The Required Reading Series highlights voices from across the world, showcasing their opinions and sharing their inspirations. The literary scene, that wide and slippery beast, is fueled by the energy and enthusiasm of its individual parts, as well as a desire to share knowledge and ideas. Here we’ll explore the world’s front line of emerging, beginning, ambitious, desperate and passionate writers, ask them how they came to be writers, what they are reading and why you should be reading those things too.
Clara Burghelea is Editor-at-Large for the Village of Crickets (VOC) blog Small Points of Light. Originally from Romania, Burghelea is earning a multi-genre MFA at Adelphi University. A poet, writer and translator, she has been published in print and online in In-Flight Literary Magazine, Straylight, Indiana Voice Journal, and Ambit Magazine under the pen name of Witty Fay. Her first volume of bilingual poetry, “Nefelibata,“ was published in 2014.
Josh King: Was there a “light-bulb moment” that inspired you to start writing?
Clara Burghelea: I have been writing all my life, I guess, keeping diaries when I was in high school, then commonplace books I did not know had a name until I took a poetry class with Judith Baumel last semester. In college, all I did was read and write, then I took my MA in Translation Studies (which should tell you I have had a foot in both camps for a long time.)
Writing became compulsory when my mother died. I was left with these unresolved feelings, self-doubt, and disconnection from social life. I developed a feral disposition, a search for something that was missing. It turned out I was looking for words but I wanted to pursue them in a sort of organized manner. I also craved the literary community, my own writing tribe.
King: What themes do you consider dominant in your work? Is there a reason for this?
Burghelea: I grew up in a communist country until I was 12 and this marked my childhood and impacted my adolescence. First, I did not know I had a voice and that it mattered. Then, I lacked women role models in poetry and fiction. Finally, I had my traditional upbringing shaping myself and the way I saw the world. Then I experienced motherhood, loss and a sort of restlessness. My current obsessions are pretty much related to all these things.
King: How much do you feel your writing is affected by the setting you are in? Whether that’s being at home or in a café, being in your own country or a foreign one?
Burghelea: Setting is essential in the creative process. I am a gregarious recluse which means that as much as I love the company of others, I become overwhelmed by the outer human noises and feel the need to isolate myself. It depends on the choices at hand. Back home, I could easily go to the countryside. Here, I find a quiet alley in Central Park or go the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, where I either write, read or simply allow my own thoughts to take a halt from the urban clamor.
But I am not a ‘nature’ kind of person, as much as I appreciate the salt-smacking seaside breeze of one of my favorite Greek islands, Thasos, or my grandparents’ cottage in Romania. It is more a matter of how the setting alters the state of mind.
Living in New York on my own feels like a self-imposed exile because it was my choice to leave my family for two years and depart from my comfort zone. It is quite a challenging experience. Edward Said was the one who beautifully expressed how geography defines us. He said none of us are outside or beyond geography and therefore we are not free from the struggle with it. I guess I am carrying mine around and at the same time, I am always departing and returning to it.
King: When writing, do you have an audience in mind? If so, is this audience determined by nationality? Language spoken? Cultural sensibilities? Is there any defining characteristic of this audience at all?
Burghelea: I only write in English but I cannot help wondering if my poems or stories are getting to the right audience. But then again, who is that audience? I know it is a niche one though there is a history of writers of different nationalities who chose to write in English. Ultimately, it all comes down to good writing but since English is not my native language, I feel I always have to go the extra mile in getting the natural flow of the language on the page. So, in terms of language, there is no audience since I expect to have my poetry or fiction read by people who appreciate good writing, but as far as the themes of my writing are concerned, I imagine it is a matter of taste. Some people will simply not be interested in reading stories about how it feels to a have a communist upbringing as a legacy.
King: “The Great American Novel” is a term often used to describe a quintessentially American book, typical of the North American experience at a certain point in history. Which book might be the best candidate for the Great Romanian Novel? Which author might be best qualified to write it?
Burghelea: To my mind, the Great Romanian Novel is “The Forbidden Forest” by Mircea Eliade. Eliade was a novelist, as well as a historian of religions who fled Romania when the communist regime came to power. He settled in the U.S. where he became a professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago in 1958.
