Frances Itani did not intend to write a war novel.
She reveals this over coffee on a wind-whipped April morning in Ottawa. Green-eyed and taut, Itani bristles with the itchy energy of a person recently released from a long hibernation. What might pour from someone else as a confession is relayed by Itani as unadorned fact: She walked into a mess, and, when she noticed what she’d done, simply kept walking.
A veteran poet and short-story author, Itani has published eight books over three decades of writing and, among other accolades, won two CBC Canadian Literary Awards. Her work has been described as “loving and serene,” and – though sometimes criticized for less-than-firm plot development – consistently lauded for its economy, lyricism, and perceptive quality. Leaning, Leaning Over Water, a collection of linked stories released by HarperCollins Canada in 1998, marked Itani’s first endeavour with a large publishing house. The effort garnered a great deal of praise from critics across the country, including a rave from the Toronto Star.
Her ninth book and first novel, Deafening, due this fall from HarperCollins Canada, is already like no first novel this country has ever seen. Rights have been purchased by publishers in 20 countries, including Japan, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Brazil, Italy, Portugal, France, and Spain. Itani’s American publisher, Grove Atlantic, reportedly paid $275,000 (U.S.) for American rights, while Britain’s Hodder Stoughton forked over the equivalent of $500,000 Canadian. Itani’s agent, Jackie Kaiser of Westwood Creative Artists in Toronto, reports that Japanese rights were sold for the highest bid the agency has ever received for that territory. As we sit talking, Deafening’s Dutch translation is in production, way across the sea; its release in The Netherlands will coincide with its release in Canada. The book, in short, will propel its author onto the international scene. It will also make the long-toiling Itani – as yet little known outside literary circles – a millionaire.
Which makes the book’s accidental genesis worth pondering.
In 1996, Itani embarked on research for a novel she hoped would honour her late maternal grandmother, Gertie Freeman, who lost her hearing at 18 months (60 years old herself, Itani still calls Freeman “my Granny” unreservedly). But a few forays into old newspapers at the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ontario, which Granny Freeman attended, made Itani realize that if she wished to tell the story of a young woman growing up here during the first two decades of the 20th century, there was no avoiding the trenches. “I couldn’t pretend World War One didn’t happen,” she says. “It affected everything in those children’s lives. With a sinking heart, I knew I was in for it.”
Itani doesn’t sink when she says this, however. She appears to buoy up under mere thought of the challenge; she visibly rises toward duty, much like the soldiers she has written about. This is natural. Duty – to work, to health, to study, to craft, to awareness, to the singular life and the all-important detail – is what Itani is all about.
According to Kaiser, Itani’s charismatic U.S. publisher, Morgan Entrekin – known for his legendary ability to generate buzz – helped make Deafening the undisputed hot title at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. But it was undoubtedly the subject matter – and Itani’s handling of it – that also made the book so compelling. Deafening presents a unique dual adventure, delving simultaneously into the world of deafness and the horrible carnage (and explosive din) of trench warfare. To write it, Itani became, in effect, the writerly equivalent of a method actor. During six years of exhaustive research, she visited battlefields all over Europe, pored for an entire summer over journals and letters in the War Museum of Canada’s archives, and devoted several years to studying American Sign Language while volunteering at the Ottawa Deaf Centre and interviewing – repeatedly, over weeks and months – members of the deaf community.
Thus was born Jim, a stretcher-bearer from PEI retrieving the wounded along the dangerous Western Front, bringing to gruesome life a rare front-line perspective, and made authentic in part by Itani’s long-ago experience as an emergency-room nurse. Meanwhile, Jim’s young wife Grania, who lost her hearing because of scarlet fever at the age of five, struggles through the war years back in Deseronto, Ontario. Grania, whom we have watched learn to navigate a soundless world, provides a biting portrayal of life on the home front: women’s work, women’s waiting, the return of ruined men. Twelve years ago, in reviewing a book of short stories by Itani for New Maritimes magazine, Alan MacEachern wrote that Itani had “a knack for describing isolation in vivid and memorable terms.” With Deafening, Itani has wrung all she can from this talent. It has, if you trust her many, eager new publishers scattered about the globe, resoundingly paid off.
