by Joseph J. Pivato
Who am I and where is here? These are the problems that Caterina Edwards explores in her fiction, drama and essays. This central question of identity, and its many ramifications as a woman, as an immigrant, as a Canadian on the prairies and as a writer are the subjects of her first novel, The Lion’s Mouth, and of her early stories. Is this sense of identity linked to a physical environment? Edwards fascination with this question has its roots in her own life experiences as an immigrant girl, as the daughter of an Italian mother and English father, as a person born in England but raised in Alberta. Edwards spent many summers back in Venice, Italy, with relatives. The return journey of self-discovery is an important motif in The Lion’s Mouth and in several stories. After attending the University of Alberta Caterina Edwards married an American student of Sicilian origins and the couple settled in Edmonton to raise a family. From this point of view she has been able to explore the relationships between northern and southern Italy. It is a life full of contrasts and rich possibilities amply exploited in her diverse literary works.
When the young Caterina Edwards began writing about the Italian immigrant experience in the 1970s there were not models for her in Canadian literature. She was the first Italian-Canadian woman writer in western Canada and in 1982 The Lion’s Mouth was the first Canadian novel to combine ethnicity with feminist questions. In 1986 the staging of Terra Straniera was the first play about Italian immigrants in the prairies. It was later published as Homeground (1990). As a woman writer marginalized in the prairies she had the freedom to experiment with different forms and to produce work in a variety of genres: short stories, novellas, novels, a play and essays.
Living far away from Toronto, the centre of Canadian publishing, means that you publish with small presses, that your books only get reviewed in regional papers, if at all, and that distribution and sales of your books is dependent on anomalies of chance. It also means that you are away from the hype of the centres of power and are able to focus on your art. You can treat unpopular subjects, you can explore new perspectives, you can write the way you want. Edwards has explored the pluralistic society of the Canadian West.
Bianca, the main character in The Lion’s Mouth, seems to be compelled to write, and readers cannot help but see in this a reflection of the author’s own need to tell the stories of new arrivals to Canada and of their links to the old country. The work of many ethnic minority writers has this transparent link to the lived experience, and the shared understanding with the minority reader that the writer is also giving voice to the silent ethnic community. Thus the necessity to tell the story is not only a personal drive for artistic expression but a public role the writer-storyteller must fulfill in the larger society. Caterina Edwards recognizes these rolls very well and articulates them in several of her works and in her essays, such as "A Playwright’s Experience."
There is also a dark side to the examined life. In her essay, "Sublimation and Satisfaction," Edwards explores the autobiographical impulse and how it has been perverted in modern popular culture into exercises in exhibitionism and voyeurism. In contrast to this self-deception she expresses the honest quest for self-discovery:
We construct a self from the multiplicity of selves that we live. We make sense of ourselves in the process of creating our story. And paradoxically this self-filled project connects us to others. By making the private public the writer is less alone. We speak to a community and as part of a community. (323)
At various times and for many years Caterina Edwards has been a teacher of English and creative writing at institutions in Edmonton: Grant MacEwan Community College, the University of Alberta and Athabasca University. This work combines two of her major interests: her own writing and encouraging other writers. It also combines two aspects of her being: the private act of writing with the public role of teacher and mentor. These are often difficult roles to combine. The many Canadian writers who have also been teachers can testify to the conflict, the different demands and the lack of time. Add to this that Edwards is also a wife and mother and we can appreciate the pressures at work. Similar conflicts are sometimes reflected in her characters. In A Whiter Shade of Pale George is a provincial government lawyer who would rather be an archeologist studying the Etruscans. Marco in The Lion’s Mouth is an architect who seems more inclined to be an artist or political activist. Both men have the added preoccupations of difficult family situations.
The life and work of most writers is more complicated than a schematic dichotomy between private desire and public demands, nevertheless, it is sometimes easier to understand the writer and the work if we look at the many forces at work on an individual. What is the relationship between life writing and fiction? Is creative writing only a private act or does it have a social role to play in society? Is writing in a realistic manner passé? These are some of the questions which Edwards tries to deal with in her discussions with other writers. On panels during meetings of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and the Association of Italian-Canadian Writers she can be trusted to articulate her views on these issues. In her many public statements about the state of letters she demonstrates a profound sense of the craft of writing, a sense which she is able to impart to her students as an inspired teacher.
Edwards was raised in a home where they spoke both English and Italian. This gives her a perspective on the English language often found among Italian-Canadian writers, but not among unilingual English authors. What is the origin and meaning of some of our English words and what are their connections to other languages? How do you translate from one language into another and from one culture into another? How do you use foreign words in your English writing in Canada? What is the role of French and of Italian?
