Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sex! Infertility! Running! Betrayal! Love! (The Smuggled Interview)

As I mentioned before, one of my best friends, Christina Shea, just published her second novel, a work that you – my readers – helped bring to fruition. And as promised, here is my interview with the author. I came to blogging via the infertility community; Christina is a fellow IVF veteran as well as an adoptive mother (she has a balanced translocation, the same problem that Julia faced). Christina was also my first running partner. Not surprisingly, my questions concern both.

DM: I do a lot of my writing in my head while I run. How does your running affect your writing?

CS: Hugely, I’m less creative when I’m not exercising. I don’t do a lot of writing in my head, though, unless you mean pre-writing. I think the two are maybe the same for you but that is because you are so organized in your thinking, brainy. (All your readers know that.) But I start with a very big mess or get into one as soon as I begin writing. Writing is stimulating for me and I really need the outlet of a run just to keep me in control. I also swim and do Bikram yoga, which is a deep workout the way a ten mile run is. A couple of weeks ago I ran around the lake in Greensboro, VT with two of my sisters. That was seven miles on a hot day and I hadn’t been running more than three miles and only about twice a week and there were a couple of big hills, so I’m proud to report, DoctorMama, I found it not so difficult and I felt great the next day. The more I exercise the better I feel and this of course makes it possible to stop procrastinating and produce. What I find when I’m running is that the solutions to the plot problems that my brain was gripping at the beginning of a run are somewhat lost and forgotten by the time I finish my run and instead I feel at peace with the challenge before me.

DM: There is a theme running through Smuggled: how women are affected by wanting children but not being able to have them or by becoming pregnant when they don’t want to. I know I’m very attuned to these issues from my own history. Is this theme in Smuggled deliberate, or is it something that just naturally comes out in your writing given the struggles you have faced?

CS: Yes, this theme was deliberate. I think that both of my novels are about motherhood basically. I was deeply aware of this focus while writing Smuggled, not only because Éva’s story is a quest for self. I had this weird vision of Ceaușescu as an infant that I kept going back to in my head even though I also thought it was stupid and hackneyed. It is possible to give birth to monsters is what I was thinking and this of course led me to Mary Shelley, who had miscarriages, apparently, and was pregnant while writing Frankenstein, the story of a creature denied by his creator. And I thought this all fit metaphorically with what was going on in history in Éva’s lifetime. I also knew that the only way she could find herself again was through mothering because this was the hole or whole that needed filling. My own hole from infertility I filled through adoption and IVF. There are a couple forces at work within this central theme, one personal and the other based on hearing the stories of women friends in Hungary. The oppression that women suffered was deeply personal and dehumanizing. I can’t let this question go without also mentioning that I am the fourth of eight children (my mother had 12 pregnancies). I grew up a bit lonely amidst the crowd, I think it’s fair to say.

DM: To follow up on some of that: there is also a theme of how the importance of “blood” in the book. Éva’s initial troubles are due to having Jewish blood; then she is suspected of being part Gypsy. Initially she seems to believe that she should be with someone who is her “twin” - half Hungarian, half Jewish. Yet the people who actually help her are not of either of her tribes, and by the end she seems to reject the notion that blood matters: she mothers a boy who looks startlingly different (and is the offspring of what could be seen as monsters). You addressed your infertility with adoption and IVF; the son you adopted is obviously of a different race. Was Éva’s changing attitude on the importance of racial identity also a conscious process on your part?

CS: The son I adopted is Haitian American. He was two weeks old when he came into my arms for the first time. Ten years later, I can see he is the most significant thing that ever happened to me, not to take anything away from his beloved brothers, my birth children. My love for M is unique. I have had to learn how to parent him, which was not necessary with my birth children. This is hard to explain, and it is subtle, but his needs are different and not only because he is adopted and black. (To say nothing of musically gifted in a rather tone deaf family.) His needs are unique to his birth, the loss he has suffered and can never resolve, even if he someday reconnects with his birth parents. Adopting M opened my mind forever. I do not want to downplay the issue of race, in fact I want to highlight it. I am reminded daily that there is nothing harder in this country than being black and male.

