Rachel Nix: Let’s start this interview with a little brain-picking/word-untucking: most would define joy in a fairly straightforward way, but I know you won’t—what does joy entail for you?
Alina Stefanescu: I love joy. I love how it refuses to sit snug inside the boxes built to contain it. There’s a rebelliousness to joy that enchants me. Take, for example, the unexpected joy in that moment at the end of a terrible relationship, the way the world swells open to situate you inside all possible landscapes. Or the dangerous exuberance that surges through the last lines of Ada Limon’s poem, “Service”:
So, right then, in the dim lights
Of the strange garage, I lifted my skirt and pissed
Like the hard bitch I was.
Ultimately, I think joy taps into the transcendent; it’s an emotional state that lifts us outside the narrow habitude of time-bound flesh and into a bigger picture. A picture whose mystery can only be appreciated on mute. Joy is a moment wherein that which exists is enough.
RN: Your background fascinates me. Rather than asking for an elaboration on your Romanian ancestry, I’d like to know what you’ve found in the divide of simultaneously being an immigrant and someone who’s spent most of their life in America, specifically the South. I realize everything seems political, and really is, but instead of bracing this question in the obvious brackets—though a growl is also invited—would you tell us how this cultural concoction has affected your empathetic response?
AS: I am grateful for the multiplicitous identity that keeps me from over-identifying with one aspect of my selfhood. Acknowledging multiple claims of loyalty serves as prophylactic against fundamentalism and nationalism. In the USA, we aren’t very good at acknowledging intersectionality—and this plays out in many ways, one of which is the privileging of one socially-constructed identity over another. As a result, various groups (including liberal ones) embrace notions of purity—whether ideological, racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, or cultural—that exclude and damage fellow human beings.
Growing up in the South as an outsider, I felt outside of the history we studied. We learned maybe one or two things about my birth-land, Romania, and almost no time learning about the past in the Middle Eastern, Southeast Asia, or Africa. When an educational system ignores entire continents of non-Western experience, we end up with a country of navel-gazing mammals unequipped to consider the consequences of foreign policy. Unequipped to handle the “foreign bodies” that call this place home. We end up poised to persecute. To ignore those histories is not neutral—it is an active dehumanization that results in fear of difference.
I think I learned to distrust ideals of purity—whether racial, cultural, sexual, or ethnic. Bridging my experience as an impure, polyglotinous mutt, I saw so much unhappiness in groupthink—whether a high school clique or a religious youth group. Totalitarian systems never stop generating new versions of purity—for a totalitarian government to survive, there must always been an enemy within that is targeted and lifted up as a scapegoat. As with religious fundamentalism, no purity is ever pure enough. And it can never be clean enough because totalitarian thinking relies on the power to determine what is impure.
Growing up in Alabama made me conscious of how dominant narratives distort individual autonomy by depriving human beings of their unique stories. My ethics developed from this sense that the stories being told were closer to advertisements than lived histories. Isn’t ethics what we choose to live with? Isn’t that why it’s hard to negotiate the wrongness of everyday life in a misogynistic, xenophobic culture?
Being a southern writer means writing from within that challenging space dominated by black and white dichotomies. Writing is one way of challenging the socialization of dominant narratives by being a witness to the particulars of time and place. I don’t have any answers or ideological solutions. I’m suspicious of the evangelical pew-side testimony that ends with asking God for a car. I don’t want to weaponize the confessional mode in order to buttress particular classes or forms of identity. In the end, we are all human. Nothing I’ve written can fix the world. Nothing I’ve written can destroy it.
RN: This brings me to your work as a Co-Organizer and Founder of 100,000 Poets for Change–Birmingham. The events held this year led to an incredible amount of attention and donations toward the #ShutDownEtowah movement. What got you, Ashley M. Jones, and Laura Secord riled up and ready to do some tackling with this project?
AS: Who knows what motivates me, Ashley, and Laura to do all the crazy stuff we do? (Not even G-d.) I think part of our motivation stems from this sense that something needs to happen—aligned with the concern that something won’t happen unless we make it happen. Maybe all three of us have lived in a world where we made the change we wanted to see. Maybe we grew up wondering why people didn’t do the right thing instead of the usual one. Maybe we don’t wait for rain if we want to see a rainbow.
RN: I’m pretty taken with your most recent book, Every Mask I Tried On. The short stories contained within abandon expectation; these stories are energetic and serene, intense and tumbling, rooted and wild. How’d this writing process go?
AS: The book was stitched together in the year after my mother’s sudden death. When she left for Amsterdam, I had just started writing fiction. On the day she died, I won my first contest. Overjoyed, I posted it on FB waiting for her hugs and kisses from Amsterdam (she always thought I should be a writer) but the comment never came. She just disappeared. I could not accept her death. I kept writing frantically, trying to coax her back, to tell a different story, to get her attention. Coping with complicated grief created new masks.
Joan Didion talks about not remembering the sirens or traffic in the ambulance ride to the hospital as her husband was dying. In the trauma of a moment, we don’t remember the sirens or the red lights or the traffic. Nothing distracts us from the worst thing we never imagined—the thing that can’t be happening. After my mother’s death, I absolutely needed to discuss the details and logistics with her. I need to understand what she wanted, to get her advice, to defy death. I could not accept the finality of her absence. There was a death certificate in Dutch—a pronouncement of her end by pulmonary embolism. But it was impossible. The last time I saw her, she was laughing and packing goofy glasses and promising to send photos on Facebook. When reality is unfathomable, the mind turns easily to fiction.