Caterina Edwards is married to Marco LoVerso, so her legal name is Caterina LoVerso. The fact that she writes under her maiden name, Edwards, is an indication of her concern with personal identity and the shifts it can take in life. There is an ironic anecdote about this shift and possible loss of name and identity. In writing about Bianca, the main character in The Lion’s Mouth, I called her Bianca Bolcato, giving her the same last name as her Italian cousin in the novel, Marco Bolcato. A couple of other male critics perpetuated this careless error. It took a woman critic, Licia Canton, to point out that Bianca’s last name is Mazzin, not Bolcato. It took a woman to notice this discrepancy, a woman from Quebec where since 1981 married women have been legally required to keep their maiden names. In the novel Marco acts as Bianca’s alter ego and so the name shift has symbolic as well as psychological ramifications.
Personal identity in all aspects is one of the most important themes in Edwards’ writing. From my perspective, and from my early experience in Canada as an immigrant, I see this preoccupation with identity as a normal outgrowth of the dislocation, of the translation of first names, of the difficulty with new languages, the translation of daily reality, of the need to keep links with the old culture and country. In Homeground Maria tries to maintain this link with Italy through rituals, the ritual of water and salt, but also the family rituals of telling stories and singing Italian songs around the kitchen table. This is also a motif in her short stories, "The Last Young Man," and "Prima Vera."
Part of Edwards preoccupation with personal identity is her attention to history, both family stories and social history. In the essay, D"Where the Heart Is," she talks about her own family history in Venice and Wales. For her Canadian characters the history of Europe is not a series of remote events, but actions which are directly linked to their personal lives. Thus Bianca, by way of Marco, revisits a Venice of high culture and pervasive corruption. A history which Marco cannot escape and which even effects Bianca in Edmonton. In the novella, Becoming Emma, Aida is haunted by events in the recent history of Latvia. In A Whiter Shade of Pale George is living another life as an archeologist in Italy excavating Etruscan ruins. World War II is in the background of Maria and Cesare in Homeground as they are forced to emigrate because of postwar poverty. They later find they cannot return to Italy and resume their lives there; instead they move back to Canada.
In addition to being conscious of history Edwards makes us aware of place. It is ironic that this author who has written so much about Italy is very much a regional writer of the prairies. This strong sense of place is evident in all her works and she has often wondered out loud if this regionalism has not limited her appeal in the rest of Canada. A regional identity is a two-edged sword, and for Edwards this has been the case. Like many other regional authors Edwards writes in the realist tradition. The scale of the Alberta prairies and mountains is so great that there seems little need for fantastic fictions. The history of immigrants and settlers while epic in scale is often depicted in everyday prose.
Many of Edwards’ characters want to become part of the new society. In Becoming Emma, Aida, the displaced Latvian girl, becomes a naturalized American and changes her name to Emma. "It was the next step in the process by which they were being transformed from free floating specks, blown here and there, at the mercy of the winds of chance, into something settled, rooted, a natural part of the landscape."(82)
The identity of characters in Edwards narratives are always bound up with a sense of place. It is a concrete place with a physical geography and a climate. We cannot escape climate in Canada, and certainly in Alberta it is ever-present. It is a climate of distinct seasons which makes us constantly aware of place, our body’s relationship to the outdoors. The harsh climate of the Canadian winter means that you cannot take this relationship for granted. Many of the Italian characters complain about this climate. They are aware that the winter can kill you and that the many Canadian stories of death in the snow are not hyperbole but reflections of reality. Homeground begins with reference to a friend, Gigietto Moro, who died in Whitehorse, Yukon.
One prairie writer dismissed these Italian immigrant characters as people who are "whoring after palm trees." It is a remark which demonstrates ignorance of Italian immigration to Canada. The 800 Italians who went to Yellowknife in the 1950s and 1960s to work in the mines is an indication that they were not afraid of the north. In Alberta, pioneer Giorgio Pocaterra homesteaded a ranch in Kananaskis in 1909. Frank Paci’s early novels are set in Sault Ste Marie and Lake Superior. Peter Oliva’s first novel, Drowning in Darkness, is set in the Crossnest Pass area where many Italians worked in the coal mines. It is this background of sacrifice and toil in any location which is reflected in the fiction of Italian-Canadian writers.
