“Without the writing, I don't know who I would be. It’s my identity,” Mirolla says. Mirolla recently won the prestigious Bressani Literary Prize for his third time – an award created by the Italian Cultural Centre Society of Vancouver – for his short story anthology Lessons in Relationship Dyads. His previous Bressani award-winning works include his 2008 novel Berlin and his 2014 poetry book The House on 14th Avenue. “It’s really great to get an award from an Italian-Canadian association. It’s quite an honour and a privilege.”
“I am an Italian-Canadian and I have a certain history,
and the writing does come from that”
His love of reading and writing began when he was just a boy, shortly after leaving the town of Jelsi in Italy’s Molise region with his mother and brothers to settle in Montreal. It was 1951. “Somewhere in my memory, I might remember my grandmother standing in the middle of the piazza pulling her hair out and crying when we were leaving by bus to go to Naples and take the ship across,” Mirolla says. He was just shy of his fifth birthday, which allowed him to begin school shortly after the trans-Atlantic voyage.
“I guess I was a little lucky when I came to Canada. I went almost straight to English school, so I didn’t have the problems of some of the other Italians who were a little older and had more trouble between the two languages.” Mirolla recalls falling in love with books as soon as he was old enough to read. “I was a furious reader from when I was in Grade 1….I used to hide under the dining room table and read, science fiction mostly, where it was nice and dark and nobody would bother me.” By Grade 5, Mirolla was writing short stories and in high school, even his teachers noticed there was nothing he loved more – and they encouraged it.
“Without the writing, I don't know who I would be”
“I had one teacher who was just incredible and during English classes, he'd have exams that he would hand out. When there was a question about a poet like John Keats or someone like that, he would allow me to write a short story instead. So, I used to write all these fantasy short stories.” Still, Mirolla never fathomed being a writer. He actually enrolled at McGill University to study the sciences. “Chemistry, physics, advanced mathematics – I did a year of that. It wasn’t for me…and I switched to English lit.”
After graduating from McGill, Mirolla went on to complete a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of British Colombia. He returned to Montreal to work as a journalist for the Montreal Star and the Montreal Gazette before moving to Mount Forest, Ontario in 1993. Since then, he’s written plays, poems, short stories and novels, which often focus on the theme of identity – his characters’ identities and his own. “I am an Italian-Canadian and I have a certain history, and the writing does come from that,” Mirolla says, adding that he tries to fight stereotypes and clichés through his work. “I joke around when I give talks and say, ‘You try to escape the Little Tony, Big Tony stereotypes.’ You don't want other people telling you all the time who you are.”
Mirolla, who now calls Oakville home, hopes that awards like the Bressani Literary Prize will put more Italian-Canadian writers, and writers of all backgrounds, in the spotlight in the national literary landscape. “It should be a stepping stone for some of the other major national awards,” Mirolla says. While Mirolla says the life of a writer is a “tough” one filled with sacrifices, there is nothing he would rather be doing. “I really can’t imagine what it would be like not to be a writer…Creating something is probably the best thing that a human being can do. Create. I'm not just talking about words but the act of creation itself. The moment that you're doing it is really uplifting.”