Frances Itani sounds cheerful but tired. She’s been touring Canada for the past two months in support of her new novel, Tell (to be published in the U.S. by Black Cat in January 2015), and she was recently named a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize—one of Canada’s top literary honors.
Itani’s haunting tale of two damaged Canadian couples struggling in the aftermath of World War I has benefited from “the Giller effect”: it received a healthy sales boost after appearing on the shortlist for the prize. “All six finalists were on the national bestseller lists last week,” she says.
Itani is familiar with literary recognition and robust sales. Requiem (Atlantic Monthly Press), her delicate, restrained novel about a Japanese-Canadian artist confronting memories of his childhood in an internment camp, was one of the Washington Post’s top fiction titles in 2012. Deafening (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003), her first book published in the U.S., was a #1 bestseller in Canada.
Tell includes some of the same characters as Deafening and is also set in Deseronto, the Ontario hometown of Itani’s deaf grandmother, who inspired the novel. But in Tell, Itani decided to shift the focus away from Deafening protagonists Grania and Jim.
“I had spent so many years with those two,” says Itani, who often talks about her characters as if they were old acquaintances. “I didn’t want to go back to Grania and Jim, but I had in the back of my mind the knowledge that there were unresolved problems with some of the minor characters in Deafening. These two couples—Maggie and Am, Tress and Kenan—were still needling away at me.”
The formerly minor characters move to the forefront in Tell, which shows them isolated from each other by past traumas. Kenan, a veteran, can’t tell Tess about his experience in war. Maggie and Am can’t talk to each other about the tragedy that drove them from their farm to Deseronto.
Itani’s choice of title was very deliberate. “I just knew that everyone had a story to tell,” she says. “I feel that we all have things to tell. So I had to work out: who’s going to tell what to whom?”
The inability to share one’s deepest feelings, even with loved ones, is a recurring theme in Itani’s work. “It’s the human condition. People can be married forever and not totally understand one another. You can grow up with someone, think you know everything.... I had a sister—my only sister, very close to me—who died in her early 40s, and I learned things after her death that I had never known. It’s the human condition, loneliness and isolation, that we are always fighting against. That’s why we have to communicate with each other, we have to try to live communally, to be social beings.”
Itani grew up in a small French village in Quebec with fewer than 400 inhabitants, where everyone knew everyone else. “I know what the spirit of community means, but I also know what it means to be an individual isolated within that community, as Kenan was,” she notes. “I had a huge Irish family in Belleville [Ontario]—my parents were the only ones in their families who ever left—and a given in my life was to return every summer to my grandparents’ farm, to have all these cousins and aunts and uncles back and forth visiting, hearing all these Irish stories. I remember sitting on a stool behind the kitchen door, paying attention. I was always just listening, on the sidelines.”
Itani didn’t, in those days, have any notion of turning these stories into fiction. “I had this strange relationship with writing things down and having other people look at them; I couldn’t not do that. I remember taking a high school English assignment into the washroom, tearing it up, and putting it in the garbage.” After high school, she became a registered nurse and married army officer Tetsuo Itani in 1967; their son, Russell, was born in 1971; daughter Samantha was born in 1973.
“I practiced and taught nursing for eight years before I began to write,” Itani says. “That’s when I went back to school and did those other degrees in English; I was switching from a science to the arts, and I had a lot of gaps to fill. I did my degrees in the summers and at nights while we had two babies; those were pretty packed and difficult years for me. People think Deafening is my first book, but I wrote nine books before that: short stories, poetry, children’s books—what I could do while I was raising babies. I still love stories; it’s the genre in which I began to write, though I haven’t worked in it in a while.”
Now age 72, Itani tries to write her novels with the economy of short stories. “Every word has to count,” she says. “I’m really ruthless with my own work. Nobody ever sees a word of what I write until my book is finished; I have no feedback whatsoever. I do feel I can edit, and I work very hard at paring back, paring back. I always want to take my prose to the bare bones, because the whole point of this for me is to allow my reader to enter the story, to experience the emotions that my characters are expressing on the page. I don’t want the reader held at arm’s length, and many, many books do that to me as a reader. I want to invite the reader in, but I don’t want to insult that reader by telling him or her how to feel.”
Yet Itani’s sense that some stories need to be told is what prompted her to write Requiem, more than 60 years after her husband was interned as a child during World War II, along with some 21,000 other Canadians of Japanese ancestry. “I did a good deal of research about it while I was at university, because we have biracial children and I felt they needed to know the history of their family,” she notes. “It was essential for me to interview people in those earlier generations while they were still alive, to get their stories down so those stories could be told. I consider myself a storyteller; fiction happens to be my genre.”
Itani hasn’t been able to create any fiction in recent months, due to all the travel for Tell and being named a finalist for the Giller Prize. “I’m feeling a bit crazy because I can’t get my pen to paper,” she sighs. “I have started a children’s book, and on this past train trip to Toronto I wrote an article about Mavis Gallant, whom I knew. But I really want to get into my next novel, so I’ve told myself that no matter what, I am starting a new novel before the end of November. I have no idea, by the way, what it’s going to be about!”
Wendy Smith is frequent contributor to PW and contributing editor at the American Scholar.