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Athabasca University

“A Crypto-Ethnic Confession”

by Linda Hutcheon

Though I go by the name of Linda Hutcheon, I was certainly not born a Scot. I was born a Bortolotti. I am, therefore, what I like to think of as a hidden or "crypto-ethnic"—an Italian hidden beneath an Anglo name. The consequences of this silenced marker of Italian heritage are something I share with an entire generation of women "of a certain age" who married at a time when social custom still meant taking their husbands' surnames. For example, there’s my friend Cathy N. Davidson, a professor of English at Duke University in the United States. The N. in her name stands for Notari—or, as she prefers, Notari-Fineman-Kotoski. Here, in one small, not quite hidden letter is the sign of a crypto-multi-ethnicity: the sign of growing up Italian, Russian and German Jew, and Polish Catholic in working-class Chicago. And then there is Marianna Torgovnick — at least that’s what I'd always called her. But, in 1994, she published a book entitled Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian American Daughter and, when telling the story of her crossing from Italian to Jewish Brooklyn when she married, she chose to write as Marianna De Marco Torgovnick. And then there’s the feminist scholar known as Sandra Gilbert, the collaborator (with Susan Gubar) in groundbreaking studies of women’s writing, who graduated from highschool as Sandy Mortaro. In other words, beneath the Gilbert, the Torgovnick, the Davidson is an "encrypted" or hidden Mortaro, De Marco, Notari. Of course, there are many male scholars in the field of literary criticism with similar Italian backgrounds: Frank Lentricchia, John Paul Russo, Dominick LaCapra, Joseph Pivato. But for the men, there is no hidden name, no cryptonym.

Beneath the Hutcheon, for me, hides a Bortolotti—something I first wrote about when thinking through the baffling issues surrounding Canadian multiculturalism while editing a book of interviews and short stories called Other Solitudes. Inevitably, the name Bortolotti conjures up my father’s family from the Friuli, that border region of northeastern Italy prone to earthquakes and invasions. Italian friends tell me that the Friulani are themselves a hybrid ethnic group within Italy, made up of Celtic, Slovenian, Austro-Hungarian and Venetian people. I often wonder whether it was from these Friulani that I inherited some paradoxical desire to blend into the majority Anglo culture while still retaining my ethnic difference. Perhaps they also gave me a taste for incongruities and ironies: those Friulano grandparents homesteaded in Saskatchewan just after the turn of the century, moving from the mountains of Italy to the prairies of Canada. My father was, in fact, born near Viscount, Saskatchewan, in 1914 but the family returned to Italy (with characteristically fine family timing) during the First World War, and re-emigrated in the 1920s. Despite the manifest hardships of life on the prairies, my grandmother recalled her years in the West with great fondness to her dying day at age 103.

But beneath the Bortolotti is another encrypted name: Rossi, the name of my mother’s family, who had emigrated from a small hill-town in Tuscany. My mother was the requisite 40 days old when the family moved to Toronto—my grandfather having decided that he didn't like the climate of the part of the continent to which his brother had ventured: California. On second thought, maybe the taste for incongruities and ironies came from this side of the family. So, as you can see, though I am Canadian-born, my familial cultural roots are pure Italian. I'm not sure if I’m second- or third-generation, but I have to admit that I don’t particularly feel lost in the shifting patterns of migrations and re-emigration like a character in The Lost Father, a novel by Marina Warner—another crypto-ethnic critic and writer, this time from the United Kingdom.

What I also share with those other women—the Gilberts, Torgovnicks, and Davidsons—is the fact that we are by profession crypto-ethnic professors of English. In other words, we teach and study in university departments structured along the lines of dominant linguistic traditions (English, French, and so on), traditions with intimate connections to the nineteenth-century politics of nation-building. But what does it mean to become an English professor when you grow up in an Italian household where "the English" were seen to possess a distinct and different ethnic identity, where roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were considered foreign, but osso buco and polenta were the norm? "The English" were as different, as strange, to us as no doubt we were to them; they too were "ethnic", other, alien—at least from our point of view. This is ethnicity defined as "positionality."

