Our Borders: A Bright Christmas (1992 CE)

Early Christmas morning in 1992, the port of Antwerp (Anvers), Belgium was bright with blinking lights of all colors, with flashlights and spotlights and searchlights. At 5 a.m., police, firefighters, paramedics, TV crews, and curious people were all waiting on the main dock for the door of one particular cargo shipping container to open. And when it did, three men walked out into the blinding light: Radu Codrescu and his two companions, Paul and Doru. Their clothes were stained with oil, they all had week-old beards, and they looked weak and pale. One of the three men, Doru, was in pain with acute tonsillitis from living for a week inside a freezing freight container, but when he saw the commotion, he forgot all about his pain and tried to flee the scene.

Hubert (name changed for privacy reasons), one of the senior port security officers, handed the three men over to the police for interrogation. But the police was not very interested in their story, only in the container where they had been found. Once the cargo was checked and a few questions answered, the trespassers were released from custody.

At the time, Radu Codrescu, 30, lived in Stuttgart, Germany with his wife and young daughter. When Germany refused to grant them asylum back in November 1992, Radu came up with a new plan: get on a ship to Canada. He had applied for a Canadian immigration visa, but had been rejected because he didn’t have a college degree. (Radu’s brother, who had a college degree, had secured a visa after a couple of tries.)

“But that was not something to stop me,” Radu Codrescu said. “They didn’t know me.”

Radu picked Antwerp, Belgium, because it is a huge port in northern Europe with solid trade links with Canada. He applied and obtained a Belgian visitor visa.

“All I needed to do was go out in the hallway of the rundown building we lived in, and yell that I was going to Canada, who wanted to come with me, and I would always find a few clients for the trip.”

In December 1992, Radu, Paul and Doru began their attempts to board a cargo container headed for Canada. During the day, they hid in the swamps near the harbor, and at night, they came out of the cold water and tried to find an open container on the docks. They did that for two weeks and always got caught. Each time, the Belgian police took them over the border to Netherlands, and released them. Each time, the three men walked back to Antwerp, found their car – a beaten-up Mercedes – and rested and slept in it until it was time to head back for the swamps, the following night. As the days went by, they looked more and more tired and in bad shape. One night, a port guard took pity on them.

“Boys,” he said in Flemish, “I can help you get inside a container tonight. I’ll even seal the door once you’re inside.”

Container terminal, Port of Antwerp - Wikipedia

Container terminal, Port of Antwerp – Wikipedia

They followed the guard to a container that transported four bulletproof military vehicles, two on top of the other two, to Edmonton, Canada. After the guard locked the door and sealed it, the three Romanians settled into that big, cold steel room. They had everything they needed: sleeping bags, lamps, batteries, food, water, lots of plastic bags to go to the bathroom in, and even a hammer and a chisel. Now they had to wait to be loaded on a ship.

“We lived in there for a day, two, three. We heard the cranes outside moving the cargo. Sometimes they moved our container around, but never on a ship. It was very cold in December and we were pretty much living in a metal box, outside, for days. Our breath condensed on the walls and on the ceiling and after a while small drops started to fall on us. We were cold and wet. We had been there for a week and our container was still on the dock.”

The military vehicles were covered with dark oil to protect their paint until they reached their destination, and soon the three men’s clothes were stained with oil too, on top of being damp and cold. The cargo container had six little holes in each corner, but not big enough to get fresh air through. People in containers sometimes died asphyxiated during cross-ocean trips – as the news on TV sometimes mentioned. After a week in the container, the three men were running out of oxygen. Their lighters sparked but didn’t burn anymore.

“We could tell that we were running out of air by our constant panting. We didn’t feel dizzy yet, but we kept panting, as if we had been running for a long time.”

Meanwhile, Doru’s tonsils had turned red and painful and his throat swelled.

On Christmas Eve night, Radu and Paul decided to break out of the container, to save Doru’s life. They took turns with the hammer and the chisel, trying to make a hole in the metal wall of the container, close to the door handle on the other side.

“The noise was deafening for us inside, like being inside a big bell.”

They got in fresh air as the hole got bigger, but Doru still couldn’t breathe. He was overcome with pain and kept panting. When the hole was big enough, Radu put his hand through, looking for the door handle. His hand hit another container. He stuck his head out.

“While we were in there, they had moved us around and now we were in the middle of a sea of containers. They weren’t touching each other, but also, there was no way of getting out of our container. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown when I saw that: containers everywhere, around ours, and on top of ours. And nobody had heard us banging on the metal wall. For two hours we screamed and banged with the hammer on the walls, but nobody heard us on that Christmas night.”

At three in the morning, a guard finally heard the noise and yelled something back at them in Flemish. In another half an hour they heard the cargo crane on its long legs moving forward and backward and sideways and lifting containers.

“But that cargo crane needed somebody to maneuver it and at three in the morning, a very happy crane operator was summoned from his warm bed on Christmas night to look for some lunatics in a sea of containers in the harbor. It took him two hours to find us and we kept screaming that we needed an ambulance.”

Their container was jolted up and, after a few maneuvers, lowered on a platform. The door opened and the three men emerged under the bright lights of the TV crews and news photographers.

“Police came to assess the damages. It turned out that we had damaged a very expensive container; we pretty much ruined the door with the hammer and the chisel. It was worth $50,000, we were told. They took our fingerprints because we were found in a military container and they wanted to make sure we didn’t damage the load as well. Those were serious military vehicles and they wanted to see why we were interested in them. We were not interested in them! We just lived next to them for a week. We couldn’t even get inside. Maybe we peed on them from time to time, but nothing else. We didn’t break them or anything – they were fucking cold!”

Once the police figured out that the three men were not a threat to the military cargo, they didn’t even ask them how they had got inside the container to begin with. They took the three men out to a field and set them free. That morning, the three Romanians walked back to the harbor’s parking lot, to their old Mercedes.

“We got to the car; the car had been broken into. They’d broken the windows, stolen the cassette player, and broken the steering wheel. We took our car and headed back to Germany. We were dirty and unshaved and exhausted and our car looked like it belonged in the scrapyard.”

Doru got well soon, but never again tried anything that dangerous. He returned to Romania where he now lives. Radu spent his New Year’s with his family and was ready to try again, come January. Radu and Paul found another man, Claudiu, a musician, to join their gang in Doru’s place.

They spent the first night in Liège, Belgium, in the house of a friend who offered a transit place for fellow Romanians in need. The second night, they went back to Antwerp and looked for the same guard who had helped them before. They let themselves get caught so they could talk to the man in private.

“I don’t have the guts to do it again, after last time,” the guard told them. “We had a lot of inquiry after you were rescued about how you got in the container in the first place.”

The guard put them in police custody, and the police took them over the border, to Netherlands, and released them there. Radu, Paul and Claudiu began their 20-kilometer walk back to Antwerp, as they were so used to.

Morning had come, and, as they were walking on the side of the road, a van drove by and they waved at it hoping to catch a ride. The van stopped, the window rolled down and Radu stared at Hubert, the security guard from the Port of Antwerp. They knew each other well, especially after that last Christmas.

“Let’s have a coffee,” Hubert said, and opened the van door for them.

It was January 19, 1993 around nine in the morning. Radu, Paul and Claudiu leaned in close to Hubert around a table in a coffee shop in Antwerp.

“What I don’t understand,” Hubert said, sipping his coffee,” is why you keep trying to flee during the night. Why don’t you try during the day? At night, we are all on duty, alerted, we expect people to try to sneak in. We have searchlights. We always catch you. Rarely does anyone sneak past us. Try during the day.”

“But,” Radu said, “how do we do that?”

