Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Digesting Texas, And Other Pursuits of a Fusion Medievalist: A Conversation with Irina Dumitrescu

I describe books with food metaphors. The reading experience is sweet, sometimes too sweet. It can be bitter or too bitter. Sensations of taste are my go-to vocabulary for describing the sensations of literature. In her essay “Tasting Texas,” Irina Dumitrescu writes, “The early medieval monks whose scribbles I spend my days studying imagined reading to be like eating. Books were to be tasted, slowly savored in the mouth.” “Tasting Texas” was an essay of many flavors, full of savory language from a writer who seems to regard cooking and literature as expressions of the same human impulse. My excitement about this connection between taste and words hasn’t waned, even after I asked Irina if she ever mentally pairs flavors and books, and she looked amused. “Oh, interesting,” she said. “I don’t really think of books as things I eat.” Fair enough. In “Tasting Texas”: “…We live in base and literal times, and so I read new places by eating my way through their strip mall sushi, their street tacos and dumplings, their hole-in-the-wall falafel joints.” Literal food always wins.

When I spoke with her, Irina described “Tasting Texas” as her first official foray into creative writing and the personal essay:
I certainly didn’t think of myself as a literary person, because I wasn’t a writer of fiction. I was working my first job at Southern Methodist University when I heard about a sausage festival that happens every year in New Braunfels, Texas. It’s the annual Salute to Sausage, the Wurstfest. I heard about this and I thought: I have to go. Because I was living in Dallas, I wanted to explore Texas and find out about its culture. My colleague Willard Spiegelman, who was editor of the Southwest Review for a long time, stood in my office door and said, “If you write about it, I’ll publish it in the Southwest Review.” I had no idea what the Southwest Review was. I just thought okay, I’ll go on Ebay, buy a dirndl, have it fitted. Two friends jumped in the car with me and we drove for four hours to New Braunfels.

And then I wrote about it, and I wrote about it in a very satirical way. Willard was just brilliant, because he gave me a two-sentence response. He said something like, “This is nice, but who is this person? How has she changed?” It was this really laconic, economical response. I rewrote the whole essay and made it much more personal. It became about ways of adapting to places through food, and the feeling of being at home or not being at home in different geographic places. And about the mixture of cultures in Texas, and the difference in food at these odd festivals. I think it was a much better essay and it was no longer as much about making fun of this strange event as it was about discovering the quirkiness of the place.
Irina is an active medieval scholar, and a significant portion of her writing is published in places like The Chaucer Review. But since “Tasting Texas,” her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Southwest Review, The Yale Review, and subsequently Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen. She’ll be judging the 2017 Spring Essay Contest, at my request, for the literary journal Sonora Review. I asked Irina how her personal essays fit into the larger body of her work.
There are some creative writer-scholars who do the scholarship here, and then they do the creative writing there, and they remain two very separate activities. For me it became very important to blend them, to dissolve the borders between them. 
One thing I noticed was that even when I wrote creatively, I always wrote as a medievalist. I had all kinds of metaphors and ways of looking at the world that came from medieval literature. I didn’t leave the scholar behind when I was writing. I’m very interested in culture, and I’m interested in food not only as something that is delicious and that we eat but as a key to culture. I found that the powers of analysis I honed in my academic career could be turned to other aspects of culture.

I also realized that I really enjoy thinking of my academic, scholarly writing as creative writing, which is in fact something my dissertation advisor has always done. She writes very beautifully-crafted scholarly essays. They’re gorgeous pieces of literature as well as scholarship. Now I’ve started experimenting with that too. In ineffable ways I’m influenced by my other writing and my other reading. It helps me see different things in medieval literature, perhaps to think a little more poetically about it. But it’s hard to pin down exactly how my creative work influences my scholarship.
Even visiting Wurstfest, Irina didn’t leave her medieval sensibilities behind:
New Braunfels had all these strange mixtures of Pagan and Christian, like the Church of Peter and Paul, which had an oak tree in the yard. This oak tree was mentioned in the visitors’ guide to New Braunfels. I think a lot of non-medievalists would not notice how strange that is, because the oak tree was often dedicated to Thor. It was a place of pagan worship in early medieval Germany. There’s a story about Boniface, who was an English missionary to the area of Germany where I now live, felling a big oak tree that had been a favorite place of worship for pagan Germans. This was a miraculous event that convinced a lot of the pagans to believe in Christ. In this town you had the church, and that they advertised its oak tree, so you could see them combining two very old religious symbols in one place, probably without even knowing what they meant. But I knew…I mean, it’s pagan! It’s a pagan oak tree! 
One question for me has always been how cultures are fused. Or how people who go from one culture to another dominant culture bring some part of their older identity, whether it be language or cooking or a style of dance. I’m very interested in these moments of translation. It’s behind a lot of my academic work, and it’s also true of my interest in fusion foods. I’ll never be the person who writes about the proper way to make soufflé or an authentic pho. It’s not going to be me who writes a piece on the true and only way to make some dish. That to me is the least interesting question in the world. I’m always interested in the inauthentic, the improvised, the mish-mashed, the not-very-elite version of whatever it is.

