My Grandparents’ Photograph and Why I Wrote “Country of Red Azaleas”

grandparentsThere is a photograph in sepia of my maternal grandparents that has always haunted me. I carried it in my purse together with a handful of other family photographs when I escaped Romania to Italy in 1983.  My grandmother is wearing an elegant black dress, her hair is gathered in a chignon and she has a corsage of white orchids; my grandfather is wearing a tuxedo and his hair is combed back leaving open his smooth high forehead. They are both smiling and look radiantly happy. My mother always said about that photograph: “They were dancing at a ball during the war.”  That was all. The date on the back of the picture is December 31st 1943. Indeed, World War II, a New Year’s Eve party at the height of the war, crossing into the horrific year of 1944, Romania still fighting on the side of Germany, and American and Russian bombs falling like rain over our country in the middle of the Balkans. One of the American bombs hit my grandparents’ house in the summer of 1943 and split it in half. My mother’s family were all lucky to have found themselves in the half of the house that remained standing.

Growing up under the absurd dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and gathering many more stories about my parents’ war childhoods I often came back to those two facts: my grandparents looking beautiful and radiant at a fancy ball and their house having been split in half by an American bomb half a year earlier.  How could they be so happy, so radiant, how could they dance, and how could my grandmother choose delicate white orchids and carefully arrange them in her corsage all while bombs were falling from the sky and splitting people’s houses in half or obliterating them altogether?

I only started to grasp that contradiction decades later, as an immigrant in the United States, after I had experienced and survived some of my own wars of a different nature: leaving everyone and everything familiar behind, settling in the United States as a political refugee, and the resulting displacement, loss, homesickness. The image of my grandparents offered me solace and strength throughout some of the hardest periods of my journey – if they could not only survive but even be able to dance, I could survive and be happy, too. And I finally understood that having survived the American bomb was precisely a reason to dress up, dance at the New Year’s Eve ball and be happy for every moment of stolen life.

When war erupted in the early nineties in the former Yugoslavia it felt like the reopening of an ancestral wound. The crushed house of my grandparents started taking shape in my imagination and acquiring a tragic kinship with the bombed houses of Sarajevo. I had never even been to Belgrade or to Sarajevo, to Kosovo or to Albania, but I had grown up hearing of our Yugoslav neighbors who apparently lived under a milder and more liberal kind of communism. They could travel to the West, their food stores weren’t always empty like ours, and I knew that Romanians sometimes crossed the border into Yugoslavia and then escaped to Italy. Although the Balkan countries differed from each other, those of us having been born, grown up, and lived behind what the West so dismissively referred to as “the iron curtain” or the “eastern bloc,” felt a certain sense of spiritual, cultural, and political kinship with one another. Throughout the centuries our countries had been jumbled up in various kingdoms, frontiers, and were changed and rearranged under the reckless whims of various invaders, empires, and regimes. And as a result, we shared elements of cuisine, folkloric music, a common hatred of the Soviet Union, a passionate idealization of the Western world and a great love of American music and cigarettes.

By the late nineties the news of the genocide and the rape camps became unbearable as I found out more about the unspeakable atrocities committed by Serbian officers against Muslim Bosnians. Works by the journalist Slavenka Draculic, and news about the many million dollar settlement won by the famous legal scholar Catharine McKinnon, had begun percolating. They took my breath away. I thought of the wartime childhoods of my parents and the wartime youth of my grandparents and post war Stalinist terror which they still talked about in whispers around the dinner table so many years later. Sometimes I took out the picture of my grandparents at the ball and wondered how the Bosnians survived under bombs and sniper shots, how they carried out their everyday lives. I was concerned especially with the particulars: the meals they cooked, how they got their water, whether they ever read, laughed or even danced anymore? More than anything, the mass rapes and the executions in July of 1995 kept me up at night when my young children didn’t. I started noticing occasional refugees from Bosnia, mostly women wearing colored headscarves like the ones we used to call babushkas in Romania. I wondered whether they’d survived rape camps, if they had lost family members, sons, husbands to the genocide or to snipers in Sarajevo. I wondered what was hiding behind their polite smiles,  what  stories they carried, what memories bloomed as they cooked their Bosnian meals that spread cumin and cinnamon fragrances all throughout the hallways of my mother’s Chicago apartment building where some of them lived.