Next: Back at Sea (1993 CE)

PreviousGone (1990-1992 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

A Killer Detail: The Art of War

The Art of War - CoverI don’t remember when I bought my copy of The Art of War, but whenever I did, that copy must have been the last one in the store because the front cover is scuffed, yet I bought it anyway. It’s a beautiful book, with dark hardcovers sewn together with red, glossy thread. The words – both in traditional Chinese and English – are printed on cream-colored sheets of paper folded in half with the writing on the outside. From the note on the second page I learned that the book is bound in traditional Chinese style. To turn a page, I slip my finger underneath the thick edge where the sheet is folded. This is the kind of detail that matters if I ever wrote a story about China before the  20th century CE.

I began reading this book because I’ve been working on two important battle scenes in my historical novel.  What I found between those beautiful dark covers was not only military knowledge for my battle scenes, but also psychological insights for the development of my characters and rhetorical artistry for my writing.  But that’s putting it in a fancy way. What I found inside this book was a rollercoaster of ah-ha! and wow! moments, which translated into dozens of notes on the side of my manuscript. And there was something else: excitement that I was getting some of that history stuff right whenever I found validation for my story decisions in Sun Tzu’s text, a text written maybe in the 6th century BCE, or possibly in the later Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), yet present today on the reading list of the United States Marine Corps.

The Art of War, bamboo binding – Wikipedia

The Art of War

By Sun Tzu

Translation by James Trapp

Page 13: Where I learned how a rookie commander fails

Thus, although I have heard of reckless haste in war, I have never seen wise delay. Nor has any state benefitted from prolonging war. Only someone who understands the perils of waging war can also understand the best way of conducting it.

Page 17-19: Where I learned what the general in my story should know

Winning a hundred victories out of a hundred battles is not the ultimate achievement; the ultimate achievement is to defeat the enemy without even coming to battle.

Thus it follows that the highest form of warfare is to out-think the enemy; next is to break his alliances; then to defeat his armies in battle; the lowest form is to besiege his cities. Siege warfare should only be undertaken if it is unavoidable.

Page 33: Where I learned who should arrive first on my battlefield

It is a general principle that the army which arrives first at the site of battle and waits for the enemy will be fresh, and the army that arrives second to the field and has to rush into battle will be laboured and exhausted.

Page 39: Where I stopped and gaped

Military strategy is like water, which flows away from high ground towards low ground; so, in your tactics, avoid the enemy’s strengths and attack his weaknesses. Water adapts its course according to the terrain; in the same way you should shape your victory around the enemy’s dispositions. There are no constants in warfare, any more than water maintains a constant shape.

Page 43: Where I found validation for my story decisions

A ruler must understand the priorities of the local nobles before he can make profitable alliances; a general must acquaint himself thoroughly with the terrain – its mountains and forests, its halts and impasses, swamps and marshes – before he can march his army through it. He must use local knowledge to take best advantage of the natural features.

Page 45-47: Where I learned some of the mechanics of battle

In battle, the human voice is not strong enough to be heard which is why we use gongs and drums; our eyesight is not acute enough, which is why we use banners and flags. (…) In night warfare, make more use of signal fires and drums, and in daytime rely on banners and flags, thus adapting to the eyes and ears of your troops. (…)

In the morning a soldier is full of fight, in the afternoon he is slowing down, and in the evening he thinks only of returning to camp. (…)

Here are some of the basic principles of war: never attack uphill, nor defend downhill; do not be lured into attack by feigned flight, and do not attack an enemy who is rested and full of fight. Do not swallow the bait put out for you, and do not get in the way of an army that is homeward bound. When you surround an enemy, always leave them a way out, and do not press a cornered foe too hard.

(Translator’s note: These last three pieces of advice seem uncharacteristically soft on the enemy, but they should be understood not as letting the enemy get away, rather as denying them the savage courage that comes from desperation.)

Page 55: Where I learned about marching an army through different kinds of terrain

All armies love the high ground and hate the low, and prefer sunny places to dark and shade. If you look after the health of your men and camp on firm dry ground, your army will avoid all the usual diseases. (…)

When you come to hills or man-made banks, take up position on the sunny side with the high ground to your right and rear. (…)

If the army is passing through hilly ground where there may be ponds with reed beds or woods with thickets, these must be thoroughly searched for they are ideal cover for spies and traitors.

Page 57: Where I learned of hidden signs and other killer details

If trees and bushes seem to be moving, the enemy is advancing. If you see unusual clumps among the reeds and grasses, the enemy is laying some kind of trap. If birds suddenly rise in their flight, there is an ambush and startled animals mark a surprise attack.

(Translator’s note:  This does not mean birds rising from cover when disturbed by the enemy taking up position for an ambush. More subtly it means that birds in flight will deviate upwards from their course when flying over concealed men.)

Page 57: Where I learned to pay attention to dust patterns

If dust rises high and distinct in the air, it is a sign of chariots; if the dust stays low but spreads out, it has been caused by infantry. When the dust separates along several different paths, the enemy are out collecting firewood. Small clouds of dust moving to and fro mean the enemy is pitching camp.

Page 67: Where I had a sudden moment of recognition

If you treat your soldiers like your children, you can lead them into the deepest darkest places; if you see them as your beloved sons, they will stand by you to the death. If, however you are too soft and do not establish firm leadership, too kindly and do not enforce your orders, if you are lax in your organization and cannot keep control – then your troops will be as useless to you as spoilt children.

Page 75: Where I imagined what was like to be there

Soldiers of whatever rank lose their fear in dangerous circumstances; they stand firm when there is no retreat; deep in hostile territory, they show a unified front; when there is no alternative, they will fight to the last. (…)

Ban all omen-taking and superstitious practices so that death is all they have to worry about.

Page 81-83: Where I learned to add some deception

It serves no purpose to tell them if they are in danger.

You can lead them into the most desperate of situations confident that they will survive, for victory is to be plucked from defeat when they are in the greatest danger.

Page 89: Where I found a perfect line of dialogue

A ruler should not call his general to arms simply out of anger; a general should not attack because he has been insulted. Only advance if it is to your clear advantage, otherwise stay put. Anger may change to contentment and insult to pleasure, but a kingdom once destroyed cannot be recovered, and the dead cannot be brought back to life. Thus a wise ruler is cautious, and a good general alert. This is the way to keep a country at peace and its armies intact.

Page 91: Where I learned that war is no metaphor

For what enables a wise ruler and an able general to attack decisively and to succeed where ordinary men fail, is foreknowledge. And foreknowledge cannot be found by consulting the spirits, or by comparing similar situations. It is not to be found by measuring the movements of heaven and the earth; it is to be obtained from men who have accurate knowledge of the enemy’s situation.

 Page 95: Where I learned about using spies

When you find the enemy’s agents spying on you, offer them bribes, lavish care on them and lodge them handsomely. Thus they may become converted spies and be of use to you. It is through these converted spies that you will be able to recruit local spies and internal spies. It is through them that your expandable spies will feed false reports to the enemy. And it is also through them that your permanent spies will be able to act as occasion demands. A ruler must know how to employ all five kinds of spy, and this understanding comes necessarily from the converted spies.

And that’s just from a first reading. Now, turning back to the first page…

The Art of War - First Page

Our Borders: Gone (1990–1992 CE)

“After all the pain I went through to cross that border, I couldn’t believe that it was finally possible,” Radu Codrescu said in 2006. “For a long time I had this feeling of unreal. My biggest dream had finally come true, but it felt like a dream, not like real life. I had traveled before, with my rowing team, and I had seen other countries, so it wasn’t the surprise of a new country that I couldn’t digest. It was the mere fact that I could be there.”

