Italian-Canadian Literature: Living and Writing on the Border and on the Margins

On May 4, 2011, I attended a workshop under the intriguing title Italian-Canadian Literature. Given that my academic research touches neither Canadian nor Italian nor Italian-Canadian matters in any way, one might legitimately wonder why I went there at all.

The answer is I do not know. Maybe it was my intuition which brought me there. Maybe I was tired of my little room with its piles of books. Maybe it was just curiosity. I always had this penchant for marginality, being somewhat of a marginal myself – a Russian born in Latvia with infusions of Ukrainian, Polish and (the family legend goes) Mongolian blood. During my MA at the University of Latvia, I plodded through a module on Canadian literatures, which featured Native American, Japanese, Ukrainian, Latvian and gay-lesbian writers. Not a word about Italian-Canadian literature (which, as it turns out, is in much healthier state than other minority literatures in Canada).

The workshop made me think about what it means to be neither here nor there, which is of course most people are these days. An Italian-Canadian is a foreigner in Canada, but for the Italians s/he is a stranger, too. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? At least it does for me, and I remember my few trips to Russia which seemed simultaneously so close that you wanted to give it a big hug but a strange land, too – so strange you wanted to distance yourself, suddenly start speaking Latvian or English when you hear a group of people swearing and shouting and elbowing each other to get through the queue to the bus… Homeland is a land of sadness a beauty, the trouble is you generally find it hard to figure out which is home is your true home.

So I found the presentations of Anna Pia De Luca and Deborah Saidero, who gave a critical analysis of several Italian-Canadian woman writers, at one level somewhat obvious and at another level deeply revealing. The other two speakers were writers Licia Canton and Caterina Edwards, who spoke about their experience of writing in one of Canada’s ‘multicultural, multiracial and multilingual enclaves’ (to use a phrase from Anna Pia De Luca’s presentation). By the way, it was Licia Canton who provided statistics on the vitality of Italian-Canadian literature, with numerous readings in Toronto and a magazine Accenti, the Canadian Magazine with an Italian Accent. Caterina Edwards’s perspective was slightly different, and she commented on the difficulty which Canadian writers from the province face as they try to get their works published and known (Caterina Edwards herself lives in Edmonton).
Caterina Edwards herself writes exclusively in English, but there are writers who publish in both English and Italian, occasionally even self-translating or re-writing their work. It raises the question of what constitutes ethnic identity: is it language, culture, family, religion? Can a person who has never been to his/her country of provenance claim that country as their ‘home.’ These are not idle questions, because it seems to me somewhat duplicitous when someone takes the benefit of their so-called ‘home country’ even though they are hardly familiar with the way ordinary people live in the country (I am guilty of the crime, too, having hardly ever set my foot on Russian soil)…

The question of language as defining one’s national identity is tackled by Italian-Canadian writer Dore Michelut in one of her critical essays. Still, no decisive answer probably can be given: if I do not speak Ukrainian but am of partially Ukrainian descent, like Ukrainian food and landscape, does it give me right to call myself Latvian-Ukrainian? As far as I remember, Janice Kulik-Keefer, who is regarded as a Ukrainian-Canadian writer made her first trip to Ukraine relatively late in her life and had hardly seen much of the country; neither does she speak fluent Ukrainian, unless I am much mistaken. On the other hand, during the discussion at the workshop a question of claiming or hushing up the writer’s ethnic identity cropped up several times, and one of the speakers voiced the view with which it is hard to disagree: no matter how you try to forgo it, deny it or forget it, there is no silencing of that small voice which gives one’s writing a particular colour and flavour.

A final question crops up: do we need ethnic literature? It had its day fifteen, ten, five years ago, but now the ethnic literature market seems to be in decline. I think that, as long as we want to preserve at least part of cultural diversity, which makes the world so much more interesting place to live in, we need it. Moreover, in multinational countries like Canada most curious encounters are likely. Thus, Caterina Edwards’s novel Whiter Shade of Pale/Becoming Emma centres around the experience of a Latvian-Canadian girl, who gives herself a new name, Emma. How unlikely is that – an Italian-Canadian writer choosing to represent a Latvian-Canadian girl, who has come from New York to a Canadian northern town. I wish the novel was on the curriculum when I was doing my Canadian Literatures Module back in the sweet years of MA…

The workshop gave me much to ponder along the lines of national and ethnic identity, globalization and localization, anxiety and home-longing. Who we are? Where we are? Where do we come from? No wonder autobiography and genealogical enquiries are such popular genres today, when many people have lost their sense of belonging.

If you would like to comment on Italian-Canadian or any other minority literature or on your own experience of multinationalism, please do so. Also, questions on any aspects of the post are warmly welcome.

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About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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2 Responses to Italian-Canadian Literature: Living and Writing on the Border and on the Margins

  1. I was impressed by your observations on this literary workshop in Wales.
    I am familiar with the speakers you refer to and with Italian-Canadian writing.
    Many people from other ethnic minority groups have told me that the example
    of Italian-Canadian writers has helped them re-examine their own ethnic roots and
    confront questions of identity, belonging, family conflicts and creativity.
    We are very lucky to be living in a multicultural country like Canada that has
    fostered open discourse on ethnic identity and language choice.

    Like

    • Thank you for commenting on the post. The workshop has been an eye-opener for me: as I wrote in the post, before that I was familiar with some of the Canadian literatures, but not with Italian-Canadian writers. I was impressed by the broadness of their cultural insight and the interest they display in exploring not only their own Italian roots, but also the identity issues tackled by other Canadian minorities.

      Like

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