The Story Behind the Story: “Mother-In-Law Collection”

The story was inspired by my Romanian grandfather’s stamp collection– four albums of stamps which chronicle Romania’s history under communism. At first, I planned to write about how a stamp collection amounts to paradigm shifts in national propaganda but I couldn’t find a wedge into anything interesting.

Then this character popped into my head– an intelligent, unconventional, and somewhat “average” female who finds herself collecting stamps or marrying men without really choosing to do so. A female driven by the momentum of surrounding events. An American fatalist who resembles an individualist from the outside but her voice (I hope) gives her away.

Re-reading Michael Frayn’s Constructions at the time, I was intrigued by concept of blame as a way of ascribing meaning to events that elude us. We go into our most flagrant mistakes knowingly, eyes wide open, convinced that some marvelous truth must lie hidden beneath the outward absurdity. Like the alchemist’s stone, the forbidden lures us with what it hides. In Frayn’s words, “no woman so naked as the one you can see to be naked underneath her clothes.”

So I wanted to play with this nakedness– with a female who seems to be naked and brutally honest but actually panders (however unconsciously) to the brilliant disguise.

Frayn points out that narrative arc is an acceptable, anticipated fraud. In a story, we assume the truth is revealed in the final scenes where everything falls apart. But all that really shows up is how humans or characters behave in crisis– not who we are but who we are when the shit hits the fan. Because we are many. Our selves are situational.

I love the protagonist– like so many characters, she fascinated me. Finding her voice was challenging because it demanded expansive, unpunctuated sentences and the risk of sounding sloppy. She needed to reveal her attachment to the men’s mothers without elaborate staging and drama. She needed to perform, at some level, the mature “cool girl” role (the role I have never successfully embodied or played). In part, my fascination with the protagonist revolved around this ability to play it cool– to perform maskulinities. I’ve always wondered why we, as females, agree to play certain roles, “cool girl” being one of them.

Though the character doesn’t answer this question directly, she speaks to (and with) the sense of being pulled along by events outside her control. She accepts these events and performs them appropriately without second thought. She enjoys the social scripts given to her by mother-in-laws. She wants someone to tell her who she is– and she wants to like this person. She is likable, clever, a well-socialized self. At the same time, she is frustrated by her partner’s refusal to accept this self as speaks it.

I think the biggest challenge was ending the story. The temptation to exaggerate the character by adding more mother-in-laws was strong– she was funny, I wanted to know more– but it would have damaged her credibility.

How many mother-in-laws do we really need in order to give up on performing for them? At what point does a sense of personal integrity interpose itself between cordial family relations and conventional social scripts? The tender space between socialization and ethics remains my Mount Everest. I climb it– breathless– every chance I get.

About Alina Stefanescu

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania, raised in Alabama, and reared by the ghost of Hannah Arendt. She lives in Tuscaloosa with her partner and three small people who refuse to believe she was a finalist in the Black Warrior Review poetry contest this year. Her syllables are forthcoming in diverse publications including RivetLockjaw, Kindred, and PoemMemoirStory. Currently, she is finishing a novel about totalitarianism, haunted minds, and the grotesque ghosts of modern marriage.  Among her pivotal accomplishments remains the moment when her second grade teacher told Alina's parents that she had "potential". She has a home online.