As one can expect from a senior who is on the verge of graduating with her B.A. in Creative Writing, I have taken many English classes over the years. My most recent was Bible as Literature with Professor Doris Plantus. When I first took her class, it was to fulfill three reasons: to get the credits I needed to graduate, to learn more about my own religion, and to get more material for my own creative writing.
Plantus is a fabulous teacher who did an amazing job at keeping her own beliefs out of the classroom to teach students – all of whom had a wide variety of beliefs – the importance of the Bible as a work of literary fiction, as well as the importance of translation and language.
She just recently published her first novella, entitled “Sihastrul,” which translates to “The Hermit.” It was originally written in Romanian and is now translated into English. When I learned that she was holding a book reading and signing I thought it’d be a great opportunity to interview her about her book.
We met at Barnes and Noble in Rochester on Thursday, May 28. The moment she saw me, she welcomed me with a warm hug and offered to buy me a coffee. At first I was surprised, but as I continued to talk to her one on one about her book, I discovered that she is innately a warm and mystical kind of person.
Nearly 30 people showed up to the book reading. Friends, family, old students, even Plantus’ priest came to support her. She switched between speaking English and Romanian with ease, and although she was jumping from person to person, she never lost track of her conversations.
“I don’t cry, but if somebody gets me going it’s going to get ugly,” she said as she hugged every single person who waited in line to have their book signed. She passed out a bucket of stones with words from the novella for everyone to take, took photos with every guest, and made me feel like a part of her family.
Balancing Romanian and American Cultures
Family was a big influence on Plantus, and it deeply affected her writing. We both share a Romanian heritage, so the first thing I asked her about during out interview was her life as a Romanian-American. She told me about her grandparent’s immigration to America.
“My dad was born in Bucovina, Romania. My mom was actually born in Detroit, but her parents were from Banat. After the war my grandparents immigrated to America,” she explained. “My parents were very happy to be both Romanian and American.”
Plantus also talked about growing up in a primarily Romanian household.
“I’m one of four kids. I’m the middle daughter. We grew up in two absolute different cultures. My grandma never spoke English. We spoke Romanian,” she continued. She explained how she didn’t learn English until she was a bit older. She learned from outside sources, television, school, and kids in the neighborhood. However, it was her mom’s love for English literature that fueled Plantus’ passion for writing.
She even went on to explain how her family’s love for music and literature affected her own writing.
“We sang together and told stories. My parents were both musically inclined. My dad was a singer, and my mom played piano. Every one of us played a different instrument. I played the accordion, because when my dad came to this country, he saw Connie Francis playing the accordion on a variety show on T.V., and said ‘that’s what I want for you.’ Now I can’t look at anything in one way,” she explained with a look of wonder in her eyes. “I see words, and I hear sounds and music.”
The Importance of Language
Plantus’ innate sense to hear music within words also tied into the importance of translation, something she always talked about in her class. She discussed the process of writing and translating “Sihastrul.”
She started by challenging a common critique in the literary world: that meaning is lost in translation.
“I find so many things in translation,” she explained. “Of course it’s very different, but for everything you think you might have lost from the original language, you discover something in the target language. I think it’s a win-win.”
Plantus has translated the work of others in the past, most notably Lucian Blaga’s Zamolxe. I asked her if translating her own work was easier than translating the work of another.
“Because you can’t get into an author’s head, translating is largely intuitive. You have to make some choices and get a feel for it. It helps immensely if you’re of that culture,” she explained. “Language draws from this.” Plantus touched her purse. “From this,” she continued as she touched her cup. “From every day experiences, from holidays, from relationships. If you have that background, you can approximate better.”
When it came to her own novella, she was in control of both languages and was able to translate her own work with ease, because she knew exactly what she wanted to say.
“My deepest, most sensitive thoughts come to me in Romanian,” she told me. “Sometimes when I’m trying to explain something, I get a cluster of words. I’m saying one thing, but I want readers to hear another. I give some words subscripts and superscripts. You can’t do that in Romanian, but I could in English.”
Crafting Inspiration into a Work of Fiction
I asked Plantus what inspired her to write “Sihastrul.”
“It’s kind of a convoluted story,” Plantus said with a chuckle. “My dad used to talk about a famous Hermit in Romania named Daniil Sihastrul, Daniel the Hermit. Daniil had carved out for himself a skete, a little cell, and he was literally a hermit. When someone would do something solitary my dad would always say his name, and I loved the sound of it.
“Dad always used to say that I must have worked on the Pyramids in another life because I loved to work with rocks,” she added. “Out of that, the inspiration to write a verse about an alternative account of Genesis. It was a short little verse about an old angel and a butterfly. God is in there too. I liked it a lot and I kept going back to it, and it evolved from there.
“Sometimes, I find one word,” she said as she leaned in close to me from across the table. “Just one word, and out of that comes the rest. The power a word can come and find you, and it can get into your mouth and just come out.”
This is the importance of language that she had been teaching our class about over the last semester. To hear it in such a personal way was thrilling.
She also briefly discussed how the Bible influenced her, especially the Book of Daniel. “Sihastrul” is a composite of works that are apocryphal in nature, much like the Book of Daniel.
Plantus told me that she began writing “Sihastrul” in 2007. It took her about a year to write out the first draft in Romanian. From that point on, she worked on editing and revising before trying to publish.
“I wanted to publish in Romania. There it’s all self-publishing. Anybody can write a book. But they would look at me and say ‘you’re American.’ And the Americans would look at me and say ‘what are you?’ Nobody wanted me,” she explained. Eventually, she was referred to a woman who was illing to publish it in her online journal.
“I started submitting work when I was 18, and I used to send this stuff out everywhere. Rejection, rejection, rejection. I had a whole wall of nothing but rejections. But I never let it dissuaded me,” she explained. “One year I would work on music, one year I would write, one year I’d paint. Always something. Stay creative. Don’t lament.”
Her biggest advice to young writers who want to publish was simple: find out why you want to write.
“If you want to write for yourself, write every day,” Plantus instructed. “If you’re writing for an audience, you have to ask yourself what you want from them. Do you want them to think you’re great? Do you want to entertain them? Teach them something? In either scenario, if it’s the writing that you want to do, then you’ll write every day. It’s like love.”
Plantus finished the interview with one poignant piece of advice for bilingual writers like herself.
“Start a movement,” she said. “Instead of arguing which language should have primacy, you should do both. If you don’t have translators can you can’t cross languages, you will lose literature.”