In my Ottawa, Itani has long been a persistent, low-lying presence, known – by everyone in town remotely connected to the business of writing or selling books – to be hunkered down somewhere east of Bank Street, writing, writing, writing. And known, somehow, not to be disturbed.
She, however, disturbs you. She lingers in the form of haunting moments from Leaning: a mother drowning in the Ottawa River in the 1950s; her middle daughter hiding in the closet, blouses brushing her face, knowing she’s “doomed to tell the family stories.” She arrives, repeatedly, in the form of a poem on an Ottawa city bus about finding and quickly losing some unnamed understanding:
…Just one small truth
(which I’ve now forgotten)
Did I happen to mention what it was?
Did I say where I was standing?
What I was doing at the time?
Reading this barrage of questions, I’ve sometimes felt I had better not disembark the #95 until I came up with some answers.
Born in Belleville in 1942, Itani grew up on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, near Ottawa, the middle child of five. She boasts a dual BA (in English and psychology) and an MA in English lit and has worked as a nurse in hospitals across the country. She speaks English, French, German, and some Japanese and Spanish. She hates flying, but grits her teeth and does it. She composes longhand, in scribblers, and travels with a box of Papermate pens (not her favourite, but Pilots tend to leak on flights). She walks three miles a day, capped with 17 minutes of Tai Chi.
Both smarts and determination revealed themselves in Itani early on. Some unofficial home-schooling from older siblings allowed her to advance to Grade 2 upon entering school. Her old friend Jane Anderson – with whom she’s been close since the two met in Grade 6 – remembers her as an outgoing, “brilliant” student and athlete, and an excellent pianist. She recalls how Itani, as an earnest teen, devoted an entire summer to teaching herself to type. “She became quite accomplished,” says Anderson. “How many teenagers would do that? I admired her.” At 21, Itani was a rookie intensive-care nurse at Ottawa’s Civic Hospital. “I loved nursing,” she says. “It’s close contact with human behaviour. How can you not learn a great deal in intimate situations like that?”
Gabriella Goliger, a fiction writer who lives in Ottawa and who studied with Itani several years ago, describes her as intense. “She’s not gentle,” says Goliger. “But fair. Serious, and fair.” Goliger, who co-won the Journey Prize for a story she workshopped with Itani, still receives the occasional prodding phone call from her former teacher: “She’ll say ‘So, you must be finished your book, you must be well under way.’ The conversation will spur me to redouble my efforts.”
When working on her own books, Itani rises between 5 and 5:30 a.m. (by 4 when her grown children are home). She decided this morning that book promotion or no book promotion, she needed to write, so she rose early and polished off a short story she’d had hanging around, in draft form, for months – then mailed it off (she positively glows, reporting this). No wonder she has a reputation for being, as an Ottawa Citizen writer once described her, “efficient, fuss-free, and supremely sensible.”
Itani may present as a nonsense-free zone, but her life has hardly been one for the faint of heart. She eloped at a young age, and has encouraged her own two children to do the same. “It’s great fun,” she says, eyes twinkling. She has lived in seven Canadian provinces, as well as in England, Cyprus, and Croatia. She raised her family primarily in Ottawa and maintains a home here, but travels frequently to Geneva, where her husband, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, is based. She relishes describing the various escape plans she devised while living in Croatia during the Bosnian War, one of which involved renting a car and driving due north across the Austrian border. In 1981 she moved with her young family to Germany, not knowing a word of the language at the time. “She’s always packed a lot into life,” says Anderson. “She’s made the most of her time.”
