Author Interview with Alina Stefanescu

When we started our discussion, some months ago, I originally wanted to discuss your chapbook, “Objects in Vases”, and your piece “Lexicon of Foreign Love”, which we have since nominated for the Best of the Net anthology. What is “Objects in Vases” to you – how did it come about? How do these themes play into the ideas you are currently working with for Short Lessons for Illegal Immigrants?

A cisgender Romanian-American female marries a white Southern male and decides to “homeschool” their children. What emerges resembles fire and brimstone on paper, an uneasy mesh of dolor and terror, a finger palpating the pulse of divergent socializations. Poetry begins in that beat of nearby blood.

My partner was raised in a family of card-carrying Republicans who read the Bible literally while I was raised in a first generation Romanian household whose primary vehicle to convey emotion and reality was a foreign language, a native, ambi-American space. Those differences can’t be assumed away. So we put them in a vase and explore our objectifications.

The poems/hybrids grew out of conversations about how he has been harmed by the rigidities that felt safe and how I have been harmed by the rigidities his privilege imposes on difference. He reckons with his privilege while I confront my envy. Because there is nothing on the planet as privileged as an all-American childhood steeped in a trinity of fun, G-d, and flags. Maybe privilege can be measured by its intellectual output, that vague mechanistic certainty— facile black/white dichotomies, easy to sort, quick to categorize, with us or against us model— plugged into a belief box, a ready-made filter to determine what is true or false.

I was spared this particular privilege (though my skin color afford me others). Immigrants are automatic outsiders. From an early age, you are conscious of trying to fit in, to appear American. You are also overly conscious of hypocrisy (another marker of privilege). You learn to read between the lines. You watch your brilliant parents pledge their allegiance to external objects. That’s some of the inspiration for the work—a study of the external objects we put in vases to admire.

This leads us to children. You have three. In a world that continues to struggle with identity, how do you share yours with your children, and how do you help them express their own?

I do my best, knock on wood, fingers crossed. Given lack of wonder and physical engagement with nature, current educational models make me uncomfortable. There is no media/text-based substitute for intimate experience with plants, trees, earthworms, the ridges of a magnolia trunk beneath a fingertip. If we don’t grow through an intimate relationship with the natural world, I’m not sure how we can appreciate it. Or care enough to honor it. A river is not a screensaver— it’s a source of life, a delicate ecosystem.

The fantastic and the numinous matter. They are integral to our sense of wonder and awe. When I say fantastic, I’m not talking about Disney– which is the opposite of fantastic and closer to composite. Back when I blogged more, I noted these things. The blog served as a notebook to help me remember and sort pedagogies. Now, fiction and poetry play a similar role …..but the blog preserves those early homeschooling days as kind of record. I look back and see little fingers cutting construction paper, glue sticks, glitter, leaves taped to pages, watercolor, moonlight walks. I let my kids express themselves with the material the world provides without trying to force it to make sense.

I think of my own childhood– all the things I imagined, the insomnias, the checking of doors and windows at night, the amazement that others could lie in a bed, shut their eyes, and go to sleep. Also my fascination with “morbid” things– my affinity for cemeteries and some abstract conception of death and the secret belief that I could read minds or had magic powers no one knew about. Honestly. I don’t know if this is true of my kids. They like to “imagine” but they mostly create a new variation on what they’ve been given. Chess problems or magic lands which include existing characters like Benjamin Bunny riding on the back of our dog. My kids think I’m odd when I relate my imaginings.

Let’s talk magic here for a moment. Your work is so often grounded in a hyper-realistic setting, it’s hard to imagine folklore and superstition playing a large role in its creation or ideation. That said, and I’m asking you your own question here: how has the childhood mindset – the self that exists before all the magic is whipped, disciplined, and punished out of us, consciously or unconsciously, reflected in your work?

Childhood exposes the divide between self and others. Remember when you first realized that no one knew your thoughts— that your mind, as a place, was separate from the places inhabited by others? A self-conscious child discovers things could be otherwise. At sleepovers, family life more closely resembled television sitcoms. My friends had their own TV’s. They ate microwaved dinners. They talked on the phone and shaved their legs. I took notes.

Romanian culture is filled with superstitions and folk legends, rituals for seasons and life events.  I maintain a collection of talismans against the evil eye. In a certain sense, I’ve never “grown up” or grown out of my Romanian village sensibility. Consumer culture and Disney have replaced folklore with products. I prefer the stories woven by word of mouth to their marketed instantiations. But that’s a personal preference— grown between cracks in the sidewalk of what people performed and what they said and what they meant.

