Xenet Aliu stands at the computer in her office in the Piedmont College library. Her desk has been transformed by a leggy metal contraption into a heightened surface suitable for a more ergonomic version of the sedentary, if no less stationary, nature of office work. The metaphor is striking: she is stretching her legs in all sorts of ways.
Aliu’s debut novel Brass has received critical acclaim of the sort few writers ever see, including impressive reviews in The Boston Globe, O, the Oprah Magazine and The New Yorker, to name just a few. She admits that it was a mix of discipline, serendipity and arrogance that got her here.
“I do my writing before work,” Aliu says. “If you know that you only have two hours to get your work done, you can be really efficient. It doesn’t sound very sexy, but the fact of the matter is you prioritize what’s important to you. I choose this over getting my laundry done on a regular basis.”
Aliu says the characters in Brass began taking shape in her graduate thesis over 10 years ago. After regularly producing short stories, it was her first stab at writing a longer manuscript. It was also during this time that she realized, in grad school in Wilmington, North Carolina, that she had come from a background rougher than most.
“I thought everyone’s mom worked in a factory, and that it was the most common kind of middle class existence you could have,” Aliu says. “Until I realized, already into my mid 20s when I started my MFA, I actually didn’t grow up middle class.”
Waterbury, Connecticut, Aliu’s hometown where her novel is set, is consistently rated at the bottom of the list of places to live and work in America, Aliu says. She wanted to complexify the existing narrative about her hometown and the people who live there.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of fiction that I was encountering that dealt with lower income and working-class people in a way that let them keep their dignity and still have complete lives,” Aliu says. “I wanted to say, ‘OK, what happens if you already live in a place that has been called the worst place on earth. Can you still somehow thrive? Can you still have dreams?’”
Dreams and dreamers have been on America’s collective mind lately, and Aliu’s book about working-class immigrants in a failing factory town has proven relevant in 2018.
“So much about the book is… extraordinarily timely,” author Caroline Leavitt says in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Especially when it focuses on class and culture, and what they really mean.”
The popular narrative, Aliu says, separates blue collar workers, immigrants, even women, from one another. As if they are concepts, instead of individuals with human concerns.
“She’s been writing this book off and on for a decade,” Aliu’s friend and fellow Piedmont librarian David Gibbs said. “It’s fortunate and unfortunate, that the immigration issue is so hot right now, and that there is an insightful writer to humanize them, for people who haven’t had an opportunity to consider them as people and as fellow humans.”
Two themes in her book, immigration and class disparity, happen to be what the buying public is paying attention to, Aliu says. In many cases those things just don’t align.
“I recognize that there are forces outside of my control that had to do with the selling of this book,” Aliu says. “It wasn’t just because my talent was worlds greater than other writers who haven’t sold their books yet.”
But Aliu says she has had to have a lot of confidence in her work to make it this far as a writer.
“You have to have a level of perspective on your own work,” Aliu said. “But also a little bit of arrogance. It was a result of a whole lot of discipline, a whole lot of failing, many years of rejection, and just having the grit to say, OK I’m going to try again.”