In her debut novel, Xhenet Aliu tackles the meaning of what it means to know where one comes from. Brass follows a mother and daughter as they each come of age in small-town Connecticut. Both young women seek to leave their hometown, but the trials of young adulthood make their dreams feel so much farther away. Aliu talked with us about her inspiration for her debut novel and the importance of featuring working-class Americans in contemporary literature.
This is your debut novel—congratulations! What has it been like having your first novel published? Has there been anything about the process that has surprised you?
Thank you! It’s been pretty surreal to have my writing life go from a private to a public thing—the writing identity was one that I kept pretty hidden from most people in my day-to-day life as a librarian. It was like my superhero alter-ego, except with the opposite of gallantry, just me in the early mornings hunched over a keyboard in my pajamas trying as hard as I could to keep the outside world at bay for a couple of hours. Now my co-workers are coming into my office to congratulate me on a New York Times review…and then ask me to process an Interlibrary Loan request for them. I don’t know that it’s surprising, exactly, but it’s been an interesting trying to learn how to publicly wear both identities, or integrate them in a way that doesn’t feel duplicitous.
The meaning of your novel’s title, Brass, seems obscure at first but slowly comes to light over the course of the story. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose this title? Were there any other titles that you considered?
The working title of the manuscript for most of its existence was What is More Lasting Than Brass? That’s a titular line from the book, and also what’s inscribed at the entrance to Waterbury’s City Hall. I liked that it was a question, and one with an answer that whoever decided on that engraving probably wouldn’t want to hear the answer to. When we were about to go on submission, though, my agent asked if we could shorten the title to simply Brass. I wasn’t sure at first, but then I came to really like how punchy and bold it sounded, and how it implies resilience, and that it’s stronger than many pure metals because it’s a combination of materials—all of it spoke directly to the characters. It kind of answers the question what is more lasting than brass? with: the people who are still there, enduring.
Brass is set in your hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut. What made you decide to write a story set in your hometown?
Most of us assume, as kids, that our experiences are ordinary to all, because they’re ordinary to us, and we’re the center of our own worlds. I thought that growing up in a factory town—spending your weekends at whatever ethnic festival was happening at the park that weekend, eating government cheese, being completely latchkey from the time you could walk—was the baseline for most people, and so it wasn’t worth writing about. When I started grad school, I turned in a pretty crappy coming-of-age story ostensibly about some kids finding nude photos of their neighbors in the woods, but the workshop kept commenting on the kinds of details I thought were completely tangential—the characters’ consonant-heavy names, the jobs their parents were coming home from. I realized that this was actually an alien world to a lot of people, or at least a lot of people with the luxury of attending an M.F.A. program. Once I stepped back, I was able to appreciate what was distinct about where I was from, and I realized it could be interesting to exploit its native conflicts: the different ethnic groups and waves of migration; the search for identity among the working-class when the work is lost; the proximity to the extraordinary wealth and privilege in Connecticut without any clear access to it. You always need to write from a place of conflict, and Waterbury is ripe with it.
Elsie’s point of view is told in first person, and her daughter Luljeta’s is told in second person. Why did you decide to take this strategy in telling their stories?
I wrote Elsie’s first-person narrative almost instinctively. Her brashness and defensiveness and an intellect that she was never taught to hone and target, so it’s often misdirected or altogether wasted—that all leads to a rage that, I hate to admit it, was pretty native to me from growing up female and economically disadvantaged in a deeply misogynist environment, both socially and culturally. I thought the most useful way to convey that wasn’t to explain it but to embody it, and to me the first-person is the most efficient, more visceral point-of-view to accomplish that.
With Luljeta, I really resisted the second-person voice that came most naturally to me in the drafting, but eventually I succumbed. “Agency” is the fiction writer’s favorite word, and she feels she has little of it, that forces outside of her control will determine her fate. I tried to make the tone in her chapters still give insight into her psyche, though; her chapters are more analytical and formally “smart,” as Luljeta is in an academic sense, but also still raw in its language. She is still her mother’s daughter.
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that you wanted to focus on working class people and to tell the stories of individuals just living their everyday lives. For you, why is important to tell stories about working class Americans?