On May 8, 1990, 28-year old Radu Codrescu landed in East Berlin, Germany with a bag on his shoulder and 50 Deutschmarks in his pocket. He was alone, his wife and little daughter still in Bucharest. Radu spoke some German, but couldn’t comprehend much of the native speakers’ fast words. The airport was huge and busy and noisy and Radu stood for a long time in the middle of that bustle, not sure what to do next. The Berlin Wall still divided the city, but there was free passage to West Berlin, so Radu boarded a bus heading there.

In the spring of 1990, Western Europe was full of goodwill for the other half of the continent. There was a flood of donations going east, and a flood of people going west. People welcomed relatives and friends from whom they had been separated for decades. West Germany’s Basic Law (the constitution) offered asylum rights to people fleeing from political persecution in their native countries, and even though only a small percentage of the requests were granted, the authorities allowed the applicants to remain in the country until their case was decided, and even during their appeals. The German state provided financial aid all throughout the process, a process that Radu didn’t know much about. All he knew on that May afternoon, with the city of Berlin bright with blooming flowers all around him, was that he was there, and he was overwhelmed and excited.

Old Romanian Passport - Wikipedia

Old Romanian Passport – Wikipedia

At the border checkpoint, an officer got on the bus and asked for the passengers’ passports. Radu handed his: mint green covers embossed with golden letters that spelled “The Socialist Republic of Romania.” On the third page, Radu’s solemn picture was glued on top of the old communist coat of arms. The expiration date was five years in the future. That passport was thing of beauty! The officer gave it back. No questions asked.

At the Zoo Station in West Berlin, Radu got off the bus.

“There I wondered again: what should I do next? Sleep under a bridge, in the railway station, somewhere inside the zoo? I saw a policeman in the middle of the street. I went straight to him and I told him that I wanted political asylum.”

Radu didn’t quite understand what the policeman answered, but he recognized the words “more policemen” and “down the street.” He followed the officer’s hand directions, found the nearest station, and walked in.

“I want political asylum,” Radu said in his tentative German to an officer at a desk.

“Your passport,” the policeman said.

Radu handed his passport, the policeman checked it, and kept it. He told Radu to go straight ahead, down the street for about ten minutes, until he saw the refugee camp. It was one of the many floating camps set up all across West Germany as needed. Another policeman welcomed Radu there and processed him with efficiency. Radu received bed sheets, a pillow, a blanket, and was assigned a bed in a dormitory.

“Tomorrow, come back for your allowance,” the officer said.

“Allowance?” Radu said. “I don’t pay here?”

“No,” the officer said. “You’ll get your DM 132 monthly allowance tomorrow.”

Radu was now among people who looked more like him, fellow Romanians, lots and lots of them, but also Albanians, Hungarians, Yugoslavians, and even people from places as far as India and Africa. The food was good, the place was clean, but Radu wasn’t allowed to work during the first stages of his application for political asylum, so he canvassed the city in search of daily jobs. Soon, he knew all the work points in Berlin, and he took any job he could find: construction, car repairs, street washing, sweeping, driving. His language skills improved and apart from missing his family, he was getting a hang of that new, exciting life.

“I was there [during the reunification of October 3, 1990], when everybody was celebrating, while hammers splintered the cement blocks. I was there and I watched.”

During the full medical checkup needed for the asylum application, Radu’s tests revealed a spot on his left lung. Probably cancer, the doctors said, and they checked him into a hospital, where they kept him in isolation.

“I didn’t like that, so I fled the hospital as soon as I had the chance.”

Just before he ran away from the cancer ward, Radu shaved with a bad razorblade and got a small cut. Back in the refugee camp, the infection got out of control. Radu’s neck swelled like his friend Eugen’s did, back at Popa Şapcă in 1984. Radu was in pain and had trouble breathing. The ambulance that took him from the refugee camp dropped him at a different hospital, where he was given antibiotics and where the doctors ran all the tests again, including the lungs X-rays. Something was definitely wrong with Radu’s left lung, so they sent him to a lung hospital.

Radu told the doctor there that he had already been locked in a cancer ward and that he had run away from that place, but the doctor calmed him down; no cancer looked like that on X-ray.

“You’ll love the hospital I’m sending you to,” Radu remembered the doctor telling him, “so much so that you won’t want to leave.”

“Really?” Radu said. “But if I don’t like it, I’ll run away again.”

Radu did love the sanatorium where the lung doctor had sent him. It was a beautiful building on Radeland Strasse. Sunlight bathed Radu’s large, clean room. Through the tall French doors he looked out at the trees and watched the ducks swimming on the lake. Radu lived there for three months while he received IV chemotherapy, free of charge, to make sure that the enclosed tuberculosis he actually had wouldn’t come back. How he got the disease in the first place, he didn’t know, but his body had fought it and contained it on its own.

Radu was well taken care of, but he missed his family. He wanted to bring them over, but by then, the German authorities had blacklisted Romanians from visiting in an effort to stem the immigration flood that had started after the Romanian Revolution of December 1989. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world were seeking refuge in the newly-unified Germany, and the cost of it all had strained the resources of the federal government and the local administrations, not to mention the goodwill of the German people. If Romanians wanted to visit, they now needed to a written invitation from a German citizen.

Radu became friends with the doctor who oversaw his treatment at the sanatorium. She had time to chat and Radu loved to tell stories. She agreed to write the invitation that Radu needed so that his family in Romania could come visit him in Germany. That was how Laura, Radu’s wife, their three year-old daughter, Radu’s mother and Radu’s brother all stood one day in the lobby of the sanatorium, just as out-of-place there as Radu had been in the East Berlin airport.

Three year-old Radu, his older brother, his mother and father, in a family portrait from 1965

Three year-old Radu, his older brother, his mother and father, in a family portrait from 1965

After Radu left the sanatorium, the authorities separated him and his family: Laura and her daughter in one refugee camp, Radu’s mother and brother in another, while Radu was sent to a third one, even though he explained to the officers in charge that they were all family and wanted to stick together. So Radu came up with a solution, Romanian-style: he took his papers and penciled in the name of Laura’s camp, Karlsruhe, over the name of the camp he had been assigned to. He wrote the new name on top of the official stamp, to make it look, well, official. Then he took his wife and daughter and checked in at their refugee camp – and nobody ever thought to doubt Radu’s papers.

The three of them were reunited with Radu’s mother and brother in another refugee camp in Stuttgart, and from there they all moved again to Besigheim. While living there, they received their work permits. Radu’s first legal job in Germany was plumbing, installing pipes and tiling roofs. His Math and computer skills helped him land a job at Siemens, programming microchips for automated tools.

Things were now looking up and the Codrescu family was not looking back.

“I don’t have fond memories of Romania,” Radu said in 2006, “maybe only from when I was a boy and I used to go to my grandmother’s and play with other kids my age. (…) I had fun in the rowing team, but that is too little to go back for. I wouldn’t go back only for that, and those things are gone anyway.”

Radu and Laura worked hard, building a good life for themselves and for their child in their adoptive country. Freedom was a word that had real meaning for them and they knew how to appreciate what others took for granted.

But by 1992, the German people had had enough with the immigrants and the asylum seekers. The whole country was dealing with a schism between the eastern and western regions that was deeper and harder to bridge than anybody had thought before. Tensions were high, scapegoating easy. The media and the politicians were talking about amendments to the Basic Law to tighten restrictions on granting asylum: not allowing third-country applicants to live in the country while being processed, and increasing funds for the immigration bureaucracy so that asylum-seekers would spend less time in Germany.

In November 1992, a letter arrived at Radu and Laura’s apartment. It was from their immigration lawyer and it read like this:

Dear Mr. Radu Codrescu,

Attached is the court decision concerning your case. Unfortunately, the court believes that you didn’t suffer political persecutions in your country. The decision becomes final two weeks after you receive this letter, on 11/23/1992. In order not to be deported from The Federal Republic of Germany, you will have to voluntarily leave the country by 12/7/1992, in case you don’t receive an extension. I will let you know as soon as I get an answer from R.P. Stuttgart.

