Reviewed by Angela Clarke
The year 1986 was a turning point for Vancouver and its cultural landscape, and it was within this crescendo of creative energy that the Italian Canadian Writers Association (AICW) came into existence. Expo 86, designed by the Trail born Italian Canadian architect Bruno Freschi, arose from his conception that historically world’s fairs were proven to resurrect often ignored or long forgotten areas of a city and within a short span of time catapult them to centre stage. The aura of anticipation this project brought to Vancouver became the drive and inspiration behind the first colloquium of Italian Canadian writers. The anthology People, Places and Passages: An Anthology of Canadian Writing; a collection of Italian Canadian writing, spanning 30 years of authorship, dedicates the first portion of this compendium to describing the significant impact this meeting had, not just on individual members, but also its effect on the collective outlook of Italian Canadian writers in this country. Prior to the establishment of the AICW, Italian Canadian writers were scattered throughout Canada living in the cultural margins and enduring the artistic isolation that accompanied it. What emerges from this anthology clearly is the degree to which Italian Canadian writing has always been an uncomfortable fit within the growing Canadian literary canon, this displacement necessitated a deep and enduring reliance on other Italian Canadian writers to offer creative support. As noted by Francesco Loriggio, Italian Canadian literature has always been difficult to locate in the Canadian literary landscape. Prior to the 1980s, it was kept outside the enclave of the Canadian literary canon because it was neither anglo nor the francophone, the two predominant Canadian cultures acknowledged and prescribed during the Trudeau years. Under this ethos immigrant communities which asserted themselves strongly were viewed as expressing a micro-nationalism which Trudeau and his domestic policies discouraged. Therefore, in this cultural milieu, neither the Italian Canadian oral and written traditions found a comfortable space to express themselves in the 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Yet, the shift in perspective in the 1980s served the Italian Canadian writer no better. Canadian Universities began to establish curricula based on critical theories and anticolonial narratives and through this lens, Italian Canadian literature emerged in the viewfinder as a largely masculine, white European voice.
Maria Luisa Ierfino–Adornato’s essay A Tribute to AICW Women reveals not just the degree to which Italian Canadian writers relied on one another, but how distant their writing actually was from the masculine, white male perspective which the academy understood it to be. Ierfino-Adornato’s essay reminds us that Italian Canadian writing is not just infused with concepts of Catholic masculine hierarchy but it possesses a heritage which supersedes time, place and even categorization and that it arises from a prehistory which is deeply connected to a “sacred oral tradition” and the traditions guided by collectives souls of the past who resided on the antique soil which is Italy.
The creation of an anthology after 30 years of being displaced in the Canadian literary canon is evidence that Italian Canadian writers are uncompromised storytellers who have kept their culture alive despite not entirely being embraced within the Canadian literary establishment. However, the reader of this anthology, especially the non-Italian one, often finds themselves asking what is Italian Canadian culture exactly? What defines it and how does its literary tradition represent that? Are Italian Canadian culture and its literary heritage purely Italian in its outlook or has it absorbed some of the characteristics essential to Canadian literature as a whole, such as the survival motif which Margaret Atwood so clearly identified years before? This anthology excels and clearly succeeds in responding to this question. On one level this anthology is a completely integrated whole work in itself and in this regard it fits cleanly into the Italian post-modern tradition. The reading experience is not dissimilar to watching vignettes in Fellini’s Roma where past and present collapses into one dreamlike state. The past, the near present, the present and the future all mix together informing and shaping a common lived experience. As well, figures emerge, tell their story and disappear into the ether in poignant and insightful episodic moments, leaving the reader with a memory of sensory impressions and emotional responses. However, culled together, as the editors have done so masterfully, we are offered a beautiful mosaic consisting of tiny particles, each offering some significant insight into the larger picture of what being Italian Canadian signifies. I have identified a few themes which I believe have revealed themselves throughout this text, offering the reader insight into the challenges and joys of what it means to be Italian Canadian, at least for those who have lived through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Canada.
