New Canadian Media

Sacrifices of ‘Nonnas’ Should Not Be Forgotten

Written by  New Canadian Media Tuesday, 30 August 2016 10:29
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Gianna Patriarca's new collection of short stories, All My Fallen Angelas, tells of the experiences of women, young and old, living in Toronto’s Italian immigrant community. 
Gianna Patriarca's new collection of short stories, All My Fallen Angelas, tells of the experiences of women, young and old, living in Toronto’s Italian immigrant community.  Photo Credit: Wikimedia CC

by Rosanna Haroutounian in Quebec City

The recent death of Abdirahman Abdi after his violent arrest in Ottawa and the 2015 police shooting of Andrew Loku in Toronto challenge the “meanwhile in Canada” dichotomy that says racial profiling only happens in America.

Racial profiling by police is not a new phenomenon. The ability to now document aggression by law enforcement against Black Canadians and Americans and other visible minorities and broadcast the footage around the world makes this long-standing injustice hard to ignore.

At the same time, we meet a younger cohort that is forcing down those walls in order to be heard.

More story needed

Short stories go well with short attention spans, delivering the main elements of a good story in one quick dose.

At the same time, they can leave many questions unanswered. To sum them all into one: “What happens next?”

Most of the stories in All My Fallen Angelas fall into the latter category.

Just as we are on the cusp of getting to know the characters, and finding our way around the intricacies of their lives, we are abruptly halted and told to move on.

. . . it is hard to determine whether it’s better for the author to provide more finality to her stories, or to allow readers to explore the possibilities on their own.

This is a sign of Patriarca’s ability as an engaging storyteller, but also begs whether some endings could be more convincing.

After much pondering, it is hard to determine whether it’s better for the author to provide more finality to her stories, or to allow readers to explore the possibilities on their own. 

Alice Munro, arguably Canada’s most well-known short story writer, also gives readers much to think about through her writing.

On writing short stories, Munro told The New York Times 30 years ago, “I don't really understand a novel. I don't understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story . . . I kind of want a moment that's explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”

Historical roots to popular images

Like Patriarca, Munro also writes about women; she has been called a feminist writer. While her stories focus mostly on women in Southwestern Ontario, Patriarca’s reside in Toronto, from the 1960s onward.

We are introduced to characters that bear resemblance to the stereotypical Italian nonna — the grandmother who is the family’s cook, religious authority and resident matchmaker. The classic image of the Italian male with slicked back hair and leather shoes also makes an appearance.

Though these characters seem caricatured in most other settings, Patriarca’s stories provide a glimpse into their historical roots.

“How do I make her understand that the world has changed?”

We learn about some of the traditions that Italian immigrants brought with them to Canada and their cultural importance.

While traditional interests, such as prayer and homemaking, persuade many older characters, the younger ones express the desire to break away from old customs by becoming entrepreneurs, refusing arranged marriages and deciding not to have families. 

“Do I tell her that a man is not what I want?” ponders the narrator in “My Grandmother is Normal.”

“Rather, marriage to a man is not what I want. My time, this place, allows me that choice. How do I make her understand that the world has changed?”

What was vs. what is 

The stories also show us how some predominantly Italian neighbourhoods in Toronto have evolved as immigration to Canada has expanded.

The stories also show us how some predominantly Italian neighbourhoods in Toronto have evolved as immigration to Canada has expanded.

“The new residents in the neighbourhood, whose long braids are often covered by lovely scarves, seem reluctant to come into her shop although on occasion Vicky is challenged by the requests of a new customer who will bare her head to reveal black torrents of lustrous hair,” writes Patriarca about Vicky’s salon in the story “Blonde Forever.”

The older characters also note the way they see their neighbourhood changing as a result of gentrification, technology and new social norms.

In “Anna at the Window,” Anna laments the declining attendance at her church, the long distances she must travel for her groceries, and the fact that young gentlemen no longer tip their hats and open doors for her.

“The area now catered to a different crowd, a different way of life, and although she understood that time had moved and that was the natural way of the world, it did not make her feel any better. Time is about loss, she thought, and loss is never a good thing.”

The contrast between young and old, between what was and what is now, is explored throughout All My Fallen Angelas and asks the reader to reflect on whether all change is really for the better, or whether as Anna suggests, it represents some loss.

These contrasts also suggest that while men have historically done most of the decision making in politics and business, it is women who witness and bear the brunt of how these choices affect society at large.

While women today may be better positioned to have an impact on the world around us, Patriarca’s stories are a reminder to never dismiss the sacrifices of our nonnas and other women that brought us here.

Rosanna Haroutounian is a freelance writer and the assignment editor at New Canadian Media. She studied journalism and political science at Carleton University and now splits her time between Quebec City and Peterborough, ON. 


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

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