Stranger in a Strange Land … or How I learned to Love the Hyphen

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Culture is a system of values – economic values, aesthetic values, moral values etc –
to want to preserve it is to want to archive it, to create a museum
in which it will die in its own catafalque…
– Jean Baudrillard

IN THE PAST FEW YEARS I have made an annual return journey to the place of my birth, the town of Maierato in Calabria. I was still a child when I left and only a few people remember me, but that is the way I like it. When I travel, anonymity suits me well. On a recent visit, in a piazza filled with returning migrants, when I was introduced as a visitor from Canada, I was immediately asked for clarification: ma vui siti americanu di College Street o americanu di Woodbridge?” (Are you an American from College Street or an American from Woodbridge?) They were seeking to place me within a diaspora of identities in their own comfort zone. After all, migration has created so many New Worlds, forged so many new identities. From the vantage point of those who did not choose the emigration route, Toronto’s College Street and its suburb of Woodbridge are but two such imaginary worlds somewhere beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

Maierato was depopulated by emigration to Toronto, where about one third of its natives now make their home. Just when I thought I was clear at least about one thing, my hyphenated identity as an Italian-Canadian, along comes some distant aunt who reminds me that personal identity is fluid and relative: a matter of perception, a fiction, not a fact. This little exchange led me to question my own sense of what an immigrant identity might be. In the town of my birth I am welcomed back as an American. In Canada I am often reminded by the prevailing public discourse on the virtues of the Canadian multicultural experiment, that personal identity, national affiliation and civic roots are a complicated set of subjective longings. Only a generation ago, being hyphenated meant being relegated to the margins of society. These days, it seems, everyone wants to wear the hyphen on their lapel. Being hyphenated is in: diversity has achieved hegemonic status and colonized every nook and cranny of our public discourse.


WE CANADIANS TAKE PRIDE in being on the cutting edge of the post-colonial discourse on diversity and multiculturalism, and offer Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal as models to a world struggling to make reasonable accommodation with its own diverse populations. In Toronto a stream of newcomers – legendary activist Jane Jacobs, Pico Iyer and his vision of Toronto as embodying the global soul, celebrity professor Richard Florida and his plans for a creative city, and the late Pier Giorgio di Cicco, Toronto’s former poet laureate – kept busy mapping out an urban poetics of the modern multicultural city. Recent tears in the multicultural tapestry notwithstanding, ours is by and large among the most successful municipal networks of interdependent diverse neighbourhoods living in relatively peaceful coexistence. We can also boast a multilayered citizenship: born elsewhere, resident here, yet living within cultural milieus that are not only reminiscent of the old country but recreations of it: what some of us used to called the ghetto.

My aunt Teresa lived for sixty years on Euclid Ave in Toronto’s Little Italy. By the time she died in her ninety-first year just as the Covid pandemic was beginning to wane, she had witnessed the evolution of the College Street ghetto into Toronto’s toniest neighbourhood. As she remarked near the end of her life: “ It’s nicer now. The police no longer patrol the corner of Clinton and College on Sunday mornings rounding up our husbands and brothers. They weren’t doing anything wrong, just listening to the soccer game from Italy from a speaker in front of the Bar Italia. Sometimes they took them to High Park where they roughed them up.”

In the city of by-laws, the law against loitering was applied with gusto by a police force intent on keeping the sidewalks of College Street from turning into a piazza. In our brave new world of multiculturalism, the ghetto, with all its negative ethnic connotations has evolved into our very own diversity compound. In a country still clinging to its constitutional principle of “peace, order and good government,” the laws against loitering may still be on the books but they are never enforced on the diverse hipster crowds that have taken over that corner of Toronto, still haunted by echoes of police rounding up innocent bystanders.

Like many fellow hyphenated Canadians of my generation, I have worn the hyphen on my multicultural sleeve with pride. Indeed, the hyphen has served me well, as doors that might have remained closed were opened as a result of the enlightened policy of multiculturalism.