Even though I was formed in Englis
h—I had most of my education in English, most of my communication was done in English—English is my third language. Romanian is my first language. And I suspect that there is some kind of a Romanian accent at the sentence level in my writing. I try very much to Anglicize it, to cut up those sentences and make them nice and Anglo Saxon and short. But inside, there is this East European sentence that just wants to go on forever! So that’s a central question for me, how you get mixes and infusions and accents in all kinds of creative work.
Irina’s emigration experience count is up to four now, and she writes poignantly about the experience of shifting geographies. “Show me what you import, and I’ll show you who you are,” Irina writes in “The Things We Take, The Things We Leave Behind,” thinking of the small, personal, inexpensive products she and other ex-pats wanted most from distant places. “You do not miss the luxuries of home but the ordinary accompaniments of your former everyday life, the things you used to take for granted, the things it feels most unjust to have to go without.”

When we leave someplace, especially under duress, what we take is mostly the weightless contents of our minds. In “Terpsichore,” Irina recounts the story of a young man who, at age 17, learned to ballroom dance from his fellows in a Romanian prison. It’s a gesture that could be interpreted as hope, to garner this knowledge with some faith in its usefulness: “He dreams of existence beyond space or prisons or politics.”

“I was thinking about transportable culture,” I told Irina. “If you learn to dance, that plays out so differently if it’s happening in a prison or in a classroom or on a different continent. What you bring with you is in your mind, because you could not bring most of everything else.”
On the one hand, there is a lot of culture you can transport, as you pointed out. That’s what you can take with you. On the other hand, when you move, you’re always confronted by the fact that you can’t take it with you perfectly, because you always need some ingredients. You know, I’ll never have tomatoes the way tomatoes were in Romania when I was a child. They’re very hard to get, even in Romania today. Most tomatoes don’t have tomato taste anymore. This is one of those things that drives me nuts. You can make the tomato salad, but most tomato salads won’t taste like anything. You might have a distant memory of what you want to achieve and you might know how to achieve it, but if you don’t have the ingredients, you can’t have it.

And the same is true for dance, for example. You might need musicians. Your dancing is going to be limited to some extent by the quality of the music and the engagement of your audience. In literature it’s similar. I think it’s the great tragedy of ex-pat writers that, if they’re interested in writing for someone, they now have a very limited someone to write for. That’s also true for imprisoned writers, of course, people who are writing to survive or writing without the knowledge that there will be an audience for their work. But I like to communicate. I like to imagine someone reading my work, so I think it would be difficult to write and know that people won’t get your little allusions, or your jokes, or even the rhythm of your language.
In “My Father and the Wine,” Irina writes about her parent’s quest to recreate Eastern European alcohols through home wine-making and distilling. Canadian counterparts simply would not do. The craving seemed so specific, but the methods so inexact. I recounted to Irina the story of a friend who has a small business selling hot sauce. He wanted to avoid the artificial stabilizers and colors that normally go into the commercial product, but nuanced flavors are hard to mass produce. “Now I understand why they use those things in hot sauce,” he told me. “Every batch is different. Good, but all different.” Even with the knowledge, even with the ingredients, there are still no guarantees.
That’s actually one of the wonderful things about thinking about culture as performance rather than as product. This is more the academic me speaking, but I think it works for cooking and for dance and for literature too. I like to think about recipes or choreographies or even literary texts as scripts for performance. The performance might be carried out in different ways at different times, depending on who is performing, who is there (or not there) to watch the performance. More and more, I look at literature that way too, as something that can be played out in different ways at different times rather than something that’s read and interpreted.