Signed and dated.

Radu was crushed. He and Laura had built a life in Germany. They had friends, their daughter had friends. Radu had a job, a bank account, an apartment, a car.

“[The German authorities] were mean to us too. They would show up at your door in the middle of the night and take you out of your bed, in your pajamas, and send you back to Romania.”

The extension arrived in time. The Codrescus were allowed to stay in Germany until April 15, 1993, but no later. Laura and her daughter were going to return to Romania for the time being, but not Radu. No. If he ever went back, it was going to be by his own choice.

Next: A Bright Christmas (1992 CE)

PreviousWhen History First Changed (1990 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

Author Interview: Isla McKetta on Writing from History

Isla McKetta is a Seattle novelist, book reviewer and blogger at A Geography of Reading, and she also serves on the board of Richard Hugo House. Isla and I met during our Goddard MFA program six years ago and I have been reading her work ever since. I’m thrilled that she has two new books coming out almost at the same time, Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art, co-authored with Rebecca Bridge (in March 2014, from Write Bloody Publishing) and Polska, 1994 (in May 2014, from Editions Checkpointed).

Isla's School ID and Bus Pass, Poland, 1994

Isla’s School ID and Bus Pass, Poland, 1994 – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

Isla lived in Pinochet’s Chile and in post-Cold War Poland, she speaks several languages, and she studied political science and sociology in addition to creative writing. Talking to her is always fascinating and enlightening. Thank you, Isla, for taking the time to answer a few questions for Rewriting History.

***

Your two upcoming books: one is fiction, one nonfiction. How different is it to write in these two genres?

Clear Out the Static in Your AtticI’ve just released Clear Out the Static in Your Attic through Write Bloody Publishing, which is a book of writing prompts co-authored with Rebecca Bridge. We’re both content strategists at Portent, Inc. and I spend a lot of time writing for the Internet in that breezy, accessible tone that offers helpful advice and (ideally) leaves the reader feeling like they’ve learned something. This nonfiction book carries that tone. In it we share the best writing advice we’ve learned and offer some exercises to help writers find the inspiration within. It was a fast and fun book to write (we started writing it in January 2013 and advance copies arrived on my doorstep in February 2014).

Polska 1994In contrast, writing Polska, 1994, my novella, was the most delicious struggle. Both books required a process of taking information and distilling it, but with Polska, 1994, there was so much more for me to figure out along the way. I had to learn why I was writing the book and start to understand the questions I was asking. And then there’s the process of creating characters and the plot. I was so much more involved and I worked on the book in various forms for roundabout 10 years. The story started to take shape while I was in graduate school at Goddard from 2008-10 and I’ve been polishing and honing the prose ever since. Once the story became whole, I started keeping a tally of drafts and I think the very last pass with my editor at Editions Checkpointed brought me up to number 23.

But I want to stress how wonderful all that work has been. I often say that writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever loved doing, and this process of exploration and the quest for perfection has really opened me up as a human being. It’s helped me become more empathetic and to grow up a little. It’s helped me understand who I am and what are the fundamental questions I’m trying to answer in life.

What themes do you explore in your writing?

The easy answers are love and loss, but of course it’s more than that. I also struggle with silence and oppression. I was a shy, introverted kid from a family with Southern norms. Early on I got the message that if I smiled pleasantly and didn’t say a word I was the best company in the world. I’m not at all saying that my parents weren’t interested in me, but that quiet smile is still the first one I carry into any new encounter. What that means is that I often feel like people don’t know the real me – that I have to stifle that person in order to be who the world wants me to be. You can imagine that what’s resulted over the last thirtysome years is a feeling of being bottled up. This has made me interested in the ways we oppress each other and ourselves on a personal level. That shushing gesture from a parent to an older child or the way a wife looks at a husband to get him to change his behavior at a party.

I spent a year in Chile as a child while Pinochet was in power which was where I started to understand that oppression happens on a much larger scale. As Americans, we were protected, but I overheard enough to know about the protests and that people were rounded up in soccer stadiums and then disappeared. Some of the magic of being a kid is that I’m sure some of the information I heard is distorted or wrong in some way but it all seemed so vivid. I’m sure I didn’t really process it at the time, but I developed a profound sense of injustice that was only deepened during the year I lived in Poland after the Cold War. This interest led me to pursue degrees in Political Science and Sociology as an undergrad. I thought I would change the world through working at an NGO or something, but over time I realized the best way for me to speak out was through writing.

I am also interested in truth. I come from a long line of storytellers and embellishers, which is a wonderful resource if you are a fiction writer, but I also found that I always want to know what the real truth is in the story. Sometimes that’s getting the facts right and sometimes it’s understanding the human truth.

Polska, 1994 is an intense and lyrical coming-of-age story that draws from the recent history of Eastern Europe – from World War II to the resistance behind the Iron Curtain and the messiness of freedom once the borders imposed by the communist rule collapsed. Magda, the seventeen year-old protagonist, is strong and vulnerable, wise and naïve, loving and unable to see love – a complex hero who grabs the reader from the very first page and doesn’t let go until her story is told and her voice heard. The word “voice” carries a lot of meaning in your story. There’s a polarity that runs through every scene between “silence” and “voice.” How is this reflected in the structure of your book?

The use of “voice” is twofold. The weird answer is that I have a visceral reaction to certain voices. The timbre of them either makes me weak in the knees or want to run. I’ve been really interested in that reaction and whether there is some pheromonal secretion through speech or something. I haven’t taken the time to delve into the science, but I did bring that feeling into the book with Magda’s instant attraction to Jacek.

Skaters in Warsaw

Skaters in Warsaw, 1994 – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

Secondly of course, the dichotomy between voice and silence gets down to exploring the issues I’ve discussed above – to speaking out. Magda’s struggle is in many ways to break the silence of her family. I think she’d be almost as happy to find out what really happened as she would be if her mother stepped onto the doorstep. And silence can be one of the heaviest things. It’s almost worse than a lie because you can convince yourself that a lie is true, but an imposed silence carries this weight of acknowledgement of what happened but we choose not speak of it. So Magda looks to the river for answers. Of course it cannot really answer her, but talking to the river gives Magda a way to break her own silence and to start to understand what she needs to know about her family and herself.

Is the fascinating, almost subliminal appearance of the street musician tied into your silence/voice (be erased/be heard) story spine?

Olek's Sun-faded and Worn Blue Hoodie

Olek’s Sun-faded and Worn Blue Hoodie – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

I’m glad you asked about the musician. One of the things I loved most about writing this book (and I hope the next and every one thereafter) is the way that everything I’m reading, listening to, and experiencing converges at the right time. I’d been writing about how Magda was struggling with Jacek and with being a sexual being and there was this street musician that I encountered every day on my way to work. He started talking to me and at times made me profoundly uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to handle the whole thing so I put someone like him in the book, playing, of course, Murmures de la Seine. He also reminded me of those side characters that Kieslowski sometimes uses in his films that serve no greater purpose than atmosphere, so I kept him.

When I first read your book, it was called Murmurs of the River. How did you choose your final title, Polska, 1994?

