In Conversation with Nino Ricci

Nino Ricci. Photo by Virginia Kilbertus

Nino Ricci was the featured guest of the third edition of the Librissimi Toronto Italian Book Festival, held online on May 9, 2020 with reduced programming in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Below is the transcript of the interview with Nino Ricci that was conducted via videoconferencing. You can also watch the interview here.


When we were planning a physical edition of Librissimi you were supposed to join us in person, but you were also supposed to be celebrating something quite special for your family this very afternoon.

This year is my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary, it boggles my mind when you think of their longevity and what they were able to achieve in their lives. They had planned a huge celebration today, in fact, but about four or five weeks ago they decided to cancel owing to Covid, which is a shame. Hopefully we’ll be able to celebrate down the line. My mother turned 93 in April. My father will turn 91 this year. Fortunately, they’re healthy at the moment. They live in a retirement home and they’re fine. It’s a shame that we won’t be able to celebrate. Just in our immediate family there’s 55 people; that’s just children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. So there’s no way they would have allowed us to congregate.

Watch the interview with Nino Ricci on YouTube

I’m glad to talk about this because family, maybe it’s a cliché, is the cornerstone of Italianness and Italian-Canadianness, and your literary production is very strongly anchored in Italian-Canadianness. Please tell us about that.

When I started out as a writer the last thing I wanted to write about was being Italian-Canadian. This is back in the ‘70s. The word multiculturalism was in the air, but it was more lip service than a real commitment to a deep understanding of what it means to be a multicultural society. At the time it meant: “Well, let’s throw some money for folk dances or ethnic festivals.” There was no real deep appreciation of the contributions of immigrant groups to the Canadian mosaic. And in literature it was clear that if you were writing from an ethnic background you ended up ghettoized and marginalized. All the good writers in English Canada were out of the Anglo mainstream; in French Canada out of the French mainstream. There were people writing out of their ethnicity. There were a lot of Italian-Canadian writers, in fact, but it was very hard for them to be recognized by the larger literary community. As a young writer, you don’t think: “I want to be an Italian-Canadian writer!” You think: “I want to be a writer. I want to be Shakespeare, I want to be Dostoevsky. I don’t want to be in that little corner and be told: ‘You go off and do your little thing, but the big boys are playing over here.’” So there was a kind of resistance to falling into that trap. At the same time, when it came time to undertake a major project, I realized: “That’s it, that’s what I’m stuck with. This is my life. I don’t get another life. I don’t get another set of experiences. This is what I know, this is what I have some level of authority over, and I’ve got to find a way to use it.” It was out of that confrontation that I wrote my first novel. In a way, it was a backhanded way of dealing with the issue. The initial idea of the story was not about immigration or Italian Canadian at all; it was about the relationship between brother and sister. But I thought they have to have a history, and that’s how I ended up in Italy – that’s where they start. Also, at the back of my mind it was a way of getting around to the whole question of ethnicity, of the way in which we immediately marginalize and place into stereotypes people of so-called ethnic background. When you’re at home in your own country you don’t think: “oh, I’m Italian;” you think: “I’m at home, this is my culture.” And in fact, most Italians did not think of themselves as Italian until they emigrated, because in Italy you belong to your village, your region – but mostly your village. The people five miles away, that’s another country. So this was a way of working around what happens to people when they immigrate: they end up being given an identity that is applied from the outside, and it ends up deforming in some way how they think of themselves. So, for me it was a way of rethinking that question and looking from the inside at what really happens. What do you start with and what happens to that later on when you get transposed into this environment where suddenly you’re this marginal thing within this foreign, larger environment.

This is quite relatable to us on a very immediate level as Italian Canadians. However, it seems to me, and your Governor General Awards attest to this, that these are relatable stories in general; they’re stories of immigration, they’re stories of the making of Canada, they’re stories of humanity at large. So, once we go beyond the names, these are shared experiences that go right across, that cut right through. Have you had that kind of feedback? Because the stories that you’re telling – and we can start from Vittorio in Lives of the Saints all the way to Davide Pace in Sleep, which is a completely different novel, and it’s a really hard-hitting novel and it’s a story that gets you in the gut – those stories are two extremes of Italian-Canadianness that however transcend, where the root is Italian but there’s a transformation that happens in between, right?

