profiles in linguistics: Halina Duraj

Halina Duraj


As a child, Halina Duraj describes her attraction to “strong-voiced, female writers,” whose “power and honesty of their bold expression” presented her a grounded model and avenue of self-expression.  Duraj’s fiction enters a sphere of honesty that focuses on the domestic tensions of historical, public and private relationships. She asks us as readers to focus on memory, time, experience, and intimacy.  Negotiations of historical influences and how these life events affect generation to generation cross. We are confronted with and asked to examine the intimacy of relationships and tensions presented between personal and familial frames.

Duraj tells us that her growth as a writer depended on her confidence in language; that “the language itself would unfurl the story’s events,” delineating her ability “to enter stories without knowing what was going to happen.” In this way, participating in the story as much of a reader as a writer.

Duraj’s most recent novel, Fatherland, was a finalist for the 2010 UC Davis Maurice Prize in Fiction, and other work has been recommended for the PEN/O’Henry Award, the Best American Non-Required Reading anthology, and the Pushcart Prize. Her teaching interests focus on fiction writing, the literature of war and trauma, and the intersection of literature, science, and nature. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer?

I discovered the writing of authors Lorrie Moore and Pam Houston when I was in high school. I was drawn to their strong voices. Growing up in my household, children weren’t really supposed to have opinions or a say in how things happened. I don’t think I understood that at the time, but I was probably drawn to these two strong-voiced, female writers for exactly this reason. The power and honesty of their bold expression gave me a model for expressing myself in the one place available to me: writing in my journal. Eventually, that same honesty became something I strive for in my fiction writing.

2.)    Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

Lorrie Moore and Pam Houston, of course. I also love Anne Lamott, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Ron Carlson, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Carole Maso, Chris Abani, Abigail Thomas, Jeanette Winterson, and Selah Saterstrom—for living writers. Katherine Mansfield and Chekhov are writers I’m always learning from. In terms of how I’ve changed, I think I’m now more drawn to innovative and experimental writers such as Carole Maso. My novel has challenged me to find a suitable formal approach for telling that story, and studying formal innovators has been helpful.

3.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

My undergraduate creative writing instructor, Kirk Colvin, showed me that not only did I love to write, but also that I loved fiction in particular. Laurel Doud and her writing group welcomed me into their circle and helped me grow as a writer during the years between college and my master’s degree. During my master’s work, I had the great fortune of working with Pam Houston, whose generosity and attention shaped my writing profoundly and gave me confidence. During my doctoral work, I had the pleasure and honor of learning from Francois Camoin and Melanie Rae Thon. Melanie’s encouragement to explore a topic while constantly refining what the piece is really about showed me that writing is process of endless discovery. Francois has a gift for seeing possibilities where, to me, none exist. His suggestions always multiplied the options I thought I had available to me. I think I’m a more open-minded and risky writer because of them.

4.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

When I began writing stories, I was terrified of plot. I didn’t think I could come up with “surprising and convincing plot,” to quote Alice LaPlante. I wrote only the stories whose event-frames had pretty much happened to me or to someone else in “real” life, and I used that scaffolding to support my fictionalized scenes & characters. This was a crutch: it felt safe, because if something surprising or interesting had happened in “real” life, there was at least a chance that it would be surprising and interesting on the page. But it also meant my stories had a planned, or plodding, feel to them. As grew more confident that the language itself would unfurl the story’s events, I became more willing to enter stories without knowing what was going to happen, what we’re leading up to, how it’ll all end. Sometimes the story doesn’t go anywhere; but sometimes it surprises me, and that’s become a thrilling experience.

5.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I’ve been influenced by poetry. My first fiction teacher, Kirk Colvin, told our class that fiction writers should pay attention to the way poets use words—especially verbs. And I think the best stories are more like long poems than short novels in the way each word seems carefully, meaningfully placed. Kirk told us that reading poetry would help us find the “mot juste”; I think he’s right. I’m a little obsessive about diction.

6.)    What are you plans for the future?

I’m revising my novel, adding short stories to a collection in progress, brewing another novel in the back of my mind, and trying to fend off a million short story ideas as I work on what’s already in progress.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I’m excited about Jodi Angel’s writing. Also: Rachel Marston’s. They’re very different writers. Jodi has a tremendous voice, and I admire Rachel’s subtlety with language. I think both of them are “ones to watch”!

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

The word that comes to mind is “diver,” in the sense of deep-sea diving, or Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck.” I think stories—or story ideas—are often inviting me to dive under the surface and identify and develop the true heart of the story. A friend who once worked as a barnacle-scraper told me he spent hours underwater, in diving gear, scraping barnacles off navy ships. In some ways, I think this what we story writers do: dive under the water, sound the depths, and work on the details, even when it’s boring, to chisel the story into its true expression.