But Sandra, Marianna, and Cathy are all Italian Americans; I am Italian Canadian. Does this difference in nationality mean different experiences of either ethnicity or crypto-ethnicity? After all the attention given in the world media in the fall of 1995 to the Québec referendum on separation, people in other countries—including the U.S.—may now have an even greater sense of the differences in politics, culture, and national self-image between Canada and the rest of North America as well as between English and French Canada. With no melting pot ideology and no equivalent of even a pluralist "American" national identity to rally around, Canadians—be they of British, Italian, Somali, Chinese or Pakistani origin—have only the paradoxically multiple model of multiculturalism in which to configure their sense of "self-in-nation." This is probably one of the reasons why we Canadians suffer from our infamous and perpetual identity crisis, and why I too have had to think through what my ethnic identity means to me.

It was during the so-called North American "culture wars" that I first realized that the word "multicultural" had very different political associations in Canada and in the United States (Arthur). Book after book, magazine article after magazine article in the U.S. contained political denunciations of multiculturalism as a social policy destined to "disunite" America. Most often, I found multiculturalism defined as the dominant view on university campuses, contaminated (as they were said to be) by "political correctness." People were said to be worried about what was called the "ethnic cheerleading" implied in some of the changes in what was being taught in college courses—as room was made for non-mainstream writers whose inclusion reflected the demographic diversity of the continent more accurately. They expressed concern about potential ethnic chauvinism within the multicultural university (Bernheimer). Some raised questions about the possibility that multiculturalism’s "politics of difference" might simply be another way of reconfiguring white racial supremacy in America; others voiced fears that the recent interest in ethnic studies would elide the historical realities of race through the use of a European immigrant model for thinking about cultural differences. Despite urgent defenses of minority studies and despite sincere attempts to render more complex the dangerously simplistic views of the new changes in university curricula, the associations of the word, multiculturalism, in the United States often included issues such as gender, sexual choice, and even, occasionally, class.

It was precisely these associations that were so confusing to me as a Canadian, for multiculturalism in Canada is not so much a question of the canon or campus politics but one of national self-definition—and, of course, it is so by law. In Canada, the majority culture’s self-understanding is, in part, forcibly defined by its designation as multiple rather than single. The history of the term, multicultural goes back to the part of the 1970 report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism that was entitled The Cultural Contribution of the Other Ethnic Groups—and here "ethnic" meant all who were not native North American. Out of this came Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s 1971 multicultural policy statement and, in 1988, Bill C-93, the Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also includes within it a commitment to the protection of the multicultural heritage of the nation. Such legal provisions are perhaps typical of Canadian political society, which Charles Taylor has characterized as "more committed to collective provision, over against American society that gives greater weight to individual initiative." In Québec, as in what is really a very polyglot and misnamed "English" Canada, there exists what Taylor calls a "plurality of ways of belonging" or "diversity."

It is no accident, however, that it was Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the fierce federalist opponent of Québec separation, who formulated the policy statement about multiculturalism in the early '70s. Changing Canada’s self-image from bicultural to multicultural was not simply a matter of recognizing a demographic reality; it had a political purpose and, in some people’s eyes, a political result. On the night of the 1995 separation referendum, Québéc Premier Jacques Parizeau lamented that the (French) Québécois chance for independence had been ruined by what he controversially referred to as "money and the ethnic vote." It is no coincidence that multicultural policies were put in place at the same time that Québec was starting to think of itself as independent, as no longer a colony. Today, in some critics’ eyes, those policies still function as implicit barriers to the recognition of both Québécois demands for independence and also, of course, of the land claims and demands for self-government of First Nations Peoples.