Yes, this is really what literature is all about. Literature is about going to that depth so that you go beyond the stereotype – the surface categories by which we reduce and simplify people – and Italians as immigrants have been particularly susceptible to that. When you go through historically the kinds of images that people have had of Italians, they tend to be very flat. They tend to go to extremes – either the happy peasant type, or the dark bended type. And those stereotypes are spread over a hundred years of immigration in countries around the world. Whereas the reality is that Italians like everyone are complex human beings and that’s what I see my job as a writer to be: to explore that complexity. And, the deeper you go into that complexity, the more those common threads become apparent, the more it becomes clear that we are all in this together. I got a lot of responses, particularly to Lives of the Saints, from people who come from Poland, from Hungary, from Greece, from China, who said: “My village was exactly like that; all those things were going on there.” So, it’s clear that humanity does have a kind of shared experience, and often it has more to do with the particulars of class, of socio-economic status, than it does with ethnicity. The other thing I came to understand through that first project is that as immigrants we share a lot with every other immigrant, with every other Canadian essentially. Apart from the First Nations, most of us are newcomers to this land, and there are all kinds of commonalities in the experience of immigration. You can see it in reading Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush, where you see a person coming from a particular culture, experiencing culture shock in trying to adapt to this new land that is very different, and that has happened over and over again in the history of this country. That’s something that the literature of our country has been showing us: that these threads connect us across immigrant groups.

But it transcends also the experience of migration because what you’re developing here is also very complex personalities and characters. When I read Lives of the Saints, Vittorio’s mother was reminiscent of Carmen from Bizet’s opera: an undaunted woman who absolutely refused to the very end – to the bitter end – to conform. For Cristina, being in a small town, that was even more difficult. So that speaks to femininity and masculinity in your stories. Tell us about that, because masculinity is almost a character in and of itself in your novels.

Indeed, immigration is just part of the story. It’s an interesting part, and the immigrant experience is one so many of us have been through in one way or another, but there is so much else that I want to deal with when I write a novel. Certainly, when I was writing Lives of the Saints I was very conscious of Cristina as a woman in a very particular type of society and as a representative of a force of change, of modernity, fighting against a kind of medieval mind-set that still persists in a town. So the book is very much about that moment, the shift that was happening, that we’re still living through because we are very slow to change, and what that meant in terms of gender and in terms of someone like her who was looking for a different way but had very few paths, very few channels, in which to place that energy. Masculinity has come up in all of my novels in some way because we are at a crisis moment for men who had an easy run for a few millennia in terms of feeling like they had the right to run things and defining themselves in very particular ways as a result, and finding now that that doesn’t work. In Lives of the Saints that confrontation of standard ideas of masculinity takes place in a pre-modern world. By the time we get to Sleep, David Pace is in a new world, one in which the masculine privileges are under siege and he is a holdback; he is trying to hold on to them and trying to define himself within that context and not doing a very good job. This is a big issue for our time. One of the things that concerns me as a writer is how few men read fiction. One of the things I was trying to address in Sleep is whether there is a way to talk to guys, about what they’re going through, that might give them a language to think about it, because I think fiction is a powerful means of dealing with these kinds of deep social problems, social shifts. But men are not using that avenue. I’m not sure how far I got through; although I did get very strong reactions from men who read Sleep. I think they recognized some of the issues from their own lives and the difficulties of dealing with them. I think this is something as a society that we really need to find a way to get our minds around because we see it in a lot of random acts of violence that we see in young men. I don’t want to attribute it in any kind of specific way, but it seems to be a symptom of a larger shift in how we define ourselves and it’s something we have to deal with.

It’s funny you should say that; the panel that preceded the interview was titled “Queer and Italian Canadian.” Talk about a redefinition of masculinity and gender and gender roles, and embracing all sides of gender that we have inside each of us! So you’re continuing the exploration.

This is something the arts have always tried to do. You go back to Shakespeare and every one of his plays, particularly his comedies, had that kind of interplay of gender. But that isn’t something that as a larger society we’ve yet come to terms with.

What is one of your favourite passages in Lives of the Saints?

