“We’re so much more than that”

This is the second and final part of my interview with lawyer and author, Darlene Madott. In this part of the interview, we focused more on our shared Italian heritage, and how that informs our writing.

Photo credit: Frank Nagy

RS: Did you find it a struggle in your own experience to gain recognition as a writer, especially outside the Italian-Canadian community?

DM:  My first taste of being stymied because of being Italian was when I was passed over as the top student in English in high school by a “visibly English student” for an award that would have paid for four years of university. The person who got it dropped out of university after one year, while I worked on a Kodak assembly line to pay my way through University.

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            First of all, my name is not visibly Italian. It was actually Madotta, but the “a” was dropped at some point either before the first world war, or during the first world war, because my parenti (relatives) who emigrated around 1906 couldn’t get work with a visibly Italian name. When my father applied for his first passport, and although he had served in the Canadian army in WWII, he had trouble getting a passport, because on his birth certificate, for instance, his mother’s surname was Iantorno, but it got lopped. It became Iuti. I had to get his brothers’ and sisters’ birth certificates, and their names were misspelled on every single document. But it was Madotta on my grandparents’ gravestones. So, my name is not visibly Italian. Interestingly, when I started the articling process as a summer student in law school, I remember one partner at the law firm skirting around the bush, asking, “Madott. Is that a French name?” And you know, I wasn’t volunteering any information. But I was described as being “too intense”. I figured out pretty early in the process that “too intense” meant too Italian. I didn’t fit into the culture.

        

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    Has it ever affected my writing career? I’m not sure.  I know that Robert Fulford, who I worked for at Saturday Night Magazine at one time, did make a comment that Caroline Di Giovanni quotes frequently, that “Saturday Night does not publish ‘ethnic’ fiction”. Bernie Suljit approached Fulford with my story anonymously at the time, (“Bottled Roses”), he made the decision not to publish it, but he never looked seriously at my writing. Maybe I showed him my writing too prematurely. But as my father would say, “A kick in the ass is a push forward.” And Caroline asked me at one point, “Why don’t you publish outside of the Guernica, Longbridge circle? She said, it’s like your writing has never arrived in mainstream, CanLit circles.” And I thought it had with the publication of my book, Stations of the Heart, with Exile Publications. I was very proud of that book, very proud that Exile took it on. Maybe my writing isn’t commercial enough. Yes, of course I would love to have been published by a Simon & Schuster or some of the bigger presses. I don’t think as Italian-Canadians we have anything to complain about in terms of getting our work published, but it’s interesting that in terms of our community, there’s one writer who has dominated the field: Nino Ricci. And why Italian-Canadian writers have not been embraced by the mainstream, or by Italians, I don’t know. Why don’t those wealthy Italian families and foundations sponsor an award for Italian-Canadian writing? I’ve often thought that if I ever win the lottery, I would sponsor an award, and it would be the Madotta literary award.

RS: How would you describe the role and place of the Italian-Canadian writer and Italian-Canadian literature in Canada today? What do you think has changed since you started writing and publishing, for better and for worse? What would you like to see more of?

DM: You know, there are many Italian-Canadian writers who don’t think I’m Italian-Canadian because I’m third generation. I don’t qualify. It doesn’t help the community if we have this in-fighting. We don’t help each other, and it’s interesting, because even in my legal career, I found that women don’t necessarily help each other. So why don’t Italian-Canadian writers help each other? For me personally, I buy everybody’s book.  I’m at almost every book launch. I have a vast collection of Italian-Canadian writing.

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But, I’m going to answer this question by quoting Korean writer, Sang Kim who said, “Ok, I had to do my mandatory Korean book. And then I had to move beyond it.” I’m a little disappointed to see that Italian-Canadian writers are still obsessed with some subjects, like the passage across the ocean, and what they left behind. The nostalgia. Get over it already! Nino Ricci has moved beyond, I’ve moved beyond, certainly with my book, Dying Times, I think it’s universal. I don’t think it has anything to do with being Italian. Maybe it takes its intensity from my Italian background, but I couldn’t put my finger on anything and say, “Aha! that’s where the Italian is.” For example, at a short story conference in Calabria (which didn’t happen because of Covid), the theme of the conference went back to food.

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Now, ironically, I’m writing a story about melanzane (eggplants) and men and heartbreak. Of course, Italians are always identified with the cuisine. But we’re so much more than that. I remember years ago, Joe Pivato asked me what I was working on, and I said, “Well, actually, I’m working on a cookbook with my mother”, and I saw the disappointment in his eyes. The seriousness bled from his skin. I can’t take you seriously if you’re working on a cookbook, his eyes said. Making Olives and Other Family Secrets (Ripasso) is not a cookbook. But it’s frequently been mistaken for one! People are in for a disappointment if they think it is. I used making olives as a metaphor, for the bitterness and sweetness at the heart of one family.

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            So, I feel that if we’re going to use our Italian culture as metaphor, yes, use it. But you know, the journey isn’t just about across the pond from Italy to Canada. We’re all on this journey, towards our own death, and hopefully spiritual realizations of some sort about the human family. So, I’d like writers to move beyond the regional and the factual. Move beyond Calabria. The wonderful thing about the Sicilian writer, Giuseppe Lampedusa, is that he took his very specific, particular experience about life in a Sicily on the cusp of huge change in The Leopard and he made it universal. It’s never been out of print all around the world. So I think now, I’m certainly moving beyond the “Italian”, although in Winners and Losers, the litigator is a woman, “Francesa Malotti”. I’ve used an Italian name and she is certainly very identifiable as Italian, but she’s working in a judicial system that is multicultural and the warring between litigants is a human war, a human struggle.

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And yes, going back to the question in relation to Canadian literature: one of the things I would do if I went again to that conference in Calabria is to talk about Canadian literature. It’s not just Italian-Canadian literature. There’s this explosion of books like Frying Plantain by Zaleika Reid-Benta. It’s a great first book of linked short stories set in “Little Jamaica,” Toronto’s Eglinton West neighbourhood. There’s such an explosion of diverse voices. It’s not just Alice Munro any more. We now have writers who are first- and second-generation Canadians, and now we’re also hearing the voices of Indigenous writers, and it’s so exciting. So, yes, Italian-Canadian writers, we have to get with the program. Yes, it was very important for us to write out of our experiences, and if that’s what we know, and that’s our background, and that’s honest, then that’s what we write. But at some point, I think the journey has to go further. Maybe I’m lucky in that regard because I had to find my Italian background and I had to find my Italian identity. I grew up in a family where some were ashamed to identify as Italian, and I was the first of my extended family to actually travel to Italy. When I landed in Rome, and I was able to find the “secret” language that my parents used to use when they didn’t want their children to know what they were talking about, I came back transformed, proud of my Italian heritage.

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I am a member of the Writers Union of Canada, but it is in the Association of Italian Canadian Writers that I feel most at home, just as a member of the Canadian Bar Association, it was as a member of CIAO (The Canadian Italian Advocates Organization) where I felt most at home. Our human blood is all the same colour. Maybe mine flows a little more intensely inside our Italian-Canadian writing community. It’s all wonderfully confusing. Maybe that conflict is what makes for good stories.

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