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Canada 150


      Un Momento with Connie Guzzo-McParland

      Jul. 25, 2017

      Connie Guzzo-McParland
      Connie Guzzo-McParland has taken the Canadian literary scene by storm this season with her newest novel, The Women of Saturn. It continues the coming of age story of the main character, Cathy, from her previous smash hit, The Girls of Piazza d’Amore. Set in 1980 Montreal, The Women of Saturn, is a rich novel full of the struggles between past and present told through a powerful and enlightening female lens. Connie is also the Publisher and Chief Administrative Officer of one of the top presses in Canada, Guernica Editions. She is definably an author to watch.

      How were you inspired to write your newest book?

      This book was part of a first work which eventually got divided into two novels, The Girls of Piazza D’Amore published in 2013 and the Women of Saturn, recently published. Being a first novel, it was inspired by my desire to preserve, through writing, some of my Italian childhood memories, the ocean voyage to Halifax in 1957 and the first years in Montreal. Once I decided to fictionalize these memories and write a novel, I set the story in Montreal in more recent times to show how one’s past can impinge on the present. Also, I wanted to chronicle the emigration wave of the after-war period in Italy which I felt has not been adequately represented in Canadian novels. As the story developed, I was inspired to bring up issues of importance to Italian Canadians like me living in a multicultural city like Montreal.

      Why did you return to same characters of your first novel?

      The first novel, The Girls of Piazza D’Amore, was completely set in Italy, and recreated the mood of a Calabrian village of the 50s – the period that saw thousands of Southern Italians leave their homes for the great adventure of the ocean voyage and life in places that they knew very little about. The novel is told from the perspective of a young girl, Caterina, and this gave me the opportunity to put on paper some of the images I carried in my head and the sense of high, maybe even naïve, expectations that we had as we left the old for the new. The novel ends with the young narrator, her family and a neighbour Lucia, who had married someone by proxy in Montreal, on a train on their way to Naples to board the boat, the Saturnia, for Halifax. But their stories don’t end there. In fact, that ending is the beginning of the new novel. I wanted to show how the hopes and aspirations of these characters fared in the new country twenty-five years later and how each generation was affected by the process of emigration. Lucia is the first generation who emigrates as an adult and does not adapt well in the new country. In the new novel, I introduce a new character, Angie, who is Lucia’s daughter and represents the second generation, born in Canada and disconnected with the traditions of the past, while Caterina who is Cathy in the new novel is the middle generation, with feet in both worlds. I hope that the struggle of these three characters are read as being universal, that many who have gone through the immigrant experience themselves or through families, no matter from what country, can see themselves in them.

      Was it hard to write a novel set in the past while living is such a technological modern age?

      Strangely enough, the stories set in the past were the easiest to write because I drew from real memories. The 1980 Montreal present, which is highly fictionalized was harder. I wrote the two parts in very different tones, unconsciously at first, and then I realized that there was a logic to it. The past stories have an easy flow and an evocative tone because told from a young girl who has happy personal memories of the past even though she does not shy away to also chronicle some of the more negative aspects of living in a tightly-knit Calabrian village of that period. The present is jittery, fragmented and reflects the adult Cathy’s state of mind. It starts with Cathy, getting ready to go to work in a school. She’s paralyzed in front of her mirror. She feels uncomfortable in her own skin, her clothes “hug and pull”. Being the middle generation, she’s pulled from different directions. In the first chapter, we also learn that her friend, Lucia, has been found beaten and is in a coma. Lucia’s daughter is a troubled student in Cathy’s class, and Cathy feels compelled to help her out, though her presence in her life becomes problematic. In dealing with the drama that follows Lucia’s beating, Cathy revisits the past and wants to write their stories, so she can make sense of what is going on. She becomes conflicted exactly by the question that you pose. She has been conditioned by the Italian literary traditions that she brought with her, exemplified by the classic novel, I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni that she reads on the boat. She’s now trying to write in a post-modern world. How do you reconcile the two? These issues are raised through a correspondence with a journalist friend that she has tried to impress with her writing. The novel is as much about the writing of the immigrant experience as it is about living it. In the end, the narrator concludes that “the closing of the circle may be an unrealizable chimera in our days.”

      Why do you think the telling of the immigrant experience is still important today?

      It is still important today because we are living in a period when the mass forced movement of people is still going on. The nightly news brings into our homes tragic images of the bombed-out cities in Syria, of the famine stricken countries in Africa and the thousands of refugees risking their lives in the waters of the Mediterranean. It may be the turn of other nations and other people, but “the story of emigration never ends.”

