Saturday, 1 August 2020

Speaking The Old Dialect

In an online interview for the Librissimi Toronto Italian Book Festival, Nino Ricci touches on how immigration can shape identity.
Part of what I was exploring in Lives of the Saints were the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, how we structure our own imagination as a way of making sense of our lives. People talked about America from the perspective of the old country and, even though they often had access to accurate information—they had relatives who had gone over and were writing back and were telling them what things were like—there was always that kind of mythical side to it of a promised land they were hoping to reach. One of the things that I found in my research and in interviewing immigrants is that often that dynamic ended up getting reversed through immigration. Once they had established themselves, say, in Canada, and been relatively prosperous, they then began to romanticize the land they left behind. It became a sort of lost paradise, the lost place of wholeness: “Yes, we were poor, but we had enough to eat, we were well.” I found it very poignant, that very strong sense I got from speaking with immigrants of that lost wholeness that can never be recaptured. And even when they travelled back, they couldn’t recapture it because they had become Canadianized. Their Italian was now mixed with English words that they weren’t even aware of. People saw them as old-fashioned because they were speaking the old dialect, or they saw them as no longer real residents. There’s a very poignant element to the immigrant experience in that regard that you never really wholly integrate into the new country, but you can never really go back to the old one, and that was part of what I was exploring in that first trilogy. By the time I get to Sleep, when I think of identity I think of this very complex thing, that is something we put together haphazardly with whatever materials are given to us over time. For example, I was raised in a small Southern Ontario town where the Catholicism in my head was not the Catholicism in Italy. It was post-Vatican II and it was much more streamlined and demystified. The Latin was gone, we didn’t talk about the Saints, there was no emphasis on the miracles, I lived close to the border, the TV I watched was American, the music I listened to was American. I had all these American influences which informed me, this panoply of different cultural influences that made me what I am. So, my Italianness took shape within the framework of all these other things. So, we need to think of identity in those terms, not as singular, not as defining or even as determined, but something that is shaped from what is available, from the sources that are available. I made a conscious decision to travel to Italy and re-own my culture that my parents never had access to. I spent years studying in Florence. What did my parents know of Florentine culture growing up in the villages that they grew up in? But I had access to it through them. So that’s how I think of identity now, as something that is multi-faceted, something that to a certain extent we can choose and enhance.

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