Stefaniak, Mary Helen 1951–
Stefaniak, Mary Helen 1951–
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced Ste-fahn-ee-ak; born January 22, 1951, in Milwaukee, WI; daughter of George Thomas (a police officer) and Mary Elleseg; married John Stefaniak (a musician), July 15, 1972; children: Jeffrey John, Elizabeth Mary, Lauren Marie. Ethnicity: "White (Hungarian, Croatian, Irish)" Education: Marquette University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1973; attended University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, 1976–82; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1984, graduate study, 1984–94; also attended Kirkwood Community College.
CAREER: Teacher of English, French, and journalism at Roman Catholic high schools in Milwaukee, WI, 1973–82; Stratton Business College, Milwaukee, instructor in literature and composition, 1980–81; freelance editor and copy editor, 1984–87; Eastern Iowa Community College, Davenport, off-campus instructor in English as a second language, 1990–92; Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids, IA, instructor in writing, 1995–96, adjunct member of English faculty, 1996 and 1997; University of Nebraska at Omaha, writer in residence and teacher at Writers Workshop, 1997; Creighton University, Omaha, visiting assistant professor, 1998–99, from assistant professor of creative writing to associate professor of English and director of creative writing program, 1999–. Marquette University, Upward Bound instructor, 1981; University of Iowa, Iowa Summer Writing Festival, faculty, 1991–2007; Grinnell College, visiting writer and judge of fiction competition, 1996; College of St. Catherine, visiting writer and lecturer, 1998; presents seminars on various aspects of writing. Has also worked as a sales clerk, model, census interviewer, European tour guide, and radio commentator. Iowa Time (cultural history project), codirector, 1991–92; Iowa Humanities Board, promotions and publications specialist, 1992–95; Iowa City Community School District Music Carnival, cochair, 1995–96. Soccer coach for local elementary school.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fiction award, Iowa Woman, 1992; International Conference on the Short Story in English award, 1992; Editor's Fiction Prize, Other Voices, 1997, for story "English as a Second Language"; winner, Minnesota Voices Project, 1997, for Self Storage and Other Stories; A.L. Coppard Prize for Long Fiction, White Eagle Coffeehouse Press, 1997, for "Self Storage"; Banta Award, Wisconsin Library Association, 1998, for Self Storage and Other Stories; Pushcart Prize nomination, for "The Lindbergh Twins"; John Gardner Fiction Book Award, Binghamton University, 2005, and Outstanding Literary Achievement recognition, Wisconsin Library Association, both for The Turk and My Mother.
Self Storage and Other Stories, New Rivers Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1997.
The Turk and My Mother (novel), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to anthologies, including Bless Me Father, New American Library (New York, NY), 1994; A Sweet Secret, Second Story Press (Toronto, Ontario), 1997; New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 2000, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 2000; In the Middle of the Middle West: An Anthology of Creative Non-Fiction, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 2003; A Different Plain, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2004; and New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 2006, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including Epoch: Magazine of Contemporary Literature, Nebraska Review, Short Story, Iowa Woman, North American Review, Redbook, Antioch Review, Iowa Review, Yale Review, AGNI, and Iowa City. Author of monthly column, "Alive and Well," Source (Fairfield, IA), 1997–. Iowa Review, assistant editor, 1984–86, fiction editor, 1986–87; editor of Muses, 1991–95, and the newsletter humanities events, 1992–95. Stefaniak's works have been translated into five different languages.
