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‘A feminist in my own way:’ Romanian writer Magda Cârneci on her novel FEM

‘A feminist in my own way:’ Romanian writer Magda Cârneci on her novel FEM
Image: Radu Sava

The novel FEM, by Romania’s author Magda Cârneci, has just been published by Deep Vellum, with Sean Cotter’s translation, marking a welcome addition to the contemporary Romanian literature available in English, as well as the global feminist canon.

1 June 2021
Text: Jonah Goldman Kay

Magda Cârneci was established as one of Romania’s preeminent poets when she published her first novel, FEM, in 2011. The book was a sharp shift from her prior writing, as well as the literary tradition in which she works. FEM’s approach to the female condition — direct, intricate and, at times, metaphysical — also represented a sharp break from Romania’s male-dominated literary scene. A decade later, a new English translation by Sean Cotter brings Cârneci’s unique approach to feminism to a global audience.

FEM takes the form of a long letter or monologue, written by a woman (or “female creature”, as Cârneci explained it to me) to a lover she plans to leave. The narrator, an “everyday Scheherazade”, recounts an eclectic mix of experiences from her life, speaking both to her lover and, it appears, to herself. Her recollections bounce between nostalgia-tinged autobiographical detail and ruminations on gender, sexuality, ageing, and communication. Underlying these recollections is a mystical, and yes, metaphysical, approach to the female self.

Feminism came late to Romania, Cârneci explains, because of the nationalist, patriarchal character of its communist regime, as well as its censorship. For the writer, this meant that she discovered the movement fairly late in life, in her middle age. “In the 90s, I embarked on the same path as the most ardent Romanian feminists, Laura Grunberg and Mihaela Miroiu,” Cârneci recalls, “but I then followed a different career path, and although I supported them, I wasn’t on the ideological frontlines, fighting for women’s rights.” Perhaps due to her own high standards for what a feminist needs to be and do, she now calls herself a “passive” feminist, “a feminist in my own way”.

When FEM first appeared in Romania, mainstream literature was largely unconcerned with the female experience. “The condition of the female body, and ideas related to feminine ontology didn’t appear in Romanian literature at the time,” Cârneci says. The decision to focus so heavily on the female body in FEM, then, was a struggle for Cârneci, one that was shaped by her experience abroad. When Cârneci moved to France in the 1990s, she discovered the writings of French feminists like Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray. She found herself drawn to these philosophers’ interrogation of the gendered nature of communication and perception, and through them, and other French feminists, found a framework for understanding herself, as well as a language for writing about women. “I was reading about feminist psychoanalysis at that point, and it provided a sort of nourishment for me,” Cârneci says. The imprint of this feminist ideology is seen throughout FEM, which Cârneci began writing while heading the Romanian Cultural Institute in Paris.

“The condition of the female body, and these ideas related to feminine ontology, didn’t appear in Romanian literature at the time”

Borrowing from feminist psychoanalysis, FEM’s narrator follows her own complex feelings and reactions closely. For instance, her relationship with Radu, a boy she meets at summer camp as a teenager, is hampered by her visceral response to interacting with him. “Although being around him made me suffer terribly, with a trembling that filled me with fear, sometimes with horror, it also attracted me with a powerful force, to which I could only submit,” she says.

Likewise, the language Cârneci developed is one that ascribed an almost metaphysical quality to femininity in general. “I have this theory that women, because of their physiological constitution, are more attuned to the laws and rhythms of nature of the universe,” Cârneci says. Indeed, the narrator in FEM sometimes takes on a prectically amorphous existence, often transitioning between physical form and a spiritual being absorbed in the natural world. This is evident in the way the narrator recalls the experience of pregnancy toward the end of the novel, pondering over the joys of feeling life grow within her body and the fear of that responsibility. “I felt you constantly there, over my room. And in the end, I had the courage to open myself, to receive you, to let you take root,” Cârneci writes.

The narrator’s complicated emotions around bearing children reflect a common anxiety, and it’s hard not to see an allusion to Romania’s ban on abortions during the Ceaușescu regime. Women who lived through that era still hold “psychological traces” of the traumas they endured, Cârneci tells me. While she wavered on whether to include a scene describing an abortion in the novel, Cârneci ultimately decided to explore the ban obliquely, through its emotional ramifications. The narrator in FEM constantly questions her own decision to have a child, as well as whether the baby would know about her own indecision. “You wanted to know if I wanted you, if I desired you,” she writes.

It’s in these intense moments that Cârneci’s poetic capabilities are most visible. Poetry is at the heart of Romania’s literary history and culture. In the 19th century, Romantic poets played a critical role in the formation of Romanian national identity, while under communism, poetry was both a means of reinforcing state-imposed nationalism, and a tool for subversion.

But recently, a younger generation of poets, many of whom were born after the fall of the country’s communist regime in 1989, opened the door to a more hybrid approach, one that blurred the lines between prose and poetry. Cârneci tells me she found herself drawn to this hybrid form for its ability to transmit ruminations in a way that would be both accessible and easily digestible, without losing the complexity of the poetic form. “I think that poetry is a simple way of getting this refined nourishment for our souls. All you need to read a poem is an open state of mind — this is what I wanted to transmit through this book.”

Get your copy of the book here.

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