I wanted so badly for the title Murmurs of the River to stick, but the title has always been a struggle for this book. For years I had no idea what to call it. I figured that a title would come to me, so I just called the book Polska. Then as I neared what I thought was the end (ha!) of revising the book, I felt pressure to call it something. I came up with pages of ideas and thoughts that helped pick out some of the themes. But none of them sounded like a title. I decided for a while to call it Murmurs of the River because the music I went back to time and time again as I revised the book was Chopin’s Murmures de la Seine. I listened to each of the three individual nocturnes on repeat in the background as I edited each of the three sections of my book. One day it hit me, in the way encountering foreign words sometimes does, that those pieces were about a river and my book was in many ways about a river, so…

Toruń Skyline on the Shores of the Vistula (Wisła)

Toruń Skyline on the Shores of the Vistula (Wisła), Poland, 1994 – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

But people hated the title. Or, worse, didn’t care about it at all. I’d always assumed that a publisher would want to put their stamp on the book anyway so I let it go. My editor and I went back through the title process and then she read on my blog (http://islamcketta.com) about how I’d originally called the book Polska and got excited about that line of thought. I’d worried way back when the working title was Polska that it wasn’t specific enough about the story or that it limited the audience too much. But the book really is a portrait of Poland as I found it in 1994, so Polska, 1994 it is.

You spent a year in Toruń, Poland as an exchange student in 1994-5, when you were about Magda’s age. How much did you remember about the life of a high school girl in Poland, and how much did you research anew when you put together your story? Did you find your memories of those times and places reliable? What made you excited to write the book in the first place?

Nineteen ninety-four was a fascinating time to be in Poland. The Berlin Wall had been down long enough that people were realizing capitalism was not the answer to all the world’s problems and yet the memory of the Soviet Union was still very fresh. I wanted to document what it felt like to live in that incredible time. But I also wrote the book because I loved the Polish people and I wanted to understand them better. Overall, and this is a wide generalization, but there was also this underlying sadness I was interested to explore. In Poland when someone asks how you are, it’s rude to say you are well and people don’t smile on the streets. There’s also this incredible history of being betrayed by neighboring countries and sometimes by neighbors. Still, when you get to know Poles, they are deeply sincere and generous. I wanted to dig deeper into that and to celebrate it a little. I hope I’ve both been honest and done the country justice.

I remembered some things and more came to me as I wrote. Luckily I’d kept a diary while I was there. And the Internet was a godsend. There were places I remembered or had written about in my diary, but memory is tricky. I’d do a Google Image search for a particular place that I did not have photos of and just seeing the pictures brought back even more memories. I also keep in contact with a few people. But I did a ton of research for this book, too, especially at the outset before I knew what kind of story I wanted to tell. I read Norman Davies in particular and everything I could get my hands on about the history of the Polish resistance at the UW library. When I realized the crux of the story lay in the period from 1977-1994, I set aside some books about the Warsaw Uprising that I’m still excited to get back to. And I haven’t been back to Poland since 1995 so the image of how it was then is the only image in my head. I think if I had visited again (which I do hope to do), writing this book set in one specific moment in time would have been harder.

There was a period of writing the book, too, where I had to let my story live on its own and I stopped reading about Poland then. But when I went back to re-edit the book after finding a publisher, the first thing I did was start reading Polish books and watching Polish films again. Now that the book is finished, the first thing I did was pick up more Polish books and movies. I am not Polish (although I am 1/4 Ukrainian) and I did not grow up there, but something about living among Poles stuck with me and shaped who I am. It’s a part of me that I love, so it’s been a pleasure to immerse myself in that again.

Your story is part detective story, with Magda trying to piece together the story of her mother and also to disentangle the history of Poland in ’81 (when there had been street riots and rubber bullets, and tear gas) from her family’s history. How much of that history you knew before you spent time in Poland, how much you learned there, how much you discovered afterwards? What was your story of laying down Magda’s story? Did you talk to many Polish people in preparation for this book? Did you study the history of the Solidarity and how it reached towns and cities outside Gdansk?

Getting Harassed on Polish Trains (1994) - Isla McKetta's Collection

Getting Harassed on Polish Trains (1994) – Isla McKetta’s Collection

I had some really great teachers when I was in Poland and people were very open about sharing their stories with me when I was there. They talked a lot to me about their experiences under the Soviet Union and some of the complexity of how things were changing with the Polish state. So when I started researching the book, I took the background of some of the stories that had stuck with me as the basis for my research. It helped to focus on Toruń because it’s someplace I knew well by the time I left, but almost all of the places in the book are places I’ve been to and photographed.

You once mentioned that writing this book was a way to appreciate and understand the Polish culture that you loved when you were there. Did you partake of the customs and traditions of Poland, such as Wigila or the Easter service?

I was lucky enough to be welcomed into two families officially while I was there and many more unofficially. One set of drafts of this book was actually the process of laying out all the Polish things I had experienced and wanted to include in the book. It’s interesting to me that what remains in the book of those traditions is more what I researched and less what I experienced. For example, we did a sort of Wigilia at the home where I was living, but I did not ever go to Mass on Christmas Eve or otherwise. And of Easter I experienced more of the big feast than the church service (although I have taken a basket to be blessed on the Saturday before Easter twice, once with a Polish family in Idaho and once in Poland). So most of the ceremonial aspect of the book is based on research I did. The lighted graveyard for All Soul’s Day was something I participated in and which left a huge impression on me. But traditions like Andrzejki are included based solely on research. And at one point I thought I’d include Smigus Dingus (a day when boys pour water on girls for some reason I don’t understand) or International Women’s Day, but neither fit the story.

Warsaw Uprising Monument, Krasinski Square, Warsaw, Poland – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

Warsaw Uprising Monument, Krasinski Square, Warsaw, Poland – Isla McKetta’s Photo Collection

I was very glad that pisanki (intricately painting Easter eggs with wax and dye) fit the story, though, because it’s a tradition my family kept from the Ukraine and it’s something I do almost every year although my family is not at all religious.

You mentioned once that you grew up without religion. How did the immersion in a culture that has such a long religious tradition shape or change your understanding of its history?

I am fascinated by religion, and by the Catholic religion in particular. I remember watching my best friend in Chile cross herself as she prayed and knowing that I had to learn more. So being in a very Catholic country wasn’t intimidating or anything. I wish, actually, that I’d participated in more ceremony while there. But I have enough reverence for religion that I never know where I fit in with a service, so I mostly avoid them. For example, I’ve never taken communion because I believe it’s sacred, even though my own beliefs are less theist and more spiritual. Still, that gesture of crossing oneself is one I borrowed from my Chilean friend and Polish friends and it’s something I use almost superstitiously (though shyly in the anti-religious Northwest).

What I loved about the Catholic Church in Poland was how much of a role it played in the political life as well as the religious one. By that I mean the stories of priests helping with the resistance or saving Jews in World War II (I know those stories go both ways). The US seems sometimes conflicted about how secular we want to be and in Poland it just wasn’t a question. So it was interesting to see what that was like.

Your novel develops like a musical piece. Can you talk a bit about the structure, the two voices used in the first part, the past and the present, and then the change of tense and pace as Magda completes her journey, in Part II?

I always wish I had a better musical education, because I feel like there is something about the way music is structured that I intuitively understand and bring to my writing, but I don’t have the language to talk about it in the way I would like.

The structure of the novel was a struggle for a long time, but finding Chopin’s Murmures de la Seine was a big help in giving me a consistent key that I could return to whenever I was editing the book, no matter what was happening in the real world. At first I wanted the reader to go on a linear journey with Magda as she was spurred on her quest, but the tone wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I realized that Part I of the book should be told in retrospect that the feeling was right. As the action of the book moves forward, the reader is then immersed in how Magda got to the river (as remembered in past tense) and also the present tense moments when Magda is speaking to the river that break through the narrative. Part II then is in present tense as the action moves forward.

When I found the bits of poetry from Miłosz that serve as titles for the various chapters, I knew in my heart that all the pieces were in the right place, but some of the later drafts were focused on honing some time markers and things to help readers follow the train of events.

You use cultural references that are both Polish and universal. Copernicus, Chopin, Polanski are Polish names that have universal recognition. By using them, and their boundary-breaking science or iconoclastic art you foreshadow Magda’s journey through a world where the old rules don’t apply anymore, but where there aren’t good new rules to follow either. Did you choose your cultural references to mirror and enforce the exploratory aspect of Madga’s journey?

