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Arts & Culture

How Xhenet Aliu Penned A Powerful Debut Novel Set In Waterbury

Sara Wise
Xhenet Aliu

Xhenet Aliu may be new to the literary world, but she’s already one of the most well-received authors of 2018. A native of Waterbury, Conn., Aliu’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Brass is a byproduct of growing up in the Brass City.

The book follows the story of Elsie, a waitress who falls in love with Bashkim, an Albanian immigrant, and their headstrong daughter, Luljeta. The New Yorker called Aliu, “witty and unsparing” and The New York Times called her new novel, “potent.” That’s not a bad start.

Aliu recently spoke with Connecticut Public Radio’s Lucy Nalpathanchil about the book -- which is based in her hometown, but not based on her own life.  And, in case you’re wondering, even though her first novel is a hit, Aliu says she won’t be quitting her day job anytime soon.

The meaning of her novel’s title, Brass
It’s an ironic title, as the brass [from those factories] isn’t there anymore. In Waterbury, when you’re driving around, everything is named after brass: there’s Brass City this, there’s Brass Mills that, the mall is Brass City Mall, there’s the Brass Pony Pub. But It’s almost cruel as that history is almost out of reach. So there’s a bit of irony in the title.

Why she set the novel in Waterbury, Connecticut
The reason why I wanted to set this story in Waterbury instead of another industrial city is because Waterbury is in Connecticut. It’s a struggling city, but it’s in a state that people think is synonymous with wealth. So when I say I’m from Connecticut, they shake their head because they think they know where I’m coming from but I wanted these characters to live in a place where, just down the highway, there’s enormous wealth and opportunity, but they just don’t know quite how to get it.

If Brass is loosely based on her life
I have to assure people that it’s not. A lot of people have commented that based on my bio that the book is semi-autobiographical (Aliu’s mother is Lithuanian-America, and her father is Albanian, just like Luljeta). I know a lot of the characters kind of share my background, but really Elsie (the book’s protagonist) is an invention. She’s nothing like my own mother. She’s kind of a composite of a lot of women that I knew when I was going to community college and to Southern Connecticut State University.

She’s actually a full-time librarian
I finished library school about 4 years ago. Before that, I was working as a private investigator, which sounds very exotic, but mostly what I was doing was investigating hedge fund managers and it was 90% database research. I really like doing research and finding information that’s hidden under thousands and thousands of coded information. It’s like detective work and it’s very gratifying. But I wasn’t interested in the field of hedge fund managers so I thought librarianship is very similar to this. So I looked in library school. Now, I’m working as an academic librarian at Piedmont College in Athens, Georgia.

Her advice for aspiring writers
You have to write every day. It’s very much a practice. I have found that after trying and failing at what works for me is that I just need the routine. Now I write before work. I have an hour to get some words down on paper and because I know that I have such a little amount of time, I find that I’m able to focus very well. Whereas when I was freelancing for a while, I had hours and hours to write and I found myself just folding laundry instead or doing the dishes. But the important thing is to just do it. And you have to read, too. You have to read as much as you write. Actually, more. Also, don’t quit your day job, even if you sell a book. It’s probably not going to hold you over for the next 10 years.

This is an edited interview from the January 26, 2018 episode of Where We Live. You can listen to the entire show right now. Where We Live airs every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 9:00 am and 7:00 pm.