SIDELIGHTS: Mary Helen Stefaniak is a novelist and short-story writer who has taught English and creative writing at a number of universities throughout the United States, including the Eastern Iowa Community College, the University of Nebraska, and Creighton University. In her debut novel, The Turk and My Mother, the author tells a Croatian family saga that spans the twentieth century, from the early years and World War I to later generations of grandchildren. The tale is told through multigenerational family histories, "a collection of touching love stories and revelations of family secrets long held and cherished," remarked Jyna Scheeren in Library Journal. In the days before the outbreak of World War I, Croatian Josef Iljasic leaves his village of Novo Welo, and his wife, Agnes, to seek his fortune in Milwaukee. When the war strands Josef in America, Agnes finds herself separated from her husband, perhaps permanently. With the village's men gone off to war, the women struggle to survive. The arrival of a Turkish prisoner of war, Tas Akbulut, causes a commotion throughout the village, and Agnes finds herself drawn to him. Years later, after taking her children to America to live with Josef, Agnes cannot bear to see the darkly handsome Omar Sharif in films without breaking down in tears from memories. Other members of the family reveal their stories in the book, too, including Josef's brother Marko, who many thought had died in the war but who became a prisoner of war in Siberia, instead, preserving his life through his ability to play the fiddle. George, the first American-born son of Josef and Agnes, recounts his and other family stories from his deathbed. Modern-day family matriarch Staramajka tells her version of Agnes's story, Marko's fate, and her own relationship with a blind gypsy fiddler, Istvan, who may have been Marko's father. Readers also learn about the American woman Josef loved, and about granddaughter Mary Helen's attempts to reconnect to the family in the old country.
A reviewer on the Curled Up with a Good Book Web site called Stefaniak's novel "a rich tapestry of adventure, danger and romantic foolishness," while a critic on the Nebraska Library Commission Web site named it "a compelling narrative about the extraordinary and everyday magic of family life." A Kirkus Reviews contributor felt the storyline is too complicated, explaining that the "impossibly tangled narrative strangles what, in parts, is a truly fascinating and intricate first novel." However, Booklist contributor Allison Block asserted that it is a "warmhearted, inventive novel," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Stefaniak for creating "a world whose past, present and story-loving afterlife are at once magical and grounded in reality."
Stefaniak once told CA: "I write because my mother went to high school with Flannery O'Connor in Milled-geville, Georgia. They never spoke to one another, though, because my mother belonged to the social class that provided O'Connor's material, not her friends.
"I write because my father told me on his deathbed: 'The only thing that matters is to have people who love you, people you love.' I can't help it; that's what he said. He was sitting up, his legs dangling out of a hospital gown over the side of the bed—dad legs from the sixties and seventies, pasty white with black hair—his toes just touching the floor. I was sitting on the side of the bed next to him. He started to cry a little. So did I. He said, 'I really hate to leave all of you.' But he had to go.
"My mission—I've learned over the years, mainly by reading what I've written—has been to write stories that show first, that my father was right about what matters, and second, that Flannery O'Connor was brilliantly wrong about human beings—and about Jesus, for that matter. (He wants us to make eye contact, I believe; he wants us to save each other.)
"Other influences have been the delightful confusion of personal identity, history, and literature in the fictions of Borges, and the language of the poet Czeslaw Milosz.
"In my work, people tend to overcome the odds and save each other somehow. I think this puts me outside the mainstream of contemporary American fiction. I like being outside the mainstream, where a serious writer can believe that humans are very, very brave—not because they fight bulls or race cars or fly bombers, but because they persist, they continue to hope in spite of everything. Outside the mainstream, we are all in the same boat, and we laugh about it—even though the boat is always sinking."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 15, 2004, Allison Block, review of The Turk and My Mother, p. 1599.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2004, review of The Turk and My Mother, p. 361.
Library Journal, June 15, 2004, Jyna Scheeren, review of The Turk and My Mother, p. 66.
Publishers Weekly, April 26, 2004, review of The Turk and My Mother, p. 39.
ALT Weeklies, http://www.altweeklies.com/ (September 10, 2006), David Medaris, "Q&A with Mary Helen Stefaniak."
Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (September 10, 2006), review of The Turk and My Mother.
Iowa Summer Writing Festival Web site, http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/iswfest/ (September 10, 2006), biography of Mary Helen Stefaniak.
Mary Helen Stefaniak Home Page, http://www.maryhelenstefaniak.com (September 10, 2006).
Nebraska Center for Writers Web site, http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/ (September 10, 2006), biography of Mary Helen Stefaniak.
Nebraska Library Commission Web site, http://www.nlc.state.ne.us/ (summer, 2004), review of The Turk and My Mother.