Anchored in the Adriatic is the tiny island called Sansego, where people live their lives in heavy labor, faith, and superstition, working the land from cockcrow to vespers and the sea from vespers to cockcrow. This is the birthplace of author Antonia Burgato who, in Canaries Can’t Cry, stitches the stories her mother told of life on the island that, in part one, spans the time between two world wars. The author’s voice changes in the second part, as she comes of age in an America of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Elvis Presley and becomes an adult during the Civil Rights uprising, the VietNam War protests, and the women’s liberation.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Your new book, Canaries Can’t Cry, focuses on the Istrian-Dalmatian exodus following World War II. This being a geographical. political and sociological period with which many readers may not be familiar, could you indulge us with a brief history lesson?
A: Dalmatian comprises a group of islands off the coast of Croatia. They belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until WWI, then to Mussolini’s Italy until WWII, and then to Yugoslavia until its breakup in the early nineties. Today they are a part of Croatia. By the time my mother turned 32, she had lived in three different countries without ever having moved as far as across the street.
Q: The title alone is compelling. How did you come up with it?
A: When my brother visited me in boarding in school, he told me of a canary he had bought for my mother to keep her company while at home alone. The bird flew on her shoulders chirping while she was at her chores. She loved that bird, but he had a habit of biting. She patted him on the head each time he bit her. One day she patted him too hard, and the bird fell lifeless in her hand. I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with a time when I was eight years old, and she had humiliated me with a public beating in front of the school. I will always remember that as the time she had killed my spirit as she had killed the canary years later.
Q: One of the challenges of penning an autobiographical work is striking the right balance between telling too much, telling too little and finding a place of common ground which will resonate with readers who otherwise have no frame of reference or context regarding the events and dynamics which unfolded. What was your approach to developing this very personal project?
A: In writing an autobiography, the author must expose her inner self. For example, I was still a teenager when I was thrown into the world of Rome alone. It was a painful, growing up experience better left buried. However, I needed to unearth details to take the reader on the journey with me. I chose details that are translatable to any woman too young to be out on her own without guidance.
Q: Your mother escaped from Yugoslavia to go to Italy where your father had an apartment. What did you find there?
A: It was after Italy had surrendered to the Allies and declared war on its former Axis partner. Germany had begun to occupy Italy. We had escaped from Yugoslavia hiding in a fishing trawler. When we arrived at my father’s house in Italy, we found his home occupied. Living quarters were scarce for anyone, we were told. If his home was left unoccupied, the Germans would have taken it. We were directed to a local farmer who made room for us in the chicken coop. When the Germans arrived there, we went to another farmer, and he gave his barn. We lived there until the Germans left and the apartment became available.
Q: After your father’s death, your mother brought you and your brothers and sister to America. Why did you leave Italy?A: With my father gone, my mother lost her privilege to live in the factory-owned apartment. America had opened a quota system to accept the many emigrants from the former Yugoslavia. Everyone my mother knew from her island in Dalmatia had already gone. She asked her father for her share of the inheritance, and she followed them.
Q: How old were you at the time and what were your first impressions of the country you would now call “home”? A: I had become a teenager in America. We had a living room with television, a washer and dryer in the home, a refrigerator, and there were supermarkets. Wow! I also discovered Bazooka gum.
Q: What was it like being a teenager in America? Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known then?
A: That’s a tough and painful question. I was disassociated with family and with school. I tried hard to fit in with other teenagers from the neighborhood, but I wasn’t like them. I belonged neither here nor there—and I wanted to belong here. I’m thankful that such times didn’t have violent gangs as today. I could have joined a gang, if the opportunity was there, just to belong somewhere.
Q: You also have three older brothers and a younger sister. How did your mother manage such a “full house”?
A: She put us all to work, and she took our paychecks. Some people are stupefied by that. But is it better to go to work and leave the children unsupervised or to send the children to work and let them contribute to the family’s well-being? There are arguments for both cases.
Q: Best advice she ever imparted to you?
A: It’s never one piece of advice but a sum of them. She guided us children to value education and responsibility in everything she did, in all her scolding and caring—not always the best for everyone. Our (my siblings) values in strength of character, compassion, and drive to self-improvement emanate from her role model.
Q: Mixed marriages are fairly commonplace in the 21st century but not so much back in the 1960s. How was your marriage to a black university student received by family, friends and coworkers?
