An Interview with Mary di Michele

Series: ​Cross-Communication: Canadian Writers Reflect on Language and Culture

Authors: Zara Diab and Shannon Steele
March 27, 2018

In this series for the Strathy Blog, we explore the theme of “language” in Canadian literature — in particular the implications of a space containing multiple languages and the movement from one language and culture to another — through a series of interviews with Canadian writers. We reached out to a variety of multilingual voices from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds who engage with language in their work. Our interest lies in how language forms and informs their texts. Each week for four weeks, we will post a new author interview. Our first interview was with Ayelet Tsabari. This week we feature Mary di Michele.

Mary di Michele is an Italian-Canadian author and poet living in Montreal. She is known for writing autobiographical pieces which deal with her upbringing in Italy and her move to Canada as a child. Her most recent collection, Bicycle Thieves, contemplates her Italian and Canadian identities: a work of translation and self. You can read her poem "The Bicycle Thief" here.

Can you tell us a bit about your language background? Do you use certain languages for certain contexts?

My first language was Italian; I was born in Italy, and lived in Europe until I was nearly six years old. I say Europe because during that time I spent a couple of years in Belgium where my brother was born. I lived in a Flemish-speaking city there and my mother tells me I spoke Flemish but I have no memory of this. I learned to speak English in Canada; we immigrated here in the mid-fifties of the last century. My mother never quite learned to speak English so Italian, more precisely, the Abruzzese dialect, was the language I spoke at home with her. But my father, who took night classes to learn and improve his English, spoke English with us. He said we had moved to this country (to Toronto) and should learn to speak the language well. In this he was very unlike the fathers of my Italian friends and relatives who insisted on speaking Italian in the home.

I work in an English language and literature department; I rarely speak Italian since my mother died. I keep my connection to Italian through my reading and translating of Italian poetry. I have been living in Quebec where French is the primary language since the fall of 1990. I had studied French literature in university and my reading skills are good. I understand the standard French of Radio Canada, but have trouble with street French, and I am not a fluent speaker. My level of French is about the same as Italian; I can read much better than I can speak the language.

Are there any words, phrases or concepts in your native language/s that you find difficult to express in English, or vice versa?

English became my primary language, the language of my education, my reading and writing, so actually it’s the other way around. The reflexive pronoun, for example, the way you would say you miss something: “Mi manca l’italia” is hard to translate. If you do it literally: “Italy is missing to me” – the expression sounds very strange.

Have you read/worked on translations of your work in other languages, and if so, have you noticed differences in how your ideas are communicated?

I can read French and Italian and have seen translations in those languages; oddly, they’re like mirrors, I can’t see through the languages to the English version on the other side. This might be a question for the translators, how difficult was it to adapt the text to Italian or French, that is, compared to English texts by unilingual authors. Might make an interesting study.

What do you think about the reception or understanding of your work in Canada versus other countries? What do you hope different audiences glean from your work?

I don’t think my work is hard to understand. I value clarity. I write in English and if I use Italian words or French occasionally I think context makes their meaning accessible. I remember when I was writer in residence at the University of Toronto in the 80’s a student came to see me who said that she identified with the family relationships represented in my poem, “Mimosa,” and she was from a Japanese-Canadian family. I used tropes in that poem many recognize, such as the parable of the prodigal ‘son.’

I’m not sure how to answer the question about reception; I have been given a few labels, Italian-Canadian here, a writer of the diaspora in Italy, a feminist, a woman writer everywhere. I’ll wear them all but they are partial descriptions. Only white native-born male writers get to easily elude all labels.

In your poem "Enigmatico," the subject is caught "with one bare foot in a village in the Abruzzi / the other busy with cramped English- / speaking toes in Toronto." In your opinion, does language help illustrate, bridge, and/or help forge the gap between the places you've called "home?" How has language formed your experience in the different places you have lived?

The places where I’ve lived, that I have called home for a number of years include the country where I was born, Italy, and the country that became my home, Canada. I lived in Toronto until I was forty, then moved to Montreal where I’ve lived since 1990. Each major move involved different languages and subsequent displacement: the three languages in my life are Italian, English, and French. These changes, moves, have meant that I can never take one language for granted, or see the way one language views the world as the only way to see it. I am reading Coetzee’s novel, Slow Man, and the protagonist in an internal moment of recognition uses and repeats the word, ‘labile;’ this character lives in Australia but was born in France. ‘Labile,’ Oxford defines as “liable to change, easily altered,” and one of the examples it gives describes our era of mass migrations: “we might be the most labile culture in all history”. This word speaks to me, to my experience of instability and change as I changed countries, changed cities, changed cultures, and languages, and have been changed by them all. There’s negative space between languages that translation attempts to bridge but cannot, that space is labile, and that place is poetry.

In my latest book, Bicycle Thieves, I go back to the time of the poem, “Enigmatico,” in a poem called “Enigmatico Revisited;” it is written from a point of view matured by the many years that have passed.

Read "The Bicycle Thief".