Ciao Dall’Italia!

This weekend I wrapped up a month-long writing residency at Dento La Terra, an artist residence located in Abruzzo, in the small village of Arielli. Every year the program – run by Montreal’s Espace de la Diversité – offers two Quebec writers from marginalized communities (BIPOC, LGBTQ+) the opportunity to travel to Italy and work on their next creative project.

I was there with playwright and actor Maryline Chery. She was writing a new play, while I was writing my next novel.

The book I’m working on is an ambitious project for me. It’s a family drama, told from the point of view of its four main characters. Set mainly in 1989/90, it also jumps back in time to the Montreal of the 50s and 60s. As such, the book has required a lot of research to get the details right, and it can be a bit confusing given that I am juggling multiple storylines and timelines.

Having uninterrupted time to work on a second draft of the book was invaluable to me. I have been able to get done in one month what might normally take me 4-5 months back home. In this time, I’ve been able to dust off the draft I finished earlier this year and fully immerse myself in the world of the novel. I’ve written new chapters, cut characters, added others, worked through problems, and made pages and pages of notes for the next draft (a good book is like lasagna—lots of layers). In all, it’s been incredibly productive.

My days/nights were mostly spent at the window in my apartment’s living room. I pulled up the dining room table to a window that looks out towards Arielli’s town square and the 4 Volte Caffe, a bar/coffee shop that kept me company these past four weeks. Open morning to night, the bar always had music playing (Thegiornalisti, Donna Summer, Miley Cyrus) with people coming and going and old men playing cards. Sometimes, when I needed a break, I would head down for a drink. I found I would miss the action when the bar was closed on Mondays.

Arielli is a very small town of about 1,100, but I would be surprised if I saw more than 100 people in all during my stay. Like many villages in Italy, it too is suffering from low population as younger people tend to want to live in larger metropolitan cities. While I can understand that, it’s hard to get over the beauty of this place. From the town square, you can see the imposing Mount Amaro in the distance, and you are surrounded by trees and vineyards and valleys. The buildings have so much character and history, too (Arielli was on the Gustav Line during WWII – like my own family’s village – and you can still see the bullet holes pockmarking some of the old stone homes).

Unlike the previous two times I have been to Italy, I feel like I am leaving with a better understanding of what it might be like to live here. I would go out several times a week for groceries, or to the butcher or the fruit and vegetable stand. The cheesemonger’s son would make deliveries to the town square on Tuesdays. I made sure I was at the pasticceria early on Sundays to get the most delicious bomboloni. Sometimes I’d walk to where I had to go, other times I took one of the bikes provided to us. There are no nearby restaurants, and the closest major city is about a 30-minute car ride away, so we were very much reliant on what is available in the town.

The people of Arielli have been incredibly welcoming. Everyone says hi to one another, which is a very different experience from Montreal. Maryline and I integrated ourselves into the daily life of the village as best we could. We met townsfolk on our frequent trips to the 4 Volte Caffe. One evening, we walked to the park to watch children play theatre sports. We even went to Sunday mass and then out to dinner with the town priest, Augustine, who took us to one of his favourite seafood places in St. Vito. I’ve been touched by everyone’s generosity.

Our hosts have been the most kind. Dentro La Terra is run by Nicola Dell’Arciprete, who works for UNICEF and oversees Italy’s response to the refugee crisis. He is a passionate man who works hard for change and believes in the importance of art. Getting to know him and his family has been one of the highlights of this trip. His parents, Anastasia and Tonino, also became surrogate parents for us—leaving baskets of tomatoes and figs at our door, or passing by to see if we need rainwear (it was raining a lot last week). Anastasia even taught us how to make pasta. The family lives in a wonderful old building that, too, has the markings of WWII (at one time, Tonino’s family had to vacate it and turn it over to the Allies). Today it is a B&B with rows of olive trees and grapevines in the back that run towards the valley. We were to help with this year’s harvest, but unfortunately there was none as a pesky fungus has ruined the town crop.

Through my almost daily interactions with townsfolk, I was able to practice my rudimentary Italian. I’m pleased to say that not only has my comprehension improved, but I am also able to (somewhat) communicate my needs. This is something I would not have been able to easily do in Montreal. I also feel that my understanding of what it means to be “Italian” has changed. As a queer Italian-Canadian, I’ve been wrestling with questions of identity, origins, and inheritance, particularly in my work, these past few years. To be in Arielli, at this time in my writing career, has been extremely beneficial to my current and future projects. This experience has “filled the well” and I don’t think I am completely aware of all the ways it will impact my future work.