A significant portion of the anthology focuses on stories which describe the clashes in culture arising from interactions between Italian immigrants and those born on Canadian soil. This conflict plays out most profoundly in the manner in which Italian parents and their Italian Canadian children relate. Canadian popular and social culture was a formative influence for Italian Canadian children born after 1960, but not so for their parents, many of whom had lived through the dictatorship of Mussolini’s Italy. Seemingly to be Italian Canadian, especially the child of immigrants, is bear the awesome responsibility of reconciling the values of their parents, with those of their Canadian friends and partners. For a child of Italian heritage, there are assumptions placed upon them that they inhabit and exist by a ratified code of ideals and behaviour predetermined at birth. These notions of behaviour are most strongly upheld by their parents and senior members of their extended family. These, of course, are a: devotion to Catholicism, and its uncontested beliefs and rituals, as well as the inevitability of marriage replete with its clearly defined familial composition. Stories such as Linda M. Morra, The Fig Tree of Monteleone and Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli, Product of Italy/Made in Canada grapple with the generational differences and the challenges involved in confronting and contesting these expectations. However, it is for Italian Canadian women that the cultural divide between parent and child is at its most incompatible. For these Italian Canadian girls living in Canada from the 1960s until the 1980’s coming of age brought with it profound battles since conformity to parental expectations was the basis on which the moral worth of an Italian Canadian woman was adjudicated.
As noted in stories such as Delia De Santis story, Coming of Age; Michelle Alfano’s work, Una Regina Senza Re and Christina Angela Sforza writing, My Mother’s Hands to be a young woman translated into being an early bride, having limited career options, which all ended at the onset of the first child. In the traditional Italian model, the household was the domain innate to womanhood, not the world outside of it.
The anthology also offers meditations into the nature of Italian religious ritual itself, its intense theatricality and the strict religious observances re-enacted year after year over the centuries in small Italian towns. These rituals so significant and meaningful when performed on Italian soil are shown to incomprehensible to the mechanized modern world of post-1960’s Canada. In Nic Battigelli’s story Make Room for Jesus and Gil Fagiani’s poem Missing Madonna, we are given insight into the manner in which deeply venerated sacred icons and the reverential performances in which they were utilized can be instantaneously and unceremoniously eliminated due to their incompatibility with Canadian life and its secular objectives.
Many stories also focus on the experience of moving to Canada. In these stories, there is a preoccupation with the suitcase and even more, the items chosen to be packed within it. Like the contents of an Egyptian tomb, the impetus for the inclusion of each object was based on deep and profound spiritual vision. These were informed by projected notions, anticipations and desires, regarding what would take place in their afterlife across the ocean. In Frances Garofolo’s story, The Trunk of Hopes and Dreams, the constituents of Antoinette’s bridal dowry is discussed in great detail. While she is not married, nor even engaged to be married, her preoccupations focus on her married life in the distant future and what marriage to a Canadian husband will require. Indeed, a sense of existing in two worlds, or liminality, pervades many of the immigration stories. For some immigrants a decision is made to remain Italian while living in Canada, believing that one day they return to their home country. Conversely, for others, they make the life-altering decision to leave Italy and never return. This is the focus of Gilda Morina Syverson’s story
Healing. However, in contrast, Licia Canton’s story Refuge in the Vineyard describes her feelings of betrayal when her parents return to Italy in their later years. The author harbours resentment against her parents for they have left her behind in Canada to raise her children alone without their assistance. Shouldn’t all good Italian grandparents devote their lives to their grandchildren?
