OBJECTS OF DERISION
AN INTERVIEW WITH ALINA STEFANESCU
NGQ: Imagine you are a character in a story you are writing. How might you introduce yourself?
STEFANESCU: My name is Alina, and I share several consonants and vowels with the construct of “alien.” When I was nine, the moon made a promise to me which remains private. The next day the sun promised I would die young and the sun–being a man and all–should not be underestimated.
NGQ: We’re always interested in the individualistic approach to writing here at NGQ. What does your writing process look like?
STEFANESCU: I have about 6-7 notebooks scattered throughout the house, car, bags, etc. and when I get an idea, I just jot it down in the nearest notebook. These simultaneous notebooks accumulate words, quotes, fiction fragments, descriptions, impressions. When one notebook gets filled, I waste copious hours attempting to reconcile various pieces of texts from separate notebooks, hoping to discover what I meant–if I meant–and why it seems so important to me to mean something anyway.
The stories and poems come together on the laptop. It can get very ugly between me and my notebooks. It is not uncommon for me to find something originally envisioned as prose come out poetry.
I find my notebooks frequently interrogate socialization, defined as the continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position. It’s not intentional but it’s where writing leads me. I am fascinated by crowd behaviors and monumental mass stupidities.
NGQ: Light and darkness, secrets and silence—these are aspects of your writing that pop up over and over in these three pieces. What we’ve been most struck by among these, is your approach to light.
“He says I was pinned to the wall by “Moscow Nights”, that the strobe kept me in place. The strobe prevented me from moving left or right. When the light sat still, I froze to avoid being seen.” – “The Subject Will Rise”.
Light in “The Subject Will Rise” freezes one of the characters, the object, in place. It is partially the gaze of the Subject himself and his own interpretation of their first meeting, and partly the strobe lighting that fixes her where she stands. But we wonder, as you explore the nature of seeing and being seen, what relationship you think light and the demands and affects of being seen have.
STEFANESCU: I think of exposure–flash bulbs–the extent to which I attempt to “reveal myself” on Facebook or a blog, only to discover the image is immutable. It pins me to what someone saw in me at one moment in time.
Flipping back through photos albums, you learn your life from family members whose stories one memorizes and recites. These legends are often stimulated by images or snapshots. They are part of identity-formation. The parts you learn to play. The way loved ones perceive you.
The neurochemical aspects of cognition and memory, the extent to which we cannot “take back” or “fix” the way someone has seen us–these excite and horrify me to various degrees. Perhaps we are incapable of reclaiming ourselves. Perhaps we are all in a prone position when it comes to the eyes of others. And yet–I don’t want to see myself that way…. I don’t want to see myself as the lecherous old tool carrying the anti-abortion sign sees me. That version is trash.
So what should I do? Regardless of the normative, what I TEND to do is write myself as I’ve been seen. Write the version of self which bothers me so deeply so disentangle my social identity from my imagined one.
NGQ: This freezing, halting, when a light makes something visible, makes it tangible, the interest that the light may take, the things it might shine on, makes us curious what this says about the sharp edges of light and the soft shelter of the oppositional darkness. There is nothing to hide in that light. You are to be seen. There is no escape.
STEFANESCU:There is no escape–very true. But there is a pen and paper and the middle finger one can raise by writing. There is the opportunity to say “bite me” between brackets. Which I referenced above.
NGQ: Where does this consideration of light comes from for you?
STEFANESCU: Though the light/dark juxtaposition shows up in my writing, I can’t claim credit for it as a conscious strategy. “Step Into the Light” by the Afghan Whigs was on one of my playlists when writing “The Subject Will Rise”– so there is this sense in which light is the redeemer, the truth-teller, the space in which one is seen clean.
On the other hand, the prevalence of artificial light– neon, halogen, strobe, party lights, twinkling lights, streetlamps, etc.– makes me wonder if natural light can even exist for us anymore. Even sunlight in a scrapyard is tainted by the industry of what we want from it; or the way in which fantasies create expectations.
NGQ: What might it say about your approach both in these stories and in others to being seen and attempts to hide away?