Yet another worry people have about multiculturalism as a national policy is that ethnicity could become a compulsory and limiting identity label. Smaro Kamboureli fears that "familial genealogies, or biologism" could become the only defining terms of identity. But my reply to this concern would be that, with the inevitable changes that come with displacement, any sense of ethnicity is bound to be configured differently in a new and different place. Human life, as Charles Taylor has argued, is always formed in relation to other people and other customs. In Michael Fischer’s terms, "ethnicity is something reinvented and reinterpreted with each generation by each individual.... Ethnicity is not something that is simply passed on from generation to generation, taught and learned; it is something dynamic, often unsuccessfully repressed or avoided"—even by crypto-ethnics. As the opponents of Canadian multiculturalism policies helpfully remind us, ethnicity should not be something frozen in time; it should never be only the site of nostalgia. Cultures in Canada, as elsewhere, interpenetrate; what’s called "transculturation" occurs. Despite the ethnic conflicts raging in various parts of the globe today, the meaning of ethnicity in the late twentieth-century diasporic world should logically no longer mean concepts of purity and authenticity; as Joseph Pivato and others have noted, for many people it is more in the meeting of cultures that ethnicity today is actually lived.

I want to resist the urge to find any more precise-sounding image for this meeting of cultures that ethnicity means to me. As a model or metaphor, the idea of cultural "hybridity" (in either its positive or negative meanings) seems to depend implicity on an idea of purity, of authenticities brought together (Appiah). It seems, paradoxically, to be dependent on keeping the very borders it tries to dissolve. I suspect my Friulani ancestors had centuries of this contradictory border experience. But I am a second-generation Italian Canadian and crypto-ethnic, living in multiracial, multiethnic Toronto. I do not really feel caught between what Kamboureli describes as the "experience of loss and of being othered in a web of old and new cultural registers"; for me, ethnicity has much more to do with the process of what Fischer calls "inter-reference between two or more cultural traditions." Marianna De Marco Torgovnick’s image of crossings—between ethnic groups and social classes, between being an insider and an outsider, among the roles of "wife, mother, daughter, mourner, professional woman, critic, and writer"—strikes me as a fruitful one for many different situations (as her own long list indeed suggests), but it is not precisely descriptive of my personal sense of what ethnicity means to me.

In a provocative and even prophetic essay written a decade ago and called "A Critique of Pure Pluralism," Werner Sollors urged that the categorization of both writers and critics as members of ethnic groups be understood as "very partial, temporal, and insufficient characterization at best." In arguing instead for a dynamic "transethnic" focus based on the complexities of "polyethnic interaction," he wrote of the dangers of choosing—timidly—to speak with the "authority of ethnic insiders rather than that of readers of texts." When Sollors wrote to American readers that "literature could become recognizable as a productive force that may Americanize and ethnicize readers," he implied that you are what you read. Perhaps, however, you are also how you read (as well as how you are read). This is what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. implied when he argued that, "under the sign of multiculturalism [here used in its broad American sense], literary readings are often guided by the desire to elicit, first and foremost, indices of ethnic particularity, especially those that can be construed as oppositional, transgressive, subversive." The impact of ethnicity—like that of race and gender—on the act of interpretation is a much debated topic in literary circles. But, like the cultural construction of "nationness" (as Homi Bhabha has argued), the cultural construction of ethnicity may also be a "form of social and textual affiliation"—for readers as for writers, for both are formed (as readers and writers) by being placed in an order of words; both emerge as a function of different and perhaps conflicting encodings.