Because working-class people comprise around 40% of the American population, and yet working-class characters remain a novelty—no pun intended—in contemporary fiction. There’s a shame that’s implicit when your story rarely gets any space on the page; it suggests, though omission that some people’s stories aren’t worth telling. And yet what’s so inherently limiting about the prospect of a working-class character? I know from experience that people in subsidized housing, who work in factories, who raise kids alone have lived experiences that are as rich and painful and joyful and shared and individual as any other demographic in this country. The gravest sin in fiction is writing dull fictional characters, so trying to have a socioeconomic signifier do all the work of characterization would indeed make for a bad story, but if you add the layers and the nuance and the humanity, then it should at least be on its way to readable, right?
I also think a lot of middle- and upper-class people empathize with poor and working-class people conceptually, and especially since the 2016 election claim to want to understand their anger, but seem to be deeply uncomfortable actually living among them. I know of a lot of comfortable neighborhoods littered with ACLU lawn signs where the cops get called anytime a guy with a lawnmower knocks on doors, hoping to make a few extra bucks over the weekend. Fiction’s a perfectly safe place to spend some time with characters you’d otherwise seldom interact with, and if it’s fiction with enough muscle, it might actually humanize them in a way that’s useful once the book is over. Empathy’s not really optional if you want to fully and productively engage with the world.
Both of your novel’s storylines focus on Elsie’s and Luljeta’s coming-of-age stories. What about this time period in these women’s lives is so vital to them? Why do you think we, as readers, are so fascinated with coming-of-age stories?
I think part of it goes back to what I mentioned before about writing from a place of conflict. What period of our lives is more unstable and full of conflict than late adolescence? It’s the perfect storm of drama: hormone fluctuations and newly acquired adult responsibilities and a burgeoning awareness of the world’s indifference to your struggles. And we just feel things so deeply at that age—I hope to never be so wild in my emotions as I was when I was eighteen, but now, as a pretty staid grown-up, I want to be reminded that the fire is in there somewhere.
Who are some of your favorite female authors?
This is too hard! Almost all of my favorite writers are women, so I’ll start with the ones currently on my mind because they’re new discoveries. Some very recent stand-outs are Danielle Lazarin and Rachel Lyon, whose books just came out, and Vanessa Hua, R.O. Kwon, Aja Gabel, Adrienne Celt, and Rita Bullwinkel, whose upcoming novels I’ve used secret resources to get advance access to. (I’d be worried if I were a book blogger, because this is a really good year for fiction, and you’re going to have a lot of work to do covering it all.) In the last year or so, Lesley Nneka Arimah and Carmen Maria Machado have humbled me and made me feel like I’ve got some work to do with my own imagination. I was floored when Julie Buntin reviewed Brass for the New York Times, because her novel Marlena was one of my favorites of last year. I loved The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker because it was so big and funny-but-not and messy-in-the-good-way. The part of being part of the writing community that’s awesome to me is that I now get to call friends people I’m also genuinely huge fans of, like Jennine Capó Crucet, Patricia Engel, Ru Freeman, Laura van den Berg, and so many more. Gwendolyn Knapp wrote a 90% hilarious, 10% heartbreaking memoir about hoarding a few years back that didn’t get enough attention, so I’d love to see that on the radar. I follow her on Instagram and so I expected to laugh when I picked up the latest by Samantha Irby at the airport, but I didn’t know I was going to be forced to cry in public. And I only discovered Elena Ferrante after I’d written Brass, and I’m glad for that, because I might have quit had I known of her before. I’ve never seen women’s rage more potently harnessed and deployed in fiction.
Is there anything you’re working on now that you could share with our readers?
I’m working on a novel set partly in Waterbury and partly in Kosova during the Balkan conflicts of the mid-90s, which also gives me the opportunity to re-visit things like dial-up modems and message boards and Beanie Babies. And it’s in the third-person, which is such a relief.
Xhenet Aliu’s new novel, Brass, is now available from Random House. Her debut fiction collection, Domesticated Wild Things, and Other Stories, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Barcelona Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an MLIS from The University of Alabama. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, she was born to an Albanian father and a Lithuanian American mother. She now lives in Athens, Georgia, and works as an academic librarian.