By Gabi Reigh
A vivid, lyrical exploration of the female experience, FEM, the first novel of the Romanian poet, essayist and art historian Magda Carneci, is now available in an English translation by Sean Cotter (Deep Vellum). In this interview, Magda Carneci talks to Gabi Reigh about the poetic dimensions of her prose, the writers and artists who have inspired her feminist vision and what it feels like to read your work in translation.
Gabi Reigh: FEM is your first novel, after many years of writing poetry and essays. What made you decide to write a novel and what has the process revealed to you about the possibilities or challenges of writing in this form?
Magda Carneci: Even if I wrote all kinds of texts, I think I have a poetic literary structure, which always tends to go beyond immediate contingency and transfigure rough reality. The problem is that nowadays poems are less read than novels, so I decided to write in prose what I had already expressed in poetry as I felt an urgent need to transmit my message. The book obsessed me for ten years and it requested to be written at any price, so I decided to transpose my obsessions in a narrative form to give them a chance to reach a larger public. This narrativity is imbued intentionally with poetic images and metaphysical ruminations as a way to open it to subtler emotions and ideas. I chose this hybrid form, as some commentators noticed, for its ability to transmit special states of mind in a way that would be both easily readable and alluring.
GR: The title of the novel immediately signals that the novel will explore ideas about gender and femininity. Which feminist writers have influenced your perspective of these issues?
MC: FEM is obviously the root of almost all words related to the feminine/ female condition. So, the title reveals from the beginning what is at stake in the book – to speak overtly about feminine and feminist experiences as peculiar ways to feel and understand existence. In my adolescence I adored Virginia Woolf. In my student years I liked Simone de Beauvoir (her “The Second Sex” and her novels). In the 1990s I was preparing a Ph.D. thesis in Paris, where I discovered the French feminist writers Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Annie Leclerc and Luce Irigaray. Later I discovered the American Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, and the Canadian Margaret Atwood, and the British Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and A.S.Byatt. But I feel closer to Helene Cixous and Clarice Lispector (whom I discovered only recently). Feminism remains an important theoretical issue for me, but even if I was involved in the first feminist organizations in Romania after 1989, I consider myself more as a passive feminist, so to say, as I prefer to explore the intellectual and literary aspects of this trend.
GR: Your book focuses in detail on the experiences of the female body and the way it is viewed or judged by others. At one point you describe these experiences as a “burden” and the body as a “hermetic box.” Your narrator often expresses the wish to transcend her physical boundaries: “Who had stuck me in this pinkish-white package, from which I could never extract myself? Who had put me, without the possibility of escape, into this uniform of flesh, bone and hair…?.” To what extent do you feel that female identity is tied to the body and is this physicality something that you consider to be “burdensome” or limiting?
MC: I embrace the theory that women, because of their physiological constitution, are more attuned than men to the laws and rhythms of nature and of the universe. I tend to think women have a deeper experience of their body than men because of their monthly period and the transformations brought about by maternity. Women show often a strong bodily sensitivity and they tend to represent their feelings and understandings with the help of refined sensations and apperceptions coming through the body. This is a common observation in many feminists’ literary writings. Helene Cixous for example exhorts women to write from the body, with the body, about the body as this body seems to be the main difference between men and women. Writing about her body is a way for a woman to regain her freedom that was confiscated by conventional rules imposed by men throughout history. Writing about the body and sexuality is a way of overcoming all kinds of inner and outer censorship. Maybe this idea of an essential difference between women and men is a prejudice coming from the past and a conventional education, maybe future women will feel no difference between them and men (as the American movies tend to impose at present), although I doubt. When I was very young, I felt a discomfort of being in a female body, because of the secondary, submissive position women had in society, but in the last years I have started to love my body as a subtle instrument for wonderful perceptions and states. FEM is a literary construction, where I speak of a woman’s different stages, from childhood to maturity, with their sufferings and joys. The body can be a “prison” for the spirit if it is wrongly treated, but it can also be a trampoline for wonderment and beatitude.
