Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Q&A with Xhenet Aliu

Xhenet Aliu is the author of the new novel Brass. She also has written the story collection Domesticated Wild Things, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Glimmer Train and Hobart. She works as an academic librarian, and she lives in Athens, Georgia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Brass, and for your characters Elsie and Luljeta? 

A: Growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut, I was surrounded--at home, at work in the industrial park, in my community college classes--by a lot of women who informed the character of Elsie.

These were single moms with a ton of hustle, women who lived hard lives and still managed to have a nasty sense of humor, women who were sharp enough that, if they’d been born just a few minutes down the road in some of the wealthier parts of Connecticut, it would have been assumed that they would go to college and thrive in the obvious ways that our culture values.

I knew Elsie so well that I barely had to write her; it just took me a while to figure out that there was a reason to.

When I first started writing seriously, I was panicked because I thought a person like me, with no pedigree and not a cosmopolitan bone in my body, had no stories to tell.

I didn’t think people wanted to read about things like poor and working-class people, recent immigrants who weren’t success stories, post-industrial factory towns, because I so infrequently encountered them myself as a reader. Eventually I realized that was exactly the reason I was writing this story.

Luljeta was born of Elsie--literally, in the novel, but also conceptually, because I realized after I wrote Elsie’s story that there had to be a reason Elsie was telling it. I realized that Elsie’s story is suddenly significant because her daughter may be in danger of repeating some parts it, or of coming to the same conclusion. Suddenly there’s an imperative.

Q: The novel switches back and forth between Elsie and her daughter Luljeta’s points of view. Why did you decide to write Elsie’s chapters in first person and Luljeta’s in second person?

A: Elsie’s story was always in the first-person because it seems to me that women like her are more often talked about than listened to.

Elsie’s qualified to tell her own story, but the she didn’t rise from the ashes and get an MFA, so why would she sound like she did, and moreover, why should she? Are poor or working-class people only worth listening to if they can adopt the language and mannerisms of the educated class?

I wanted to respect the character’s language and try to find a way to make it effective and penetrating despite it not being obviously “pretty.”

I wrote Luljeta’s chapters in both the first- and third-person and just found them limp and not-quite-right.

I started re-writing them in the second-person only out of desperation, and I was both concerned and relieved to discover that this was how the story wanted to be told: concerned because I feared it might come off as gimmicky and abrasive, and relieved because the story finally unfolded naturally once I made the switch.

I don’t want to be so prescriptive as to demand a reader interpret it this way, but to me, the second-person represents Luljeta’s feeling of lack of control over her future: she worries her own fate, her own story, is being told to her, that options are a luxury not afforded to everybody.

Q: The story takes place in Waterbury. How important is setting to you in your work, and could this have taken place elsewhere?

A: There’s no shortage of post-industrial cities in this country, and a lot of them probably have plenty in common with Waterbury, whether they’re in Ohio or Pennsylvania or wherever.

I chose Waterbury as a setting not just because I grew up there--though I did discover a new interest in it once I was safely far away--but because it’s not where most people expect to find a struggling factory town.

“Connecticut” is almost shorthand for “wealth and privilege” in popular culture, but the reality is that most of the state is working- to middle-class, much of it blue-collar.

The juxtaposition between the wealthy and the economically struggling is particularly jarring in Connecticut--I wanted my characters to have a sense of the land of plenty, without having any idea how to access it.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Brass is, most literally, the industry that Waterbury was both built on and wrecked by, so there’s a sense of irony in the title. Beyond that, brass is tough, like the characters, and it’s made tougher by virtue of it being an alloy, a composite of different materials.

Luljeta, I think, is like that--the first in her family to be between cultures, but maybe also the first to possibly transcend in ways her family wasn’t able to.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Something not in the second-person! It’s a novel set in Waterbury, the Bronx, and Kosova in the 1990s, and it’s required researching lots of archived early internet chatrooms. It’s been fun to research and to start getting it down on paper.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just how incredibly grateful I am that people believed in this story enough to take a risk and put it out there--it may sound corny and canned, but it’s absolutely true. I’m still astounded every day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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