A Conversation with writer, publisher and filmmaker Antonio D’Alfonso

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Image of publisher and filmmaker Antonio D’Alfonso

Writer, editor, translator, publisher, filmmaker, Antonio D’Alfonso is the author of more than 40 books. In 1978, he founded Guernica Editions, where for 32 years he edited 450 books by authors from around the world.

His novel Un vendredi du mois d’août won the Trillium Award in 2005. His feature film Bruco won the best director award and best foreign film award at the New York International Independent Film Festival in 2010. His most recent film Antigone (an adaptation of Sophocles’ play) won the bronze award at the Prestige Film Festival in 2012.

Aside from his own award-winning writing, D’Alfonso has translated some of Quebec’s finest poets. Fluent in English, French and Italian, he holds a PhD in Italian Studies and Film from the University of Toronto.

Recently, D’Alfonso donated an extensive collection of his writing, photo, film and audio archives to the McMaster Library. He spoke with the Daily News about this remarkable gift.

Was it difficult to let go of all that priceless material? Or perhaps it was a relief?

It was an honour to be asked to offer my thousands and thousands of pages of material. It was as though McMaster gave every writer I had published a home in which to rest. The sort of work we have done will be understood later, once the children of immigrants will need to study how it was in the 1970s to be the educated child of European war-torn emigrants.

Why did you choose McMaster as the place to permanently house your archives?

I did not choose, I was chosen. This is why I feel honoured. I have never been chosen in my life. With the birth of my daughters, Elisa and Micha, to be given this archival home is one of the most important moments of my personal life. I was given a chance to live a second life.

One hundred years from now, how do you hope this material will be used?

The questions that the writers Guernica Editions asked between 1970 and 2010 are very unique. The questions we give as answers to the questions of what it means to be living in a minority collective might provide clues to help deal with the doubts that future generations will be undoubtedly experiencing.

Obviously, a life in the arts isn’t easy. What traits does a young person (or any person) need to develop to have a long-term career as a professional artist?

Yes, working in the arts is never easy. What made it possible for me to continue my own writing was that I chose to become a publisher. By helping other writers I was able to learn how to make a living. One lesson I can submit to the young is that rare are those who make it by themselves. By creating a communal forum, loneliness – so harsh for most artists – is defeated and replaced by comradeship. Dialogue is what makes monologue possible.

If you could speak to your 20-year-old self, what would you tell him?

I remember why I began to write, make films, and shoot photographs. What saved me was the fact that I filed everything I did. To become a publisher was a conscious decision. When one is totally aware of one’s actions, there can be no regret. I can criticize the choices I made, but I cannot say I did not know what I was doing. I have said elsewhere how I would not do what I did back then. Perhaps I was being too harsh with myself. What I would tell myself at 20 is that I should find myself a job and encourage my children to do what I did. I am one generation ahead of my cultural community. Perhaps, to be a publisher is a job for the third-generation, and not for the second-generation. But I might be wrong.

What has given you the most joy in your life?

To have travelled the world and to have met writers was for me extremely fruitful. I have published as many writers I met as possible. And I was dearly punished for doing so. There is a strange policy at the arts councils in this country that punishes men and women who publish foreign authors. But to do so is the best way to get Canadian writers known abroad. If you invite Anna to dinner, Anna will invite you to dinner next time. I ate well and learned so much about world literature, cultures, and politics. For this I am extremely thankful.

With texting, tweeting, touch-screens, and whatever new technology comes along next, will the human race still need “writing”?

More than ever. I stare at the young typing on their intelligent phones, and am totally amazed. They are writing more than most people I have ever met in the past. I believe the future generations will continue to write and read and communicate, and they will write and speak more languages than most people speak today. Technology has brought about what many of us were dreaming of in the 1970s: the crossing over of national borders.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers, writers, translators, publishers?

Education, generosity, translation: learn to read and write, use your knowledge to help your neighbours, and translate what men and women from different corners of the world are doing. The more you move outside of yourself, the greater you will become.

What do you think the future holds for higher education?

I did my PhD in 2012. I was 59 years old. So many around me have a master’s degree and a PhD. Why should a young person not study as much as possible? There is so much to learn, so many secrets to unravel that only reading and study can offer. Just learning a language requires at least three or four years before you can master it. I fear the young person who does not do higher education will lag behind their friends who are doing their PhD.

What are you working on now?

I have decided to translate my generation of poets from Quebec, France, Italy, Belgium, Germany. It is helping me understand writers, languages, and myself and my own use of language. I finished a short film (3mm), Duse and Me, which is being presented in Toronto at the Italian Film Festival. I hope to be able to turn it into a feature. But money is not easy to find to make films. I am also working on an exhibition of more than 40 years of my portraits of relatives, friends, and artists. There is less space ahead of me than behind me. So I do many things a day just to be sure that I will achieve what I came on earth to do.