The following interview with author Xhenet Aliu was originally published in Illyria on Oct. 18, 2013. The interview was conducted by Uk Lushi, a writer and translator who lives in New York City.
Several writer friends on Facebook asked me if I had heard of Xhenet Aliu. “She’s Albanian-American like you,” they said, “and an up-and-coming writer.” Her name sounded Albanian, but as far as her being an up-and-coming writer I had no idea since I’d never read her work. Long story short: after one of my Facebook peeps informed me that she’d won the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, I said to myself, “Well, if you’re not good, you’re not going to win such a prize.” So, I ordered the book and enjoyed reading it thoroughly. As a result I purchased another copy for a member of my family and sent a Facebook friendship request to Xhenet. I learned that she’s in fact only 50 percent Albanian, but is indeed 100 percent an up-and-coming writer. Via Facebook messages we had the conversation below and after you read it I recommend you to buy and read her brilliant debut book “Domesticated Wild Things and Other Stories,” published by Nebraska University Press in September of 2013.
Who and where are you from?
I’m Xhenet Aliu, 30-something years old, native of Waterbury, Connecticut. My father, an ethnic Albanian, emigrated to the U.S. from Strugë as a young man and my mother was born in the U.S. and is of Lithuanian descent. I was raised in the Waterbury area, and though I haven’t lived there for over a decade, I still set most of my fiction there.
How and why did you become a writer?
The most critical part of being a writer, which is being a reader, is something I’ve always done. My brother Kyjtim used to read me picture books when I was a little girl, and I skipped over learning the alphabet and went straight into reading words. By the time I was in high school I was reading things that were probably too advanced for me, like Nabokov, Yeats, Kafka, etc. I didn’t begin writing until college and immediately knew that I wanted to do it forever; but I didn’t consider myself a “writer” until many years later. It was impossible for me to use the same word for Kafka and for myself, and I sometimes still struggle with that. Even after publishing a book, I feel like I haven’t entirely earned the label.
Other writers that I greatly admire are Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Roddy Doyle, Amy Hempel, and dozens–if not hundreds– of others, who brought me around to more contemporary fiction and have greatly influenced how I think about voice, timing, conflict and precision of language. And of course I should not forget to acknowledge another of my favorite writers– Ismail Kadare, who, with a few turns of phrase, can reduce entire histories to mere words, and, reciprocally, can expand a few words into entire histories. So, the writers I like most don’t just look for beauty in the obviously beautiful– they’re unafraid of grit and humor, where truth and beauty have often gone undercover.
Writers such as Sherman Alexie and Kwame Dawes find your stories funny yet serious. Your book “Domesticated Wild Things” is full with biting humor, sharp wit, double-edged beauty of characters, and subtlety of language. It’s not easy to pair up humor and seriousness: is it real life experiences or artistic imagination that inspired you to create your stories?
I would say that real life and imagination play an equal role in my stories. Even if I were to write science fiction, my own actual life experience would inform my perception of what life would be like in a world that’s, say, suddenly been taken over by Martians. I’ve never witnessed a spaceship land in Central Park, but I can speculate how we would respond to it based on my past experiences watching humans respond to other shocking, terrifying, dreadful experiences. That said, I currently prefer to write realistic fiction because I’d rather just directly address the shocking, terrifying, dreadful experiences we’re more likely to encounter in our actual lives. It feels less coy to me, but that’s simply my preference. Even though the world in my stories resembles something “real,” though, I feel no allegiance to any kind of fact that doesn’t serve the truth of the story. Perhaps I read a story in the newspaper that inspires me to write a fictional account of the participants involved; if I find that the characters would serve my purposes better if they were of the opposite sex, or if the setting was a slum in another part of the world, then so be it. Studies have shown that imagined experience works as well to exercise our empathy as actual experience, so I feel justified going back and forth between the two.
As for the humor, the truth is I wouldn’t know how to engage with the world without it. Life is absurd as often as it’s beautiful and sad, so I would feel like I created something incomplete if I left it out of my fiction.
We read stories for pleasure, because they entertain us. We also read stories for profit, because they teach us about life and other people’s lives. Many of your stories, to mention a few for illustration purposes, “The Kill Jar,” “Ramon Beats the Crap Out of George, a Man Half His Size,” and “Flipping Property,” depict the hardheadedness of humans to hope for something better in the future than now. For example, in “Flipping Property” your understanding of real estate industry and foreclosures is almost impeccable. When you draft the framework for the plot, setting, characters, and theme of your stories, how much research on the topic do you conduct?
Recently some friends of mine were reading my collection for a book club, and one of them asked if my characters were hopeless. I didn’t want to chime in until everyone had a chance to answer that for themselves, but the truth is I would never have the heart to write a truly hopeless character. In fact, I think of my characters instead as clinging desperately to their hope, however bleak their situations are. I don’t have to research these characters; I’ve spent a lifetime attuned to people like this. But I do have to research many of the plot points of the stories. I wrote “Flipping Property” just prior to the housing bust in 2008, for example. I knew nothing of real estate investments but had the intuitive belief that many of the people who thought they were hustling were actually being hustled themselves. I had to do the same kind of basic research that amateur real estate investors would have done: I read get-rich-quick books, listened to seminars, responded to classified ads promising quick profits. My understanding became rudimentary at best, but that was appropriate to the character in the story, because her understanding was also minimal; she had blind hope more than knowledge. Otherwise, for “Ramon,” I visited an amateur wrestling camp in Louisville, Kentucky, and for many other stories, I did supplemental reading to fill in the vast holes of my experience.
You won Prairie Schooner Book Prize In Fiction 2012. How does it feel to win such a prestigious prize for your work? Has it affected you and your writing?
I wouldn’t say that winning the prize has affected my writing; it may have affected my writing life a bit, in the sense that it’s opened some doors that just aren’t open to writers without books, but for the most part, my day-to-day life is the same. I still struggle with sentences, and struggle to find time to write, and struggle to make ends meet in a way that doesn’t intrude too much on my writing time. I will admit that getting some outside validation for my work has given me a little boost in confidence, which helps give me some momentum to move on to the next project.
What are you working on? What will be your next literary move?
I’m currently writing a novel set in Waterbury, Connecticut, which features two parallel narratives. The first is set in 1996/1997 and focuses on an affair between a young American girl and a recent Albanian immigrant. It will reference the political situation in Albania at the time, specifically the economic and government collapse of early 1997. The second narrative takes place seventeen years later and focuses on the daughter who’s born of the relationship. I’ve been working on this project for a while and am hopefully nearing the end– I’m ready to move on! I have an early idea for the next novel which will feature an American-born Albanian man in Kosova during the war. I still have a lot of research to do before I can move forward with that one, but I’m excited by the material.