The faces I have never seen and voices I have never heard
by Tony Nardi
I have a natural allergy to tribes, associations and groupings of any kind, ethnic, cultural or professional, mainly because the inherent or official collective benefit they are intended to have is often undermined by their respective membership. Likewise, though I often willingly declare that I was born in Italy, specifically Calabria, I am not inclined to define myself as Italian or Calabrian.
In my work, professional guilds advocate for the rights of artists, equality and diversity, yet they are often reluctant to challenge power; they instead put greater effort in disempowering and subjugating through the little power they have any member who attempts to exercise their rights. Though the collective and its representatives are better positioned to take the road less travelled to address the inequalities and/or injustices experienced by their members, it is usually an individual or small group of individuals who run the gauntlet of (internal and/or external) resistance to change.
I get a “brain freeze” when I think about Italian-Canadians as a glob, with an identifiable or representative cultural output, specifically in the dramatic arts. “Community” seems too broad a term to encompass and characterize a pan-Canadian cultural group whose subgroups are defined as much by domestic regional differences as cultural background. In the difficult history of post-“unification” Italy, immigration was overwhelmingly not by choice (my father was betting on Belgium or Germany, where he had worked). Once here, however, there’s really nowhere to go. Some have tried.
We have to face (and deconstruct) the problematic monolith and that forever liminal space we inhabit, especially where it pertains to culture (and language). Whether I am sitting in a café in the Jean Talon/Dante quarter, or on College Street or St. Clair Avenue, or on Commercial Drive, or in the “Italian” communities in the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, Italian-Canadians seem to say a lot more in silence.
Underneath the often animated and “loud” chit chat—in Italian, dialect, and Italiese, or in broken, accented and perfect English/French—lies a shared distinguishable cultural malaise, the constant din of a potently silent and palpable existential uncertainty, irrespective of age, gender and social class.
This persistent unease—which both reflects and engenders a sense of “ethnic” inferiority—is not the exclusive province of Italian-Canadians or naturalized citizens. Frank Sinatra, a U.S.-born Italian-American, “even in his years of fame and power” put it this way: “Every once in a while I’d be at a party somewhere, in Hollywood or New York or wherever, and it would be very civilized, you know, black tie, the best crystal, all of that. And I’d see a guy staring at me from the corner of the room, and I knew what word was in his head. The word was guinea” (Hamill 42).
Given the “tradition” of this racial nightmare on both sides of the 49th parallel, Italian-Canadians have managed to wrap themselves in a patriotic devotion to a nebulous idea of Italianity, an “OZ” manifested in year-round “Italian” celebrations and festivals (minstrel shows) that stand in for culture and mask a deep-rooted collective insecurity, with the knowledge that looking and speaking “white” is not enough, never was. Too often, we regurgitate the worst of what is considered folklore, giving it a bad name. Italian-Canadians are not alone in having bought into a segregated brand of multiculturalism that is inconsistent with the 1982 Charter provision (section 27). See Rocco Galati’s “Multi-Cultural or Multi-Segregation?”
There is something unsettling about the Italian-Canadian community’s inability to better confront this existential/liminal reality in theatre, film and television, especially given that demographically—the “community” constitutes almost 9% of metropolitan Toronto’s population, and 7% of Montreal’s. Percentages in other Canadian cities may not be as large but are significant nonetheless.
What the Italian-Canadian community has produced in theatre, film and television is largely insignificant (with exceptions) given the size of the community, its history in Canada, particularly in Ontario and Québec, and its economic status. I am not referring to the talent (or potential) but the output and effort, which are often at the mercy of external forces, victims of a two-pronged problem: little to virtually no support (financial or otherwise) within the so-called “Italian” community, and faint support from the three levels of government. We start from scratch, each time, with every project. And the long intervals between projects ossify the quality of our work—and our native tongues. Talent suffers when it does not get many “at-bats.” The work lives in silos, and becomes invisible, even in broad daylight, against a backdrop of multicultural faces riding the city buses, streetcars and subways, under the pall of a colonial sun.
As practitioners, however, we are not faultless in this partly self-inflicted wound (I consider myself to be among the guilty, in effort and quality of work—directly, by association, or by settling when I knew better, and still did, but shouldn’t have). Our inability to foreground craft, in writing, acting and directing, undermines the content, making it less accessible and relatable. In terms of “authenticity,” a problematic word used to discern the real from the artificial, the writers (mainly the poets) have fared the best. They strike a more intimate tone. But they have distinguished themselves predominantly in one of the two official languages. They often have no direct writer-reader relationship with our parents’ (immigrant) generation. They rely mainly on each other (and the academic milieu) for audience and nourishment. Meanwhile, that suitcase generation goes to its grave without the legacy of having shared (in) a cultural mirror in which it was represented beyond “the suitcase,” or with. No one has difficulty understanding the centrality of craft when it comes to music, architecture, medicine, and technologies. In the performing arts, there is the belief that everyone can act, write, and direct if given the opportunity. And content is privileged over form.
In the absence of craft, we become incapable of sharing our stories fully. We merely express our desire to tell stories and need to be present and accepted—as authors, actors or directors. We learn about lighting, lenses and framing, but little about what lives within the frame and the crafts that justify its presence. It is in this absence that artists and dramatic works fall victim to the “over-celebration of tribe” within the work itself. Most “community” leaders and associations support and promote this orangutan display of culture, and perpetuate the cycle.
But craft cannot exist in isolation, in silos. It needs to be put into practice. The “community” needs to step up. Canadian culture is primarily publicly funded, and film directors, screenwriters, playwrights and actors have become civil servants, essentially. We customize our art to fit the institutional (funding) criteria. As bureaucrats of culture, we do not take the lead, and cannot. We ape the institutional standard or succumb to the community’s expectations. And I think of my aunt in an expensive high-rise “penitentiary,” immobile, not here, not there, looking out the window onto the Metropolitan Boulevard, wondering why she left Calabria.