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ND grad explores storms and struggle in fiction work

Mary Claire O'Donnell | Wednesday, October 5, 2011

It’s really true. It doesn’t matter what degree you graduate from Notre Dame with, be it Engineering, Arts and Letters, or Architecture, you really can do anything you want. David Michael Belczyk, a 2003 graduate with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and author of two collections of poetry and one work of fiction, is living proof.

Belczyk returns to campus this weekend to promote his latest work, “Elynia,” his fiction piece, with a book signing at the bookstore. In his words, “Elynia” is about a storm.

“One thing the book does is cover four generations of characters who are interconnected in an unusual way,” Belczyk said. “And each one of the chapters is a very intimate look at one of their particular struggles. And along with that perspective on struggle, there is also a perspective on storms, on a particular storm that kind of metaphorically rages throughout the book.”

The four generations of characters and their lives unfold in “Elynia” through glimpses at moments in each of their lives. Characters include an immigrant shoe-man who works away his life in a dying town, witnessing his son wrongly arrested by a man whose shoes he regularly shines. The son watches his friend betray the memory of a departed mother by stealing her now-sacred makeup for a drunken joke. The friend then marries a waitress who secretly loves another man who is perpetually stuck atoning for his past by meticulously refurbishing a house. Each story strikes a chord in its dissection of suffering and intimate look at human emotion.

The interconnectedness of the characters helps to bring special definition and power to this work. Many of the chapters are close examinations of intimate, singular events in a character’s life, but tied together, they achieve new interpretive depth. Belczyk, with his strong, lyrical writing style, allows his readers to delve into the lives of his characters and really experience what they experience.

This approach to writing emphasizes an important aspect of Belczyk’s work. “Elynia” not only deals with suffering and turmoil but also unity. As you read the book, you realize the connections the characters all have to each other and how the actions of each affect the others. And this, Belczyk believes, is an important aspect of the book.

“You learn how the characters are related and how their lives change relative to one another, [but] you also understand how the way that they endure their trials,” he said. “[This] is kind of like the endurance of the storm, and the endurance of life and the ravages of life.

“Even though the book is preoccupied with the disillusionment of their lives, the message is really one of hope. Out of that endurance there comes communion of all these people, and the unity that transcends the barriers of life and time … and there is a beauty that underlies their endurance and transforms life’s struggles.”

“Elynia” captures this idea of hope and beauty, with images at both ends of the book highlighting these ideals. The images are similar, involving the same characters, a young boy and his grandmother. At the book’s opening, the two are searching a cemetery for graves, but the young boy doesn’t actually know what graves for which he is looking. The book ends with a scene on a porch, where the boy and his grandmother, both cold, huddle together watching the rain, waiting to see if a rainbow will appear.

This last scene encapsulates the idea of hope within suffering. These two characters, earlier that same day, had wandered through a graveyard searching for the graves of family members, and at the end of the day they are still cold and waiting out a rainstorm. But they look for the rainbow. They hope beauty and goodness will emerge from their despair.

Belczyk said he is excited to return to Notre Dame to promote his book and sign copies for fans. Not only is he thrilled to receive exposure, but also to return to the place that helped inspire the work. While the project has been a few years in the making, the original idea came from Belczyk’s experiences with storms on campus and with friends. He saw themes developing from his ideas about people out in storms and wanted to unite them into something larger.

In his writings, Belczyk draws influence from writers like William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and e.e. cummings. He said he especially loves Marquez because “You just feel like you’re seeing the same things through different eyes.”

“You realize the world is a lot more vibrant in places you didn’t know,” he said. “That’s something I always try and put in my writing. I’m always trying to take relatively ordinary things and turn them into allegories so that even the mundane things of life have a secondary identity.”

Mundane objects do gain new identity and life in “Elynia.” Belczyk’s approach to writing in a poetic, lyrical manner allows images to arise from the pages of the work and bring life to the story. The sun lighting up, warming a flowing river takes on new meaning, a new personality beyond that which we have experienced. And then Belczyk applies this approach to all other objects and people.

To students who want to break into the writing business, Belczyk had a few pieces of advice. One, he wanted to remind writers to just be themselves because you can only be who you are, and you need to be interested in who you are. But also, he was worried about the state of modern poetry.

“I think that modern poetry is in danger because everybody thinks they have to go to school for it,” Belczyk worried. “And I think that what the art needs is a whole lot of people who are out there living life and are in the fray and are going to talk about the fray.”

So, to non-English majors, to non-Arts and Letters majors, try your hand at something new. It might surprise you. And don’t forget to discover the beauty of struggle in “Elynia.”