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Canada 150

 


      Debut novel explores Italian immigration

       
      By
      Oct. 15, 2013

      On a cool September evening at the Casa D’Italia in Montreal, Connie Guzzo-McParland stood in front of a crowd of friends, family and colleagues to talk about the launch of her debut novel, The Girls of Piazza d’Amore. Guzzo-McParland spoke about her inspiration for the book and read a couple of excerpts from her novel, including a letter written by the main character’s father to her mother. Her father wrote from Montreal. His wife and children were still in Italy. This scenario was all too familiar for Italian families in the 1950s and 1960s who immigrated to Canada and other countries in search of a better life.

      The Girls of Piazza d’Amore traces the lives of three Italian village girls and the forces that lead them to leave home for a new life across the ocean. Narrated by Caterina, a young friend of the three girls, the novel brings to life the colorful goings-on in an Italian town in the midst of being forever changed by immigration.

      Connie Guzzo-McParland is a Montreal-based writer. In 2010, after years of running her own business, she became the Co-director and President of Guernica Editions. She was born in the small town of Miglierina, in the province of Catanzaro. She immigrated to Montreal in 1957 with her mother and brother to join her father who had left for Montreal a couple of years earlier.

      Italocanadese had the opportunity to speak with Connie Guzzo-McParland about her novel.

      Describe the development of The Girls of Piazza d’Amore from a thesis to the present short novel.

      I became interested in writing about 15 years ago when I first took a writing course at Vanier College and then decided to apply to Concordia University Creative Writing program. The first stories I wrote were based on childhood memories set in Italy, mainly anecdotal, before I emigrated in 1957. As I got more involved in writing I wanted to write a book of connected short stories but whenever I presented the stories at workshops, I kept on hearing that my style was novelistic and I should consider writing a novel instead. Little by little the idea for a novel emerged, with the same characters twenty-five or so years later, set in a multi-ethnic high school in Montreal. The village stories were used as flashback to show how the past impinged on the present of a group of people who all found themselves living and struggling with life in post-referendum Quebec of the 1980s. The novel grew and grew to a multilayered 600 pages saga which covered Italy of the 50s, the sea voyage, the early years in Montreal in the 60s and then the present of the novel set in the 80s. I presented it as a Master’s thesis in 2006 and was awarded a prize as best thesis of the year, with the recommendation that it needed some trimming. I spent quite a bit of time rewriting and cutting some of the superfluous material. A number of people had suggested I cut the novel into three or even four shorter ones, but I first resisted the idea. When I took over Guernica Editions, I planned on publishing the full novel, but the fear of it being stigmatized as a self-published work kept me from doing so, so I submitted it to Linda Leith Publishing. She especially liked the parts set in Italy and suggested I rework them into a short novel, which resulted in The Girls of Piazza d’Amore. 

      What was your inspiration for the story?

      As I got more involved in writing, I realized that simply recounting personal memories would not necessarily make for a compelling story. It was never my idea to write an autobiography. I was especially interested in recreating the period that changed the lives of all of us who emigrated in the 50s, and the best way for me to do that, I thought, would be through fiction. I set out to represent through the stories of three girls, the young narrator and her family, what went on, historically and socially, in Southern Italy in the 50s. I wanted to document the sense of frenzy to leave the villages, first in the cities of the north and then to the Americas. I was inspired by memories of real stories of young men who jilted their village girlfriends as soon as they arrived in the big cities and of girls who married men by proxy so they could emigrate and help their families. I especially wanted to highlight how the movement of mass emigration impacted the lives of the women left behind.

      You talk about autobiography vs. fiction in your Acknowledgment. How much is real/autobiographical and how much is fiction?

      All of the physical descriptions of the village and most of the anecdotes about village life are real or at least as real as I remembered them. I used a book written by the parish priest of the town as reference for the history of the fictional village. I changed the name of the village to Mulirena to fictionalize the setting but also because Miglierina is a mouthful to pronounce, especially for non-Italians. Whereas, I decided to maintain the real name of Amato for the nearby village because I like the sound of that name. The beauty of writing fiction is the freedom to change facts and events to best suit the needs of the story. Most of the details about the narrator’s home life, the history of her families, the preparation for the voyage are autobiographical with some minor changes in details here and there. The story of the three girls, their boyfriends and their families’ quarrels are completely made up, though when I described the girls physically I had in mind composites of girls that I remembered.

      How true is the character of Caterina to you?

      I’m quite sure that people that know me well will say that they recognize me in Caterina – I made her a couple of years older than I was, only because some of her observations might be seen as too mature for her age. In fact I was nine when I left for Canada in 1957, not in 1955 when the story starts. The story about Caterina memorizing Edmondo De Amicis excerpt from the book Cuore is actually true. Her love for school, for socializing with her friends, curiosity about the world, sense of observation, are some of the characteristics I think I share with Caterina.

      The theme of immigration is quite prominent in The Girls of Piazza d’Amore. What were your own feelings about immigration when you first left Italy? What are your thoughts on immigration now, so many years later?

      Maybe I was too young to remember or maybe I was too excited about the new adventure awaiting me and happy about seeing my father after the two-year absence, but I don’t remember feeling especially pained about leaving. The sea voyage was like a blur since we were seasick almost the whole length of the journey. However, the first winter in Montreal was quite a jolt. In Italy I had been very active in church and school activities, had many friends and as kids enjoyed a certain freedom of movement. My father decided not to send us to school that first winter, so I spent most of my time shut in a basement apartment watching the snow pile up and people’s legs walk by. I vegetated indoors and was very unhappy. Things improved somewhat with the end of winter and then the start of school, but my parents became very protective and I missed the freedom that I associated with my childhood in Italy. As I grew into adolescence, I also resented the over protectiveness of my parents and strict moral standards imposed on us girls. I didn’t resent immigration itself, but the fact that our parents didn’t adjust to the reality of living in a new country. Things changed drastically for my family in 1961 when my father died suddenly of a heart attack and I was obliged by circumstances to quit school and learn a trade. I was very unhappy and longed to go back to Italy.

      When I finally did return in 1963 and then a few times after that, I realized that we had changed and could never adjust to the bureaucracy and other negative aspect of life in Italy and I really appreciated the life we had shaped for ourselves in Canada. In spite of my family’s misfortune, we were able to pick ourselves up and build the future that our parents had dreamed of. I still enjoy visiting Italy, as long as I know I can come back to my home here. After a life lived here, and with all the experiences that I have gone through, I must say that our parents made the right decision to leave when they did, and I appreciate the courage that it must have taken them to do so.

      Connie Guzzo-McParland continues to promote the launch of The Girls of Piazza d’Amore with two upcoming launches: this Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 7:00PM at the Caboto Centre in Winnipeg, and October 20, 2013 at 3:00PM at Supermarket in Toronto.

      To learn more about Connie Guzzo-McParland’s work, please visit www.conniemcparland.com.

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