The return of a local boy who made good

On March 31, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Nino Ricci reading from his novel Lives of the Saints. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

If this story has a beginning, a moment at which a single gesture broke the surface of events like a stone thrown into the sea, ripples cresting away endlessly, then that beginning occurred on a hot July day in 1960, in the village of Valle del Sol, when my mother was bitten by a snake.

from Lives of the Saints
by Nino Ricci

In the early ’80s at York, the celebrated Canadian novelist W.O. Mitchell once threatened to flunk a young writer who would go on to win the 2008 Governor General’s Literary Award. That student was Nino Ricci and he returned to his alma mater on March 31 after winning a second Governor General’s Literary Award for The Origin of  Species. Following a reception hosted by Atkinson College, Ricci read and answered questions for the Canadian Writers in Person series. 

Left: Nino Ricci

Ricci recalled the great professors he had at York and credits his literary education as a source of inspiration. Many of his stories are told against a backdrop of mythology and literary references, ranging from Shakespeare to Robertson Davies (the quote above is a subtle nod to Fifth Business). He even considered Mitchell’s rejection as motivation to work harder at his writing until it became publishable. Like many of his characters, rebellion was in his nature.

While studying, he discovered that his friend’s father published erotica for $200/week and Ricci was eager for publication. Not content with purely salacious fiction, Ricci wanted to draw upon the taboo relationship in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, exploring an even more subversive bond between a brother and sister. He was fascinated by the clash of love and the socially unacceptable, the results of which are often tragic but revealing. Though he never published any erotic stories, the idea carried forward into Lives of the Saints.

Until he started that novel, Ricci had been writing in "an ethnic void" in which none of his characters represented the past he thought was behind him. Yet, when he eventually returned to his idea of the bother/sister story, he found his Italian heritage returning. Stories of his parents began to re-emerge: of home and nostalgia, the love of a place long after it’s been left. 

This led Ricci to explore his memory of a childhood visit to his parents’ home villages in Italy. There, one’s sense of self was so bound to the customs of a specific place that travelling to a neighbouring village was like visiting a foreign country. For immigrants from these small communities, Canada was a mythical promised land indistinct from the larger vision of America. 

Ironically, it was only upon arriving in Canada that they considered themselves part of a larger and more homogenous Italian identity. Even their localized identities became like time capsules because their villages back home evolved while their memories of them did not. The result for immigrants like Ricci’s parents is a kind of homeless twilight: unable to fit in here but unable to truly return home. “Never before have people been displaced so commonly. We now accept movement as normal,” he said.

Ricci’s return home to York was likewise an almost unfamiliar experience. Remarking on all the changes since the days when York was a “smaller community that was both barren and brutal,” he noted, “it’s like a small city now.” If only W.O. Mitchell were here to see the return of a local boy who made good.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. In celebration of the University’s 50th anniversary, all of this year’s the writers have connections to York. On May 12, Sonnet L’Abbé will read from her collection of poetry Killarnoe (McClelland & Stewart, 2007).