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I Am Not Forgetting Charlottesville

I gave birth to my youngest son in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia hospital on a beautiful April morning with dogwoods and red buds in bloom more than twenty years ago. I have spent thousands of happy hours with my children and family in Charlottesville, walking on the downtown mall on hot summer evenings, melancholy fall afternoons, blustery winter nights, ate delicious meals at the many restaurants abundantly strewn all along the mall, the university corner, the Belmont area. My younger son attended the university of Virginia and my older son recently got married in Charlottesville on a glorious summer morning. I attended concerts where my own son played his inspired music at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, saw beautiful plays at the Live Arts theater, attended and participated in film and book festivals. My sons even have a picture with Dave Matthews on the downtown mall.

Last Sunday’s visit to Charlottesville which I consider a home as much as my own home town of Lexington an hour away, was filled with grief, horror, anger. My son and daughter in law found themselves in the crowd of courageous counter protesters on Saturday, only feet away from the gruesome and deadly accident, and my daughter in law broke her hand when she saw a good friend lying unconscious on the pavement.

Last Sunday I stood for a while at the vigil site for Heather Heyer, the woman brutally murdered the day before, holding sweaty hands with strangers gathered there to pay homage to the victims and find solace in each other’s company. People wrote loving messages on the pavement, there were flowers and helium pink balloons. I even wrote a favorite line by the poet W.H. Auden “we must love one another or die.” The man who held my hand on the right wearing a sign with “hate has no place here,” shook my hand warmly in silence as he left the site, the woman on my left hugged me warmly when I left the site. All in silence. Silence was soothing and the only appropriate response at that point as words felt inadequate for the horror and absurdity of what had happened.

And yet as I was sitting on the outdoor patio of one of my favorite restaurants on the mall, Citizen Burger, a profound sense of hopelessness washed over me. Rage too, indignation, terror, all together. It felt wrong to be sitting there sipping my gluten free beer and nibbling at my beets and walnuts salad, when a couple hundred feet away a beautiful young woman had lost her life, a couple of dozen others were injured including my own daughter in law.

Yes vigils are nice, important, they bring solace and closure to the living. We gather, mourn, feel a sense of solidarity with one another, shed tears and move on. It felt like that was not enough though. I frankly would have liked to have seen the entire city in mourning and all businesses closed in protest like the one business called Angelo that was exactly that: closed in protest. It felt that everything pretty, colorful, flowers, drawings, balloons following a gruesome act of terrorism was in some way normalizing it despite all the best intentions of all of us participating in such vigils. I wanted darkness, silence, mourning, stark refusal. A radical and national waking up moment, uncompromising and unflinching.

The comparisons to Hitler, Nazis and fascism are no longer figures of speech, they are a blatant reality: Hitler loving people heavily armed chanting blood curdling slogans about burning people inside ovens, threatening peaceful citizens, ramming a car into peaceful protesters, killing, injuring. And this was happening in one of the cities known as among the most liberal, educated and safe cities in Virginia and the country.

The signs about “love trumps hate,” “love always wins,” that I have seen in marches and demonstrations since the women’s march in January are sweet, necessary and hopeful but as a survivor of one kind of brutal dictatorship I have news for all American liberals and democrats: love doesn’t always trump hate and love doesn’t always win. For Heather Heyer and her devastated family, love certainly didn’t win. She didn’t “give her life,” as I’ve heard it said, she didn’t ask to be crushed under a fascist’s car, she hadn’t signed up for the army and to fight in a war, she was truly expressing her freedom of speech on the street of what used to be known as a lovely safe city and was brutally murdered for it. She was peacefully protesting and was killed for it. A beautiful passionate young woman at the height of her promise!  She didn’t “give her life” but her life was brutally taken away.

Wake up Americans and face the hideous truth in your own backyards: we are living a fascist takeover spurred and supported by the very president of the United States and his white supremacist cabinet. White supremacists and rabid racists ARE in our government right now, they are living and working in the White House. The main forum for the elaboration and proliferation of fascist ideology, Breitbart news was created by the president’s ex chief advisor, the grotesque Steve Bannon. He openly stated that he aims for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Meaning the destruction of democratic institutions that would eventually become powerless in the face of extreme ideology and would stop protecting us from random acts of abuse, oppression, violence in the name of what exactly? Of America and of America being great again, of “taking the country back,” of “unity,” and of god bless America? Which America exactly is supposed to be great again, be taken back and blessed by a god whose name is being used for hideous purposes? Bannon’s departure from the White House is only a ploy and a trick used to actually strengthen the power of white supremacy. The chaos in the White House is deliberate and desired in order to distract us and create a deafening noise throughout the entire world of news and media while behind the chaos very well thought out plans of replacing democratic processes and institutions with fascist rule are being carried out.

