Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Pietro Corsi

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Pietro Corsi

Italian-born writer and Canadian immigrant Pietro Corsi is most recently the author of Halifax: The Other Door to America (Guernica). His book combines history with his personal observations creating a portrait of the city of Halifax and the immigrant experience.

Pietro talks with Open Book about his earliest memories of Halifax, Canadian immigration and the many places he has lived.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Halifax: The Other Door to America.

Pietro Corsi:

My Halifax book was born out of the desire to give credit to Canada and the Canadian government for immigration policies that have allowed millions of people from all over the world to happily find a new home when the old ones, in their respective countries, were ravished by wars and other calamities.


What drew you to writing about Halifax? How would you describe your relationship with the city?


I was a seven-year old boy when I first heard of Halifax, during WWII. German and allied troops were all over Italy. In my hometown, a small village in Molise, the Germans were actually trying to retreat up north and the allied troops were trying to get a foothold in my town to give them a proper chase. When they finally did get in, the allied troops set up camp in a 700-year-old building across from my house, in the only two schools we had way back then, and in other important buildings. But they also occupied some strategic spaces. One such space was the terrace high up on the roof of the house of a friend of mine. Curious as only boys can be at that young age, my friend and I started spying on them, as they were spying on the movements of the enemy. From our hiding place we could hear the allied soldiers yelling over the radio-waves: Halifax, Halifax, Halifax. It was, obviously, a code they were using. A few years later, everyone in my hometown started talking about Halifax. Not Halifax the radio code used by the allied troops in their successful efforts to chase the enemy away. But the real Halifax, Halifax the other door to America, in Canada. We all wanted to get there, somehow. It had become, for us all, the thing to do.

I myself landed in Halifax at the end of spring in 1959, and have never forgotten that day. I first saw the city from the bow of a Greek ship, The Olympia. It may have been six o’clock in the morning but it was still dark and the view was blocked by thick fog banks that floated above the rippled waters just ahead of the ship’s bow. Upon landing, I saw an industrial city with long and broad avenues bordered by little houses blackened by the dust of time and with remote and lonely chimneys, tall above all else, discharging smoke and ash in an otherwise limpid sky. And I remembered the description of the harbor and the city by a friend of mine who had landed there before me. He wrote, “this port of Halifax — with its fishing boats and the bare boats and the cranes and the one-masted vessels — could look like the port of Le Havre as described by Maupassant.”

This is what Halifax evokes: to me, to many of the millions who, before me and after me, have landed touching Canadian soil for the first time at Pier 21. So, it was the call of Pier 21 that got me interested in writing this book to begin with. As soon as I heard of the Pier 21 Society in the 90's, I got in touch with them and started corresponding with Carrie-Ann Smith, today Chief of Audience Engagement there. Throughout my life, I have translated for the movie industry, I have written for radio programs and for newspapers (both in Italy and in Canada and in Mexico), and in formats each different from the other, each with its proper uniqueness. Today I find that, whatever I am in the process of writing, the fiction writer often steps in. This has happened also with the Halifax book: see, for instance, the chapter “The Voyage”.


Do you think the immigration experience is unique in Canada, as opposed to other Western countries? Do you think Halifax offers a unique experience within the Canadian one?


For some 30 years of my life, I have navigated the seas and the skies of the world, from Australia to the Yukon and back, and in-between I have lived in Canada, in California, in Mexico and in Italy. And yet, wherever I go, wherever I am, whatever happens, I treasure the thought that Canada will always be there for me. The Canadian immigration experience, as I see it, and as I sense it when talking with Canadian immigrants today, is a very unique one as opposed to other Western countries, including the United States, where I spend most of my time today. The uniqueness stems from how the immigrants and their offspring feel, today, about their new homeland: their sense of finally belonging to a place they proudly call their place, their home. I never had the same feeling in the States, for instance, nor in Venezuela or in Brazil. Perhaps only in Argentina.


You've worked in several different formats – how do you think your radio and newspaper experience has informed your fiction writing?


Life as a writer is a most pleasant one, financially speaking rewarding only for a few. I will always remember what Primo Levi (who was a chemist, a profession that saved him from the gas chambers during WWII) wrote in his book Mestieri Altrui (Other People’s Trades): “if writers were not professors or newspapermen or lawyers, often a combination of these and other professions, in other words if they did not earn a proper salary, there wold be no writers except for few that could be counted (in Italy) on the fingers of one hand.” This was true in his days, and it is still true today. And yet a writer goes on writing.


Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?


If there were someone else’s book that I wish I had written, it would be La Mennulara (The Almond Picker) by Simonetta Agnello Hornby, a Sicilian lady transplanted in England.


What are you working on now?


I am working on something thoroughly different at the moment. Something that has to do with the emigration experience as also viewed, for instance, by Neruda, interspersed with Italian superstitions and Haida Indian legends. Its content is hidden under a chapter page that reads “Remembering Neruda — or The White Raven”.

Pietro Corsi was born in the region of Molise (Italy) in 1937. In the mid-50s he moved to Rome, where he worked as a translator while co-creating radio programs for RAI, the official Italian radio organization. He was visiting Canada in 1959, when he was offered a job by the Italian weekly newspaper “Il Cittadino Canadese”. During that time, he wrote his first work of fiction (La Giobba, Enne; in English Winter in Montreal, Guernica, the G.B. Bressani Prize of 2002). He later changed venue, effectively pioneering Italian service standards in the cruise industry. Promoted to Operating Manager for Princess Cruises, of Love Boat fame, he established residence in California in 1969. In 1992, he retired to resume his writing career. He has authored several books ranging from fiction to essays, cookbooks and training manuals for the cruise industry.

For more information about Halifax: The Other Door to America please visit the Guernica website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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