But then I think back to my distant aunt in Southern Italy, and I am reminded of that old Pirandellian dilemma: if in the place of my birth I am welcomed back as an American from Woodbridge, and in the public and professional arenas of Canada I have been pigeon-holed as an Italian-Canadian, who am I to myself? It may seem a rather abstract pre-occupation with the metaphysics of identity, but I am willing to bet that as a Canadian I am part of a growing group for whom this is a nagging and prickly personal question. Pirandello was perhaps the first to usher in the modern notion that in an age of relativity, personal identity is a fluid and slippery thing, depending largely in whose frame of reference you may be caught. In his 1926 novel, Uno, nesssuno e centomila, he explores the fragmentation of personal identity and the resulting sense of alienation of modern man. Identity is a mask we choose to wear, a fiction we perform. But if we are always aware of acting out a negotiated identity, as it were, does this not play havoc with our sense of personal authenticity? Does this type of identity relativism not lead us, of necessity, to act in bad faith towards our fellow citizens? And is inauthentic accommodation of difference the breeding ground for urban mistrust, for civic alienation and anomie? There is lots of that around these days, raising alarming levels of mistrust in the politicized arena of human relationships. On the global stage many are seeking a return to the nation-state, or the comfort of tribalism.

The immigrant identity is fluid and self-referential, less rooted in the physical world of geographies and even less so in the cultural universe of acquired second or third languages. As immigrants, we remain forever nomadic, aspiring at best to the historical condition of Jews: our imagination is governed by a diasporic sensibility – a longing for a home in the future or in the past. In the present we balance precariously on something we call the hyphen. Like children on a schoolyard teeter totter, we can keep playing only if the weight is distributed evenly on either side: Italian-Canadian, Canadian-Italian – careful where you put your emphasis or the game will end in a tumble and all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men will never be able to stitch the hyphen together again.


I HAVE BEEN AN ENTHUSIASTIC PARTICIPANT in the evolving discourse on immigrant identity since Multiculturalism was launched as Canada’s official policy by the Trudeau government in 1971. Professionally, I am a child of multiculturalism, as I got my start on a newly created radio program appropriately called Identities, on the national public broadcaster, the CBC. Up until that time I was an ambitious immigrant young man who was doing his best to move from the margins to the centre, to integrate into the mainstream. The last thing I wanted to be, along with many of my generation, was a hyphenated citizen. As heartbreaking an experience as immigration is, the whole point of it is to sever, to the extent that one can, one’s cultural and geographic umbilical chord and be born again into a New World of opportunities. That most of us found ourselves stuck in the margins once we got here was not something we had bargained for.

The official policy of multiculturalism, however, quickly turned the margins into a respectable cultural playground, and with time, a rather fashionable ornament to the mainstream. At the time, it seemed to me an exotic off-Broadway sandbox in which the costumed drama of ethnic identity was played out – a publicly subsidized arena where energetic rhythmic dancing, colourful costumes and spicy food served to fire up the multicultural imagination. Reluctantly I embraced hyphenation with the mainstream as a shy boy might tentatively put his arms around the pretty girl at the high school sock hop, hoping not to step awkwardly on her nimble Upper Canadian feet.

In the seventies, Toronto saw an explosion of multicultural creativity on an unparalleled scale – street festivals, the birth of a café culture, literary salons, theatre companies, world music festivals, an explosion of modern dance. Thanks to our enshrinement of Multiculturalism, the drab, grey hogtown into which I landed in the late fifties was dancing in the streets. We were living our very own Prague spring. Even that Upper Canadian girl, it seemed to me at the time, loved being swept off her feet by exotic young men with skin in various shades of brown. Soon I grew to love the hyphen.