Love is great and indispensable but love is not enough! Fierce determination, unshaken resistance, uncompromising denunciation, wide eyed lucid thinking, strength and firmness need to join up with love. And education education, education. Teaching children from as early as they can talk to have zero tolerance to intolerance, teaching them the correct history of their own country, critical thinking and an inquisitive spirit. A police force that does not side with fascists would be really nice too! Very little has been heard about the young black man De Andre Harris who was beaten into a pulp with sticks last Saturday by Nazi vigilantes in a parking structure in Charlottesville. I would like to see a police force that unlike the police that I saw in Charlottesville last weekend is not standing in heavily armored gear as bystanders to violence as if on parade for their impressive uniforms and not to protect citizens. There were passionate pleas to the Charlottesville city council and to the police force to not allow the fascist rally to take place. None were listened to. Furthermore all blame is cast on outsiders from Charlottesville. While it is true that most Nazi demonstrators came from outside of town, the event was organized by local Nazi sympathizers of whom the local blogger had a crucial role in setting up the event. Wake up Charlottesville as well – there are plenty of white supremacists and nazis in your very midst and the outsiders are coming into your town with help and support from these insiders.

I’m sick of hearing the line uttered by even the most inspired and liberal political figures or political satirists that they would fight for the right of even the types of rabid fascists that killed Heather to have their freedom of speech so they can chant their vile hate. I’m sure as hell not fighting for their freedom to do that and I denounce it as a sickening and illegal abuse of freedom of speech. Speech can also be action. Hate speech leads to hate action. Heavily armed people chanting violent threats to Jews and people of color are not exercising their freedom of speech, they are a threat to freedom of speech and to all of our freedoms and safety. Hitler’s youth who were chanting in the streets of German cities hateful slogans in 1939 and 1940 were also among those who turned on the gas to gas chambers where millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, anybody deemed short of the Arian standard of humanity were hideously murdered, men women and children. Hate won big time there!

Yes, I applaud the initiative to out white nationalists and fire them. Go ahead and fire the fascists! They are not “the other side” whose views we also “need to hear” and have a dialogue with. Really? We need to have dialogues about the pros and cons of burning and killing people who don’t look or think like that bunch of screaming angry white men? Should we maybe have dialogues about the pros and cons of bringing back slavery, of killing people based on the color of their skin or their religions? There are no two sides here, there is an evil side and there is the side standing up to the evil one. Similar to World War II. Half a million Americans died fighting fascism in World War II and without D Day and the British and American intervention in Normandy, German might be the official language imposed in France today and in many other countries with svastikas as a national symbol. No we don’t need to have those dialogues, we don’t need to listen to “the other side,” unless we want to see again the actions called out in their hateful expression of so called freedom of speech.

The reason our so called president cast blame on “both sides” is precisely because he and his cabinet of white supremacists are supportive of the rhetoric of those groups and their calls to action. Make no mistake, without the still standing American institutions, the separation of powers, the somewhat still free press and the push back from variouspeople, communities and institutions, this president and this government would be precisely an American version of Kim Jong Un, Hitler or Trujillo, a ruthless dictatorship killing and silencing any opposition by any means at their disposal. If any of the hopeful people with “love wins all” signs think it can’t happen here, think twice and look around you: it’s already happening. Militias supported by the government are beating and killing people in the street, there have been numerous attempts by the president and his cabinet to criminalize peaceful protests while violent fascist rallies are being allowed to happen, fact checking and fact reporting are being delegitimized, white policemen are acquitted in courts of justice for brutally murdering innocent Black men and women, actions of the government to obtain private information of private citizens are sustained and conducted nation wide, as are initiatives to undermine voting rights for minorities, and threats to punish leakers and critics of the president have been launched since his inauguration. We are already in a dystopian and dictatorial regime that is trying hard to close in on us, squish our freedoms, our right to dissent and to eradicate our diversity. They haven’t completely succeeded thanks to what is still left standing of the constitution, of the democratic institutions created by the founding fathers, and of the brave citizens and communities who are and have been standing up and pushing back.