Wow, that’s a fantastic question and I wish I had. I chose referents that meant something to me, which, in many cases were the ones who had reached prominence in western culture. I think it says something about the Polish culture, though, that there are all these amazing scientists and artists who emerge from there and then achieve that kind of acclaim in their respective fields. Maybe it’s true of all countries and I’m just more attuned to Poland. At various times I included some less recognizable names (like the bands Kult and Varius Manx), but not all of them survived the litany of drafts.

Because this is a book written in English, by an American, about Poland, I never assumed that the main audience was Polish. That changes the shape of the book. For example, passages that explain Polish history are just a way to get myself in trouble with a Polish audience because they have the depth of knowledge that I do not. But for an American audience, that history gives essential context.

What’s the greatest piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

The greatest writing advice I ever received, and there are so many I’ve passed along in Clear Out the Static, is from Micheline Aharonian Marcom. She talks about revising as a process of raking a garden. First you work out the boulders, the things that are obviously in the way, then you work on the pebbles and get them in the right place. Eventually you are working with the sand.

That advice helped me stay sane through the various drafts of this book, because at first I wanted all the language to be perfect so I’d clean it and make it beautiful. But then the scene had to move or be taken out or fundamentally changed. I was trying to rake the sand and there were all these boulders in the way. Micheline helped me trust that I would still remember to fix those things in a later draft.

What’s your next project?

I’m writing about love and the various ways we change ourselves to be loved. The book is in a very rough state and for a few months I thought it might turn into a book of poems, but now I think it will be a novel or novella. Honestly, at this point after months of editing two books and the months ahead of marketing them, I’m really just excited to get back to writing, period.

Thank you, Isla.

When My Blogging Became Spam

Last week, Facebook’s new algorithm determined that posting a link on my timeline to my latest blog post was spam, so it didn’t display the link in anybody’s News Feed, except for the few people who had marked me as their family or close friend. I felt as if I had done something illegal and I was being punished. Because I’m not paying for the platform Facebook is offering, it can shut me out if and when it wants to and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“What clues can history provide about the future evolution of social media? Even though Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms provide a way for people to share information by sharing along social connections, they still resemble old-fashioned media companies such as newspapers and broadcasters in two ways: they are centralized (even though the distribution of information is carried out by the users, rather than the platform owners) and they rely on advertising for the majority of their revenue. Centralization grants enormous power to the owners of social platforms, giving them the ability to suspend or delete users’ accounts and censor information if they choose to do so — or are compelled to do so by governments. Relying on advertising revenue, meanwhile, means platform owners must keep both advertisers and users happy, even though their interests do not always align. As they try to keep users within the bounds of their particular platforms, to maximize their audience for advertising, the companies that operate social networks have started to impose restrictions on what their customers can do and on how easily information can be moved from one social platform to another. In their early days, it makes sense for new social platforms to be as open as possible, to attract a large number of users. Having done so, however, such platforms often try to fence their users into “walled gardens” as they start trying to make money.”

Standage, Tom (2013-10-15). Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years (Kindle Locations 4183-4193). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

436px-Cego_Rabequista_GPEG_

Cego Rabequista, Jose Rodrigues (1828–1887) – Wikipedia

I picked up Tom Standage’s book after I read about it on a blog, and from its first pages I became excited about what it said: that people are wired for sharing through social networks and that social-media ecosystems existed since before ancient Greek and Roman times. I had always been skeptical about social platforms, but this book made me think that I was wrong to stay away, so I decided to see for myself if I could connect with like-minded people the way Cicero did during the 1st century BCE.

I had a public page on Facebook for Rewriting History (I removed it since), so that was where I was going to begin my quest for people interested in story and history, people who were not my family or friends and wouldn’t feel pressured to read my content. I was going to advertise the way any business advertises to reach new customers. I understand how capitalism works even though I grew up in a communist country.

I looked into the services Facebook offered and I found two. First, I could boost a post to get it in front of my friend’s eyes, but who would read such a post? I know I never read sponsored content because sponsored content means two things to me: an agenda and the money that props it. And I hate being lied to – because I grew up in a communist country.

So I tried the second way of doing business with Facebook, promoting a whole page to people who don’t know me. For $5, Facebook guaranteed 6 to 22 likes per day. How? I didn’t quite understand that part. What if nobody liked my page because it was awful? But I didn’t wonder for too long. During the first few hours of promoting my page, I got a dozen new Likes and I maxed out my budget for the day. I was thrilled that there were people out there, people like me, who were interested in reading my ruminations about historical fact and historical fiction.

One thing didn’t look right though: none of the people who liked Rewriting History on Facebook landed on my website to check it out or read a post. I knew this because WordPress and Google Analytics both showed no traffic during the hours when I was raking in those Facebook Likes.

I stopped advertising and waited for those new people to access my blog, post comments, dig through things, but nothing happened. A week later, I advertised again, though this time I was a little worried that I was scammed somehow. But I also felt silly to suspect this, because we’re talking about Facebook here, not a Nigerian prince. Facebook took my money – real money – and they sold me their product. Which had to be real too. I used to work for Microsoft, so I knew that a large corporation can’t run scams, because they can be sued. Big time.

I watched the same rush of people who liked my Facebook page as the first time around and I also received zero page views on my website. I started looking at those people’s profiles, all of them from the US. Real locales, but there was one problem with all of them. They also liked THOUSANDS of other pages in addition to mine. One guy in particular made my skin crawl: on his public profile, he had nothing but pictures of guns and of women’s butts in bikinis. What on earth was this guy doing liking my Rewriting History page?

I used to be the development lead for www.xbox.com so I have some idea of how services work. I have heard of click farms and social bots, fake profiles set up to fool someone at a first glance, but when looked at in detail – and who has time to look at other people’s profile in such detail? – they don’t add up. But still, why would a social bot or someone being paid cents a day in a click farm on the other side of the planet Like my page? I didn’t pay them. I paid Facebook. Facebook is getting my money, and I couldn’t imagine Facebook paying people to like my page.

Then it hit me: I was not the target of those Likes, I was a side effect, collateral damage in a bigger scheme. Bots or clicking humans gave me Likes because they probably liked anything and everything that appeared on the right hand side of their News Feed. They either Like things in bulk or hide the paid-for Likes among a multitude of collateral Likes, in order to look legit. And Facebook can’t or won’t do anything to stop them.

I was torn about my thirty or so brand new Likes I had just bought on Facebook. On the one hand, they made my page look good – 165 was the most I had. But then I learned that fake Likes are worse than nothing, because of another part of Facebook’s algorithm, the one that populates the users’ News Feed.

“Fake likes don’t represent real “engagement” with your page. They don’t translate into comments on your posts, or result in those posts being shared with other people. And that’s a big deal, for a subtle reason: Facebook’s algorithm decides how prominently to feature your posts in News Feeds by paying attention to how often your friends and followers engage with your content. If you post something new, and all those people who previously liked your page proceed to actively comment on it and share it and like it, Facebook will automatically give that post a boost. But if all those thousands of people who have liked your page never show up, your content gets downgraded, and nobody sees it.”

“Facebook’s black market problem revealed” by Andrew Leonard

So, after I read Andrew Leonard’s article on Salon.com and watched “Facebook Fraud” by Veritasium on YouTube, I opened the list of people who Liked my page and deleted most of those who had more than 300 Likes.

This exercise in navigating social media gobbled up precious time and money. Trying to prop up my author’s platform on Facebook has already taken countless hours I would’ve been better off putting into my novel. So how did I get sucked into this scheme to begin with?