Years later Sarajevo beckoned me with an irresistible call. In the summer of 2011 I descended upon its multicolored glory and surreptitious magic and it felt like I had been born there. It was the same summer that a newly discovered mass grave was exhumed, containing 660 bodies from the genocide. The war was still fresh. I took everything down in my little notebook: how they lived for three years without water, gas and electricity, how they ran amidst sniper bullets to get water from the few sources in town, how they even wrote poetry and wore their best clothes just to feel normal and beautiful on some really ugly days. When I was in Sarajevo, I never felt like a refugee, and nobody ever asked me where I was from the way it still happens in my adopted America with exasperating frequency.

The people I met shared their city with me like you would share a warm loaf of bread with a hungry person. Still, I felt as if I betrayed them for not being here during the war, but instead of reproaches they thanked me for being interested in their history.

People told me their stories of survival and also stories of everyday life that had nothing to do with the war. I moved among silk and copper artifacts and almond and honey pastries with the ease of someone who has found her home, yet sadly knowing I had to leave it again. I knew I would spend the next several years of my life writing a story that starts there in Sarajevo, during the same decade when I was living in my native Romania and that it would be the story of two women who grow up during Tito’s regime and are young adults at the time of the Bosnian war. I knew it would be the story of two empowered women who are tied to each other for life and whose love and friendship survives all the upheavals and turbulences of history.  To me their lasting portrait will always be akin to that of my grandparents’ photograph in sepia: a snapshot of irrepressible passion for life in the midst of ruin, and framed by Sarajevo’s red azaleas to my grandmother’s white orchids. This is how my novel “Country of Red Azaleas” was born.

However, the eternal refugee in me has recently started to feel restless and anxious again that what I had thought was going to be my adoptive home for good, might just turn into a terrifying place of discrimination and violence.  The political discourse of hatred and fear mongering takes me back to the speeches that we were forced to listen to during the time of the dictatorship I grew up under, it echoes stories of my parents’ years under Fascist rule and then Stalinist type rule: a hollow demagogical language dipped in the “banality of evil.” To bring it even closer to our times, it resonates with anti-Muslim sentiments and actions during the Bosnian War, for it was largely Serbian “Christian” factions, troupes and the Republika Srepska that carried out a three year long siege and war mostly against Muslim Bosnians in the Bosnia Herzegovina areas. Could history really take such absurd turns that those of us who once  painfully uprooted ourselves and took refuge in the “home of the brave and land of the free” might start looking back towards our native lands that we once ran away from as our new refuge? At least my native country is not at war and now has a democratically elected government. But how about our Muslim brothers and sisters whose countries are at war and had thought America was a safe haven? Is it any more? I now understand even better the sense of vertigo that my grandparents must have felt standing in the half of the house that had escaped the American bomb, the precariousness of having no way to turn and no safe haven: American bombs on one side, Stalinist gulags on the other side.   The expression “carpet bombs” is only now acquiring its sinister concreteness, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that rose with a vengeance in former Yugoslavia is no longer a rhetoric of those “remote” Balkan countries.  Are the “Balkans” coming to America while the “carpet bombings” are ferociously eager to be catapulted onto different parts of the world? Maybe onto the very countries some of us once left. Maybe bombs are among some of the very last things made in America and there is even a huge surplus of them. So what’s an anxious refugee to do in times like these? Cling to a life affirming image of joy and beauty in the midst of hate, violence bombs?  Put a white flower in her hair, go dancing and hope that her gesture of leaving her country and family with a handful of photographs as her most precious possession is still worth that irreversible break?

Domnica Radulescu

A Pen, a Mirror and a Lipstick or Why I Write.

