The Human Landscape of Fiction: Stephanie Harrington in Conversation with Carmelinda Scian

Carmelinda Scian

Malahat volunteer Stephanie Harrington talks with Carmelinda Scian on life after winning the 2013 Open Season Award for Fiction for her story, "The Butterfly First."

Judge Helen Humphreys had high praise for your winning entry last year, “The Butterfly First,” calling it a “poignant and memorable account of a young girl's encounter with the tragedy and hypocrisy of the adult world." How has winning this award affected your life and writing career?

The prize has given me the confidence to seriously pursue my writing; it is an affirmation that what I have to say has some merit. Winning carried a double message for me: one, that others were interested in learning how a young girl processes the fear, pain, brutality, and hypocrisy she witnesses around her, prevalent in the dictatorship of Salazar. Secondly, that a highly successful author like Helen Humphreys and the much coveted Malahat Review found it so, was a most significant endorsement of my endeavours.

Has the focus of your writing changed since winning the 2013 Open Season Award for Fiction? For example, has it given a stronger indication of the subject matter or genre you should put time and effort into?

Yes. I learned that my creative strength resides in the world of the “The Butterfly First,” one which is most familiar to me. It’s a human landscape that I either closely observed or experienced and therefore, it has more resonance and vitality than worlds emerging purely out of my imagination.   That is not to say that I write memoir. It is in the realm of fiction that I am able to expand the boundaries of the stories that I, like all of us, carry within.

Could you explain a bit more about how your heritage and cultural background continues to influence your work?

The Portugal of the 1960s was a society of rigid, fixed norms, especially for women, and those who strayed were unflinchingly ostracized. The latter was done out of a cultural high sense of decency and morality. Obviously, the disconnect between the complexity of human desire and such severe outer limitations created an intrinsic, almost palpable social sadness exacerbated by the brutal political regime of Salazar. This collective sadness found its expression in the national song called “Fado,” a lament of unrequited and lost love.

My writing reflects this ethnic melancholy. A few people commented that “The Butterfly First” is a dark story. I don’t see it as such; Milita cutting up the pillowcases at the end, pillowcases she must embroider in preparation for future marriage, represents her inchoate rejection of her mother and grandmother’s world. At the centre of my stories, there is always the divide between human aspirations, and the limitations life delivers them.

Last time The Malahat Review spoke to you, you were working towards a certificate in creative writing from the University of Toronto. How is that progressing? Has “The Butterfly First” since grown into a longer piece as part of your studies?

I ought to have the collection of stories for the certificate completed by the beginning of 2014. It is taking longer than I expected because writing is, in some ways, an unfinishable task. I am lucky to have a great writer, Christine Pountney, as my supervisor, but her talent befuddles my readiness to forward her my work-in-transition. I find myself doing revisions and more revisions.

Yes, the final project will be a group of related short-fiction that follows Milita, the central character in “The Butterfly First,” from early childhood into middle age, taking place both in Portugal and Toronto. Some of the stories touch on the immigrant experience but to categorize the collection as such would be too limiting. The gist of my concern lies with the portrayal of girls/women and their struggle toward the achievement of some degree of self-determination.

You hold a BA Honours and MA in English from the University of Toronto. Critics argue that creative writing courses aren’t necessary to be a strong writer. Yet in your last interview with Malahat lite, you said the creative writing course you were enrolled in had enormous benefit, noting “It was as if everything in my life before that was in preparation for this experience.” Can you expand on this more for us?

Clearly, creative writing courses cannot generate the talent necessary to produce great writing.   What they do―as they did for me―is help shape, order, and evolve the stories that are already mulching within those endowed with aptitude.   

I have been practically in love with books since I learned to read and have always enjoyed the process of translating my feelings and ideas into writing. But because English is my second language and Portuguese became more distant as I moved away from the culture, I never envisioned the writing of fiction as a possibility. The writing courses at the University of Toronto helped me tap into my, one might say, dormant creativity.

What do you think other writers could gain from entering writing contests like the Open Season Awards? What have you learned through the process?

Again, wining a contest in such a respected magazine as The Malahat Review offers the emerging writer formal recognition and exposure of his or her work. It is “that door” to the world of publication. Moreover, the whole editing process endowed me with the skills to micro-read my own work.

Winning the 2013 Open Season Award for Fiction has produced an unexpected, juxtaposed view of authors. On the one hand, I now see them as other “normal” human beings; they sleep, eat, feud, worry about paying their bills, and the list goes on. They don’t live outside the unfolding human drama. On the other hand, I have developed a deeper appreciation, an inside view, as it were, of the painstaking process behind every great work.

Could you give any advice or tips for people polishing their entries as we speak?

Well, my sphere of experience is small but I will share with you my view as to what I consider good writing. A work may abound in great metaphors, clever turn-of-phrases and intricate plots but if it lacks emotion (pathos) and atmosphere (chiaro-scuro) it does not resonate with the reader. I’ve learnt that only tight, succinct diction is able to achieve such. We don’t all have to become Raymond Carvers but cut, cut, cut.

What are your writing aspirations for the future? When can we expect to read more of your work?

The hope is to have the work of my final project―the Milita cycle―published.

Stephanie Harrington

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Read more about Carmelinda Scian's winning short story here.