There’s one section that I’ve often read that deals with the immigration issue. Part of what lay behind the book for me was also understanding how the immigrant experience was a kind of mythic experience or framed in mythic terms within the immigrant imagination. I found this from interviewing a lot of Italian immigrants that they really thought this was a kind of journey to paradise, a place where the streets were paved with gold. And,. of course, it did not work out that way. But 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. In some ways my David Pace character was an offshoot of this idea. He has this attachment, he’s a historian of Roman history, so he has this visceral attachment to his past. At the same time he has a very troubled relationship with his father, and a very troubled relationship with his father’s history. He is also constantly trying to find a way to pick and choose in a way that makes sense. There are a lot of things going on in this book. One of the plot premises is that Pace comes down with a sleep disorder early in the story, and the sleep disorder is really a metaphor for his own life, in some ways the fact that he has been sleepwalking through his life and lying to himself about a lot of things. In some ways the sleep disorder becomes the wake-up call where he must confront a lot of those lies.

The novel gets hard-hitting as it goes on to show that humanity is complex, the same complexity and darkness you find in the trilogy itself. There is a lot of dealing with loss in your books.

Life is about loss. I can’t say that in my life I’ve suffered a lot of loss, I’ve actually been lucky that way, but it struck me at a young age that the normal way of things is that you will lose everything. Bit by bit things will break down. Your favourite toy will break, you’ll lose a favourite pen, the people in your life will disappear, and you will disappear. This is really what it means to be human. It’s often the underlying story in a lot of literature. It wasn’t something that was particularly notable in my life, and yet it was something that I was aware of from a young age. Part of it was growing up a child of immigrants. My parents both came from peasant backgrounds. I think there’s something in the peasant mentality, a kind of fatalism, almost a belief that there’s something out there that will get you. Don’t stick your head out because if you do it will be ready, so never brag. If you have a good year on the farm, don’t say so. Complain and always believe that the wolf is at the door, and that’s how I grew up. I tell the story of asking my mom when I was six if she would buy me a chocolate bar when she was going to the grocery store, and she turned to me and she said: “Nino, don’t you know we owe the bank $60,000?” Impending loss was a feeling in the air, like when you go to funerals. The atmosphere around that is almost as if you’ve done something wrong for this death to have come into your community – that sense that there was always something ready to strike. I think as people became more settled and more successful that began to lift.

Which is your favourite novel? Which one reflects Nino Ricci the most?

It’s hard to pick favourites. On the other hand, I don’t want to negate myself or even say that I know my work well enough to make that judgement. My first book is dear to me for many reasons; because it was my first book, because it did well, because it told the kind of story in the way that I wanted to tell it. It worked out in a way that I never expected it to. My second book was probably my least well-received in part because it came after my first book, but changed in tone. And yet I think about that book quite a bit; it has a special place in my heart because it’s almost like the wounded sibling that never got its due. The Origin of Species is special to me. It’s probably my most autobiographical book; one of the main characters in the book, a woman named Esther, is based very closely on a friend of mine who died of multiple sclerosis, and the book was kind of a tribute to her, to her amazing character. So that book is very special for me. Sleep, I don’t know where that book came from. It was very difficult to write. I don’t know who that guy is, David; he’s not me, but somehow he was there and it took me quite a while to get to know him and to get him right. But there was something very compelling about that story for me. But in the end my favourite book is always the one that I’m working on right now.

Tell us about what you’re working on at the moment.

The novel I’m working on is set in London in the 15 months leading up the First World War. It’s a sprawling novel about the birth of modernism, about how we blindly fall into disasters like World War I, without knowing how we did it – the kinds of factors that can make that happen. It’s about the fact that a lot of what we’re dealing with now culturally and socially and technologically really started in the first decade of the Twentieth Century: tele-communications, mass transit, feminism, so many social movements, so many of the ways in which we think of ourselves as humans on this planet – consumerism, the decline of religion. All of that was in full naissance by the first decade of the Twentieth Century. So, it’s a way of trying to understand present day by understanding that period.

Nino Ricci is the author of the award-winning novel The Origin of Species and of the Lives of the Saints trilogy, adapted as a miniseries starring Sophia Loren.,

 Happie Testa is the founder and creative director of the Librissimi Toronto Italian Book Festival.

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