Unlike most writers – who wrestle endlessly with the fact that they must give into the instinct to write, despite the risk of never producing a thing worthwhile, and the prospect of a lifetime of meagre earnings – Itani took up her profession on what sounds like pure whim. In 1965, after a year of graduate nursing studies at Duke University in North Carolina, she visited a doctor for a physical before coming home. He casually asked Itani what she would do upon returning to Canada. She shocked herself by responding that she would write fiction. “I thought, what have I just said? What has come out of my mouth? I’d never written a word of fiction. I mean, do you think that’s strange? That just flew out of me. I can’t explain it.”
She was soon living in Edmonton, where she enrolled in a writing class offered by W.O. Mitchell. And that was that. Itani – who was also earning a psychology degree and caring for two babies at the time – gave up nursing. “I couldn’t do everything,” she says with a shrug.
We are talking war, a topic nearly impossible to avoid in the waning days of the latest U.S.-Iraq conflict, and virtually inevitable if you’re with Itani, who spent several years immersing herself in first-person accounts from the First World War, and whose husband, Ted, is frequently posted to war-torn locales. She recently returned home from Geneva; the day she left, Ted was on his way to a memorial service for a colleague who had been caught in the crossfire in Baghdad. On the plane, in a letter to her publisher, Itani wrote, “War flattens me. Some days I can hardly put pen to paper.”
She immerses herself in it nonetheless. While in Geneva she was tentatively delving into her new novel – called, she says laughing, Celebration. “I was trying to work on it, but I always had the news on Iraq on in the background. I have to know what’s going on.” And though the book strikes “an entirely different tone” from Deafening, it spans four generations over 100 years; thus it, too, encounters war. “You can’t reminisce about the past without covering the wars,” says Itani. “You can’t say, oh, well, I’ll just live my Pollyanna life here and write about other things.”
For Itani, writing about people during wartime is, in large measure, the same as writing about a deaf protagonist – or about anyone: an exercise in honouring individual struggle, its every pertinent detail. It’s also – as war was for the young soldiers who signed up long ago – an adventure. In the book club reader’s guide to her last book, Itani declared that the maxim “write what you know,” would never work for her. “I have always gone after what I don’t know. Areas that are a complete blank for me. I’ve always wanted to ride that edge of discovery.”
It wasn’t enough, therefore, for Itani to have grown up with a deaf grandmother among a large, extended family of expert lip readers; nor to have vivid memories of travelling by train with her mother and grandmother, the two mouthing silent conversations in the seats next to her; nor to remember that the vibration from the stomp of a foot on the floor could get the attention of her deaf grandmother. No. To write Deafening, Itani first had to spend several years immersing herself in the world of deaf people; she had to do time. Itani now joins sign-language conversations wherever she happens upon them: She has earned for herself an alternate angle on life. Her publisher has already received a letter from a deaf reader, asking, “Who is this Frances Itani? She seems to know an awful lot about us.”
Itani straightens in her seat, pleased with this first bit of testimony that she “got it right.” She brings a picture of her Granny out from her wallet and lays it on the table; a regal, bright-eyed woman looks up at us. “Look at her? Isn’t she something?”
Itani wants to do justice to the woman who left her believing, growing up, that “being deaf was a wonder, a marvel.” She keeps the seminal quote from Willy Loman’s wife in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman on a piece of cardboard on her desk: “Attention must be paid.” Clearly, getting it right is nothing more than a job well done, and nothing less than all that matters. Duty executed as duty ought to be: with diligence, and with care.
Frances Itani Bibliography:
HarperCollins Canada, 2003
Leaning, Leaning Over Water
HarperCollins Canada, 1998
HarperPerennial edition, 1999
Man Without Face
Oberon Press, 1994
Truth or Lies
Oberon Press, 1989
Oberon Press, 1989
A Season of Mourning
Brick Books, 1989
Quarry Press, 1983
Linger By the Sea
Brunswick Press, 1979
No Other Lodgings
Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1978