As I get ready to head back home, I know that I will be leaving with more than an improved version of my manuscript. I am also leaving with a greater understanding of Italian people and culture, and gratitude to the folks of Arielli for welcoming me into their community and giving me the terrain to cultivate my craft. I am also extremely grateful to Espace de la Diversité for believing in my project and allowing me to represent their organization, and Quebec, on an international level.

This is my first writing residency, I should say. I’ve applied to others over the years, but never succeeded in landing one until now. I encourage those of you who write to apply to this one next year and to others. There’s nothing quite like being uprooted from the day-to-day and thrown into a strange world where all you have to do is write. Yes, it was lonely sometimes (thank God Maryline was there) but I have never felt more like a writer than I did here.

Sometimes I feel guilty about my ambition. That maybe people think there is something untoward or inappropriate about being so invested in one’s writing career and wanting to share your imagination with the world. I know that’s just the imposter syndrome talking. But still, even if it were true, I am learning not to care. There is really nothing in the material world that makes me happier than what I am doing now: losing myself in a world I’m creating, only to surface hours later in another one wondering where all the time went.

So, again, much thanks to Dentro La Terra and Espace de la Diversité. Can’t wait for this book to be out there (give me a couple more years).

Pride / Italfest: It’s a Wrap

Today I packed up the Unveiling the Queer Italian-Canadian Experience exhibit at the Casa D’Italia, marking the end of several hectic but rewarding weeks.

Since the beginning of the year, I have worked to produce several events that took place this month. August is always a busy time in Montreal, what with it being Pride. But August is also ItalfestMTL, a celebration of Italian heritage in the city. This year, I produced events for both festivals.

I got the idea to pitch ItalfestMTL last summer. In June 2022, I produced Queer & Italian in Montreal, which looked at the history and future of queer activism among Montrealers of Italian origin. One of the things that came out of that discussion was a desire to bring events like it to the heart of the Italian community. Some Italian-Canadians are still hesitant to openly identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. And in some circles (especially the family setting), being queer is still taboo. If change is really going to happen, then we need to go to the spaces where Italian-Canadians congregate.

So, I pitched ItalfestMTL a photo exhibit to take place at the Casa D’Italia. Earlier in the year, I had the privilege of being photographed by Toronto photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo for a collaboration he was doing with Montreal poet Liana Cusmano on documenting queer Italian-Canadians in spaces where they felt harmony between their identities (I chose my kitchen). It’s part of a multi-city, multi-year project the duo is working on to demystify the queer Italian-Canadian experience. I’m glad to say ItalfestMTL loved the idea and worked with me to make the event happen.

The exhibit ran for three weeks in August, in collaboration with Fierté Montréal. We had a very well attended vernissage on August 8, with live readings and music. In addition to the exhibit, ItalfestMTL also screened the film Creative Spaces: Queer & Italiatn-Canadian, the short documentary by Licia Canton that started it all. As part of the post-film discussion, we discussed things we wanted to do for next year. Maybe a pasta dinner where people bring their grandparents? A float in the parade? A comedy night with Italian comics? This is definitely not the end of the work.

This month, I also interviewed Italian-American author Christopher Castellani on stage at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Montreal. Our Violet Hour Book Club read his novel Leading Men in June, and with the help of L’Équipe de recherche en études Queer au Québec (EREQQ) we were able to bring the author to town. Castellani’s book focuses on the life of Frank Merlo, the partner of Tennessee Williams, who was a working-class New Jersey boy from an Italian family and a war hero with aspirations of being an actor. We spoke about their tumultuous relationship, the literary and film circles of 1950s Italy, the burdens of fame, and the intersections between queerness and Italian heritage. You can watch the interview here.

I also produced Violet Hour: In Translation, which featured Montreal translators (Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch, Jonathan Kaplansky, D.M. Bradford, Sophie Voillot) reading their work next to the original authors (Gabrielle Boulianne-Tremblay, Jonathan Bécotte, Nicholas Dawson, Leila Marshy). There was also a launch for Toronto author Aunja Vaghese, who came to town to promote her debut book of short stories Chrysalis.

Finally, I had a table on Community Day (see gratuitous legs shot below). I know I should not have a favourite event, but if I were to have one it was this one. So many people came by the booth to learn more about Violet Hour events and activities. I also got to connect with people who have read my work and sell copies of both of my books. It was such a beautiful day.

Sometimes I wonder how much longer I can keep this stuff up. In the last few months, I’ve had a lot of frank conversation with other writers about the stresses and taxes of being a writer, trying to promote one’s own work while also uplifting the work of others. I really do love producing events and connecting readers with books (18 events so far this year), but sometimes I wonder about its value. Do people still read books? Do they care about literature? Is it all worth it?

And then I have weeks like the last three and I realize the answer is yes. Yes it is.

So if you are one of those people who reads these blogs, subscribes to the newsletter, or comes out to my events (or even considers it), thank you. It means a lot.

