Note: The following was written for the Brockton Writers’ Series blog (www.brocktonwritersseries.wordpress.com) where it was posted two weeks ago to help promote their fifth birthday reading event, where I was one of the readers. It was a fabulous evening! If you’re in Toronto, I highly recommend this series.
With the release of a new book, a ticking time-bomb always lies in wait, usually in the form of a nasty review. The good news: none of those for Midsummer. The weird news: faint, bleeping signals from the primitive “Who am I?” centre of the brain — and I thought I’d chucked that kind of introspection (along with my love-beads) long ago. Looks like my inner teen has been trying to sort things out.
It’s about ethnicity. Midsummer is a novella set in New York City, on the first day of summer 2000, as an Italian-American family gathers with relatives visiting from Rome. They’re dining at the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center; well below is the subway tunnel dug by their immigrant ancestor. Because of the subject matter, I’ve found myself mingling with Italian-Canadian authors and reading for audiences of the same background. As an immigrant to Canada with an distinctive Italian surname, you’d think I’d fit right in.
Not quite. The more I tuned in to the Italian-Canadian vibe, the more I realized that I wasn’t playing the same chords as the rest of the band. Most of my colleagues had either emigrated from Italy or were the children of immigrants. As a result, themes of loss and exile, struggle and belonging run through the work of Italian-Canadian writers.
This is not my world — not exactly. Apart from travel and efforts to learn the language, I have no connection at all to Italy. My grandparents immigrated to New York City as children more than a century ago. My parents, aunts and uncles spoke the Neapolitan dialect, and while I grew up appreciating Italian food and culture, Italian wasn’t taught in school. Had it been, I would have chosen a different language — Japanese, say — but I was just as happy to study French. I came to Canada for university, married and made my home here. And yes, eventually, I got around to studying Italian.
Ethnicity? I’m American. That’s the country that formed me, the identity to which I lay claim. Only the term “ethnic” pertains to minorities. So, OK — Italian-American, to be precise. Here’s a distinction: my Canadian friends of Italian background return to Sicily or Puglia to be nourished at their roots, while I do the same with the meandering downtown streets of Manhattan, the parks of the Bronx, where I began my life, the leafy corners of Westchester County, the suburb where I later lived.
That said, “American” is a tricky (and sometimes overbearing) identity to claim — not your shrinking-violet next-door neighbour. I used to be an on-air person on CBC Radio, and during the show, my producer would sometimes receive irate calls about my way of pronouncing various words. Is that — an American? the caller would say, is if he or she had been exposed to the scratchings of a large rodent. I worried about losing my job and I worked hard to erase my accent.
I’ve since decided that whatever its flaws, I like the country I come from.
In Canada, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” ethnic slot. As an American, I get to identify myself as such, even if my last name points to a more obvious ethnicity, an ancestral country that is, for me, a vanished place. Instead I cherish the peculiar beauty of Long Island Sound, the intense vitality of Manhattan’s streets, the sharing of common history with loved ones and, yes, the freedom to let my vowels collapse into New Yorkese. Yet, I’m Italian-American — and that’s a bit different from other Americans, as I learned growing up. But that’s a story for another day.
Heads up, dear readers: I’ll be taking part in a panel at the Toronto International Book Fair this weekend, on “Where is the Italian?” Our job is to complete that sentence, and given what I’ve just posted, you’ll have some idea of what I might have to say. I’ll also be reading a short (relevant) excerpt from my novella Midsummer. That’s Saturday, November 15th, from 4:45 to 5:45pm, Metro Convention Centre, 455 Front St., Toronto. We’re on the ground floor, north bldg, rm. 203b.
And Coming Up: A first for Thoughtful B: next week, I’ll be interviewing author Ursula Pflug on her flash-fiction novel, Motion Sickness, launching November 17th!