On the cusp of the publication of my third novel Country of Red Azaleas which is less than six months away, I am anxiously writing my fourth novel, My Father’s Orchards. Anxiously, because I find myself between birth and conception, letting go of one child of the mind and laboring to create another.  It’s a necessary agony that I can’t live without. I write because I can’t not write and because it makes me feel alive. I write because it roots me and re-roots me time and again in the colors, the smells, the feel of the world and writing gives me a country where I can belong.  When I was five months old at my own baptism, the story goes that I gave a sign I was going to be a writer. According to a Romanian custom/superstition, after the Orthodox baptism the family of the baby is supposed to present her/him with a tray filled with various objects representing the different professions: pencils, books, hammers, coloring pencils, water colors, a watch, a thimble, a tiny ball, on and on. According to the story in my family, when I was presented with this auspicious glittering tray I grabbed a pen which I wanted to eat, a mirror which I wanted to crash, a lipstick which I tried to eat as well. The verdict in my family was that I was gong to be a writer or an actress. I have been writing since the age of five and I dabbled in acting, though theater has been a constant presence in my life. So I suppose I am keeping true to my choices of when I was five months old.  Funny thing, it seems to me I have a memory of that day with the silvery tray filled with colorful objects, tellers of my destiny. I grab the pen, I grab the mirror, I grab the lipstick, I want to eat them all.  Yes, I suppose I write out of hunger for the world, I write because it nourishes me and it has chosen me. I don’t care how bad the world is, I write in the middle of tempests and wars and earthquakes, on a boat in the middle of the sea, on a mountain top, at a street corner, on a train, while swimming laps, while walking in the rain. I write out of love for the world and terror of the world.  I write to resist banality, uniformity, the monotony of mass produced thinking, injustice, violence, boredom, and because I chose it when I was five months old. A silver glittering tray with colorful objects, full of temptations, what will I be, what will I be? A writer, an actress, pick up the pen, put on the lipstick, be ready for the world!  If only it was that easy.   Marguerite Duras said in an interview “seule l’ecriture me sauvera,,” “only writing will save me” from the most atrocious solitude.  Yes, a pen, a mirror, and a lipstick.  An actress that keeps writing herself, a writer that keeps acting her roles. it’s a dizzying path, and sometimes the lipstick doesn’t match the mood or the story, but so what! Mismatches are fun.

IMG_3288 praying trees IMG_3292 lake michigan

Counter Culture

Because I don’t really like or understand the whole idea of a blog  I’d like to start an anti-blog blog, or a cyber counter cultural space. First whoever thought of the name? As a writer with a keen ear for the sounds of language I can’t help thinking of smog, log, fog, nog (like in egg nog), frog, And of course dog which is the reverse of god.  It makes me want to write an absurdist play about the thickness of the London smog that I learned about in high school when I was learning English in my native Romania. Those textbooks always talked about the smog in London, how thick and bad it was. And then out of the once thick London smog comes a bouncing frog carrying a log and fully drunk on eggnog, chasing a dog. The frog drowned in the thick bog. I think the play needs an epilogue. It’s a Dickensian play with slums and smog.

These are some questions that come to mind: Have any blogs so far changed someone’s life? Are they public diaries? Do they tell so called  real stories? Are they like personal columns of a personal newspaper?  Are they our modern society’s screeching scream of loneliness and desperation, our desire to be heard amidst the deafening noises and clatter and chatter and clamor of our world? Can a blog be a call to silence? Will blogs float in the universe among galaxies even when our planet is long gone?

Here is what I will not do: I will not talk about my feelings. I will not share personal events. I will not make sweeping comments about the world and philosophies of life. And this is not a journal. And it is not my therapy or a cyber venue for venting about how bad things are out there in the world.

Can a blog be made to sound like silence? A white on white sign like Mallarme’s poem Le Cygne – “Le vierge, le vivace, le bel aujourd’hui.” And then there is my other favorite line by Mallarme  “Helas la chair est triste et j’ai lu tous les livres.” Would Mallarme write a blog? I think he’d rather drown in the bog.

