borders. The movement out helps to create a more positive mirror image that both reflects and unravels the impulse and impetus for coming to Canada in the first place: the original journey out of necessity; the second as an explorer of other cultures.
While many of the stories in Darlene Madott’s Making Olives and Other Family Secrets (Longbridge) appeared in a previous collection (Bottled Roses), several are new and represent what she herself calls “my truth, as I see it, which is the only truth about which I have the right and obligation to write.” Madott writes in an intensely personal way and she has described herself as an “anthropologist” attempting “to render the sounds of ancestral voices” with “truth and dignity.”
In the title story, Madott uses the framework of making olives to give us a classic first-person tale of family disgraces, jealousies, feuds, property thefts, father-son battles, sister-sister hatred, and the deadly stones that settle in the stomachs of those who should be close to and caring of one another. There is harshness here and some bitter pills to swallow. But through the pain and the sadness, there is always an intense love of life, something that pervades all of Madott’s work. At the end of this particular story, the narrator gives out her hymn of defiance against the forces arrayed to stuff her into pre-conceived notions of self:
I will eat olives. I will eat olives as long as I can, as many as I can get. I will eat them to excess, even if eating them should make me sick. I will allow life to crack me open, so that I can absorb the salt, the sweetness of it. I will risk making them, over and over again, just like my mistakes.
Centre and Margin
Some have claimed that Italian-Canadian writers are neither fish nor fowl, neither here nor there. Others have accused them of being voiceless or of not really making a significant contribution to the Canadian literary scene. I would argue that, judging from the sample of writing above and the activity that has taken place within this community, the exact opposite is true. Italian-Canadian writers are in many ways closer to the spirit of what it means to be a post-modern artist than many others who feel themselves much more solidly grounded in what they claim is their culture.
As part of the immigrant experience, Italian-Canadians in general and Italian-Canadian writers in particular have never felt completely comfortable within any legislated or designated sphere of culture, within any territory that has been outlined for them. Like Kafka and Camus, they often feel alienated from what others take for granted; like Conrad, they often find themselves writing in languages that are not native; like Joyce, they often must renounce their homeland and occasionally even parentage in the choices they make.
Here is what poet Gianna Patriarca has to say in “Piossasco, Liguria,” a poem in the Writing Beyond History anthology, edited by Licia Canton, Delia De Santis and Venera Fazio:
forty years later
i discover how much
i miss the Ontario countryside
flat, never ending
i miss the fresh lakes
in the Muskokas
the pine trees
the maple in its Autumn jacket
i miss the long straight roads
the comforting flatness
i miss the Canadian me that
i had found less romantic
Italy is a beautiful dream
i must awake from
a long, lovely dream
i keep refusing to
The central metaphor is that of being in two places at once – and of the dream that is real and the reality that is a dream. There is a sense of the ephemeral here, of a passing stage or phase. Italian-Canadian writers must pursue that dream/reality for as long as they can and shape it into art that will both define them and eventually erase them.
Michael Mirolla's bilingual English-Italian poetry collection Interstellar Distances / Distanze Interstellari is due out later this year, while his novel Berlin is due in January 2009.
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