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2005 Writers Forum
Anna Balint ~ with curator John Mifsud

Anna Balint is the author of Horse Thief, a collection of short fiction, Curbstone Press, 2004. Earlier publications were Out of the Box, poems, Poetry Around Press, 1991; and spread them crimsonsleeves like wings, poems and stories, Poetry Around Press, 1993. She co-edited Poets Against the War, an anthology of poems protesting the Gulf War, 1991. Her stories and poems have appeared in numerous journals including, Calyx, Briar Cliff Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Raven Chronicles, Caprice and Stringtown. In 2001, Balint received the Starbucks Foundation "Leading Voices Award" for outstanding work with urban youth in the Puget Sound Region in the field of creative writing. She currently teaches creative writing at Antioch University, Seattle. Anna Balint photo
Click on the ears below to listen to excerpts from this conversation. (Real Audio)
photo credit:
dean wong
Read and listen to writings by Anna Balint
Jump to excerpts from this conversation:
Personal Background Creative Process Inspiration (2) Cross-Culture Other Works
Current Work Conflict Relationships Juxtaposition Why Write
Outcomes Research Sharing Work Women
JM


We're here today with Anna Balint, who is the author of Horse Thief, recently put out by Curbstone Press. Anna, tell us about some of the other works that you're published in.
AB













Well, Horse Thief is the work that I'm most proud of and is most recent, and is the culmination of several years of writing. It's a collection of short stories that started out in different places at different times, that I had no idea belonged to one another, and then it turned out that they did, because you have the same characters showing up in different stories at different times in their life. And then other characters who are very secondary, minor characters in one story, show up in their own story later on. And so that emerged over a period of time. But some of those stories were published in Calyx Journal, and Briarcliff Journal, and the Clackamas Literary Review, a number of different literary journals over the years. And then I'm also a poet, so I have two earlier chapbooks of poetry, and poems that have appeared in various journals also.
JM

So tell us a little bit about yourself personally, your family background, where you started, where you've traveled to.
AB






















Well, that's a very good question because in some ways I don't know very much about who I am. I started in London, that's where I grew up. And I grew up thinking of myself as two things, thinking of myself as being a Londoner and English, and also, of not being English at all. And this was because early on in my childhood, a great aunt on my mother's side, who's Hungarian, told me some stories that shaped a view of myself as being Romany/Gypsy. And actually, that little piece is the basis of one of the stories in Horse Thief. Now, whether it's true or not I have no way of actually knowing because my relatives in Hungary are in incredible denial, and a lot of people are dead. So that actually has informed my writing now 'cause I've imagined my way into a history that might have been mine. But then I packed up and left it all when I was 21. I was at drama school at the time, and I was pretty disgusted with the atmosphere at drama school, which was sort of playing the sweet young thing next door. And meanwhile the Vietnam war raged and Martin Luther King had recently been murdered in this country, and all of these events sort of led me to feel that I couldn't just continue doing that anymore. And I packed up and left and came to this country on my own at age 21, with the intent of finding out what this big, bad beast of America was really about from the inside, and what the American people were about. And here I still am.
JM How would you describe your creative process?
AB















Well, at the heart of it has to be that I bump into stories and I bump into characters, that my life just intersects things that just push on me, they want to be heard, they want to take this expression. And I'm not necessarily looking at all, so stories come from the oddest places. For instance, there's a story in Horse Thief called "The Blue Pontiac," which came to me in the process of buying a car from a used car salesman who happened to be Iranian. Now, the story that developed from that situation is fiction, but it was that reality of buying this car, with this particular salesman, and little snippets of history that seeped their way in through our conversation, because I was going back and forth to the lot. And then at the end of this process was when the huge earthquake happened in Iran in 1990. And that too, fictionally, just became a part of this story that needed to be told. So I tripped on it. And that's pretty much the way that things happen to me.
JM


So the truth informs your fiction, and then whatever winds up also has some elements of truth about it. What's that juxtaposing/counterpoint system like for you?
AB











I think some of it is I have to write fiction because I can't stick to the truth. People have asked me, or suggested, "You should write creative nonfiction," because I have actually had a pretty interesting and colorful life that's led me to live in many different and sometimes strange or dangerous situations, and people say "Oh, why don't you write about that?" Well, it shows up in the fictions because when I try to write about it as actual events as they occurred, it won't stay there. And in the end it feels truer because of it. I say that because I know that there are people that write wonderful creative nonfiction, and in fact I teach creative nonfiction writing, and seem to do very well at teaching it, but I can't practice what I teach.
JM