Christopher Castellani: Leading Men Interview Now Available to Watch Online

In June, Italian-American author Christopher Castellani came to Montreal to speak with me about his book, Leading Men. The event took place on August 9 at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Montreal. You can watch a recording of the event below (interview starts at 4:10).

Ever since I discovered his book in 2019, I’ve been trying to get Christopher to Montreal for an event. At first, he was supposed to come for the 2020 Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival but we all know what happened that year. But COVID be damned, we made it work, albeit three years later.

I loved Leading Men. It has everything I look for in a book: Brilliant sentences, a gripping story, historical research, unabashed queerness, Italian geography, a beating heart… Christopher found a goldmine of material when he stumbled upon Frank Merlo, the partner of Tennessee Williams who was with him for 15 years during his heyday. Merlo lived in Williams’ shadow as his assistant, but he had his own dreams and desires. He was a working-class New Jersey boy from an Italian family and a war hero with aspirations of being an actor.

I had so much fun speaking with Christopher about tumultuous relationship between the two men, the literary and film circles of 1950s Italy, the burdens of fame, and the intersections between queerness and Italian heritage. Hope you enjoy.

Shepherd: The Best Books that Uplift and Celebrate Queer Kinship and Chosen Family

I was recently asked by Shepherd – a books discovery site that positions itself as an alternative to Goodreads – to create a list of queer books recommendations around a theme. I chose to do mine on books that celebrate and uplift the idea of chosen family. You can read the recommendations here.

I’m always weary of the use of “best” in any title, but I get why it’s used for SEO purposes. Still, I picked five books that definitely warrant a place on my favourite books about chosen family, three of which we have read as part of the Violet Hour Book Club.

If you’re curious about what else they have, check out this queer bookshelf assembled by 153 experts: The best queer books.

Audiobook for The Family Way Now Available

I’m happy to say that there is now an audiobook version of The Family Way. It was recorded last winter, featuring the wonderfully talented Ivan Lo. I could not have been more pleased with the outcome.

It was a unique experience, helping to select the voice of the person who will narrate your book. Before you ask – no, reading it myself was not an option nor something I wanted to do. I’m no actor, and the skills needed to inhabit not only into my main character, but also all the other characters in this dialogue-heavy book, is not something I possess. I think I would have found the whole thing rather stressful.

Ivan, though, made it all seem effortless. Upon hearing his audition tape, I knew we had found our Paul. There was a weight and a warmth to the narration, and he had the necessary cadence and baritone for the role. I also liked his characterization of Michael in the short clip I heard (bright, energetic, youthful). He sold me with the lines “Having my way with you,” and “You’ve got to call your mother.”

In advance of the recording, I got to speak with Ivan about the text. It was such a rewarding experience, hearing his thoughts on my characters, speaking about them as if they were real people, and discussing any nuances that might be necessary in the performance. Ivan is from Toronto, so we also discussed pronunciation of French words and the ways anglophones might say things in Quebec.

Upon listening to the final product, I am super proud of the job he’s done. The audiobook comes in at a whopping 13 hours and 9 minutes (I had to listen to it all over four days in order to sign off on it – not something I would not recommend).

If you prefer audiobooks to paperbacks, you can listen to The Family Way at the links below.

Google Play

Shake the Disease

Last February, Depeche Mode released their latest single, and with it a video. “Ghosts Again” is the lead track from Memento Mori, the band’s first album since 2017 (it came out March 24), and the first since the passing of keyboardist Andrew Fletcher, who died last May from an aortic dissection at the age of 60. Painfully bittersweet, the track is a powerful reminder of the passage of time and the inevitably of death, made poignant by Fletcher’s absence. His presence, however, can still be felt in the video—an emotional rendering that somehow was able to reach out across time and grab me right in my adolescent heart.

One of the things I was most struck by in the video was how much my teenage idols have aged. Now in their 60s, David Gahan and Martin Gore are no longer the smooth-faced twinks I still see in my mind when I think about discovering them back in 1988, when I was 14 (for the record, I’m no longer the twink I was either). In the dramatic black-and-white video shot by long-time collaborator Anton Corbijn, we can clearly see the deep wrinkles and spots on their expertly lit faces, as the two play chess in black coats against a bold city skyline. I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see them wearing their age on my screen. Two alternative music legends—now our musical grandfathers—not giving a fuck about age and showing the kids how it’s done (crawling on the grounds of a cemetery like a Komodo dragon? Why not). I’m glad they’re still making music.

“Please retire,” a friend wrote online when their tour was announced. “Till about ‘93-‘94 was the best time to see them. It’s over now.” I’ve heard that said about many other artists too, most recently Madonna who caused everyone to lose their garbage over her decision to rejuvenate her face (you do you, girl). Suddenly, it was alright for everyone to dump on her again and deride her for her appearance. Because it’s an unforgiveable sin to get older, right? At some point, shouldn’t one just shut up and go quietly into the night?