Much of Edwards’ fiction demonstrates a profound sense of community. She is speaking for a minority community in western Canada who have been voiceless. In this recognition of her social role as a writer in the community she has much in common with other ethnic minority writers in the prairies, like Myrna Kostash, and with aboriginal writers. We get a sense of this community voice in many of her short stories which retell the peculiar experiences of immigrants. In many ways these are shared stories which emerge from the community. In her personal essay, "Care Calling Care," Edwards relates her experience in caring for her dying father-in-law, Manuele. In telling us how she and her husband worked month after month in meeting the physical and emotional needs of a paralyzed man she demonstrates this sense of community and the lessons she learned:
When Manuele called me a princess in a tower, he wasn’t entirely wrong. My tower was built from books and stories and ideas. None were wrong or false. But I have still fallen out, fallen to earth-grounded by the weight of my experience. (216)
The realism in her prose is reminiscent of other prairie artists who honestly try to capture a world seen for the first time. I am reminded of Saskatchewan painter, Alan Sap, who simply records and interprets the everyday life of his community.
The sense of community is most evident in the play, Homeground, where the characters not only share meals and songs around the table but also try to care for one another. This sense of social responsibility is an important part of the conflict in this play. The characters debate where they belong; where their true home is. They all feel that it is back in Italy, and they return there near the end of the play, only to find that in Italy relatives let Lucio kill himself. The people in Italy apparently were less socially responsible than those in Canada who saved Lucio from harming himself.
In her essay, "The Playwright’s Experience," Edwards explains the public participation in the production of her play, Terra Straniera, and the continuing community reaction to the performances. She discovered that there was an immigrant community wanting to be heard and that she was playing a vital role in giving them a voice. "I could not write a novel or a story that would be accessible to them. Their English was just not good enough. But the play—that spoke to them." (108)
In the summer of 1986 Terra Straniera was a major hit when it premiered at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. Here was the first play that examined the experience of Italian immigrants in Western Canada. How do you depict such an experience and avoid negative stereotypes? One of the ways Edwards did this was to have all the characters speak in articulate English rather that in broken English or Italian accents. This controversy over the language carried on for weeks and it continued when the play was published. The Italian title of the play was questioned. Do we keep the original Italian title, a reference from an old immigrant folk song, or do we use a more accessible English title? When it went to press the play’s title was changed from Terra Straniera (strange land) to a term which had the opposite meaning, Homeground. The meanings are in keeping with the different perspectives from the two languages. For an Italian immigrant Canada is a strange land; but for an English speaking resident it can be home. This is an example when direct translation would not have brought out these different points of view.
In her many published essays and in her talks Edwards often addresses the role of the writer in general and that of a woman writer in the prairies. In her article, "From Sea to C Minus," she argues against a blind adherence to the latest theory at the cost of free creative expression. "The practitioners of new theories (deconstruction, some types of feminist theory, cultural materialism, postcolonial studies and so on) have also had an inhibiting and divisive effect on Canadian writing...." She is conscious of the many pressures operating on a modern writer: the need for artistic integrity as opposed to financial success; the need for broad reader reception as opposed to only academic recognition; the need for freedom of expression as opposed to simple excess. All of these conflicts are evident in Edwards’ writing career. And in the relative isolation of Edmonton, Alberta, they become more pronounced.
Probably more so that other Italian-Canadian writers, and maybe because her name does not end in a vowel, Caterina Edwards has consciously searched for the meaning of being a writer with two identities. The search begins in The Lion’s Mouth and it continues into the play and the novellas. It is the question that haunts essay after essay.
In the pristine air of Edmonton such questions can be seen more clearly, but they cannot be answered any more easily than they can in the multicultural crowding of Toronto. We have more space in the prairies, but do we have more choices?
Do we only feel a sense of belonging in the land where we are born? It is a choice which haunts many of the characters in Edwards’ stories; it is a choice which tempts many immigrants. In one of her first short stories, "Island of the Nightingales," Edwards explored this dilemma. In preparing a new collection of her stories she had the opportunity to revise this early story which takes place on the Island of Lussino in the Adriatic, an island which is now part of Croatia. Because of the recent wars in the Balkans western readers know much more about the ethnic divisions in the region than they did in 1980 when the story first appeared. Edwards is now able to integrate some of this knowledge into the story. She can now use some of the strange names, Velilosinj, Rovenska, Malilosinj, Svet Petar and Rijeka. She is able to explore the meaning of these names: (Italian) Lussingrande or Lussino and (Croatian) Velilosinj:
Some say that the name Lussino came from usignuolo, the nightingale.... I read that some thought that the name Lussino came from lusinga, to enchant....but also to delude, to flatter, to deceive, from the German word lausinga, a lie.
In seeking artistic truth the writer must also confront the lie. In the end Caterina Edwards is a creative writer, an artist, whose work stands on its own and will be judged for its intrinsic and social value.
For the list of works cited see the bibliography for Caterina Edwards. All page references are to these editions.
A version of this essay is included in Caterina Edwards: Essays on Her Works published by Guernica Editions.
For more information on ethnic minority writing see the home pages below:
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services