Monica Cure: „ For me, the strongest writer is the most empathetic writer”

Monica Cure is a writer and Romanian-English translator who has won the 2023 Oxford Weidenfeld-Translation Prize for her translation of The Censor’s Notebook by Romanian writer Liliana Corobca.
The Censor’s Notebook tells the story of life in communist Romania, exploring the nature of literature and censorship.

Her poetry and other writings have appeared in journals and periodicals internationally. She is also the author of a book on the cultural history of the postcard, Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

A new novel by Liliana Corobca, Kinderland, is going to be translated by Monica Cure and Seven Stories Press UK will publish it in November 2023.

The recently awarded translator was kind to answer some questions related to the new wave of Romanian women writers in Romania.

In many areas of culture, there are very few women. Or the few that we know. During formal education in Romania, women are almost absent from textbooks. Now it’s more about being ignored. On the walls of most schools, the portraits of illustrious people are only men. How do you explain this reality and how it happens in the countries and cultures you have been in contact with? International trends in literature are increasingly promoting women – we have a Nobel Prize winner, a Goncourt Prize winner. How do you comment?

I think there are many aspects to this problem of representation, and attitudes in education are some of them. Though I personally know several excellent and dedicated secondary school teachers in Romania, on the whole it seems that here contemporary issues and contemporary literature are undervalued, “contemporary” meaning even the 20th century. In a conversation I once had with Mihaela Miroiu, she pointed out just how recently, historically speaking, women in Romania began to have access to higher education, so clearly that’s a contributing factor. Another thing I’m seeing is how there have been several initiatives in society to recuperate the roles women have played in important Romanian historical events, or even everyday life, that were uncredited, but the educational system lags behind in incorporating these findings.

          Perhaps it’s easier simply to go along with the way it has always been done, especially when resources are scarce, perhaps it feels safer to stick with an existing canon rather than go into something controversial. When teaching something contemporary, it seems much more obvious that there isn’t just one “right answer.” But that is how critical thinking is taught and how we build a tradition of dialogue. That’s also how we can develop a stronger interest in history, by seeing how it affects the present. I also think we help children develop a love of reading by providing them with the opportunity to choose books that they feel drawn to, which oftentimes means something contemporary.

There are many writers from Romania who deserve to be included in the school curriculum – Sofia Nădejde, Gabriela Adameșteanu, Ioana Nicolaie, Nora Iuga, Ioana Pârvulescu, Laura Grunberg, Ana Barton, Petronela Rotar, Tatiana Niculescu, Tatiana Țibuleac are just a few examples. And thanks to you, I found out the writer Liliana Corobca. Why are not they considered? What do they lack to have portraits in schools, libraries, and academies?

          I think that’s a hard question because it seems that oftentimes, as I was saying, what is happening in schools, as well as in libraries and academies, is quite disconnected from what is happening right now outside of them. It’s a natural point of frustration and breeds distrust of institutions. Institutional change, in general, is a slow process and it involves people with any level of decision-making power or influence consistently supporting initiatives that move things in a different direction. That can happen in so many ways, but it is difficult when, at some of the highest levels, many of those appointed to promote Romanian culture and education are not in those positions due to actual merit. When those appointments do go to someone of merit with new ideas, they deserve all the support we can give them.

          Meanwhile, private initiatives must continue even without government support, and the more inclusive and collaborative these initiatives can be, the better. Promoting women writers, like promoting Romanian literature in general, is a group effort, involving publishing houses, distributors, bookstores, critics and cultural journalists, cultural managers, bloggers, other writers, and more. More corporate funding, as well as the creation of foundations, is possible. I think about the Sofia Nadejde Awards, now defunct because of lack of funding, but not for lack of trying.

From children’s stories to Romanian literature textbooks – there is a lot of misogyny, stereotypes and violence against women and children. Do you also come across them in the books you translate? Feminism is also about voiceless or voiceless women. Is this one of the points of women’s literature?

          I think that one of the purposes of all literature is to tell the truth about our interior lives by way of “fiction,” particularly the truth that has been suppressed, so it follows that this is one of the goals of writing about and by women. When a story deals with stereotypes of any kind it rings false. Good readers can sense when it seems as if words have been put into a character’s mouth, whether the character is male or female, and whatever the gender of the writer. But they can also tell when a character is short-sighted. This might be intentional, a short-sighted character or even narrator might be crucial to the story, or it might be because of the author’s own blind spots, especially if the story is missing a counter-voice. This often becomes clearer the more time passes, where attitudes expressed in certain books from the 19th century, for example, feel dated, ranging from quaint to offensive. I feel it as well in some contemporary literature, and when I encounter something in Romanian literature that feels off, despite there potentially being other good things about the book, I become less interested in translating it. For me, the strongest writer is the most empathetic writer.

Is there female solidarity among writers/translators? Here, but also internationally?

I think that the solidarity between women in literature is variable and complex. I see evidence of different waves of feminism among women writers, sometimes not understanding each other. An earlier kind of feminism was when women said women could do anything men can do and they went out and did it, oftentimes conforming to the way men did it and according to the same rules. This led to the continuation of a cut-throat attitude for writers, the idea of the “unique genius” or “the best,” though theoretically that could be a woman now. It did however prove that (at least some) women were capable of more than society used to think. A later wave of feminism called attention to the inequalities that women, including women writers face, rather than simply trying to overcome that inequality on one’s own in an unequal system. The wave led to the creation of incredible alternative spaces and networks for women for mutual support, and theories and a clearer discourse of gender inequality. On the other hand, though the goal was never isolation from the wider field, the work of these women was often pigeonholed. And there are those women writers who, at this point, want to avoid being pigeonholed at all costs, and reject the label of feminist writer though concerns of gender inequality are present in their work. In a given country, in a given subculture, any of these can be an understandable position—I think that’s part of the solidarity we owe each other.

In the English-speaking world, several initiatives use statistics as an impetus for providing more support to women writers as underrepresented. I think of the organization “Women Who Submit” which focuses on the lower rate that women submit for publication, and the Women in Translation movement which tackles the lack of translations of women writers, including founding the Warwick Prize for women in translation.

As a woman, what is the most difficult moment in your professional and personal life and how did you overcome it?

It’s hard to say but definitely among those moments was taking the risk to leave academia and focus on my literary pursuits. I went from having the status of professor to not being able to easily answer the question of what I did. From earning a salary to freelance work. It also coincided with my decision to stay in Romania instead of return to the United States after my Fulbright grant as a professor was completed. I think that we as women, because of our vulnerabilities, though this isn’t exclusive to women, crave security, which can be at odds with our calling. Several people assumed that I was staying in Romania for a man, rather than because of an intrinsic choice.

I invite you to debunk one of the most common myths circulating about feminism: “Feminists hate men and think they are superior to them.”

For me, it’s obvious that feminists love men. Misogyny makes it impossible for men and women to truly connect as authentic individuals. It creates the hurt that can lead to hatred. Patriarchy puts men as well as women into boxes that don’t fit, leading people to maim parts of themselves and their own human potential, including their capacity for real intimacy. This includes between coworkers and friends, as well as romantic partners. In love, no one is superior to the other, so it is absent in gender inequality. People who are feminists, including men, fight against misogyny and gender inequality to create the possibility of connection beyond justice.

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