Magda Cârneci was established as one of Romania’s most prominent poets when she published her first novel, FEM, in 2011. The book was a radical departure from her earlier writing, as well as the literary tradition in which she works. FEMThe approach to the status of women – direct, complex and sometimes metaphysical – also represented a clear break with the Romanian literary scene dominated by men. 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 a monologue, written by a woman (or “feminine creature”, as Cârneci explained to me) to a lover she plans to leave. The narrator, “Everyday Scheherazade,” recounts an eclectic mix of her life experiences, addressing both her lover and, it seems, herself. Her memories bounce between autobiographical details tinged with nostalgia and ruminations on gender, sexuality, aging and communication. Behind these memories hides a mystical, and sometimes metaphysical, approach to the female self.
Feminism arrived late in Romania, explains Cârneci, because of the nationalist and patriarchal character of its communist regime, as well as its censorship. For the writer, this means that she discovers the movement quite late in life, in her fifties. “In the 90s, I started down the same path as the most ardent Romanian feminists, Laura Grunberg and Mihaela Miroiu,” Cârneci recalls, “but then I followed a different career path, and although I supported them, I was not on the ideological front lines, fighting for women’s rights. Perhaps because of her own high standards for what a feminist should be and do, she now calls herself a ‘passive’ feminist, ‘feminist in my own way’.
When FEM first appeared in Romania, the mainstream literature largely ignored the female experience. “The condition of the female body and these ideas related to female ontology did not appear in Romanian literature at the time,” Cârneci says. The decision to focus so strongly on the female body by FEM, then, was a struggle for Cârneci, a struggle that was shaped by her experience abroad. When Cârneci moved to France in the 1990s, she discovered the writings of French feminists such as Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. She found herself drawn to these philosophers’ questioning of the gendered nature of communication and perception. Through these French feminists, Cârneci found a framework for understanding each other, as well as a language for writing about women. “I was reading about feminist psychoanalysis at the time, and it provided me with some kind of nourishment,” Cârneci says. The imprint of this feminist ideology is visible everywhere FEM, which Cârneci began to write when he was the director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Paris.