And  then some images and ideas that haunt me. For instance the homeless. I’d like to evoke an image of the homeless in Vancouver. Before I visited Vancouver this winter everybody told me: Oh Vancouver is great, fabulous, so beautiful, so chic, so cultural and so cutting edge, blah, blah.  Nobody said anything about the homeless. More than I had seen in any other Western city throughout my travels I was welcomed by homeless everywhere. And when I say “welcomed” I don’t mean it sarcastically. I was really welcomed because I looked them straight in the eyes whether I stopped to give them a Canadian dollar or not. Some didn’t care for American dollars at all. Amidst multimillion dollar condominiums, houses, everything multimillion, you suddenly see a stretch of sidewalk where people without a home lie, sleep, eat from other people’s leftovers and garbage. The passers bye  pretend to not see them or that they are insignificant.  Apparently Wednesday is their free day at the community center where they get free  shots if they are users, food and shelter, some medical attention. Wednesday is a good day for the homeless in Vancouver.

Homeless in Vancouver - what the tourist guides won't show you.
Homeless in Vancouver – what the tourist guides won’t show you.

I was afraid every day I would be homeless during my first year in America. I’m in my 31st year in America and I’m still afraid of that. I take the line by Oedipus to heart: “Do not consider yourself a happy man until you have lived the last day of your life.” And I also take it with a grain of salt because on some days I’m dying to consider myself a happy person. Funny thing that Oedipus became homeless too. He wandered the earth with a cane and his eyes gouged out, searching for some kind of redemption.  I don’t think he ever found it: The redemption I mean..

I have had some interesting conversations with homeless people across North America and Gypsies in Europe. Mostly Romanian Gypsies or Roma.  You out there who walk the wealthy streets of the world, try it too. Have a conversation with a homeless person! See what they like, what they dream, how they got to make that leap from living in a home to living in the street. If you’re a writer you might write a story about a homeless person that will bring you money and fame so you can travel to sunny places with no homeless people. You out there,  “Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!” Are you there, there, there? Or have you drowned in a bog under the London smog?

I want to make theater with homeless people like my friend Norma did. When I make a lot of  money selling my new novel Country of Red Azaleas and when I can leave the academic world which has become as cold and corporate as any corporate world out there, and when I can be my own boss and not have to work with colleagues in an office, I want to make street theater with people who live in the street. Just like that. The homeless need theater and bread, good coffee and music, someone to listen to their story and an art gallery to exhibit their drawings.  I dream of a colorful commune made by the homeless, a colorful neighborhood where the homeless make a home with theater, bread and coffee. I know it’s a skimpy diet and if any are gluten intolerant like I am, that could be a problem.  Never mind, we can make corn bread without any wheat. We can eat potatoes and berries, corn and salsa, dance the tango and the samba. And have a theater festival in the street. My little southern rich town with no street life and bearded men with confederate flags littering our streets every year on jackson lee day, desperately needs a theater festival of the homeless. I used to see a couple of them on our clean quaint streets, maybe Vietnam vets forgotten by the state: one carried a boom box around like the man in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. I sort of miss him, it was nice to have some of this much priced deafening southern silence broken up by the homeless man’s boombox.

And have I told you I live in a small semi southern university town with very nice people who all say hello in the street and then comment on your foreign accent or colorful clothes? My favorite place is the women’s locker room at the community pool where naked women of all ages and sizes talk about everything. We all have our little habits and recognize each other’s voices, swim bags and naked bodies. It’s comforting and makes you feel like you have a home. And nobody asks me about my accent in the women’s locker room of our community pool. It’s all about Eve.

Have I broken any of my own rules for the anti-blog blog? Probably so. It’s hard to keep a vow of silence and only Mallarme could make silence with words.

More to come about my street theater utopia  “Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!” (Au Lecteur by Charles Baudelaire in case you were wondering).