In Smuggled, I am questioning the nature of identity, whether one’s notions of self are rational or irrational. Whether blood matters. I wanted to challenge the importance of blood while admitting to it. I observed so much racism in Hungary and Romania, much more overt than in the USA and among educated and uneducated people alike, although certainly not in everyone. I appreciated the lack of political correctness I encountered in Central Europe, I have to say. It seemed much more honest to me to express prejudice than subvert it. Despite this prejudice, Hungary’s Jews were so assimilated they didn’t really believe that they would be turned over to the Nazis — and they weren’t, until the Germans occupied. Then they were sent to Auschwitz. The prisoners were bewildered by the new arrivals — so many Jews still alive, and what a strange language, were they actually Jews? Well, many of them were no more Jewish than Éva, the love child of a Jewish mother and Hungarian father. So, yes again, my exploration of this theme through Anca/Éva was intentional.

DM: As a protagonist, Éva/Anca at first comes across as distant. She keeps her emotions secret not just from others, but from herself. It makes sense — the whole book revolves around her needing to keep her true self hidden. I also noticed that almost no one is explicitly punished for their betrayals. Then it occurred to me is that what she is mostly hiding is not hatred, but love. This is the true currency of the book. Without her love the betrayers perish. I guess my question is, while writing, did you have to fight an impulse to make the “bad guys” overtly suffer for their crimes? It some ways that would have been satisfying, yet it would not have made sense for Éva (nor would it have been historically accurate, unfortunately).

CS: I love what you say about the “true currency of the book” being love. Éva must hide her love in order to be Anca. It requires extreme self control and it’s not always possible for her, for instance she does fall in love with Aron, but she is also emotionally traumatized as a very young child and is thus unknowable to a certain degree, even to herself. As an American, it blew my mind to learn of the suffering that people endured behind the Iron Curtain. In Romania, the situation was particularly twisted. You had to be tough, you had to not care so much, you had to protect yourself, you had to build your own little wall. I’m not really fictionalizing in portraying betrayal after betrayal. It was the way political dictatorship “worked.” But your question is an interesting one because I thought often about the bad guys in my novel. It would have been satisfying to make the bad guys suffer, but it would not have been realistic and I felt this was too important an issue to fictionalize. The question of blame was still on everyone’s mind fifty years after the Holocaust and issues of race remain central to the socio-politics of the region. I couldn’t move outside Anca’s perspective on any of this, so in fact the execution of the Ceaușescus was just what her story needed. And I also think that an act of betrayal can be a crime of self hatred, in addition to having an innocent victim, and that part of Anca’s appeal is that she is not seeking revenge.

DM: Sex is addressed in a refreshingly candid yet nuanced way in the novel. There are lovers, rapists, sex workers, and people who use sex to get what they need, and all of it is presented in a matter-of-fact way — it’s never lurid, and it definitely doesn’t seem American. Is this attitude something you encountered in your time in Eastern Europe? The female characters' attitudes toward sex do not seem ruined by, as you say, the personal, dehumanizing oppression they suffered.

CS: Yes, I wanted to convey the attitude towards sex that I learned about in intimate conversation with women friends in Eastern Europe. There are two things I am trying to do in writing the sex scenes in the novel. The first is to convey the level of comfort with their own bodies that everyone I met in Eastern Europe possessed. There is nothing prudish, puritanical, or American about sex for the Eastern European. Second, the sexual revolution was not just for Westerners, and yet this was the East. Sex was a necessary escape. This reality made the oppression under Ceaușescu all the more personal. Abortion rates that reflected a complete breakdown of society after birth control was outlawed. I was fortunate to have dear friends with whom I could talk about all of this, who wanted to share so that I would understand. Often, what we talked about around the table was our cultural differences, but all the women I knew enjoyed sex the same as me. I heard about women like Irini and the “dentist’s wife.” Also, Éva is from a young age such a physical person, and her mother saves her by sacrificing her own body, and although communism subverts Anca, she knows instinctively how to survive. She generally feels no conflict of motive, and is fortunate to have been born a passionate spirit.

DM: So buy this book, everybody!