From a political and cultural point of view, today’s world is vastly different from the halcyon days of the dawn of official multiculturalism, before the Internet and globalization propelled all of us towards a world, not only sans frontiers, but also into the arms of a virtual reality more neurological than physical. To speak of margins and centre is to hearken back to some prelapsarian past, when nationallocal, mother tongue, ethnic, cultural, identity seemed to occupy a clear space not just on the dictionary page or on the map, but also in our hearts and minds. Now we often find them in self-referential struggle with each other as part of some never ending post-modernist discourse on identity politics.

When I left the village, those who remained knew, as well as I, who we were and what physical and cultural space we occupied. Now that the village has gone global we no longer connect to concrete places or times; we log on to a never-ending discourse on identity politics as it permeates our social, cultural and personal spheres. Much of the change can be attributed to a paradigm shift in civic values and can be explained in part by the fact that we now favour the term diversity over multiculturalism: an evolution from a language of values (many ethnic cultures living in neighbourly, peaceful co-existence) to one of neutrality and relativity: diversity carries no cultural baggage with respect to placing diverse cultures within a context of peaceful and inter-connected citizenship. Multiculturalism is a program, a strategy: diversity is simply, well, a description, an interpretation.

In the time before the Internet, I was involved in running La Compagnia dei Giovani, a theatre group in Toronto whose mandate was the presentation of plays from the classic and contemporary repertoire of Italian drama, in Italian, within the context of an Italian-Canadian community that confused culture with nostalgia for the homeland, and was loyal only to the culture of the homeland – you know, the cultural industries that have grown so monstrously around the names of Dante, Petrarch, Pirandello. I was invited to participate because I had a foot in two worlds: as an editor and producer in the mainstream cultural operator – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – and as a representative of that new breed of Canadian artist – the multicultural artist in the margins trying to nudge his way towards the centre. To put it more precisely, in the Canadian cultural scene I had, with respect to identities, made it. I was both part of the ruling elite and the ghettoized class, operating at the centre and at the margins at the same time.

The relationship between these two worlds is constantly shifting, as minority cultures mature and achieve levels of self-confidence that were lacking in their infancy. The Italian-Canadian cultural scene has come a long way since the days of its tough romance with the mainstream. There is an identifiable body of work that has been growing steadily ever since Pier Giorgio Di Cicco’s first anthology, Roman Candles, in 1978 grouped together the early efforts of the Italian-Canadian imagination in this New World.


IN 1984 I TRAVELLED AS A JOURNALIST WITH A GROUP OF WRITERS OF ITALIAN HERITAGE, some of them of Italian birth, others born in Canada, all of us bound for Rome for a conference on Italian-Canadian writing. It was one of those situations in which had the airplane fallen from the sky, the whole of Italian-Canadian literature which was about to be born, might not have made it to the baptismal font to receive the blessings and to be welcomed into the community of writers anointed by the establishment. We were officially sponsored by the Canadian Cultural Centre in Rome and formally welcomed by the future Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, who was at the time the Agent-General for Ontario in France and Italy with a mandate to encourage trade and cultural exchange between Ontario and Paris and Milan. I was to cover the event for Robert Weaver’s CBC radio program, Anthology.

Since its start in the late 1940s Anthology had midwifed the birth of CANLIT under the guidance of its founder, Robert Weaver. Many stars in the CANLIT firmament got their start by reading their short stories to a national audience on Sunday evenings. Alice Munro, the brightest star of them all, went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Anthology was now opening its doors to Italian-Canadian Literature: call it CANITLIT for short.

The airplane travelling to Rome took us on a journey back to the homeland, potentially to show them, our forbears, that we had done well in the New World. And so we brought back our poetry, our novels, and our plays, which we presented with pride as part of our new found hyphenated identity as Italian-Canadian artists. The Italians, faced with these prodigal sons and daughters speaking in strange literary tongues did not quite know what to make of us.

The radio documentary I produced on our journey to the homeland and back was dutifully presented to Mr. Weaver. We listened to it together and I was pleased to notice that it captured his full attention. He liked it very much, he said, and was surprised that it was, and I quote – so intellectual, so serious! And he then added – for an Italian. I was, to say the least, floored, but managed to reply that had I known, I would have brought my accordion with me and danced a little tarantella for him!