      How does your novel give voice to the lives of women and their stories?

      I like to think that the novel also speaks for the men in the women’s lives, even though the focus is on the three women, Cathy, Lucia and Angie. Lucia is in a coma throughout the novel and does not have a voice. Angie is a disenfranchised teen, a special education student who can’t read nor write and who can only express herself through acts of rebellion towards conventions. The journalist tells Cathy that these two women are tragic figures, Lucia is without a future; Angie without a past. Cathy does not only want to write their stories but becomes obsessed about wanting to find a happy ending so as to prove the journalist wrong. In telling Lucia’s story, she hopes to show that the comatose lifeless woman she has become was once a beautiful young woman with a sparkling personality and, most importantly a history. In so doing, Cathy hopes to speak for the countless immigrant women “ who scamper out of buses on their way home from factories around Chabanel Street. In drab clothes, and with no hint of make-up, nondescript, invisible.” These women all have histories behind them that are worth telling. Subconsciously, Cathy also sees parts of herself in the two women and in giving voice to their stories she hopes to fill a void, ease the insecurities that plague her and find the sense of community, identity and wholeness she’s searching.

      So much has been written about the mafia in Italian North American culture. Was this difficult to write about?

      I never meant to have the mafia as a central theme of my novel. In bringing it up, I wanted to show that the reputation of thousands of ordinary Italian Canadians should not be affected by the actions of a few individuals in the community. While deploring the actions of those individuals, the novel aims to bring up the issue of stereotyping and cultural profiling in the media. There are rumours that Lucia’s family has connection to some Montreal mafia characters. Cathy’s live-in-boyfriend works in politics and wants to run as a candidate in a byelection, and wants Cathy to cut her ties with Lucia and Angie for fear that the association will harm his chances of being elected. Cathy, on the other hand, argues that she and her family have nothing to hide and thus out of loyalty to her friend, takes Angie into her home while Lucia is hospitalized. “Are we guilty” she asks “only because we come from the same village or because we’re Italian?” Cases of collusion and corruption in the construction industry have made big news in the last few years in Montreal, so writing about it did not require much imagination.

      What is your writing routine?

      I unfortunately have not developed a very consistent writing routine. I started writing late in life while still running a business and raising a family, so I wrote in snatches, whenever I found the time, mostly on week-ends. However, I have developed some preferences. I like writing early in the morning when the mind is fresh, rarely later that 11:00-12:00, unless I have a revision dateline to meet. In the afternoon, I generally look after business and personal matters. Sometimes, later in the evening, I reread what I’ve written in the morning, but most of the time, I don’t seem to find much inspiration to write anything new. My mind is too boggled down by quotidian events.

      How does your Italian background influence your writing?

      I frequented three and half years of elementary school in Italy and still remember the memorization of poetry by Pascoli, Carducci, Leopardi and the writing of De Amicis. Later in Canada I studied classic Italian literature, such as Foscoli, Manzoni, Verga, Pirandello. My father was a musician and I grew up listening to arias of the great Italian operas, not to speak of all the Italian pop songs I listened to and Italian movies I watched. I’m sure that exposure to Italian sensibility in these various art forms must be reflected in my writing. I also do not shy away from using Italian words and expressions when their corresponding ones in English would not have the same full meaning and effect.

      What advice do you have for young writers trying to write about powerful issues and emotions?

      I may not be the best person to give advice to other writers. There are, of course, different type of writers, those that express eloquently in words their deepest and most heartfelt feelings and emotions as they occur, and those who like me simply tell a story as it happens and let readers read in between the lines. I like to show feelings by the actions of the characters or the details and anecdotes I select which can be read as metaphors for emotions. Having great language skill helps in the first case; being a keen observer of people and places is the key to the second. Having both skills is obviously best.

      What are you working on now and will there be a sequel to this novel?

      Soon after the launch of my novel I traveled to Italy to participate in a seminar on Italian Diaspora, and so have had little time to write. However, the seminar gave me some new inspirations to develop a couple of emigration stories that I only summarily mentioned in my novel: the internal emigration of Italian men in the northern Italian cities, and the early 19th century emigration wave to North Africa which is very little known. I’d like to research these phenomenons, but I don’t yet know if it will develop into a fiction or creative non-fiction book. I have also started writing a biography of a well-known and talented musical family in Montreal, but it’s still at a very early stage. I have a children’s story written a while ago I’d like to publish. There’s no lack of projects, only too little time.

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