GR: I thought that your portrayal of romantic love in the novel was interesting. As the novel does not include dialogue between the narrator and the men she loves, we are solely immersed in her emotional responses to them and this narrative device seems to reinforce the tension between passion and loneliness in those relationships. Standing next to Radu, her first love, the narrator describes the experience as a “nonmeeting, an absence, a distance. That is where the planet’s magical loneliness comes from.” Later on, in a dream, she describes this “one-sided” relationship as “a permanent transfusion of blood and love. Which I give.” How would you describe FEM’s perspective on the relationships between men and women?
MC: In FEM, the narrator tells stories to her boy lover who is on the point to leave her. Within this literary frame, she wants to reveal him some special moments of her inner evolution, some hidden aspects of her true nature; she wants to encourage him to go beyond the surface of the womanly way of being in the world, which might seem incongruous to a man. But this is a literary device to present certain states of heart and of mind which overcome the so-called normalcy and open our spirit to higher levels of perception and understanding. These higher levels exist in men and women alike, but I described them from a female point of view as I spoke about my own experiences. Even if it is a book about femininity, men are not rejected, on the contrary, they are also invited to take part in these experiences of an expanded consciousness.
GR: Your narrator describes femininity as a performance, likening it to “playing a part” on a stage. You have lived through a time of great social change in Romania, namely the transition from a communist dictatorship to a liberal democracy, and you also lived in France for almost a decade. What have you observed about the differences or similarities between the “parts” or “roles” that women were given to play on those different “stages”?
MC: Communism was a time when an ideological equality between men and women was imposed by law but was not at all internalized by people in current life: it was not easy to be a woman under that totalitarian regime. Post-communism in the 1990s was a confused time when I developed my first rudiments of a feminist consciousness, as the first foreign books on this subject started to be translated into Romanian. When I arrived in Paris in the middle of the 1990s, I had a shock: to see huge posters with almost naked women in the streets made me understand the all-pervading commercial dimension of the liberal capitalism (which was progressively arriving also in Romania). Every “social stage” has its specific constrains for women, as well as for men. In my novel FEM I don’t speak about social or political issues, I speak about one’s existential evolution which is her or his own life. So, my aim in this book is more spiritual than political. Politics is for today; spirituality is for eternity.
GR: The narrator of FEM calls herself Scheherazade, drawing parallels between herself and the legendary woman who used storytelling as a means to gain power and ensure her survival. In what ways could writing be seen as a strategy for survival?
MC: My Scheherazade tries by her stories to prevent her lover’s departure and to ensure the continuity of their relationship. Imagination has a strong power and role in our lives. Writing is an essential tool mainly for self-expression and self-knowledge, it is the space between the inner and the outer reality where one can confess one’s truth and approximate one’s own identity and interconnectedness with the rest of the world. For me, writing was a strong way to express my wish to overcome mental barriers and social conformism related to my female condition. Writing was also a magic way to master my inner world, with all its ups and downs. Moreover, writing is a form of freedom, where we can witness our “other” levels of perceiving, feeling, thinking than in the common reality. Writing can also provoke certain enlarged states of consciousness, which can enrich our daily existence without using any kind of drugs; as a commentator noticed, I consider that any experience can contain the seeds of transcendence.
GR: The epigraph of the book includes a quotation from André Breton, the co-founder of the surrealist movement, and another from Aldous Huxley which describes writing as a “visionary” act and suggests that the writer has the responsibility to share their vision with the world. What “vision” or message were you intending to communicate to the readers of FEM and what is the function of the dreamlike, surrealist passages in the novel?