This is but another personal vignette that illustrates that no matter how hard we try to resist, someone will try to thrust an identity upon us when we least expect it. In his own way my friend and colleague Robert Weaver spoke from within his own comfort zone: it was but another version of an “Americanu di College street.” The documentary, by the way, did play nationally and CANITLIT had had its day in the sun on the national airwaves. It now languishes in the sepulchral shade of the archives of the National Public Broadcaster.

In the late sixties and the early seventies, La Compagnia dei Giovani of Toronto was an ambitious theatre group whose vision was to branch out beyond what we thought at the time to be the Italian-Canadian cultural ghetto. We embraced a multicultural strategy aimed squarely at presenting plays about our contemporary human condition as citizens of a land to which some of us voluntarily emigrated, while others were brought here, kicking and screaming, by well meaning parents. The high point of our theatrical trajectory – one that lasted many years, from the late sixties to the early 1980s – was the world premiere in Italian of Michel Tremblay’s play “A Toi Pour Toujours, ta Marie-Lou”; which was presented successfully here in Canada at the Hart House Theatre, in Toronto. Later we brought it to Rome, where it was well received by the Italian media, and did not badly at the box office. I thought at the time, and still do, that we were reaping the benefits of the enlightened policy of Multiculturalism. Finally, immigrants whom the Montreal playwright Marco Micone called “Gens Du Silence,” could speak with their own voice. Our little theatre company set sail on a voyage of discovery on those still uncharted waters of the so called hyphenated identity that so many of us take for granted these days.

Let me take you briefly back in time to Hart House Theatre in 1977 during a performance of A Toi Pour Toujours ta Marie Lou. Tremblay’s play, written in the language of the streets of Montreal – Joual – presented for the La Compagnia dei Giovani a problem of translation on three fronts: the cultural milieu on the one hand; the language itself on the other; and finally, the immigrant context of its presentation. The translators, following the example of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s approach to language in his Roman novels, opted for an Italian translation heavily influenced by and laced with dialectal and Italiese expressions that might speak to an audience of immigrant theatre goers in a language that they would recognize as their own. On opening night I had my confirmation that the experiment had worked. As the director, I sat among the audience eavesdropping for comments, and during a particularly florid exchange on stage in a dialogue that attempted to capture the power of the original Joual, a woman sitting directly in front of me leaned over to her husband and said appreciatively in her impeccable Sicilian: che bello, cca li cugghiuna li chiamano cugghiuna. Calling things by their authentic names was something she appreciated. That moment remains for me the confirmation that a multi-cultural experience is possible only when one culture translates fully and organically into another: putting a hyphen between them does not do the trick. In an ideal hyphenated culture, the physicality and carnality of language will make a huge difference to the artistic authenticity of the performance: it is not an act of translation, but one of cannibalism and appropriation.

Many Canadian writers claim the hyphen as their proper domain, the place in which they feel at home. As the romance with the official policy of Multiculturalism intensified only one generation ago, the Canadian writer Joy Kogawa, whose 1981 novel Obasan was to launch the Canadian government on a self-incriminating auto da fe with respect to the way it had treated Japanese-Canadians during World War II, spoke with a Flaubertian “the hyphen c’est moi” certitude about her own hyphenated citizenship: “A Canadian is a hyphen and we are diplomats by birth,” she said. Period. Case closed.

The question I asked in 1977 when the official policy of Multiculturalism was still in swaddling clothes, and continue to ask to this day, is rooted in the role that is played by that innocent-looking graphic symbol we call the hyphen. On either side of it the adjectives “Italian” and “Canadian” sit waiting to be pulled apart, joined together, or kept in their respective place. Since it made its entrance on the Canadian cultural scene, the hyphen has become one of the most potent cultural signifiers; one that often invites conflicting interpretations.