I’m almost starting to enjoy writing in this cyber space. Don’t ever call me a blogger though.

vancouver museum of modern art
Favorite Spot in Vancouver – Postmodern Conceptual Art at the Museum of Modern Art

Country of Red Azaleas

I was interviewed late last year by “Work in Progress” a literary journal that features the work of authors involved in a book project: a novel, a short story collection, or similar creative endeavor. I spoke to them about my forthcoming third novel “Country of Red Azaleas” :

“For me, art is an awakening. The question of the role of art and of the artist vis-à-vis the violence and injustice in the world is an agonizing one.  As a politically engaged artist and citizen of the world, as a refugee from a brutal dictatorship I believe art should create an oasis even in the midst of the worst brutalities, an alternative life of the imagination that would awaken readers and spectators and urge them to pose important questions of themselves such as: “What is my role in today’s society?” “How can I initiate or contribute to change in my world?” “How does one survive trauma and keep one’s integrity of body and soul?” However, I do not believe in art that becomes the vehicle for various ideologies or that is preachy, as that often has the opposite effect and also tends to be quite boring. Neither do I believe in art that idealizes violence or on the contrary, indulges in blow by blow descriptions of violent acts. Aesthetic choices also bear an ethical weight, and rather than perpetuating or repeating traumatic acts through recounting them in narrative, drama or film the work of art should lead us to understanding and transcendence of trauma, to recovery and wholeness. It’s all rather ineffable and one cannot be prescriptive when it comes to art and its role in society; it’s a very fine balance between achieving aesthetic beauty and civic responsibility, between creating art that is both aesthetically and politically engaging and it is an agonizing search, but the journey is worth the trouble if one is a passionate artist and cannot live without creating. In my forthcoming novel Country of Red Azaleas a conversation between the two protagonists, Marija and Lara, encloses an ars poetica of sorts: “’Tell the truth without telling the story. Once you tell the story it’s become fiction and someone will like it and want to sell it or buy it.’ But how could you tell the truth without telling the story I always wondered? That was Marija’s conundrum.” And then Lara’s reflection on the words of her friend Marija also point to a possible way of dealing with violence in art: “She shrouded us in a cozy cooling silence forgetfulness dis-remembering that wasn’t really like you forgot everything but like you remembered but it didn’t touch you and you said good bye to it.”

So it is all very contradictory, the artist has to be able to achieve an aesthetically unified work by bringing together opposing tensions, forces, needs: tell untold truths while startling the imagination, initiate social change without sermonizing, awakening not just emotions but lucid thinking. It is not sure whether art really changes the world as so many of us engaged in its creation would like to and need to believe, but what is certain is that we can’t afford to not keep creating. Every oasis created by the imagination with tenderness and responsibility is a move against violence and injustice.

The full interview with WIP Journal may be found at : http://www.wipsjournal.com/wips-conversation-domnica-radulescu-on-her-work-in-progress/

Country of Red Azaleas will be ready for publication by the Hachette Group in April 2016

Theater of War and Exile

Theater of War and Exile
Twelve Playwrights, Directors and Performers from Eastern Europe and Israel

by Domnica Radulescu with a foreword by Maya E. Roth

Not Yet Published, Available Spring/Summer 2015

9780786473120_p0_v1_s600About the Book
In what ways does political trauma influence the art arising from it? Is there an aesthetic of war and exile in theatrical works that emerge from such experiences? Are there cultural markers defining such works from areas like Eastern Europe and Israel? This book considers these questions in an examination of plays, performances and theater artists that speak from a place of political violence and displacement.

The author’s critical inquiry covers a variety of theatrical experimentations, including Brechtian distancing, black humor, pastiche, surreal and hyper-real imagery, reversed chronologies and disrupted narratives. Drawing on postmodern theories and performance studies as well interviews and personal statements from the artists discussed, this study explores the transformative power of the theater arts and their function as catalysts for social change, healing and remembrance.

Review

“Radulescu’s examination of the theater of the Balkans, Romania, Israel, and other sites of violence and exile demonstrates the power of theater to enable the survivors of trauma to document and witness, to reclaim the real, to produce social change, and to promote the possibility of healing, both on the personal and national levels…a model for understanding how artists depict and resist unspeakable violence and living a national identity far from that nation…will surely be of interest to scholars from a wide variety of fields.”–Kevin J. Wetmore, Department of Theatre Arts, Loyola Marymount University

“With an exile’s insight and an advocate’s clarity, with a scholar’s thoroughness and an artist’s passionate partiality, Radulescu assembles and frames an illuminating array of recent-and-contemporary theatrical manifestations that explore war-born, genocide-inscribed trauma.”–Erik Ehn, Professor and Chair of Theater Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University.