A: My family was not blind to his color but saw his character and embraced him into the family. I had nothing but warm memories of my 14-year marriage to a black man in the sixties. His family and friends were the kindest people I have known. They were academics, belonging to the Harlem black elite. They roused in me a desire to further my education. The story was different in the working world. Some states still had anti-miscegenation laws, and feelings were strong in the southern states. I had been fired twice from jobs for being a “n….r lover.”
Q: Was it a happy, fulfilling partnership?
A: I would not be the person I am were it not for my first husband. He had exposed me to universities and to conversations beyond gossip and frivolous niceties. He taught me freedom of expression and helped me to revive my spirit that had died when I was still a child.
Q: Your move to California ignited a passion to start writing seriously. How so?
A: My husband had released in me a spirit that wanted to fly. My marriage had become confining, and I left a man I loved to search for my own identity.
Q: And your passion for playwriting—who or what was the prominent influence there?
A: I would have to say George Bernard Shaw was my primary influence in playwriting. I went on to major in dramatic literature after discovering his plays. The works of Ionesco, Beckett, Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, and Sartre ignited passion in me. My second husband was a well-known playwright and a founder of the Los Angeles Theater Alliance. I had begun to find my voice with him by my side.
Q: Tell us about reconnecting with your brothers and sister. Would you consider yourselves close-knit or has time and distance pushed you farther apart?
A: My mother had sent us all to boarding school. We did not get to know each other until we came to America. She sent us to work as soon as we could to support the family. We learned responsibility and to care for each other. Today, we are closer than we’ve ever been.
Q: Your mother’s death, with the word “Finally,” had a powerful effect on you, and it seems that it was a turning point for you. How so?
A: In her life, she was demanding of me, trying to mold me in her image of a woman. I distanced myself from her, but physical distance does not break the emotional bond. Her death released her grip on me and my resentment of her. With that gone, I could see her strength, frailty, and courage, and I wish she could be here for me to tell her so.
Q: What was the easiest part of the book to write? And the hardest?
A: It was easier to write about my mother’s story because she told pieces of them often and with great passion. Once I switched to my story, I had to do much soul-searching and reveal long buried things. I didn’t want to delve deeply into my rights and wrongs, but if I didn’t, my readers would have felt something amiss.
Q: Did you allow anyone to read it while it was still a work in progress?
A: I had a beta reader. A dear and supportive friend. I also gave parts of it to a few family members. They knew my mother’s story needed to be told; they didn’t always agree with my version of it. It is the old Roshomon effect when everyone sees the same event differently.
Q: Is there a message you want readers to take away from Canaries Can’t Cry when they finish?
A: Live your life to the fullest without trampling on others. Your accomplishment is attained through your own efforts. If someone has given you a position, be grateful for the opportunity but question what you’ve done to earn it. If you threw someone under the bus to get somewhere, you have cheated.
Q: Define “home.” Is it the place you were born, the place you live now or the place that holds the fondest memories?
A: A home is where you find love and fulfillment. That place for me, at this time, is in California with my third husband, surrounded by encouraging and caring friends.
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?
A: I did quite a bit of reading about traditional publishers and decided to go hybrid because, at this stage of my life, I didn’t want to spend the lengthy time in submissions and rejections. It took me ten years to write this book and I wanted this baby out.
Q: What are you doing to market the book?
A: In addition to this interview, I do much social media contacts, book signings, and speaking engagements to immigrant associations, especially to those engaged in second language learning.
Q: What have the reactions been from family, friends and fans?
A: Their encouragement motivates me to write my next book. Some have expressed a shared feeling, especially in the various “me too” scenes. They didn’t know that about me. I had never talked about them before for two reasons: First, I thought that was just normal behavior for a man; and, second, I thought that I had done something wrong, that I was guilty.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: A few of my readers have remarked that they didn’t know what an interesting life I have had. I’m not so sure it was more interesting than anyone else’s life. I’ve lived with curiosity, adventure, and risk. That is my wealth.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: My next book, The Secret Life of the Very Old, is now in its editing phase. I’m already thinking of more projects. Four years ago, my husband and I took a year off to live in Italy. It’s in my mind to write that memoir. Another one is my displacement after my house burned to the ground from one of the California fires. I’m still displaced with lots of raw motions.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: People say their life is boring compared to mine. I’d say no one’s life is boring. Even an uneventful life has its unique story. Live life to fill your cup and shout it out. Thank you for this opportunity to talk about my book.