STEFANESCU: At the age of sixteen, I fell in love with the prison letters of dissident writers. I read Martin Luther King, Jr., Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik and others. I followed the battle between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists in the pages of archives, especially Partisan Review, Ramparts, and Mother Earth News. I killed my idols and found my heroes: Hannah Arendt and Emma Goldman, two humans who possessed a commitment to truth over popularity, and the integrity to acknowledge when they were wrong. My intellectual education stems from these efforts to tell the rawest possible truth. To be honest. To refuse to pander to cultural demands, to let stories speak for themselves and hope that what is worthwhile, if it is worthwhile, is appreciated. I want the things I write to be seen, but at the same time I’d like to stay crouched in the woods behind my house listening for foxes at night.
NGQ: Conversely, light can also be seen as soothing in these stories. The sunset, as you write in “Woman Rendered Speechless by Sunset”, “alternates between lozenge and blade in less than an hour”. Can you talk about what this additional turn, this seeming debate, might mean for you?
STEFANESCU: Vulnerability is our biggest fear. The antithesis of Cool Girl is a girl who doesn’t like sports or bar-b-que and wants to stay up all night talking poetry. The permission to follow what fascinates us–if this fascination is intellectual–continues to be denied to women daily. Maybe it’s just Alabama. Maybe things are better in New York or Hollywood or Hoboken or small isolated pockets of community across these Trump-festering states.
There’s an aspect of witness to this–a cringe, a nausea–watching female friends degrade their own intelligence around males. Contra romance novels, vulnerability is not the moment when a woman swoons and says she loves him as he rips her shirt off. There’s no vulnerability in the carcass of old tropes. All those love declarations and roses and marital vows– that’s pop culture, my friends, not vulnerability. You want vulnerability, then you hop a train to Coney Island or the carnival, the half-lit spaces, the ones where light is dying, the ecosystems we have ravaged to develop prefab McMansions…. I could go on but essentially, what I mean is that it takes more vulnerability to talk about dreams that don’t involve marriage or children or Martha Stewart.
A girl who wants to talk about a wedding is never laughed at. A girl who wants to talk about what happens in a poem–outside an MFA context–is written off as strange or “creative.” As for Cool Girl, can we move on from that magnitude of lame-ness?
NGQ: And, related to this, are some of the acts that go on in these public spaces, in the light. I refer to “the half-hidden hand-jobs” in semi-public spaces (“Woman Rendered”), to sexual intercourse in “Something About the Sunshine in Scrapyards”. As with your exploration of light, it touches on our duality—of both wanting to seem socially acceptable, and also giving into desire, to acts that might seem indecent in these spaces to the more conservative of minds. What do you think of this? Does it concern the act of hiding these things? That we pretend to be good and Saintly to escape our seeming shame?
STEFANESCU: Growing up in the south, you are bombarded with images of robo-femme sexuality. It doesn’t take a genius to learn sex is the part of you which sells best.
On the other hand, there is a prudery to sex here, an anti-sensuality into which you are socialized. A let’s fuck and call it done aspect. This has always saddened me.
In Alabama, there is a strong correlation between conservative social gender norms (i.e. the Puritans and Purity ball-goers) and twisted views of sex. I sat in a few “Porn Addict” chat-rooms for a story I was working on and learned just how pathetic and ridiculous their loathing of women. They were to blame for everything from that first fruit to the fruit they saw in a shirt at the ball game. Women weren’t giving those “poor men” what they so rightly deserved– what they were “entitled” to. These views are more insidious than we like to acknowledge.
Before my partner and I got married, a member of his family told me that men need sex and women have sex to get and keep men. I thought I was going to choke on my crepe. Was I going to have to convince the XY that my desire was authentically my own, rather than a response to his “need” or a sordid manipulation? This aspect of socialization delegitimizes female sexual identity and desire and I lampoon it frequently in my fiction. It’s probably one of the most offensive things a human being can say to another human being: “What you want is all about me.” It’s also a foundation stone for rape culture.
I think sex is a pretty incredible way of relating to other human beings. Perhaps I am fascinated by the failures of sex to relate us to one another– precisely because it bears such massive, beautiful potential. But I also think it’s interesting that I don’t write much “good sex”. I haven’t found words for those ineffable margins of light and shadow yet… .