In a hyphenated culture, the first thing to go is the authenticity of experience on either side of the hyphen: if the hyphen is a bridge between two shores, and if Joy Kogawa is right that to be a Canadian is to be a Hyphen, where does that lead us? In the global village, is hyphenation a temporary stop on a journey towards some hybrid promised land? More recently, the much-celebrated author MG Vassanji has made hyphenation synonymous with cultural displacement in novels such as No New Land, and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.


THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT IN POST-COLONIAL IMMIGRANT CANADA, hyphenation is a rich mother lode of creativity in all forms of cultural expression. Yet a troubling phenomenon persists. In spite of all our democratic good will to recognize all forms of cultural expression as equally relevant, the higher up the pecking order an artist rises, the closer a politician gets to the corner office, the less hyphenation he/she seems to need. Take for example the case of Michael Ondaatje’s 1979 novel about the immigrant working class that built Toronto, In the Skin of a Lion. Perhaps no other work of fiction in the Can-Lit canon has more multi-cultural content than Mr. Ondaatje’s epic melange of Finns, Greeks, and Italians toiling together to build the great metropolis, by hyphenating its two distinct geographies into a composite entity. Like the hyphen in our modern concept of citizenship, the Bloor Street Viaduct negotiated a new identity for the city by joining two distant shores across the primal waters of what used to be Lake Iroquois. The viaduct is the hyphen made flesh: the hyphenated city, like the hyphenated identity of most of its citizens, floats on primal memories that meander below our conscious awareness of who we are in the here and now.

Along with Nino Ricci’s Vittoria in The Lives of the Saints, the other memorable fictional character of Italian extraction is Michael Ondaatje’s Caravaggio, as Italian-Canadian a creation as any you’ll find anywhere. Yet we do not refer to Ondaatje’s work as multicultural. Lately, Nino Ricci’s novel, having graduated to full membership in the Can-Lit canon as to appear on English Literature courses in Canadian Universities, seems to have shed the hyphen as well. When you make it into the big leagues your novels, poems, plays can shed the crutches of multiculturalism and stand on their own feet.

One of my last projects as head of drama at CBC radio was to commission a series of plays on the various Little Italies of Canada, worlds within worlds that dot our vast northern landscape. In Eleanor Albanese’s play The Novena Sisters, set in Port Arthur on the Northern shore of Lake Superior, a young woman who is going through a painful rite of passage comments that her Italian-Canadian father is so burdened down with the Italian side of his hyphenated identity, that he has no time to look at the dance of the Northern Lights: “Papa sees nothing, Maria. He can’t see the sky, or his four girls, or that we actually live in Canada now, because he’s too busy acting like King of Little Italy of Port Arthur.”

The hyphen allows the strong pull of the past to claim our undivided attention, to redirect our gaze horizontally backwards, into the archives of a culture embalmed in its own catafalque, a kind of living history museum populated by waxen effigies from the past. Nostalgia is a more powerful driver of the heart’s longing for home than we might wish it to be, and even though we wear the hyphen proudly on our multicultural sleeve, we run the risk of missing our opportunity to gaze vertically in front us and be moved to wonder at the dance of the Northern Lights.

When spring returns, I will once again make the journey back to the place of my birth, and once again I will face myself squarely in that mirror, groping to see what reasonable accommodation I can make with its inevitable interrogation: are you an American from Woodbridge or College street?

This essay had an earlier incarnation as a keynote address delivered at a conference on multiculturalism at McMaster University, in Hamilton (November 2007). A transcript was published in Italian-Canadiana,Vol. 22 (2008): Italian-Canadian Culture in the New Millennium

Damiano Pietropaolo is a producer/director, writer, translator, and educator. While he was working on a Phd in drama, his freelance life as actor, writer and stage director led him to join CBC Radio as a documentary and drama producer. His work has garnered a number of national and international awards. 

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