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.”
Plantus said that she wrote “Sihastrul” on the premise that if someone found it in a cave somewhere in the future, and they treated like something that was ancient, what would they have to say about it?
“It’s cosmic,” she said with wonder.
Cosmic is the best way to describe her novella.
The meaning of the book changes each time it is read. It’s about the search for meaning in the very first word, a quest to discover identity, a tale about the beginning of the world. This small novella has big ideas, strong language, and mystical elements packed within it. She mixes prose and poetry to create several small books that are linked together to form the story of “Sihastrul, the Hermit.” The books are written by a variety of narrators, each an important character in the story. Some include the Hermit, his Mother, the Old Angel, God, and the Butterfly. Each one has a well-developed personality that brings them alive on the page.
The reader has the choice to read the books in any order if they’d like, because all of the books are interconnected and jump around in space and time. There is no right or wrong way to read. I read it from front to back, which I believe would be the best way to read it (it was organized in that way for a reason.) The clues, or breadcrumbs as I like to say, that lead you down the story’s path is much more rewarding that way.
One of the biggest mysteries of the novella is the identity of the Hermit. Do not expect an answer by the end. It is left entirely up to the reader to try and use the breadcrumbs, as I said earlier, to discover his identity. After all, not even the Hermit is entirely sure who he is either.
Plantus’ writing is so strong I can barely believe a single person was able to compose it. The images are vivid, vivacious, and full of power. She chose the perfect words to describe every detail in the book. Her dialogue, although sparse, was direct and loaded with personality. It’s obvious she put a lot of time in crafting her novella, but I’m certain part of it is the fact that Plantus is gifted when it comes to word choice and language. Being bilingual gives her an edge. I would describe her ability to write as being able to look at an image through a kaleidoscope and find a way to utilize every fragment.
One example of this is her unique use of subscripts and superscripts to add an extra layer of meaning to a word. “SighNAIed” is the word she brought up in our interview. The original word is sighed, but with the additional superscript, the reader can see “Sinai” – an important biblical reference to the mountain Sinai. These types of elements are spread throughout the book. One of the more beautiful line I read was within the first book. The Hermit says, “How could anyone know the painCENTURIES that riveted through me.” It’s in these brilliant moments where Plantus put two meanings into her sentence. Much like when she stated in our interview that she often has a cluster of words when she thinks of one thing. She wants the reader to read “pain” but hear “centuries.” It’s a beautiful way to guide the reader, as well as allow them to read it a different way each time they pick up the book.
Another helpful thing Plantus added was end notes. While reading, I flipped back and forth to the end to understand all the allusions, even ones I did understand. Although helpful, it is also distracting to jump to the endnotes in the middle of reading. Of course, you can easily read the book all the way through and then read the end notes, but I prefer understanding every reference immediately than having to wait.
The only jarring flaw that caused a bit of trouble for me was in Book XI. The endnotes marked don’t match the ones in the back of the book. It’s not a huge mistake, but it was one that made me have to reread to understand. Just note that 31 should be 33, 32 should be 34, 33 should be 35, and 34 should be 36. In Book XII, the endnotes begin to match again.
Other than that, I found nothing wrong with the novella – both technically and story wise. “Sihastrul” can be disorienting at times, and I would recommend it for a child unless they have a high reading level and are skilled in critical thinking. Even I had to pause and process what I was reading. It’s a challenging, thought provoking book that will open the mind and tantalize the soul in all of us. It’s clean, beautifully written, and one of the strongest books I’ve read in a long time. Thankfully, it doesn’t end here. Plantus is planning on making a series of books, and I can’t wait to read them all.