Writing on the WallI created my blog a year ago after a handful of my writer friends from Louisa’s told me not to fight the system, but embrace it. I was fighting it at the time, but I knew that, as an apprentice writer, I needed to start building my author platform. I had heard the word “platform” many times already, at classes at Hugo House, in writing magazines, rolling off writers’ tongues.

Creating an author platform is great in theory, but quite a fool’s errand in reality. Why? Not because it’s not worth trying to master a new format, to reach an audience, to hone your writing skills, but because we live during the Wild West times of web publishing, where the noise is deafening and the power belongs to the centralized social media hubs.

“That’s why Facebook’s “black box” is worth so much scrutiny. In this social-media house of cards, Facebook holds all the cards. Its algorithms determine how many people see your posts, and how many ads you see promoting other people’s posts. By making “engagement” determine how highly the News Feeds ranks your posts, and by actively selling the process of engagement, Facebook has not only defined the rules of the game; it’s also the only player that knows the rules. Like the U.S. government, it is minting its own currency, regulating its use, and setting interest rates, but all the while the underlying legislation and constitution defining the rules of the game are locked away in a vault.”

“Facebook’s black market problem revealed” by Andrew Leonard

Facebook promised to advertise my content and help me reach real people, but didn’t. Last week, it decided that my content was spam. I have no idea if anything I post now is visible to anybody on my Facebook friends list anymore. I do have my website, but it itself is hard to reach through the thicket of search engine optimizations and search engines’ anti-optimizations optimizations. Yes, I feel clueless and defeated, but only when I look at blogging from an “author platform” perspective.

I can’t gather the traffic numbers for my website that I’m supposed to – 20,000 page views a month – but when I forget all about the author platform, I realize that blogging is awesome. Not only because it’s an activity as old as civilization.

“In the years since the Internet became widespread, it has become commonplace to draw a distinction between “new” media based on digital technologies and the “old” media that came before it. But old media, it is now apparent, was something of a historical anomaly. It began in 1833 with the launch of the New York Sun, with its innovative mass-media model based on amassing a large audience and then selling their attention to advertisers. Look back before 1833 to the centuries before the era of old media began, however— to what could be termed the era of “really old” media —and the media environment, based on distribution of information from person to person along social networks, has many similarities with today’s world. In many respects twenty-first-century Internet media has more in common with seventeenth-century pamphlets or eighteenth-century coffee houses than with nineteenth-century newspapers or twentieth-century radio and television. New media is very different from old media, in short, but has much in common with “really old” media. The intervening old-media era was a temporary state of affairs, rather than the natural order of things. After this brief interlude— what might be called a mass-media parenthesis— media is now returning to something similar to its preindustrial form.”

Standage, Tom (2013-10-15). Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years (Kindle Locations 4049-4058). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Yes, I’m thrilled to engage in a very old art form, an art form that might not make a lot of money to publicly-traded corporations, but an art form that teaches me how to communicate effectively, how to spot narrative arcs in everyday life, how to think like a storyteller in 2,000 words or so. An art form that allows me to connect with a few people with whom I wouldn’t otherwise have time to talk beyond hello and goodbye. An art form that allows me to have a voice that I didn’t know I possessed.

When I was younger, I used to feel a mixture of sadness and embarrassment when I saw a street musician playing in front of a bucket with a few coins and bills in it. I thought, poor man, how desperate he might be to stand here, where nobody has time to listen to him, and to try, and fail, to be heard. Even though I always heard his music and everybody else did too, I thought he failed to be heard. Now, after a year of blogging, I know that my pity was misplaced. The musician was probably the most fortunate person on the street because he had his passion and he was following it no matter who was listening.

Street musician - Wikipedia

Street musician – Wikipedia

Even though my status updates might not be visible in other people’s News Feeds, I will go on writing on my blog about history and story, about fact and fiction, about improvisation and propaganda – because I love to think about these things. I will go on writing even though I can’t post every day when it takes me days, or even weeks, to work on each piece. I will go on writing even though I don’t know how to fight in the arms race of social media platforms and search engines. I will go on writing because I’m passionate about story and words. Because I am a writer and writing is what I do.

Our Borders: The Two Ends of the Telescope (1989 CE)

My protagonist and I crossed paths for the first time in 1989, though I only met him in 2001, when we were both half-a-planet away from our native Romania.

***

In 1989, I was twelve. My memories of those years are fading, so I had to reread a story I wrote in March 2006 for European Weekly to remember what I remembered eight years ago: the feel of chalk dust on my fingertips, the squeaking of the floorboards, the fading light through our classroom windows on the afternoons when we didn’t have power, the taste of bread and salted butter in my newspaper-wrapped sandwich, the pungent smell of chlorine from the girls’ bathroom where my friends and I went to chat during breaks.

I also remember the excitement at the beginning of the school year. As seventh graders, we were old enough to go to Agricultural Practice. At the beginning of October, we were going to pick potatoes from rows of upturned dirt on a state-owned farm outside my hometown of Galaţi. It was going to be fun. It was going to be like camp. When our class master told us to be ready the next Monday morning, the whole class erupted in cheers. I wasn’t happy to miss school for two weeks, but Agricultural Practice was my chance to get George’s attention.

Ah! I hadn’t much noticed George before that year – brown eyes, brown hair, short kid – but now that he had begun to strut and was dating  – oooh! Agricultural Practice was going to be the perfect setting for our possible romance, idyllic and pastoral. I had a clear understanding of life on a farm because I had read all about it in books. I couldn’t sleep that night, imagining George and I touching hands as we both reached for the same potato in the dirt.

I made sure to put on a few extra layers of leggings and sweaters – probably looking like a potato myself – and also my new rubber boots. The buses left our schoolyard soon after 7:30 in the morning and, by the time they unloaded us at the edge of a huge field under a sunny patch of sky, my clothes and my hair reeked of burnt diesel.

The farm supervisors distributed wicker baskets, which we had to fill and unload at the end of the long row, in a common big potato pile. Each class had to clear a certain number of rows. There was a lunch break. If we needed to go to the bathroom, we could lose ourselves into the two cornfields bookending our potato plantation.

The first day was full of surprises. It wasn’t easy to find a good spot to pee among the corn plants when hundreds of other kids were trying to do the same thing. Gloves would’ve helped with picking potatoes out of the sticky mud. It took a long time to fill a basket, a lot of crouching, reaching, throwing, getting up, until I learned that kneeling was easier. Though messier. And there was no prospect of touching hands with George in the dirt, reaching for the same potato, because each kid was assigned a segment of the never-ending row and was alone with the basket and the spuds, focusing on the job. The only chance to cross paths with my love interest was when I hauled my full basket to the common pile, but I had no luck there either. No accidental encounters with George in the cornfield, not even a brushing against each other on the bus back home because boys huddled with boys and girls with girls.

There was a small consolation at the end of the day, when I learned that we could each take home one kilogram of potatoes. There were no scales on the fields, so it was up to each of us to estimate how many potatoes went in one kilo. Some thought three big ones, some thought ten small ones. One boy thought that everything he can carry between his tucked-in sweater and his shirt, making him look like Santa Claus. I was on the moderate side. I put my three big potatoes on top of my lunch bag, and I wrapped another couple in the paper I had used for my sandwiches. So five in all.

I don’t think anybody at the farm actually cared if we took extra potatoes home – the food rations had got worse, and they understood – but all of us seventh graders felt that stealing potatoes was a taste of real life. We were learning the ropes. And watching the farm supervisors make Santa Claus empty his big belly full of potatoes before he was allowed to board the bus that day was a real-life lesson about moderation.