The novel is about Stefan, a man torn between his love for two women who lives under the pressure of his times—the novel is set in the late 30s and 40s—and searches for his own identity. It has elements of magical realism and discusses essential human themes like time, love, fate, history. It is a book that shaped my literary tastes when I was a teenager and still feels worth revisiting every year.
King: It seems to me fair to say that a large percentage of people in the US would find it difficult to name a Romanian writer or a famous work of Romanian literature, or perhaps I am just betraying my own ignorance. Do you feel a conscious desire to promote your country’s literary style when you are writing? Do you feel under any pressure to represent your country in your own work, because it is less represented generally?
Burghelea: It is true to a certain extent, although for those who considers themselves citizens of the world literary community names such as Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Eugen Ionesco, Norman Manea, Mircea Cartarescu, Matei Visniec, Ioana Nicolae, Ana Bladiana or Herta Müller—winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009—should be familiar. For instance, Norman Manea is a Romanian novelist and essayist who is a writer in residence at Bard College in New York. His memoir, “The Hooligan’s Return,” is exceptional in covering 80 years of life experience and struggles.
I don’t think there is a literary style specific to Romanian literature though there are obviously recurring themes. I like to speak of Romanian writers in all my encounters with writers of different nationalities and I often mention the need to have more female writers better represented in Romania and abroad. I do not feel pressured to promote Romanian literature, but I take every opportunity to speak of talented people of my generation, such as Marius Chivu, who is a poet, novelist and translator. His short story collection, “End of Season,” was translated into English by Alistair Ian Blyth.
For those interested in a detailed list of all the worth reading poets, novelists, essayists and playwrights, I recommend “The Columbia Guide to the Literatures of Eastern Europe Since 1945” by Harold B. Segel.
King: Was there a particular reason that you chose to study in the United States, rather than somewhere else in the world?
Burghelea: I lived for four months in Boise, Idaho, two years ago and visited the most important cities on the west coast. I guess that was the moment when I fell in love with the potential of American literary life. There are no creative writing programs in Romania and only a few in Europe, so I knew here all programs used the workshop model and I was very much interested in this idea of being part of a writing community. I only had money to apply to three programs and I chose them from different parts of USA. Adelphi was the winner since they fought for me the most. It was a great choice.
King: In today’s unpredictable world, how do you view the role of the writer, or literature in general, if it has a role at all?
Burghelea: In the contemporary, uncertain, hate-fuelled, politically challenged, socially unstable world we live, literature is as necessary as breathing. It has the mission to use language and stories to reach out and connect, to generate empathy and help readers embrace otherness and diversity as means of personal growth. The study of literature is essential, especially for young people, since one of the roles and responsibilities of a writer is to act as a civic citizen and facilitate access to reading and writing. By teaching others about the force of the written word, we are teaching them to stand up for their rights and liberties and use their voice to fight for human values and against injustice.
At the same time, I believe literature is born out of discomfort and uprootedness. It is a state of being in constant transit where we, as readers, can find a temporary home. To my mind, all reading and writing is a sort of exile, a movement towards another language, another writer, another world. Ultimately, towards yourself.
JK: If you had to recommend one book as required reading for the schoolchildren of the world, what would it be?
Burghelea: The book that mesmerized my childhood was “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” by Selma Lagerlöf. It taught me about empathy, otherness, geography. It captured the naughtiness of childhood and though it had its moralism, it was diverse and took one from the animal kingdom to flawed human interactions. I guess the book is a metaphor for breaking away from the family since Nils literally flies away on the back of the farm gander. Delicious. Though, I must say my own kids – I have a daughter and a son – did not appreciate it but rather devoured all Roald Dahl books and Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
Clara’s Required Reading List
“Ways to Disappear” by Idra Novey
“Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff
“Karate Chop” by Dorthe Nors
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery
“A Visit form the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan
“The Enchantress of Florence” by Salman Rushdie
“An Unnecessary Woman” by Rabih Alameddine
“Night Sky with Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong
“Twenty-One Poems” by Adrienne Rich
“The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda”
Recommended Romanian Novel: “The Forbidden Forest” by Mircea Eliade.
You can find Clara’s work and much more from the vibrant New York scene at www.villageofcrickets.com
Josh King received his MFA from Adelphi University in New York, and now lives in the UK. He divides his time between writing fiction, drama and drawing comics