However, some crypto-Italians—like myself, like Cathy Davidson, Sandra Gilbert, Marianna Torgovnick—end up as professional readers and writers, the kind called professors of English. The question is: do "English" professors have to do "English" readings? I received my education in English literary studies in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore largely within the normalizing, ethnocentric context of the liberal humanism represented by the work of the British theorist F.R. Leavis: the immigration of "British" professors of "English" to the colonies had guaranteed that Leavis’s "great tradition" would be my tradition. In other words, I learned to do what Frances Mulhern calls "English reading." The realization of this particular and particularly insidious form of crypto-ethnicity may well be what drove me into Italian studies and finally into Comparative Literature; it may even have dictated the choice of theory as my scholarly research area. One part of my academic "life-script"—the narrative I use to shape and tell my life as a reader and writer—would have to include my realization that, in the university too, "the English" (as they were known in my family) constituted a specific ethnic group and NOT the voice of the universal. Rather than get rid of foreignness in the name of universal natuarlization, then, maybe we should realize that we are all "foreign" to someone else, while still working toward some kind of "interculturalism" that would make the meeting of ethnicities easier.

In the end, though, I find I cannot resist offering an image of what ethnicity and crypto-ethnicity might mean to me. I borrow it from In the Skin of a Lion, a novel by Sri Lankan Canadian writer, Michael Ondaatje. It is a novel about the history of Toronto, the city in which I live and work; the image, however, is one used to describe an Italian Canadian man, evocatively and ironically named David Caravaggio. In prison for theft (he likes to think of himself as a "professional displacer"), Caravaggio learns that his very name is a carrier of ethnicity, a mobile attractor of scorn and abuse: he is called "wop" and "dago." One of his tasks while in prison is to paint the roof of the penitentiary blue. (Caravaggio thus lives up to his famous namesake’s profession as painter, even if in a debased and ironic way.) As he goes about his job, he realizes that he is losing all sense of the boundaries between blue sky and blue roof. With this realization comes a sense of liberation and empowerment for the imprisoned man—but not only for the visual illusion of freedom it offers. In an act of cunning self-cryptography, he has his fellow inmates paint him blue, thereby erasing all visible boundaries between himself, the roof and the sky. Caravaggio then escapes.

Crypto-ethnicity is, for me, a fact of life; so too is ethnicity. From these there is no escape. But in the very fact of the "encrypting" there is a potential challenge to purist, imprisoning boundaries, a challenge that (most of the time, at least) I find liberating. I think of blue Caravaggio on the blue roof, and he becomes for me the image not only of crypto-ethnicity but of ethnicity itself—ethnicity as positionality.

Note: A version of this essay was included in The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Writing. ed. J. Pivato. Guernica Editions, 1998.

Works Cited and Hypertext References

Appiah, K. Anthony. "Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction." Gutman: 149-63.

Arthur, John & Amy Shapiro, Eds. Campus Wars: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995.

Bernheimer, Charles, Ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1995. (See also Multiculturalism in USA, below.)

Blodgett, E.D. "Towards an Ethnic Style." Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 22.4 (1995): 1-16. Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.

The Cultural Contribution of the Other Ethnic Groups. Book IV of Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Ottawa: The Queen’s Printer, 1967-70.

Davidson, Cathy N. 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Fischer, Michael M.J.. "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory." James Clifford & George E. Marcus, Eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: U. Of California P., 1986. 194-233.

Gilbert, Sandra & Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale U.P. 1979.

Gutman, Amy, Ed. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U.P. 1994.

Hutcheon, Linda & Marion Richmond, Eds. Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions. Toronto: Oxford U.P., 1990.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Toronto: Oxford U.P. 2000.

Leicht. P.S.. A History of Friuli. Trans. A.P. De Luca. Udine: Ente Friuli nel Mondo, 1988.
Friuli-Venezia Gulia.

Mulhern, Francis. "English Reading." in Bhabha, H., Ed. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990. Multiculturalism in USA

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

Pivato, Joseph. Echo: Essays on Other Literatures. Toronto: Guernica, 1994.
Sollors, Werner. "A Critique of Pure Pluralism." Sacvan Bercovitch, Ed. Reconstructing American Literary History. Cambridge: Harvard U.P. 1986. 250-79.

Taylor, Charles. "The Politics of Recognition." Gutman, 25-73.

Warner, Marina. The Lost Father. London: Picador, 1988.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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