On masks, being an outsider, and dread: an interview with Alina Stefanescu

Romanian-born Alina Stefanescu is the President of the Alabama State Poetry Society and Board Member of the Alabama Writer’s Conclave. Her poetry chapbook, Objects In Vases (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016) was named Poetry Book of the year by ASPS, while her first fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the 2016 Brighthorse Books Prize.

“This book is so much more than the bouquet of its masks, and it marks the birth of a one-of-kind prose stylist. An Everywoman all her own. After reading one page or even one paragraph, I dare you not to conclude that you’ve been going through the motions of reading, if not day-to-day living, for years.”

–Mark Yakich, Gregory F. Curtin, S.J. Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and author of Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide

“A smart, compelling collection. Alina Stefanescu is a prose writer who is not afraid to show her many sides: poet, lover, mother, immigrant, fighter, scholar. Read this for a new look at the domestic sphere in an America that needs to change. Read this to experience the originality of every sentence.”

–Jan Stinchcomb, author of Find the Girl

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Every Mask I Tried On can be purchased on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble.

 

 

1. As with your previous collection, Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus, Romania seems to still exert a strong pull on your imagination. Do you think having had to abandon your roots has given you a keener eye for both your native country and the US?

Part of the challenge is that I never chose to abandon my roots—those choices were made by my parents.  My tap-root is Romania—it’s my “mother-land”, the place of my birth, my mother-tongue, my first language, the language in which words of love and lullabies and nurture were first conveyed to me. When my parents defected to the US, I lost my Romanian family—my cousins, my uncles and aunts, the entire extended self. There was no travel back across those closed borders until after 1989.
So much of rootedness lies in language. I was taught to be ashamed of speaking any language that wasn’t American in public. Sometimes people think it’s quaint—they want to hear how you say “Hello” in Romanian—but mostly the response is one of offense and threat. “This is America—we speak American here.” My parents spoke Romanian at home throughout my childhood. When they divorced in college and remarried Americans, I lost the Romanian house. I lost the space in which all those beautiful vowels happened. I lost the country of my youth.
The reclamation of my roots—writing Romanian, writing as myself, who feels and filters and experiences so much as Romanian—is part of a decision I made in working towards a sustainable self, a livable personhood that doesn’t deny or hide what I am in order to please or fit in. Writing helps me deal with the way in which our roots lay claim to the fruit. Nationalism never appealed to me–not in its Romanian version which celebrates a historically-constructed pure Romanian human, and not in its American version which worships a prosperity gospel of consumerism and Anglo-Saxon patriarchs. I don’t believe in chosen peoples. The notion of somehow being set apart as group–an ideology of privilege–destroys any group it touches. Anything we have at the expense of someone else is a curse. Yet many of us prefer to see these things as blessings or signs of God’s favor or evolutionary fulfillments or facts of nature. As if anyone deserves the privilege they are born into. As if any mammal deserves being born under a dictatorship.

2. In an interview with Katie Saffell you said that humans are constantly searching for something. What’s the treasure hunt that brought Every Mask I Tried On into this world? 

Fear of death. Fear of never existing. The way we wear masks to be seen. To be saviors. To be social justice queens or defender of furred mammals. The way identity intersects with reality and mortality. Kierkegaard was right about dread.
I feel a deep sympathy with Mohsin Hamid’s description of fiction as a vehicle “for denuding false myths of national purity.” In an interview published in Guernica, Mohsin said something that I printed and taped inside my writing notebook. It applies to my poetry, prose, and CNF. In Mohsin’s words:

“I needed to write this book because as a mongrelized person, I feel personally threatened when everybody around me is seeking purity and certainty. I wrote the book I needed. The same impulse has guided me in these twenty odd years of writing; the audience has always been secondary. So many of us become writers because we need for certain books to exist that no one else is writing; especially, those of us who have migrated or have been dislocated. If you need a book to exist badly enough, you’ll write it.”

This is the gauntlet.

3. What was the mask more painful to render on paper?

Vulnerability is always the most painful to render on paper–whether you’re writing the story of the bully that torments others in order to feel strong or the child struggling to protect their abuser. To write against the cult of purity and religious fundamentalism is extremely divisive—it cuts through families and forces one to realize that loyalty to ideology can trump kinship. It’s painful and personal and difficult.
The fear of being misunderstood frequently silences. As an adolescent, the big goal was to seem American–to be accepted as American–so that we could stay. Every action, from choice of clothing to flag care, was expressed on binary of American or un-American. I listened as people spoke for me–as teachers and politicians explained what immigrants wanted, who immigrants were. To question or challenge propaganda is not what American schools encourage. The history I learned in school was the history of the physical victors (and ethical losers).
I have always been overly sensitive to–and fearful of– the story that others tell about me, the narrative they force between my lips, the things they say in my name, the cleverness of their dehumanizing interpretations. We do wear masks to be seen, but I also think in the US we often wear masks to be overlooked, to disappear in a sea of familiar hat-wearing heads, to be accepted, to feel safe. There is something so tenuous about existence—and how I learned to be human in the borderlands between native tongue and American flag, how complex and fragile these multiple identities.