I was raised amid recitations of Rilke and Gregorian chants. Spirituality was not text-based or legible— more feeling than judgment. My parents were Eastern Orthodox– monks, incense, and mysticism. Baptist and evangelical friends were horrified by all the icons on our walls. “Why do you guys worship an image? That’s idolatry.” Of course they prayed for us. Often I wished they’d keep their prayers to themselves. Childhood included these multiple, warring layers— the mystery beneath the word for things, the spirit stymied by materialism.

I wondered why a fear of icons did not forestall the veneration of images. The landscape was slathered with plastic surgery billboards and beer-selling cleavage, andProtestants assumed these objectifications were somehow natural. Obvious. Everybody does it. The history of the world etc. But a billboard is not a flower, not matter how you ply it. Even if you buy it.

I am grateful to my parents beyond measure for the cracks they left open— for the Leonard Cohen and the laughter and the long, impossible dinners and the light they let in. I do my best to honor language without privileging the text. To read without demanding the literal. To love wisdom without worshipping a bible or turning books into idols.

Perhaps as homage, I’m trying to disinhibit the Romanian voice. I think it comes out in “Bloody Fingers”, a spooky little ditty recently published in Chicago Literati and “Tuica”, forthcoming in the next issue of Duende.

More on reflections. Our children are often mirrors of ourselves. What parts of yourself and your history do you see in your children? Do they make you laugh? Cringe? How does this mirroring capacity, something I think is rather unique to parents, affect how you see/interpret/interact with the world around you?

Can we talk about how fucking lucky I am to spend time with three human beings who rock my world on a daily basis? How lucky I am that this is a choice rather than an imposition? How debasing it is to see an upswell of coercions applied to female body and/or its feminisms?

My kids deschool me. They kick holes in my favorite theories and teach me to tell stories instead. One way they cope with challenges or frustrations is by removing the event from the context of everyday life and positioning it inside their imaginary lands. Same problems transposed into an alternate ecology. This can be every bit as brutal as the Brothers Grimm.

For example, when my mother died suddenly last year, I wandered through the house like a PTSD-stricken accordion player. During this inconsolable period, the kids cried and played and cried. Life went on in their imaginary lands. Suddenly, all the mothers died. Then all the babies died. Then all the mothers came back to life to get the babies. Then the mothers killed the man in a black coat that made them die. Then they started dying again. The mothers kept dying and dying. I was distraught— how could they play with death when their beloved grandmother who lived next door had just died? How could they touch something that hurt so much?

Brilliant little people. I wasn’t the best resource on processing a mother’s death. (Note: I will never be a good resource on how it feels to become a motherless daughter. The horror continues.) But my kids cooked up fantastic stories to resolve what ordinary life could not assimilate. They enchanted the outcome. I have learned— and continue to learn— so much from their storying. Engaging the darkness through fantasy or fable adds a layer of outer detail. Once upon a time must be elsewhere. The magic coat, the potion, the animal helper, all those symbols blunt the blades that we, as writers and human beings, feel compelled to touch. This childhood perspective, the absent-present narrator, renders the world mysterious and magical. I’ve learned (or re-learned) this voice from my kids. From the way in which they narrate what they witness. The mix of matter-of-fact and magic is compelling and timeless.

The most difficult part of being a parent is that you don’t stop being yourself. There are additions– new longings, fears, demands and this unfathomable love you feel for your children– but you’re still the same person who wants to jump off the dock and skinny-dip in the moonlight. When inhabiting your self completely is no longer an option, writing is a life preserver. There is nothing like feeling the story on the tip of your tongue or glimpsing a character. There is no freedom as vast as a blank notebook. I can do whatever I want on paper. I can jump off the dock and take you with me.

This brings us to differences. We all feel different sometimes. Your heritage makes you different. How, ultimately, do you approach these feelings?

I love the fellowship of writers— the shared hyper-sensitivity, the loneliness of those who remain outside in order to tell a story about what they’ve seen. I write into the outsider status but I also enjoy writing around it, imagining a world in which the greatest threat is our allegiance to privilege rather than the anger of those who pay the price of keeping this privilege intact. If I have a muse, s/he is a creature of many faces, a trickster, a doppelgänger, a man I happen to love, a patriot that isn’t a missile

I have a microchap, Ipokimen, coming out this month from Anchor & Plume. “The Girl in the Bed and Brackets” deals with the experience of amnesia and head trauma as a poetic form wherein the voice is consigned to brackets. Losing the memory of two years of my life to a basal skull fracture turned me into an archivist, re-reading old journals to find the girl who went missing. Defending the person I become from the person others make of me. I don’t think we are ever done. I don’t think we know enough. I’m still learning how to live out loss. But I’m committed to life. To love. To ineffable experiences. To every part of this alien-nation. And what brings us together on paper.