9.)    In your story “The Family Cannon” the main character struggles to humanize and then later understand fervently her father’s personal horror with his experience of and later liberation from Auschwitz. In this manner the main character witnesses her father as both a boy quivering in fear and his strength in survival.

.         What is your belief of history and memory?

I believe memory and history are deeply intertwined in complicated ways, especially around traumatic events such as the Holocaust and war.

.         Do you suppose we are able to let these experiences go?

I think that depends on so many factors. Some people seem to be able to “move on from,” “forget,” “get over” traumatic experiences. Some people seem to find peace. But some people don’t—they seem to re-enact elements of the experience throughout their lives, either through storytelling or unconsciously through other life events, never really leaving them behind.

.         Do these life events die with the individual?

No, I don’t believe they do. I think the next generation carries the impression and consequences of those life events inside them. Marianne Hirsch suggests the existence of something called “post-memory,” a phenomenon in which parents’ memories of a traumatic experience get so vividly imprinted in children’s minds that the children think of them as memories, too, rather than stories of memories their parents report. These children relate to the narrated events, during which they weren’t yet alive, as if they had been present for the events.  This is a controversial idea, and one I don’t entirely subscribe to, but I find it interesting because it points to the ways in which history ripples across generations.

.         What in your perspective is the importance of oral storytelling and tradition?

Oral storytelling keeps a story alive—maintains it as a living, breathing, adaptable entity. Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony comes to mind. In this novel, the oral tradition allows space for stories to evolve according to the needs of the generation. In Ceremony, Tayo needed a different story than the one traditionally told for warriors returning home because he’d been fighting a new and different kind of war. The oral tradition could accommodate that need.  In my story, oral storytelling is also malleable and subject to change; different people hold versions of the same story (the father has one version, the mother has another), and the narrator tries to stitch together her own account by matching those versions up with each other.

10.)    In the same story can you please describe the significance of the tree, the wall, the sign and the cannon? I am specifically interested in how these staples reference and examine the fear of the “other,” the linearity of time, and the meaning of living in the present.

While only one of those four items is a literal sign, all four serve as signs in the father’s world. The wall is not merely a wall: it’s a sign of enemy encroachment. Cutting down the tree is a sign, or message, to the enemy. The sign itself and the cannon stand in for shame and violence; the father uses a kind of suburban semiotics in reading, understanding, and acting within his (deluded) world view. That worldview is, as you’ve noted, poisoned by a fear of the “other”—the fear that the “other” is always an enemy. Ironically, of course, this very fear is the basis for the historical events that so profoundly shaped the father’s own way of relating with the world around him.

In terms of linearity of time, the cannon is probably the most evocative of time and living in the present. The cannon is a replica from an old war, and I think this aspect is important in the sense that the neighbors’ conflict is, for the father, a new battle in a very old war, a life-long war. The father’s present is entirely tainted by events of the past. This makes it impossible for him to live in the present—to see neighbors as merely neighbors, rather than agents of malice.

11.)    In both “Terrible Driver,” and “The Family Cannon,” and yet again in your novel Fatherland, there are heavy character tensions that study the environment of the domestic. Family in contrast to personal relationships gives insight as to how family is entangled in these affairs. Can you elaborate on your examination of the private/public spheres and how you utilize these themes to give complexity to your stories?

I do often position my characters’ romantic relationships alongside their family relationships, evoking contrasts or parallels—or just letting those tensions drive the story. I think it comes down to intimacy—the first place my characters learn about human intimacy is in the private sphere of the family home. That intimacy may be underdeveloped, distorted, or somehow affected by larger, historical currents, and the characters naturally will carry that formative experience when attempting to create new families of their own. It’s another kind of ripple effect, from the historical to the familial, from the private to the public, from the familial to the romantic, and so on.To me, these tensions are provocative and productive in fiction because one character or the other—a family member or a romantic partner—is always tipping the balance. A new family member introduces new currents, new ripples into a family pond, which changes all the dynamics. In turn, two people creating a romantic relationship are also creating a kind of “pond” between them, but their respective families influence the shift of ripples in this pond both through their influence on the two partners, and also overtly—no relationship is a vacuum.  As soon as there is an upset to balance, I start to feel the presence of story, dynamics trying to right themselves—what my teacher Melanie Rae Thon calls breach. Breach leads to conflict, conflict may lead to crisis, and the story unravels from there.

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