Back to School: Hitting the Books, 15 Years Later

Alina I. Lazar's story is in some ways circular—it begins and ends with books—but spliced in between are 12 years of a path that privileged on-the-ground action over words on a page.
By Victoria A. Baena

“I wasn’t expecting to be photographed,” says Alina I. Lazar, when she spots the camera. “Hold on.” She undoes her bun and her dark brown hair falls around her face. When she is thinking of what to say she tends to play with it, tuck it back behind her ear.

Lazar is 34, though she looks younger. She leans in towards me as she talks and she speaks in a lilting, lightly accented English, subtle enough that I can’t begin to guess where she’s from. Lazar was born in Romania, it turns out, though her family moved to London when she was 12. Now she is a first-year doctoral student in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department (the Spanish track). She is spending her Saturday in Lamont, working, and so we meet in Lamont Café. “I love being able to study full-time,” she says.

There is an arc to getting a doctorate that one might classify as normal: high achievement as an undergraduate, then a year or two off or working—abroad perhaps, or on a fellowship—and then back to the academy, for five or six years, at least. In this sense, Lazar is certainly not normal. Her story is in some ways circular—it begins and ends with books—but spliced in between are 12 years of a path that privileged on-the-ground action over words on a page.

Lazar graduated from King’s College London in 2000, with a degree in French language and literature. “Literature was always my love,” she says, smiling, tilting her head to one side. But in the spring of 2000, she needed a job. “We have this newspaper called The Guardian,” she says. Buried in the classifieds Lazar found an ad (an “advert”) about a newsletter publishing company looking for reporters and journalists, dealing with energy and environmental issues. She interviewed and got the job.

“They were interested in language graduates,” Lazar says, and she spoke Romanian and French. She began as a junior reporter, covering issues she knew very little about, learning the technical language and the tricks of the trade as she went along. A year in, she did a master’s in development studies (she says this quickly, waving her hand, as if it is unworthy to be dwelled upon). Lazar had never been much interested in journalism, nor in politics, but environmental activism needed reporters—and ultimately, needed actors with agency. So her next step was a job working for local government, in City Hall, on programs attempting to make housing in London more efficient.

This time the tables were turned, she says. “I had reporters calling me.” She smiles ruefully: “You have to be very careful with what you say.” Although she had originally stumbled upon it, Lazar began to develop a passion for this career path. She moved on to an NGO dealing with climate change and its effects on the Mediterranean. As part of this she traveled to Greece, organizing a regional conference for various actors to discuss these issues.

Private consulting was next: Here she returned to her initial post-grad work, studying impacts on the environment within urban settings.

Throughout this time, though, Lazar was still reading. Throughout this time, too, she had been traveling to Argentina, several times a year since 2001 or 2002. “Personal reasons,” she says. “I married—well, I won’t go into that.” Lazar pauses, laughs, tucks her hair behind her ear. She began to read and love Argentine writers: Manuel Puig and César Aira and Néstor Perlongher. “Do you know them?” she asks eagerly. We talk about Borges’s short stories.

Lazar began to ask herself why she couldn’t do both: work on issues of the environment and still cultivate her literary leanings. She applied to a masters program in Spanish, in London, where she spent her nights taking part-time classes while consulting during the day. Her first term was difficult: “I was about to give it up,” she says. “I thought too much time had passed.” She pauses. “I had had this whole other profession.”

But “slowly,” Lazar says, “slowly”—she repeats—“I was effectively inspired.” She found herself eager to write the essays, impatient to get to class. Her double life was rewarding, but ultimately evening studies were not enough. Lazar is delighted now to be spending her Saturdays in Lamont. She is delighted at all this time she has just to read and write. Maybe she’ll become a professor in five or six years, after she writes her dissertation; maybe not—she’s not sure, she’s just beginning, she says.

I ask if she sees any contradiction between her former activism and her current work in the humanities, and she furrows her brow and shakes her head. “[Climate change] is something that I cared about and that I thought would ‘make a difference,’” she says, with air quotes. She begins to say something and then stops to think. “But I don’t feel that I’ve given that up.” Her former life may make a possible reappearance in the research for her dissertation and, in any case, Lazar is confident that her life’s disparate threads thus far are not necessarily unable to be intertwined. She’s confident, at least, that the bridge between social activism and literary studies is traversable. For Lazar, as she says, “It’s not a binary.”

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