MC: I am a person who had from her early age various extra-sensorial experiences, symbolic dreams, daily visions, telepathy and so on which pushed me to study several spiritual traditions, esotericism, Jungian psychoanalysis, neurosciences etc. Being nevertheless a “normal” person, I tried to understand these special states of mind and to integrate them into my daily life. I am convinced now that the human being is not yet finished in his or her evolution, I know that we all can have access, from time to time or accidentally, to higher states of consciousness – higher emotional and higher intellectual states – that can give us a new and extraordinary perspective upon the human development. FEM is about these states, which are conveyed in a poetical form, as poetry can help a lot to the opening of the heart and of the mind to these special states, which are a birth-right of any human person. I think the future of a better humanity resides in these special states.
GR: The book starts with the narrator observing that her former lover, to whom the story is addressed, is habitually engrossed in the events of the outside world as portrayed by the TV news. She says that her story will not provide him with another “antenna” through which to gain such information, dismissed by her as “garbage.” What was behind your decision to focus the book on the inner workings of the mind and its ‘strange, elevated states’ rather than explicitly exploring social or political issues?
MC: Most of the books published nowadays are about social and political issues, everybody, even poets, feel obliged to involve in these debates which keep them hypnotized by mainstream TV and social-media. I think it is the writer’s duty to propose a space of freedom for our mind and senses, a space for our inner work, as you say, in which to have access to a better formula of ourselves. As the American feminists stated, “the personal is political,” so this novel is my special form of practicing a politics of enlarging our consciousness to its higher possibilities. Also, the poetical as equal worth to the theoretical in its power to enlighten is another thesis of the book.
GR: You are also an art historian and many reviewers have commented that your writing is very visual, for example Vesna Goldworthy has likened your poems to Francis Bacon paintings. Are there any artists that you feel have influenced the vision you present in your writing? Which artists do you find particularly interesting for the way they present women’s experiences?
MC: As a poet and an art historian, I tried to keep my two occupations separated so that one’s language does not interfere with the other too much. But I have absorbed many influences from several contemporary female visual artists I saw in art galleries and museums in the last decades. I admire the French-American Louise Bourgeois for her sculptures exploring sexuality and the body, death and the subconscious. I admire the Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta for her “earth-body” artwork owing an intense link with nature and archaic rituals. I admire Judy Chicago, Barbara Kruger, Marina Abramovic, Shirin Neshat for the declared feminist dimension of their works. But I also admire Agnes Martin, whose abstract paintings and poetic writings speak about a higher reality in a delicate contact with our common concrete reality.
GR: You are a translator as well as a writer, having translated your own work into French. How would you describe your experience of self-translation? What does it feel like to read the English translation of FEM?
MC: To translate oneself into another language is sometimes an excruciating process, as one realizes how different the aura of words is in different languages. Words have not only one or several meanings, they also have an emotional halo around as well as a specific historical charge behind them. These subtle dimensions of words do not coincide when one jumps from one language to another. The translator has to choose what aspects of the words to select and it is often a painful operation as a part of the sense is lost in translation. Fortunately, translation is possible and to be between two languages is also a wonderful form of enriching one’s mind. I translated from Romanian into French, i.e. two Latin languages, which is easier I think than translating from Romanian into English and vice versa. Nevertheless, I think Sean Cotter did an excellent job with his translation of my FEM into Walt Whitman’s language. To be a man and to choose to translate such a feminine/ feminist book is a proof of courage and dedication, and I thank Sean Cotter warmly for it.
Magda Carneci is a writer, translator, and art critic in Romania. She is the recipient of prizes and grants from the Fulbright Foundation, Getty Trust, the European Union, and more. In 2013, she won the “Opera Omnia” career prize from the Romanian Writers’ Union. Her poems have been translated into thirteen languages and included in numerous anthologies.
Gabi Reigh won the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in 2017, which inspired her to translate more Romanian literature. As part of her Interbellum Series project, she has translated interwar novels, poetry and drama by Lucian Blaga, Liviu Rebreanu, and Mihail Sebastian, including The Town with Acacia Trees, which received a PEN Translates award. Her translations of The Illuminated Burrow by Max Blecher and A Bach Concert by Hortensia Papadat Bengescu will be published in 2022.