If you could choose a first conference to attend as a speaker, the Biennial Conference of the Association of Italian-Canadian Writers (AICW) should be the one. An interdisciplinary conference, it includes academic and creative writing, film, photography, art, and translation, and you never feel like you don’t belong –even if you’re not Italian-Canadian, like me.
Started in 1986, the conference is an opportunity for participants to gather and share what they have accomplished over the previous two years. The 2018 edition, titled Roots, Routes and Recognition: Italian Canadians in Literature and the Arts, took place in Winnipeg from September 27 to 29, 2018, and was organized by the Departments of Modern Languages and Literature and of Italian Studies of the University of Winnipeg. “Poet Carmelo Militano floated the idea of the Modern Languages Department hosting the conference at the University of Winnipeg,” explains Rosaria Moretti-Lawrie, instructor at the Department of Italian Studies and a member of the organizing committee. “I was intrigued, and I approached Sante Viselli, chair of the Modern Languages Department.” Twenty-four years ago, Professor Viselli had helped organize the fifth biennial conference, The Italian Woman in Canadian Literature, and was happy to host the conference once again.
The event started on a strong note with a panel on the making of the Association’s latest publication: People, Places, Passages: An Anthology of Canadian Literature (Longbridge Books, 2018). It prompted an interesting discussion on whether the title of the book should have included the term “Italian-Canadian.” While it wasn’t the main theme of the conferences, the issue of identity came back a few times – in the keynote speech by Carmine Starnino, Deputy Editor of The Walrus, in Joseph Pivato’s paper titled “Italian-Canadian Writers and the Hyphen,” and in private conversations during breaks.
The first day also included readings by new and established voices, including poets George Amabile and Carmelo Militano, and fiction writers Delia De Santis and Cella Lao. After a lovely lunch at Sorrento’s, the day concluded with a presentation about Italian-Canadian baritone Gino Quilico by Connie Guzzo-McParland, the influence of Italian architecture in Brazil by Aldo Colangelo, and a presentation about Italian-Canadian artist Guido Nincheri by yours truly.
The second day moved to a larger auditorium where, this time, members were treated to readings by Keith Henderson, Darlene Madott, and Caterina Edwards. The day also included a discussion with Montreal poet Mary di Michele on her book Bicycle Thieves, a presentation of the Italian-Canadian Archival Project (ICAP), and a look at photography and immigration by photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo who discussed his work, and Paul Lawrie who presented the work of Lewis Hine. The evening was capped with the premiere of a short feature film by Liana Cusmano, Matters of Great Unimportance, about unrequited love, which roused much interest – if the discussions at the subsequent reception and dinner at the Fort Garry Hotel were any indication.
The third and final day unfolded at the Caboto Centre, an important meeting place for the Italian-Canadian community of Winnipeg. As members enjoyed their morning cappuccino, they were entertained by readings by writers Darlene Madott, Silvia Falsaperla, Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli, Caterina Edwards, and Marco Lo Verso. Giuliana Colalillo presented her research on the “missing” voices of first-generation Italian women in Canada – a fascinating look at the Canadian nonna. The highlight of the last day was undoubtedly the loving tribute by friends and colleagues of writer and editor Venera Fazio, who passed away in December 2017.
As a whole, the conference was a very varied affair, with papers and readings presented in English, French, and Italian. It was also refreshing to hear new voices, with conference speakers ranging in age from their early 20s to their early 90s, and to hear contributors from diverse communities, including LGBTQ and non-Italians.
“The organizing committee” (comprised of Rosaria Moretti-Lawrie, Sante Viselli, Carmelo Militano, and Chris Bidinosti) “was keen on hosting a conference that recognized and gave space to any form of creativity by or about Italian Canadians,” Moretti-Lawrie points out. “We had presenters in their early twenties and an inspiring presentation by Aldo Colangelo, an incredible and vibrant scholar in his nineties who travelled from Toronto. We had an equal amount of male and female presenters as well as a transgender person whose psychological thriller short story was well received.”
Even the range of themes covered was vast: “The conference addressed the themes of immigration literature, family memoirs, poems, literary critiques, engaging with tradition in contemporary texts, writing and transmitting cultural memory, representations of place, space, and (dis)location, Italian diaspora and globalization, cinema, the visual arts and translation,” Moretti-Lawrie states.
Unfortunately, though admission was open, what the conference lacked was attendance by the general public. The only exception was a well-attended session supported by friends of two young Winnipeg writers who read from their work. Additional effort is surely required to appeal to the public and introduce more people to the great works produced by Italian-Canadian writers.
“It is important for people to attend this kind of conference,” opines Moretti-Lawrie, “because it renews an appreciation for Italian-Canadian literature and also speaks to the general themes of displacement, loss, memory, and identity experienced by the immigrant community. These are still felt today with the arrival of new immigrants from all over the world. Demographically speaking, we could have benefitted from younger authors and artists to complement and enhance our seasoned participants.”
Plans are afoot to hold the next AICW Biennial Conference (in 2020) in Italy – an opportunity to explore the Italian-Canadian literary landscape as well as the Italian vistas!
Mélanie Grondin is the author of The Art and Passion of Guido Nincheri (Véhicule Press, 2018) and the editor of the Montreal Review of Books.
Photo credits: (1) Group photo at Centro Caboto Library, courtesy of Vincenzo Pietropaolo; (2) Conference co-organizer Rosaria Moretti-Lawrie at the lectern; (3) Accenti editor-at-large Liana Cusmano, conference co-organizer Carmelo Militano, Accenti contributor Cristina Pepe; (4) Carmelo Militano, The Walrus Magazine deputy-editor Carmine Starnino, documentary photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo, Accenti editor-in-chief Licia Canton. Photos courtesy of Licia Canton.