Then there are the stories which are full of mystery. They often consist of references to undecipherable and unarticulated events of the past which continue to exert an influence over contemporary family life in Canada. Often these mysterious events manifest themselves in a parent’s inability to emotionally connect or alternatively they are stunted in their capacity to fully express themselves or articulate their experiences. This becomes the impetus for the next generation, the children, to make an investigation into the past. The most common of these are stories detailing the experiences of parents as internees in the work camp of Petawawa or as enemy aliens during World War II. There are also stories of family deaths and accidents in the old country which have powerfully affected the outcome of life for relatives across the ocean. As well, there are also stories such as Caterina Edward’s Claudia, Cristina Rizzuto’s Dora Maar and Ernesto Carbonelli’s Firminia’s Story, which do not deal with understanding an unexpressed episode of family history, but rather focus on misunderstood and half-forgotten episodes in Italian history. These events continue to have an enduring impact on the Italian cultural consciousness. Collectively these stories reveal to what degree identity, and the enigmatic phenomenon of existing between two worlds, can bring with it a deep sense of confusion for the next generation. For them, the resolution to this mystery can only occur only after some semblance of the past has been unravelled. It is only then that the complexity of their two-world cultural identity can be grappled with.
The final category consists of stories that do not reflect Italian Canadian identity in any direct way but instead deal with common human experiences which supersede issues of ethnicity. Of course, the universal theme of love so closely knit with the poetic genre predominates in this category. As do stories pertaining to illness. Dennis Maione’s story To Be Alive fits within this category, but yet may still pertain to the issue of cultural identity as he examines his own inherited genetics, those which have caused him to suffer the same type of cancer which also plagues his family members. In this essay, he remarkably concludes that his own inherited genetics have taught him to celebrate his heritage and embrace the imperfections which come along with it. He eloquently refers to the Japanese ceramic tradition of Kintsugi, in which outlining, highlighting, and illuminating repairs in broken pottery in precious gold paint has become a model, a means, through which he can celebrate his own fundamental brokenness. There are also wonderful, and absurd human interest stories in this anthology such as Pietro Corsi and Jeraldine Saunder’s story The Sweet, Salty Smell of the Sea. At first reading one begins to question its placement in such a lofty text. For those of us who grew up with Aaron Spelling television in the 1980s, this is the realm of popular culture and an iconic moment in the development in North American identity. Despite its surprise presence at the conclusion of reading this story, one emerges grateful to have made the journey over the waters on this ship. I just hope that the beauty of the story is not lost on the younger generation not having grown to adulthood imbibing the Aaron Spelling television phenomenon first hand.
Finally, there are breathtakingly beautiful stories that answer, or at least valiantly attempt to answer, fundamental questions about the human condition. Emma Pivato’s What It Is to Be Human? A Case Study is one such story. In this piece, the reader is granted entrance into the authors own deep reflections, and often painful self-examination, regarding what it means to be a profoundly thinking and feeling human being. The author’s daughter Alexis suffered from a brain injury which makes it impossible for her to express herself. The essay convincingly reveals that so little of our humanity is expressed through words and language. This is an ironic and odd conclusion for a literary anthology, but a true one. Rather, the author notes that it is when we perform unexpressed acts compassion and desire to be truly emotional present and available to those around us that we truly transcend all communication barriers. It is only then that we can begin to achieve meaningful communication and human connection. This is a thoughtful inquiry and an important one that is, sadly, buried in a contemporary culture which now only values expression offered up in succinct and media ready soundbites.
This is a beautiful anthology and one that is carefully compiled. Not only does it exhibit a full spectrum of genres, but reveals that all truly good storytelling imparts themes which are universal to all. As well that these themes can be expressed even while the authors themselves are in the midst of their own confusing and complex personal search to understand themselves and their own unique cultural identity. In its essence, this is a very accessible anthology to be enjoyed and readily understood by all audiences.
People, Places and Passages: An Anthology of Canadian Writing was edited by Giulia De Gasperi, Delia De Santis, Caroline Morgan Di Giovanni and published by Longbridge Books.
Reviewer Angela Clarke is the Museum Director and Curator at the Italian Cultural Centre, Vancouver, Canada.