What role does inspiration play in your process? When do you feel inspired and how do you respond to it?
AB









Well the inspiration is these human beings who I encounter in my life-it's just this very strong feeling of "this story needs to be told," or "this person's voice needs to be heard." Voice is a huge thing with me. And so that's really the inspiration, and so again these are things I bump into. And I can be riding a bus, for instance, and overhear a snippet of conversation, and it would just trigger something in me, because what those people are talking about or who those people are represent much more than just themselves in that moment, and that will just leave me with a sense of urgency…
JM


So is that moment of urgency channeling some sort of inner passion, or is it outside that you feel like they need to be heard? What's going on internally for you?
AB




















Well no, there is an inner passion, because I've been an activist for much of my life-in the sense of feeling that literature can contribute to bringing a better world into being, to put it in a neat phrase. And I feel that the way literature does that is it allows us as readers to enter different worlds, different experiences, and get a sense of our common humanity. And of course literature by itself can't change anything, but it does help reinforce certain ideas, open up possibilities, give us gleamings of different ways that people react, interact, different cultures, et cetera. On that same thread, the other piece that I should mention in terms of inspiration is also tied up with history, and things that are happening in another part of the world. So sometimes something that's in the news, or some event that happened some time ago-for instance right now I'm writing a lot that has to do with WWII, and with the Romany Gypsy of the Holocaust in particular, which is not something that I bumped into personally in terms of ever sitting down and talking to or meeting someone that lived through that experience. But it still impacts humanity as a whole, and therefore I feel it's an important thing, that it's not written about, it's not talked about much. And so I want to enter it, and try and bring it closer to people.
Why Write

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JM


I did notice in the new work that you're writing about both a mother and a daughter's experience, right before WWII seemed to escalate in England. What about that called to you?
AB























Well you can't grow up in London of the generation that I did-I was born a few years after the war-and not have the war be everywhere. And everybody in my immediate family have been greatly impacted by the war. Both my parents were bombed during the Blitz, and houses completely demolished. My aunt, who is now in her 80's, lost all her hair from the trauma. She was a teenager at the time, and it never grew back. And so, there are all these threads in my own life of how these things intersected with the experience of WWII in London. And then, just the physical signs were everywhere when I was a kid. London was still bombed, there were holes where buildings used to be. There were things that looked like nice places to play in, sort of like grassy dips, that were in fact bomb craters. There was still rationing when I was little. So, it was everywhere. And so it's, I think, a pretty natural thing that I want to go explore that piece of my own history, and what it might have been like for people-because this is actually, the events of this particular work take place on a very specific date, which is September 1st, 1939. And it was September 3rd, 1939, that Britain entered the war, and this evacuation that took place to get children out of the cities and into the countryside happened two days before that. So it's a very, very specific time. My mother was evacuated. And that led me to an interest in the stories of evacuees, which, there's a hundred different stories, a thousand different stories.
JM




We have that in common because both our parents' generations had survived the war, so that's why I think your writing was so powerful to me, because of our parallel experience growing up with the stories of the war. So, would you be willing to share a little bit of what you wrote recently?
AB








Sure. I should say that for Jack Straw what I wanted to do was really explore the element of voice more strongly. And so these characters in a sense are characters that I was already working with in a story, but I got to a place where I was sort of stuck. And so I've gone back to my origins here with these two pieces, by going to voice and getting inside a moment. And so it will probably lead back into a fuller longer story at some point. So I've written these as monologues. And the first one's called "No Parents on the Platform."
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JM

I am wondering, did you have someone tell you directly a story about evacuation?
AB


















I asked. And still do. I always dig stories out of people. And interestingly enough, people always tell me their stories, without me asking, all kinds of people. I'll meet complete strangers and they'll tell me their stories. So yes, I was doing my research spontaneously from an extremely young age. But the other thing that informs the work that I'm doing now is not just the stories that were part of my personal history, but also stories that, if you like, were the other side, and the things that were more hidden from immediate view-though of course I didn't view the event, but it was as if I did when I'm hearing these stories. So I want to write about Dresden for instance, and Hiroshima, and Palestine, and things that are much further out and that was influencing in my growing up too, because my mother was very active and we had a survivor of Hiroshima live with us for some months when I was a teenager. My mum told me stories about Dresden. Of course she wasn't there, but she talked very much-she wanted me to know that not only was London being bombed, but this is what we did to Dresden. So all that was part of my consciousness growing up and is very much informing my writing now.
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JM

