Tales of Hope and Fear
When Lenore Myka, F99, started writing fiction inspired by her Peace Corps stint in Romania, her imagination was drawn to dark topics: discrimination against the Roma people, sex trafficking, the challenges of orphanage life and cross-cultural adoption, and the missteps and blind spots of naïve Americans who try to help.
She worried that the stories would upset her friends, but when she tried to steer her fiction toward more positive themes, it became clichéd and sentimental. “I did not like my work when I tried to be kind and generous,” she wrote in an essay published on the website Necessary Fiction. “I was bored and knew my readers would be, too.”
So she decided not to worry about what others would think. The result is King of the Gypsies (BkMk Press, 2015), a book of linked short stories that won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Chautauqua Prize. Although the stories often feature characters in tough circumstances, they are not overwhelmingly bleak, in part because the people are fascinating and resilient.
As one reviewer wrote, “Her characters—a cast of endangered survivors—obstinately hold to a slender, probably illusionary, but universal dream of hope.” Or as Myka puts it, “I attempt to write about difficult subjects, but for my own sanity there needs to be some sense of redemption.”
Although each story in the collection can be read alone, some characters appear in more than one narrative, at different points in their lives, which adds to the power of the book. One of these is Dragoş, a Roma boy who climbs onto a stone bust of former communist ruler Nicolae Ceauşescu and declares himself “king of the gypsies” in the title story. After Dragoş’s father abandons his family, his mother leaves him at an orphanage, where he later meets a Roma 13-year-old named Irina, who is brought there by older sisters for her protection. A man takes Irina from the orphanage one night, and Dragoş spots her soon after outside a bar, surrounded by men. Her face painted in gaudy makeup, Irina calls his name, then “claps her hands as if she is privy to a tune no one else can hear, and starts to dance, shaking her hips left and right.” She too reappears in later stories, one of the “endangered survivors” whose tenacious spirit leavens the book.
Myka served in the Peace Corps from 1994 to 1996, teaching English to middle school and high school students and volunteering at an orphanage. While her book is inspired by her experiences in post-communist Romania, she says the characters are not drawn directly from real people. Even the stories that readers might suspect are autobiographical because they feature Americans are not about her, she says. “I don’t find myself a particularly compelling character.”
Her perspective on her experiences in Romania came with time and distance. Now 43, Myka started writing the book when she was in her early 30s, a decade after she left the country. She tried to mine her old journals for ideas, and quickly discovered the futility of that. “They were the journals of a 22-year-old. The unabashed romanticism made me cringe a little,” she says.
The Writing Life
Myka came to the Fletcher School intending to pursue a career overseas. After graduation, she worked as a program associate at the Centre for Development and Population Activities in Washington, D.C., and fed her longtime interest in creative writing with evening classes. One day she spontaneously quit her job, deciding to focus on her fiction. She moved back to Massachusetts, where she had friends and family, and found a flexible job that allowed her time to write. In 2009, she earned an M.F.A. in fiction from Warren Wilson College.
Myka now lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she teaches creative writing at Ringling College of Art and Design and serves as writer in residence at New College of Florida. Thanks to a $25,000 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she will take a leave from teaching this summer and fall to work on a new novel. The story is set in the 1970s in a steel town in New York that is loosely based on her parents’ hometown.
Once more she’s creating characters facing tough situations, with the decline of the steel industry and new immigrants settling in the region. She doesn’t know where the threads of the plot will take her.
“How a story evolves is definitely a mystery for me,” she says. “I’m not somebody who maps anything out or plans anything. I start with an image or a character and move from there.”
Heather Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.