Multiculturalism and Ethnic Writers
The Work of Italian-Canadian Writers
Anno 3 Numero 6 Guigno 1986
Joseph Pivato, Ph.D. Athabasca University
The phenomenon of Italian-Canadian writers never ceases to amaze the readers who have only recently discovered it. These ethnic writers are producing a literature that emerges directly from the creative instinct to capture feelings, memories and difficult migration experiences on paper. Some of these immigrant writers such as Nicola Serio and Vito Papa are self-taught and often write under adverse conditions. They nevertheless demonstrate the creative spirit, pure and unfettered by material concerns. Canadian readers who are accustomed to a literature substantially subsidized by a Canada Council, an Ontario Arts Council, another provincial arts council or a university writing program, find it difficult to understand why these ethnic writers would go on producing poems or short stories in Italian, in French or in English and would do so in obscurity. In addition to wonder and a lack of understanding on the part of readers about these writers there is also the tendency not to take them seriously as writers. The common assumption seems to be that if you are not on a Canada Council grant you are probably not a real artist. Quite the contrary is true when we consider Italian-Canadian writers.
This brief review of Italian-Canadian writers will try to show that, for the most part, they are motivated by the natural desires of the artist and not by political ideologies or missions of social reform. Some of these writers such as Vancouver poet, Romano Perticarini are folk artists with the instinct to write for self-expression first and for communication second. Others, like journalist and poet, Gianni Grohovaz seem obsessed by the need to write. The well-known poet, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, novelist, Frank Pad, and playwright, Marco Micone, seem driven by a desire to speak for a group of forgotten and voiceless immigrants.
A Long History
Italian-Canadian writing existed long before there were subsidies from arts councils. While a good deal of early writing among aspiring immigrant authors was found primarily in ethnic papers such as, Lo Stendardo (1898), La Tribuna Canadese, II Bolletino Italo-Canadese, or L 'Emigrate, it was never limited to these outlets. In Montreal we find Liborio Lattoni publishing Italian poems in the 1920's and 1930's, followed by the French plays of Mario Duliani whose 1945 novel, Ville Sans Femmes appeared in Italian a year later. In Toronto an early writer is Francesco Gualtieri who brought out a brief ethnic history, We Italians: A Study of Italian Immigration in Canada (1928), and some collections of poems in English: Songs of Solitude (1920), The Swing of the Soul (1923), Harbors (1924), The Sonnets of Triumph (1925). With the exception of Duliani's novel little writing seems to have survived from the 1940's.
With the increase in Italian immigration in the 1950's the potential for new readers also grew. While Arturo Scotti edited Corriere Canadese. Luidi Petrucci struggled with Panorama, and Gianni Grohovaz wrote for both and began his novel, La Strada Bianca, two Italian books appeared: Elena Albani's Canada, Mia Seconda Patria, (1958) a novel, and Giose Rimanelli's Biglietto di Terza (1958), a travel story. Rimanelli later moved to the United States to teach Italian. Another bird of passage was Baldassare Savona who published a bitter collection of poems, Tristezza, and then returned to Italy. One can only imagine the difficulties for the writer that lie behind these pointed poems.
Mr. Scrivano and other determined Italian immigrants in the early 1920s left their homes, families and friends in search of a new and better life. Il mal di mare could not deter them.
The Turning Point
The year of the turning point was 1978 with the appearance of Paci's novel. The Italians, and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco's anthology, Roman Candles. When a growing number of Canadians read these books they had a shock of recognition and soon discovered a number of writers speaking to them and for them. There followed quickly a number of other books: Di Cicco's The Burning Patience (1978) and The Tough Romance (1979), Mary di Michele's Tree of August (1978) and Bread and Chocolate (1980), Paci's second novel, Black Madonna (1982), and Celestino de luliis' collection, Love's Sinning Song and other poems (1981). In this flurry of books we still had Italian works: Antonio Corea's poem collection, I Paesi (1981), Grohovaz with more poems, Parole, parole e granelli di sabbia (1980), Vito Papa with Poesie del Carpentiere, Gianni Bartocci of Guelph with La Riabilitazione di Galileo (1980), and Luciano Aconito continuing to publish in many periodicals.
Writers Across Canada
Across Canada Italian-Canadian writers began to flourish. In Montreal Filippo Salvatore, Mary Melfi, Marco Micone, Antonio D'Alfonso and Fulvio Caccia appeared through Guernica Editions, a house that published English, French, Italian and translations. Dino Minni and Romano Perticarini made their presence felt in Vancouver and Caterina Edwards with her novel. The Lion's Mouth (1982) emerged as a strong female voice in Edmonton. It soon became very clear that Italian-Canadian writing was a nationwide phenomenon and not a passing fancy.