There’s a tendency in the queer community to ridicule people for getting older. This is nothing new. Ever since Oscar Wilde wrote about the painting of Dorian Gray aging in an attic so its subject could stay young forever, generations of homosexuals have been obsessed with losing the blush of youth, worried about the loss of sexual currency with each new birthday. I see it a lot online with people sharing screengrabs of the ageist rejections they receive on the dating apps, or with the trending of the #twinkdeath hashtag, which saw people tweeting out before-and-after shots of Hollywood celebrities who are no longer the dainty cherubs they once were.

I find these Molotov cocktails thrown into the social media space tragically ironic. As if the people lobbing them have their own self-portraits hanging in attics and expect to be spared the hand of time. Honey, no. Age is coming for all of us (that is, if you are lucky enough to be one of the ones to get older). Like the rest of us, your cells will degrade, your body fat will lose volume, expression lines will deepen with each new tug, your body hair will migrate and grey, and all your life—those sunny vacations on the beach, all the drinks and laughter and nights out with friends over the years—will remain visible on your human little face.

And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, it’s awesome.

When I was young little whippersnapper, I too was afraid of getting older. Not that I projected my own inadequacies on to anyone else, but I didn’t know what to expect from life. There was just this gleaming blank space when I thought about life after 25. When I was a teenager, everyone older than 25 might as well have been the same age. I divided people into two categories: grown-ups with responsibilities (I wanted to avoid being that as long as possible) and my fun-loving friends. I didn’t want to grow up because then I’d have to put away childish things (and maybe start buying RRSPs).

Now, I’m in my late 40s. And the same week Depeche Mode released their new single, I turned 49. I know that however far you fall on the sides of that number, you might think it super old or still incredibly young. I don’t think I feel either of those things. I’m still young at heart (this year’s birthday celebration consisted of an afternoon of music, mushrooms and Mario Party), but I also don’t have the energy I once did (I can’t remember the last time I left my house after 10 pm, unless it was to go get milk at the depanneur). Still, I spent my birthday week connecting with old friends, many of whom I have had the privilege to grow older with over the last few decades. And like with Martin and David, I still remember them as youngsters.

One person I met up with was my best friend from high school, Eric. We had birthday drinks at a dark bar we used to go when we were 18, sitting across from each other in black much like our musical heroes in “Ghosts Again.” Eric and I have been through it all over the years—from the wild nights trying to get the last bus home, to the tearful endings of relationships, to the passing of his own father last fall. We don’t see each other as often as I’d like, but every time we get together, I remember all those days hanging out in his parents’ basement, listening to music, or renting videos. And here we were, catching up and reminiscing about old times, the younger versions of ourselves still with us at the table.

Sometimes, I forget that I am no longer the young person I was all those years ago. I’m not without vanity to say I love every photo taken of me now, not surprised by what I see in the mirror. Sometimes, maybe when I’m reading a book or typing on my keyboard, I will look at my hands and be amazed by all the lines on it. On my left hand, I have a small freckle at the base of my index finger. I remember, when I was a kid, thinking of it as an eye on an elephant; and I would position my hand sideways and elongate my index finger as if it were the elephant’s trunk. I still see that kid, at his desk in high school, when I look at my hands.

It’s the same feeling I have when I find myself staring at my friends’ hands, too, or the hands of my parents—I can’t help but love them that much more. All the joy and laugh lines running across their faces and bodies, grateful for all the time we’ve shared that put those lines there in the first place. Being able to grow old alongside the people you love (or even the artists you love) is a gift. If I think about it, I might have been more conventionally “beautiful” in my 20s. I might have had more hair, less wrinkles, been 60 pounds lighter, but it doesn’t mean I was any happier. If anything, it’s the last decade that saw me come into myself. And I wouldn’t change any of that for a few less numbers on the scale.

I do pity the fools who continue to reach for the easy insult online, who are slave to their immediate negative impulses. In meanness, there will always be ugliness. When will they learn that it’s kindness that’s hot. That it’s compassion that’s beautiful.

Hearing Depeche Mode’s new single made me feel young again, and with each additional listen I still feel like a teenager listening to them in my childhood bedroom. With a name like Memento Mori, the entire album is a reminder of the brevity of life and a warning that we too will one day turn cold and stop ageing. When David Gahan sings “Everybody says goodbye,” I think about the faces of those I love, and those I’ve lost, especially in the last few years. Life’s too short to spend it complaining about what other people want to do with their lives. There are no limits anymore. Just do whatever the hell you want. We all will have to die someday.