What are you hoping for this new writing that you've presented to the Jack Straw program?
AB









Well I am hoping that it will help the process of bringing this new book to completion. Right now the new book has the working title of The Lady Who Wore Trousers, which could change. But the other monologue in the daughter's voice is actually "The Lady Who Wore Trousers," and she's a pretty important character because in the midst of war this is somebody that actually brings something very positive to these different children that changes them for the rest of their lives. It's a positive piece that they have to hold onto, that has its roots in this terrible experience of war.
JM Say more about that and that character.
AB












Well, she's interesting because we never really get that close to her, we always see her through the prism of the children's eyes. And at this point-and of course some of this could change as things develop-they call her Miss Vivian, because she's just too tall and too splendid to be an auntie, and they can't call her mum, because she's not mom. Miss Vivian is very unusual because she does, indeed, wear trousers. And she has very short hair, almost like a man's. And in actual fact, what we will find out (though of course the children won't understand this but hopefully the reader will), is that she's a lesbian living in this rural area of England, and she winds up losing the children because the local community feels it's not morally right that these children should be staying with her. So it deals with a lot of different things.
JM How did she get the kids?
AB












When these kids were evacuated it was pretty much that everybody who had a bed free had to come forward and offer them. And this particular woman, she waits until everybody else has come to take their pick, and to take the rejects, because she knows that there are gonna be kids sort of left over that nobody wants. And those are the ones that she wants. And so they consist of the plump little girl with glasses and her little brother, and a girl who is "foreign looking," who's very brown skinned and in actual fact is a Romany Gypsy child it turns out. So, she comes along with everybody else, that's kind of how these things happen. But then later the local community isn't entirely sure that they approve of this, and the vicar is sent on his mission to rescue these children.
JM

It seems that diversity is a constant thread in your writing, and you find rich ways for it to come forward.
AB
































Well I'm glad you notice that, and it's very important to me because I really am not part of any particular group myself. I came here at a young age, so I'm an immigrant but I'm not a part of any immigrant group. I was always a bit of an outsider in England, and so I've lived in many different communities. And therefore sort of plugging in to the diversity of our world, and hopefully bring some truth to it, that is an important piece to me. I don't know what else I can do, given my circumstances. It's a real challenge to write about people that are "outside your own culture," but it's what I'm doing constantly because I don't really have any one culture that I consider my culture. And since I've been in this country, which is now most of my life, I've lived primarily in the black community, for instance, and I'm married to an African American, and I'm raising two Native American grandchildren who are tribal members. I worked for five years at El Centro de la Raza. So I'm all over the map in terms of who I'm connected to and those stories that come my way. And yet at the same time I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility, that it's not enough to just go out and write about people who are outside your immediate cultural frame of reference, if you don't know your characters. There's a responsibility in doing that, and I don't feel as a writer I have the right or the ability to just randomly go about writing about anything or anybody. So it's trying to capture something that's really authentic. To get feedback from that person or people from that cultural community is extremely important to me, and I get very, very nervous about things. Very nervous about, well, "Does this really ring true?" And so for instance, some of the stories in Horse Thief, it took a while before I felt I should even put this out there to the world. But a number of people tried to convince me that maybe I was erring in the other direction a little too much, in that these stories had a power and did need to get out there. So anyway, that's just an ongoing struggle that I have.
Cross-Culture

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JM


And what brings you to that level of comfort that allows you to feel like you are authentic, even though your writing may be about an experience that is not your own?
AB
















Well a lot of times it has to do with getting feedback, not from other writers, but feedback from people who are from that community in the first place. Or maybe even people whose stories, or snippets of stories, are origins of what developed into a fuller story. For instance, there's a story in Horse Thief called "Wonder Bread and Spam," and that's about an eight-year-old girl who's in a caretaker role for her sisters-mother's a heavy-duty alcoholic. That story had its roots in bits and pieces that somebody, who I've since become very close friends with, told me about her own childhood. Therefore her feedback to my finished story-and that story's Native American, so also other Native American friends-getting feedback from them about whether things ring true or not…sometimes you can veer into stereotyping unintentionally. And so I always want and welcome that being pointed out to me, and I'm constantly fine-tuning work to try and make sure that that doesn't happen. So that kind of feedback is very, very important to me.
JM



There's some courage required to step forward and create the bridge between yourself and that culture. Which is what diversity really is all about. So that's a wonderful thing, and comes out really nicely in your writing, I think.
AB Well, thank you.
Read and listen to writings by Anna Balint
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