The strength of Italian writing and publishing in Canada is demonstrated not only by the appearance of newspapers in Italian but also by the continued printing of books. Maria Ardizzi began a cycle of novels in 1982 with Made in Italy (published in both Italian and English editions), followed it with II Sapore Agro Delia Mia Terra (1984), and surprized everyone with a collection of poems in 1985, Conversazione Col Figlio. Dr. Matilde Torres made her novelistic debut with La Dottoressa di Cappactocia(1982), Ermanno La Riccia produced Terra Mia: Stone di Emigrazione (1984), and in Ottawa Anello Castrucci brought out a collection of nostalgic stories, I Miei Lontani Pascoli (1984).
Scuola della "Dante"
Giornata della "Dante" La directtrice della Scuola "Dante", Antonella Ciancibello (a destra), introcuce il corpo docente al pubblico.
Giornata della "Dante" e "Graduation" Un gruppo di alumni alla ribalta.
These many book titles indicate the persistence of the authors. This is a literature that has emerged naturally, the results of a spontaneous outpouring of feelings, memories and words by Italian immigrants and their grown-up children. It is a literature that is growing and developing despite the neglect of readers and academics, the lack of funding from arts councils, and the widespread ignorance of most Canadians about this writing.
Some Italian-Canadians are trying to change this neglect into acceptance and recognition. In 1984 Caroline Di Giovanni edited an anthology that expanded upon and brought up-to-date Di Cicco's work in Roman Candles. Italian Canadian Voices included poetry, drama, short stories and other prose and was well received and reviewed in major literary publications. That year Roberto Perin hosted a conference in Rome at the Canadian Academic Centre in which Italian-Canadian writers and historians met to share writing, research and future plans. There are plans to have a second conference in Vancouver in the Fall of 1986. This Vancouver conference is being organized by Anna Foschi of the Italian Cultural Centre and Roberto Verdi of the Italian Cultural Institute with the help of writer, Dino Minni. It will end with the presentation of a literary prize for Italian-Canadian writing, II Premio Francesco G. Bressani.
Who Will Win Il Premio Bressani?
Since 1984 books by Italian-Canadian authors have continued to appear: Pier Giorgio Di Cicco's Women We Never See Again and Post-Sixties Nocturne, C.D. Minni's Other Selves (1985), and Mary di Michele's Immune to Gravity. With his third novel, The Father (1984) F.G. Paci seemed to be trying to move into new directions by exploring more complex questions of human relationships. New writers have appeared in literary magazines: Dorina Michelutti, Joseph Maviglia, Pasquale Verdicchio and Salvatore Di Falco. These writers continue to explore new ventures.
Gradually the English Canadian literary establishment has given some recognition to the more published writers. Poems by Pier Giorgio Di Cicco and Mary di Michele are included in Margaret Atwood's The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1982). William Toye's The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1983) contains some article refernces to Di Cicco and di Michele. While this volume makes use of long articles on Ukrainian and Yiddish writing in Canada there is no note on Italian-Canadian writing. In the Fall of 1985 Canadian Literature, 106, was devoted to Italian-Canadian literature and included a long interview between Frank Paci and Dino Minni. It must be pointed out that J. Pivato made the proposal for this issue to the editor, W.H. New. In 1985 the new Canadian Encyclopedia appeared and contained a brief article on Italian-Canadian writers.
Many Italian young men were enticed to Canada by promises of easy wealth. The reality, whether it was working in the mines or the railroads, was harsher and grimmer. The work was back-breaking, the days long, and the pay poor. Rations were usually bought from the company store and were expensive. Everyone was saving money to send to the family back home or to buy some land in the old paese.
Some Recognition At Last
It is an irony of Canadian culture that international recognition often comes before national attention. Italian-Canadian writing fits this pattern. In 1978 Argomenti Canadesi of Rome published poems by Di Cicco along with an interview. In the United States, Il Caffè has included articles on Italian-Canadian writers since 1981. In Italy the collections of literary criticism, Canada: Testi e Contest! (1981) and Canada: La Creazione Verbale (1985) featured essays on Italian-Canadian poetry and on Paci's novels. More recently Il Veltro (1985) devoted two issues to Italian-Canadian society, history and writing The final irony is that Canadian poets were included in the bilingual anthology edited by Ferdinando Alfonsi, Poeti Itato-Americani (1985).
Literary criticism on Italian-Canadian writing is scattered in a wide variety of publications in Canada, the U.S. and Italy. One volume does provide detailed studies of the major authors, and more important topics. Contrasts: Comparative Essays on Italian-Canadian Writing (1985) is edited by Joseph Pivato and includes studies on the poetry of Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, the verse of Mary di Michele, trie novels of Frank Paci, and an examination of the relationship between literary criticism and the study of ethnic history in Canada. The detailed bibliography in this text provides a useful list of the publications by and about Italian-Canadian writers.