Dana Rufolo

Encountering American Dana Rufolo: in a discourse on her “collection” of short stories

A bulb in my head lights up – spots an array of interlocking issues, as I see the invitation to hear Dana Rufolo read from her “Collection of Short Stories on Immigration and Integration”: literary-artistic practice, cultural identity and public space.

So on Apr. 2 there I am at Shakespeare & Company Booksellers to hear the American and soon-to-be naturalized Luxembourger playwright, poet, and theater critic, tracing the process of cultural accommodation in written and performance formats.

It turns out there is no Book as such that would constitute the “Collection.” I am disappointed: nothing to review then. Still, there’s the event.

Fortunately, the atmosphere is always marvellous in that small bookshop, one that generates a life of its own during happenings like this – evolving into an ever expandable belly that takes whatever comes in, à la Café Hawelka towards midnight off the Graben.

About 25 people are settling wherever stools and chairs could be inserted between the bookstands and shelves. Gerti, Sheila and Guy, the trio managing the family business, had been going around distributing Prosecco and wine amidst the animated anticipation in the air.

Presently, Gerti introduces the evening’s guest, Dana Rufolo, who under the spotlight, pulls out two pieces in manuscript form. These she says outright, “have not been published.”

The first, I Left My American Endodontist to Return to Europe, begins the performance: ‘The American dental practice is designed like a theater stage.’ She interrupts her flow to ask: “Has anyone heard of an endodontist, as distinguished from a dentist?” I’d just been through a root canal surgery so I raise my hand along with others, who do it limply as though to say, “of course.”

This and the next piece with the title, I, Liberated Woman, set in Paris, about a teacher of English to MBA-students from the Balkans in a fly-by-night sort of university, evoke laughter. Setting the context, she gives a taste of her multivalent sting: ‘We live in Paris. Because of my husband’s career, naturally. One of those in development aid. A fundamental product. No risk at all, unless states and governments collapse.’ The authoritative “I” makes a clear cultural distinction between her students and ‘my generation… and all those peripheral learning forms that we were doing when information wasn’t just something you pushed across your plate in a fast-food restaurant.’

The strategy begins to work, as she obviously intends: the audience has begun to project itself onto the contexts and struggles with the inevitable question: Isn’t she talking about us, here in Vienna? Well, yes-&-no; she picks up a book and announces two published pieces from an Anthology of the Creative Writing Club, Luxembourg.

Ah, finally, the “Book,” I’m saying to myself, relieved.

Blood, a story about AIDS and how one gets HIV, is a mini-play within a play that instantly reminds me of that satirical tragicomedy by Pirandello. Meanwhile, our performing author leads her audience into a labyrinth of imagined “other worlds” as she herself gets in-&-out of various characters in the miniature dramas that unfold. But, there is no time to linger or to get lost in these tales; they are simply too short. Nevertheless, the modulated inflections give away her eagerness to take you somewhere – an undercurrent of intuitive rumblings like a quiet before the storm. And sure enough, after she reads a fourth story, the audience rises to the bait, as though the expected cultural diversity had jumped off the Rufolo-pages.

A voice interrupts: May I ask a question? Our author-performer graciously opens the dam with a “Yes, please.” A tsunami ensues.

The questions show that it is neither the literary nor the performance strategies that are at issue. Slowly, I begin to grasp that I have wandered into Pirandello’s The Game of Roles, a play within the well-known play that begins with an interruption: the unexpected arrival of six strange people who claim that they are unfinished characters in search of an author to complete their story. As the strangers reveal more details and argue amongst themselves, the Manager agrees to stage their story.

Suddenly, a “switch-&-turn” takes over Dana Rufolo’s reading-performance, a true Pirandello moment. The managers at Shakespeare & Co. join the band of characters that step out of the frame by now throwing their own fragments of cultural identity issues onto the author’s assumed integrative plots. As it turns out, an audience that comprises a band of quasi “strangers in Vienna” with a welter of migrant backgrounds confronts the author: Canadian, Colombian, Finn, German, and Kenyan. And the sixth? Ah, there’s myself – a flipped Viennese – with a Philippine connection. These are people having problems with her version and all agog with their own.

In post-modernist style, performative discourses take an interesting twist as audiences question the content and relevance of “staged images.” It is no longer unusual for an audience to take over and turn a cultural infotainment into a “Happening,” where an author-director, like Rufolo, becomes burdened with having to explain the unexplainable and forced to account for what she had fictionalized. Dealing with “the foreigner,” our literary author is bound to encounter all sorts of dilemmas, particularly when writing becomes therapeutic.

All that considered, I can empathise with her paramount concern, “My job as a writer is to look at individuals and the damning effect of stigmatizing them within whatever groups they find themselves in,” she explains. And then discloses, “I’ve a French degree in drama theater…done a lot of theater critiquing… I’m instinctively more a poet and a playwright.”

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