Yet even the most trustworthy of the reporters, journalists or media outlets cannot help themselves from interviewing and broadcasting the words of people like the head of the KKK in order to sensationalize their news reports. After the Charlottesville events Vice had a detailed interview with one of the most rabid of the white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville last Saturday wearing more weaponry on him than if he was fighting on the front lines of war combat. Do not give these people a platform, do not interview and broadcast their interviews on national news, they do not deserve that exposure and it only gives them more publicity! You did the same in the pre- election season, all of you media outlets, from my beloved NPR to MSNBC to CNN, across the board from the left to the right, and you gifted DT with billions of dollars in free publicity. You thus played a crucial role in the results of the election by enhancing his visibility. Try acting a little bit less in the interest of ratings and a bit more in the interest of our country.

I entered on American soil on a cold December day in 1983 with great hopes of creating a new life in freedom. I believe I largely achieved that goal and I consider America still as my country despite everything. Still. It is here that I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies, gave birth to and raised two beautiful sons, who are of course American citizens by birth and not by naturalization like myself, I made a family, a career, wrote books, buried my father on American soil, bought property and planted trees, drove thousands of miles across its beautiful expanses from the Appalachians to the Rockies, from Lexington Virginia to Chicago to New York to the beautiful beaches of the outer banks or the cornfields of Indiana. It is on this land that I matured from the young idealistic and confused refugee I was thirty four years ago to the woman I am today, a proud mother, a passionate writer, professor, creative artist, still idealistic, even more uncompromising in my disdain for bigotry, injustice and hate, with a few more wrinkles, battles won and battles lost and the patchwork of scars from these battles to prove it. I am more knowledgeable of American slang, pop culture, history and music, hoping to be a grandmother to American born grandchildren. And I’m not yet going anywhere, this is my country too. I am not leaving it yet, as I’ve heard many Americans proclaim. I’m not a patriot, I have never been, but for all practical reasons this is where I made my home and I intend to keep it until all hope is lost. I hope that day never comes and I hope I don’t have to take the road back to where I left thirty four years ago other than on business trips, vacations or fellowships like the one I’m going on this fall to teach at the university where I once was a student.

One should never underestimate the surprises and ups and downs of history. My parents survived World War II, the Stalinist terror of the fifties and I together with them survived the dictatorship of Nicolas Ceausescu and the trauma of displacement. And I could say that I even thrived from that trauma, painful as it might have been. I am not going anywhere yet, heartbroken and terrified as I may be of what is happening in my adoptive country. I take solace and find hope in the knowledge that thousands of activist organizations and groups have emerged following the presidential inauguration, in the powerful and numerous protests, rallies, marches, town hall meetings that have blocked, delayed or undermined many of the awful and unjust initiatives of this administration: the travel bans, the repeal of the affordable care act, the doubled commitment of mayors, governors and business CEOs to the rules of the Paris accord despite the president’s exit from it. I am still holding on and staying put on the barricades in my adoptive country. As much for my American born children as for myself and for everything I still love about it. And what I love most about it is precisely that which is the target of hate and violence by the new born and old born fascists: the stunning rainbow of colors of our nation, the gorgeous mosaic of the most diverse humanity that throbs from one American coast to another.

In times of intolerable violence and injustice, I have acquired a bizarre strategy of survival. I read or think about books I have read by War and genocide survivors. They teach me how to survive and stay whole in the midst of political tsunamis and when everything seems to be collapsing around me. How to hold on to my core. One such testimonial that I keep going back to is called Wounded I Am More Awake, written by a survivor of six concentration camps during the genocidal war of the nineties in the Balkans. He tells of how during the terror, torture, pain and squalor of those camps, his foremost concern was to survive without losing his humanity. He did so by helping his weaker fellow camp mates since he was a doctor, thinking about his family and reciting poetry together with his fellow prisoners. He survived to write the book and acquire the realization that “wounded” he was “more awake.” This is my wish for you too America: while wounded, be more awake!





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