For me, the biggest challenge in writing fiction is my fear of hurting or disappointing or upsetting others. The fear of being misunderstood often leads us to silence just when sound is most needed. In these stories, I made a pact with myself to write against the advice of writing for the reader. I decided to not feel guilty for disappointing readers who seek redemption or didactic resolution on the page. It’s not my job to give you hope—to rob you of the work and honesty involved in discovering a reason for life. I don’t write to cook chicken soup for the soul. I write to explore the fantastic absurdity of how we manage to live with everything except hope—and how this estrangement from authentic personhood leads us to expect too much of others. I don’t believe in happy endings. I believe in love, compassion, and life.
RN: We like to stalk, affectionately, but still. Where can we see more of your work? Any new projects on the way, recent publications you’d like to link us to or have us look out for?
AS: “The Woman With a Box at the Church” is available online for your reading pleasure, thanks to Wigleaf. Now I’m blushing—this is the part where I grow hoarse and forget what I wanted to say. Can I just smile and point? The latest in poetry. The latest in CNF. The latest in fiction. And everything else.
RN: You have multiple collections spanning the arbitrary boundaries of poetry and prose; because we’re needy and adore your work, would you link us to where we can do some book collecting?
AS: I want to shine a light on the Writers Resist: The Anthology 2018 that just came out—because it’s so easy to forget the role that writers play in either validating or challenging social and cultural change. My voice is one of many in that room, and I’m most comfortable with being part of a cacophonous interchange. You can learn more about the other books, including Every Mask I Tried On and Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus, from my website. Thank you so much for asking, Rachel. I confess to be mortified by the hustle of my own materials. I’d much rather talk about the mind-boggling things written by fellow writers that rock my world in earnest.
RN: We’re always on the hunt for more lit journals to dig into and are curious where others look to in appeasing their own tastes. Online or print, which journals do you admire, and do you follow any regularly?
AS: Longleaf Review for superb emotional range and beautiful writing. DIAGRAM for the innovative and knuckle-busting. Black Warrior Review for almost everything. Pif Magazine has been churning out inspiration for years. I love the craft segments as well as the writing. Ghost Proposal is just gorgeous with hybrids. Bull: Men’s Fiction is just exquisite stuff—and it’s on my bucket list of pub longings. Of course, I’m biased with a particular love for Pidgeonholes….
RN: You don’t cross me as someone who can nail down a short list of favorite writers. Instead, let’s make this awkward! Let’s whisper [or holler?] our writer crushes. Admittedly, you’re one of my poetry crushes and actually have triple-whammy crushworthy points as a phenomenal essayist and prose writer. Who are your crushes? Whose work are you seeking out and loving lately?
AS: Right now, in this moment, the fickle, restless Aries in me loves many, many writers. In that genre folks call CNF or essay, I’m riveted by Kiese Laymon, Alice Bolin, and Dan Beachy-Quick.
In poetry, I am currently obsessed with Heather McHugh’s narrative techniques and Osip Mandelstam’s images and lyric. I can’t stop reading two new collections that explore difficult inhabitations of womb-space, including Emma Bolden’s gorgeous House Is an Enigma and Kwoya Fagin Maples’ staggering Mend. Also on a Fanny Howe kick. And loving the latest book from Heidi Lynn Staples and anything by Chelsea Dingman.
In short fiction and flash, I’m crazy about Kara Vernor, Samantha Hunt, Meg Giddings, Carmen Maria Machado, Ana Lea Jancewicz, Georgia Bellas, Dina L. Relles, and Ben Marcus.
I also need to confess my love for Grace Paley, whose refusal to divide the personal from the political inspires me as both writer and human being. Grace Paley is the perfect Trump-era writer for feminists who bring the diaper bag to the Indivisible meeting, for women who nurse while dialing the numbers for voter registration phone trees. Supposedly, Paley told students that they didn’t have a story if they left out the blood and money—the people that surround characters and the way in which characters sustain themselves. In a timeline of her life, political activism and mothering took up more space than book prizes and literary life. She protested Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, US policies in Latin American, the Israeli occupation of Left Bank and Gaza, as well as the Iraq war. My heart bursts a little knowing that she was out there among fellow marchers as I carried anti-war banners over my pregnant belly in Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia, and Alabama.
If you want good subjects for writing, there is no better way to come across them than by living a passionate, fascinated, thick-in-the-thrall-of-it life.
RN: While I skirted around the “favorite writers” questions, I won’t let you out of this one. I ask this in every interview because it seems like all writers have one book that’s defined them in some way. Any genre, any subject: what’s your favorite book? What book matters to you?
AS: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. She taught me to think without reaching for ideology or partisanship. I can’t imagine who I’d be without having read Hannah Arendt.
RN: Got a question for us? About the publication, the staff, what kinda pie any of us would like to throw at our “president”?
AS: Yes—if cahoodaloodaling by any other name would taste as sweet, which name would that be? And why?
RN: Fishy Cupcake because I really like the idea of maturely named journals but never want to be one of them. Also, Raquel thinks I’m fishy and I think she’s a cupcake. That might not make sense to anyone else but I’m also a fan of confusion.
Rachel Nix Interviews Jeanie Thompson