4. How has your creative process evolved over the years, if at all?

I think the process is still pretty much reading, re-reading, writing in my notebook, pacing, typing a few words, second-guessing, getting distracted by self-loathing, getting distracted by kids, getting distracted by life, trying to bring all these things into the story or poem to compensate somehow for not giving them all my attention in real life. I have so many untyped drafts in my notebooks—I can’t keep up with myself. One thing I love is the Twitter writing community, the editors and writers that are constantly sharing amazing pieces, craft suggestions, commiserations. I am deeply grateful to the writers and editors who’ve reached out to me on Twitter and taught me so much.

5. Do you remember what the first fully-fledged story you’ve ever written was? What came of it?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing stories to deal with life. The specifics are blurry. I’ve kept a diary since I was 6. In the entries, I usually began with something that happened in real life and then batted it around the room like a ball of yarn, waiting to see how it would unravel. My diary was the place where I kissed all the people I wanted to kiss, despite their lack of interest in me. There was this terrible time in high school when my mom read one of my diaries and confronted me about the graphic, wild things she’d discovered. I remember trying not to laugh–because how you do convince your mom that your diary isn’t really true? It’s a way of reaching toward the truth of what you feel at a given moment.

6. For whatever the reason, two unauthorized movies are made about your life. The first is an independently released documentary, primarily comprised of interviews with people who know you and bootleg footage from your actual life. Critics are describing the documentary as brutally honest and relentlessly fair. Meanwhile, Columbia Tri-Star has produced a big-budget biopic about your life, casting major Hollywood stars as you and all your acquaintances; though the movie is based on actual events, screenwriters have taken some liberties with the facts. Critics are split on the artistic merits of this fictionalized account, but audiences love it. Which film would you be most interested in seeing?

Since a French film of my life isn’t an option, I guess I’ll settle for the indie. Who isn’t rubbernecking their own demise in the age of social media? Humans are such fragile mammals–we are so easily voided and hurt. I just don’t believe that anyone has an ego firm enough to resist worrying about the ways in which they are wrong about this world. I don’t know any perfect people. Lord, the last thing I need in my life is perfect people. I don’t care what Hollywood makes of me because there are mammals that I adored that never loved me back and I care more about their intimate rejections than I do about the narrative arc of my life.
That’s how I feel about short fiction as well–low on narrative arc and heavy on the mammalian heart of things. I’m interested in a woman waiting for her first mammogram and crying all over the waiting room magazines–sobbing and sobbing like a motherless child who knows all it takes it one word to end this story, weeping like a park fountain because one life or one word is never enough.

7. A saucer has descended from the skies and kidnapped a fan of yours in the middle of the night. The fan has been taken to an alien planet where a society not dissimilar from our own is in place, and has been made the Chief Commander over the whole planet. The first decree this fan of yours (who is, incidentally, also the most devoted and extreme of fans) passes, is to render mandatory to anybody, child and grownup, the reading of your magnum opus. What do you suppose would the aliens dislike the most of your work?   

The absence of happy endings. The lack of pedagogical instruction or self-help. What if I’m not empowering anybody? What if we agree to tell the hard stories and acknowledge that the truth may not set us free or empower us but only render us more disturbed? What if our class or race or ethnicity or citizenship or group identity does not absolve us of the damage we do to others? What if we are responsible for every bomb dropped in our name? How does consciousness change the story? I assume we all die alone. I assume the ways in which we learn, change, evolve, and exist matter.

8. What’s next for author Alina Stefanescu?

Finding a residency to revise that novel? Finishing the second poetry collection and then starting the submissions process? Trying to be present in the lives of the people that love me? Writing those hard stories that would wrap up the second fiction collection?
I think it’s very difficult to write the fiction we need to read right now. For example, I have this long story that keeps buzzing in my head but I don’t want to touch it. I don’t feel like a good enough writer or a good enough human being. The narrator is an alt-right female whom I don’t feel comfortable writing precisely because she’s not entirely unlikable–she’s complicated and wrong but also desperate.
Trying to find the line between good craft and bad politics is a challenge. Ultimately, at some point, I think everyone wants to be seen. I think the rapist wants to be seen. I think the neo-Nazi wants to be seen. I think the suicide bomber wants to be seen. I think the silent Trump-lover who preaches love and grace at his church every Sunday wants to be seen. I want to write the cowardice and fear that leads us to ideologies of hate. Writing is so many colors of marvel and awe but also, somehow, witness. The simple act of holding up a mirror, and asking you to look.

 

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