Writing creatively really helps, because people write to me and tell me their reactions to my work. I can tell that they have different reactions and they connect to different things. One of the beautiful parts of doing this kind of writing is it teaches you that you don’t necessarily know what the reader will get from it. You put it out into the world, but the reader will then take parts they connect with, or the parts they have a very negative reaction to, or they’ll misread your work in some way that suits their purposes. That’s all legitimate, I think. As long as they don’t take you to court! Once it’s out there, it’s theirs. It’s not yours any more. That helps me a bit with my scholarly work as well, to think of texts as possibilities rather than as enclosed, complete, gem-like creations. 
The cool thing about technology today is that if you publish something online, you can see what people quote. People take little pictures of the text and put them on Twitter, and I find it so fascinating to see what they respond to. I had an essay in Zócalo Public Square in which I talked about prison writing, and I had a line in there which I googled so many times while writing because I was sure I had stolen it from somewhere. Anthony Carnevale had written, “You can’t be a lifelong learner if you’re not a lifelong earner,” and I wrote in response, “Things often sound true when they rhyme.” That line was quoted on Twitter a lot. It was funny to me because when that line came to my head, one of these tiny little bon mots, I was sure I had stolen it. It was too good to come from my head! But then it was really interesting to see that’s what people latched onto as well. My natural, organic style is to pile on, but I think there’s a real power to short things. I found that an interesting exercise in reader response.
Irina tells the story of her creative writing experience as quite a winding path. “I had a Romanian immigrant’s relentless pragmatism,” she writes in the Zócalo essay (entitled “‘Frivolous’ Humanities Helped Prisoners Survive in Communist Romania”). “At the University of Toronto I fell in love, against my better judgment, with English literature, and switched majors.” Time and experience opened up the world of creative nonfiction.
The one class I quit in undergrad was my Creative Writing class. I had to find my own way to it, I think. I did take a creative writing class in Berlin at one point when I was really blocked in my scholarly writing. It was offered by Clare Wigfall, a British short story writer who lives in Berlin. She did it beautifully. She would assign us these very creative prompts to do in class. I wasn’t used to writing any kind of fiction, but stories came out that I couldn’t even imagine, just because of the creative structure of the course. 
I remember that after one of those classes, I was having lunch in a Thai restaurant and I just started writing. I wrote in a fury for several days, and that was “My Father and the Wine.” It didn’t come out of a prompt, and it had no relationship to any of the prompts we were doing, but somehow doing them just opened a floodgate in me and this entire essay came out in one piece. 
I find it much harder to force creative work to suit deadlines or a particular kind of timeline. I’m finding it necessary to be protective of my very slow process. Usually that means a lot of thinking about things, and when I’m ready to write, the essay comes out super-fast. It also comes out in very close to final form. I edit on a line level, but I don’t change a lot. Up until that point, it often just takes me time. And sometimes I’ve found I can’t do it according to somebody else’s timeline. I can with academic work. At this point, even if it takes a couple of days to get into a scholarly article, I can sit down and start to slam it out on schedule, or write a draft and revise it later. But creative work needs to be fermented properly. You don’t want the pickle or the kimchi before they’re ready!
I asked Irina to talk more about the concept of reading with which we began, the monastic idea of reading as savoring.
The metaphor of rumination was used widely in medieval monastic culture. The good reader would spend a lot of time on one book. They would not have the internet, and they would not get a new book every day from Amazon the way I do. Monks would spend a lot of time with a book of scripture, or the church fathers, or the Psalms, which they would sing. The ideal was that they would engage with those texts at a very deep level. It was a kind of reading that most of us probably can’t even imagine, because we tend to read fast, we tend to read once, and we tend to read a lot of different things. They would really ruminate over the text. They would also read aloud or subvocalize it. You would actually have the words in your mouth. And the process was compared to the digestive processes of cows, which digest and re-digest the food several times. I’m not an expert on bovine digestive processes, but this was a major metaphor for reading that medieval writers played with—that you would chew over the writing, over the food, over the text, a long time.

And then you would incorporate it. It would become part of you, because when you read very slowly and very intensely and often out loud, you remember a lot, and it no longer becomes a text you cite. It becomes a text that’s just part of you. You might even use words or little snippets that sound like that text without necessarily thinking, “I’m making a reference to that text.” This happens a lot with the Psalms, because monks were singing the Psalms on a regular basis. It got to the point when the Psalms were part of their vocabulary. It no longer was a separate text in the way we might think. Maybe this is like the difference between someone who’s acted a lot of Shakespeare and someone who just reads him in school.
Maybe thinking of literature as something to be tasted is too superficial, at least by monk standards. Tasting, after all, is only the first and easiest step in a complex process. Digestion is more subconscious, as words and stories become part of an individual. Irina traces these influences through both art and scholarship with her most persistent questions:
How art shapes us, and how art makes us into who we are, and how art forms our inner lives. How we learn to have certain emotions through art. I’m interested less in how we express ourselves through art than in how we learn to be who we are through creative work, whether it be writing or dance or music. Or food, of course.

Irina Dumitrescu teaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn. She is the editor of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi (Punctum Books, 2016), a collection of essays and poems on humanities in times of crisis. Her essays have appeared in Longreads, The AtlanticThe Yale ReviewSouthwest ReviewPetits Propos Culinaires, the Washington Post, and Zócalo Public Square. Irina’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the James Beard Foundation’s MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, has received the McGinnis-Ritchie Award for nonfiction, and been reprinted in Best American Essays 2016.

Abby Dockter is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction. Her writing appears in The OWL literary journal, the University of Arizona's Institute of the Environment news feed, and deep in the Mesa Verde National Park website. She enjoys long, dry archaeological reports, and usually hikes with poetry.

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