On Writing Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu

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Set in Stone

By Stela Brinzeanu

Set in Stone is a reimagining of an ancient Moldovan legend*, with a variety of different renderings in countries across Eastern Europe and throughout the Balkans. Yet each and every version has the same cruel, controlling and demeaning fate for the woman at the centre of the story.

As history – ancient and more recent – demonstrates, it is often not those at the heart of things who get the opportunity to speak up and be heard. However, those who have the power – they are the ones who tell the story.

Mira and Elina, the two main protagonists, represent the women in my culture who were (and many still are) enslaved by domesticity, robbing them of their rights, desires, opportunities and ultimately their lives. With almost no control over their destinies, women were used to serve their men’s narrative. I wished for my heroines a life they could have chosen for themselves, outside the cultural, societal and religious pressures of the time. I sought to give a voice and a choice to the women who have been silenced.

These thoughts percolated around my subconscious for many years until 2015 when I wrote the initial version of what has ultimately become Set in Stone.

In that early draft, Mira’s plot was secondary, buried deep into the dual timeline of a contemporary novel. However, its cry for help was picked up by an astute literary agent whose generous feedback was, in a nutshell, ditch all but Mira’s story, because that’s where the strength and energy of the book lie.

After five more years of writing and re-writing, Cari Rosen, the commissioning editor at Legend Press (and an author herself) offered me a book deal, saying they loved the fact that even though the novel is set so long ago (17th century Moldova), the themes are still so identifiable today.

Cari was spot on, unfortunately, given the sexism, prejudice and the erosion of women’s rights we face even now in the 21st century.

The reality is even more depressing in developing countries, such as Moldova, where a variety of socio-economic, religious and cultural factors mean many women face exactly the same challenges their ancestors did in the Middle Ages.

And here lies the paradox of my complex love-hate relationship with the culture I was raised in. On one hand I treasure it, not least for instilling in me a deep love for nature, for giving me a strong connection to the land as has been practised and preserved for centuries, for bestowing on me the benefits of growing and cooking my own food, for sharing the wisdom of healing with herbs and kind words, for teaching me the importance and strength of a tight-knit community.

On the other hand, I abhor the deep-rooted patterns of behaviour towards our women, which are as damaging as ever. Old sayings and proverbs justifying violence against women are invoked time and again by fathers, husbands, brothers and uncles alike:

An unbeaten woman is like an unswept house.

An unbeaten woman is like an ungroomed horse.

An unbeaten woman is like an unlocked mill.

Despite this toxic environment, I was surrounded by strong women, starting with my own mother, followed by teachers, aunties, neighbours – women whose resilience towards the unfair and misogynistic world of post-communist Moldova reminded me of those stubborn, life-loving plants you see sprouting miraculously between the tiniest cracks of stone. This quality, I believe isn’t arbitrary, but evidence of the creativity, resourcefulness and tenacity our women have demonstrated across centuries, which has gone unnoticed and unheard because their voices have been denied.

Women have been absent in politics, in literature and in the history of my country. Silent, obedient shadows, sturdy scaffolds useful to our men, the higher to climb and the louder to trumpet their convenient truth.

Things are changing slowly. I take great pride in the fact that we now have a woman leading Moldova, one who is committed to fighting corruption, patriarchy and Russian control in order to drag Moldova out of poverty and stagnation. There is still a very long way to go**, with many social, economic and political reforms required in order to bring the country into the 21st century. But perhaps far more important are the educational reforms desperately needed to break the old, dangerous and detrimental patterns of behaviour towards women that are so deeply entrenched in the Moldovan psyche.

A free society is one where every story has the opportunity to be told and until women and minorities in Moldova – especially sexual minorities – are heard and acknowledged, I’ve taken matters into my own hands by giving my mythical heroine the agency I feel she deserves.

*I’m deliberately withholding the name of the legend in order to avoid spoilers. You may find, upon reading Set in Stone, that you have a similar myth in your own culture.

**I could not have published this book in Moldova, which remains a heavily patriarchal, hetero-normative culture, not least because of the sway the Orthodox Church has over Moldovan public opinion.

(c) Stela Brinzeanu

About Set in Stone:

Set in Stone

In medieval Moldova, two women from opposing backgrounds fall in love.

But this is a world where a woman’s role is defined by religion and class. To make a life together means defying their families, the law, and the Church. The closer they become, and the more they refuse the roles assigned to them, the more sacrifices they have to make. While Mira’s rebellion puts her life in the gravest danger, Elina must fight to change her legal status to ‘son’ so she can inherit her father’s land and change their destiny.

Set in Stone delves into the past to uncover a story which is just as relevant today: the desire to forge your own path while constantly having to resist a patriarchal fear of women’s strength – and how ultimately love can help you choose your own truth.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Growing up in Soviet Moldova – a land where propaganda dominated the airwaves – Stela escaped into the world of literature from an early age. Books were the most exciting form of entertainment in her life and they saw her through the cold, candlelit nights when the country’s authorities introduced mandatory power cuts.

Stela moved to London at the age of 18. With a BA in Media Studies from the University of Westminster, she embarked on a brief journalistic career, training with the BBC and running a community magazine, before she turned her attention to literature. Her fiction explores issues of identity, gender roles, the unity and inter-connectedness of nature, and the conflict of religion – organised religion – vs spirituality.

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