My arms were sore for the first few days. My hands, my fingers, my feet, my knees. Then I got used to it all. The rain, the mud, the sunshine. One dry day, as I reached deep into the dirt for a stubborn potato, a mouse bit me. I screeched and squeezed my throbbing index finger. Four tiny red dots arranged in a square – that was interesting! So a mouse had only four teeth? Hey, guys, I yelled at the other kids on the row. A few came by, George among them. I showed them my injury. George laughed, but didn’t get closer. Instead, another boy, Vali – light brown hair, brown eyes, goalkeeper’s leather gloves – took my hand and looked at the four red dots. He held my hand for a long time. It’s nothing, I said, and we all went back to work.

Field mouse - Wikipedia

Field mouse – Wikipedia

That afternoon, Vali found me on the field and showed me what he was holding in his gloved hand. It was a small brown mouse, its head trapped between Vali’s thumb and index finger. The poor thing was shaking and squirming. Vali held his hand up to me, and squeezed until the mouse became still. That was for what the other mouse had done to me, Vali explained. I stood there, my heart beating fast. I assumed that George was watching, so I held back my tears, took the mouse’s warm body in my hands, knelt down and buried it in an empty potato hole, under shallow dirt.

I was sick of picking potatoes, eight hours a day, six days a week. I missed school. The feel of chalk dust on my fingertips, the squeaking of the floorboards as I walked up to the whiteboard, the smell of blue ink and the whispering of the rugged paper as I filled page after page of my homework. We all made our bathroom breaks count, especially since, as we cleared row after row, we got further and further away from the cornfields. We went to the bathroom in groups and we waited for one another, chatting as we did back in our chlorinated restrooms at school.

One sunny day, after lunch, somebody must’ve thrown a potato at somebody else, and before we knew it, we broke into two groups, boys against girls, and were hurling potatoes at each other. We laughed and shrieked and ran around. I was good at dodging until I saw an opportunity. What if I let one of George’s flying potatoes hit me? Then I could pretend I had been injured. He would rush to my rescue, help me up, and we’d finally get a reason to touch hands. Brilliant! It hurt pretty badly, a blow to the head. I let myself fall to the ground in slow motion, and there I was, on my back, eyes closed, waiting for George’s silhouette to shade me from the blinding sun.

My eyes began watering. No shade appeared. What if I died, would anybody notice? I got myself up, dusted my clothes, and went back for my wicker basket with the bitter realization that my romance with George was not going to happen.

We got lucky that year. Agricultural Practice was cut short after our buses got stuck on a muddy country road and the meteorologist announced heavy rains for the rest of the workdays. The people at the farm were going to have to do with older students or inmates if they wanted to get all their potatoes out of the ground.

When our class master told us he’d see us back in our dry classroom the next day, we cheered and jumped. When he paid us each 74 lei (around $3) for our work, we were all ecstatic. On my way to the toy store, I probably began to imagine what it would be like if George was there too, the bills and coins tight in his fist, his brown eyes scanning the shelves for board games and soccer balls and books.

***

Around December 18, 1989, Radu Codrescu and two other men headed to the North Railway Station in Bucharest. They were going to cross the border to Hungary through the same spot he and Iulian had tried in 1986. Radu’s daughter was two-and-a-half, but Laura, his wife, had agreed to their plan.

At the station, the three men got in line to buy tickets for The Felix Baths, a tourist town in the west of the country, close to Oradea. The train from Arad to Oradea was going to get them close to the Hungarian border, near Grădinari. But they couldn’t buy tickets. The militia wasn’t allowing anybody to board trains to Timişoara or Arad that day.

Soon, Laura found out from her father that in Timişoara people were out in the streets, protesting the government. And the militia was shooting at them with real bullets.

When Bucharest rose up, on December 21, 1989, Laura’s father, a colonel in the State Security, called his daughter.

I was very impressed with him and how he handled reality, which was coming at him like a snowball,” Radu Codrescu said. “He had four sons-in-law and four daughters. He was also a very quiet man, maybe because he was in the army and people there keep to themselves. He was under attack in the barracks and he didn’t call anybody except me. He called me. He was telling [Laura] to not let me out in the streets because I might get killed. “Don’t let him out in the streets. They are killing people out there.” He wasn’t worried about his wife or his kids or the other sons-in-law. He knew that they would stay put. His only concern was to keep me out of danger. He knew what the situation was like, but many people who were out there in the streets didn’t really know that the army was instructed to kill. (…) But how could I not go? How could that have been possible? I was right there in the streets! I was right there in the middle of things. I was right there on the roof of the Central Committee of the Communist Party’s building. I climbed up there and I was screaming from the top of my lungs against Ceauşescu. And they were firing there. They were shooting at people at the CC site. People died there.”

Central Committee Square, Bucharest, December 1989

Central Committee Square, Bucharest, December 1989

Armored vehicles were sweeping the streets of Bucharest. At home, with her daughter, Laura stayed by the phone. A friend of hers who was a nurse called. The doctors and the nurses at that hospital were in tears because of what they were seeing. Young people, even children, shot dead. There wasn’t enough space in the morgue for all the bodies.

“I wasn’t hurt though,” Radu Codrescu said. “The closest a bullet got to me was when it ended into a street pole right next to me. There were the three of us, my brother, I, and the pole and the pole took the bullet. We dropped to the ground and checked ourselves. You don’t really know when you get shot, you don’t feel it. You just die.”

Radu Codrescu and thousands of people like him went out in the streets in December 1989 and changed my life forever. Because of them then, I can type these words now.

Next: When History First Changed (1990 CE)

PreviousWhat’s in a Name?

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

Our Borders: What’s in a Name?

Yesterday, the protagonist of my series Our Borders asked me to change his name on this website, for privacy reasons. It seemed like an easy thing to do, just Replace All in each of the ten blog posts I have written so far (including the comments), and I’d be done. An hour’s worth of work on my website – tops. (It took a bit longer than that.)

But something strange happened. First there was a feeling of uneasiness creeping in, as if I had lost something very important. I couldn’t quite figure out what bothered me, but during the evening I started to put into words how I felt. And the words “What’s in a name?” kept going through my head.

***

Juliet:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Romeo:

[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

Juliet:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Romeo:

I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

***

Wikipedia

Rosehip (from Wikipedia)

I beg to differ, Juliet. For me, a name is a pact of staying true. For my writing, a name can be a choice of genre. Nonfiction versus fiction.

I tried writing my friend’s story before, as fiction, during my MFA program at Goddard College. I worked on that novel from 2007 to 2010, but something else strange happened back then too. The crazy adventures my friend had had in real life didn’t translate well into fiction. For a real person, yes, it was incredible what he had been through. For a novel character, the stakes were never high enough. And the worst of it all was that there was no antagonist in his story. Nobody working against my main character, sabotaging his attempts to cross the Romanian borders. There were tons of threshold guardians in his story, but no villains.

Back then, I tried the best I could to tighten up the structure of the story, to focus my main character’s struggles along lines determined by his relationships with his family and friends. I could always create a villain and set her against him, but that felt artificial. I could also make the protagonist be his own worst enemy – the villain within – but that meant betraying the real person behind the story. So there I toiled, with no structure to my story, no character arc, no transformative journey, no catharsis. And I failed.

When I began this blog series, I didn’t know if I could make it work, but the new medium and the new format allowed me to create structure on an episodic level. Every time I work on a piece, I  sift through thousands of words of interviews, I read anything I can find online about those times in Romania, I look at maps and pictures, and, like a detective, I try to find connections. Where my friend describes the mechanics of trying to cross a militarized border, I ask him questions about his friends, wife, mother, trying to create a personal connection between a reader who doesn’t necessarily know or care about the historical context of 1980s’ Romania and a protagonist who’s on a universal quest for freedom. In my blog posts, history is the background of story. And the story is that of a man with an extraordinary life and an incredible level of determination.

But now that I’m obscuring my friend’s name, history must take first place, the things that are still fact and not fiction – and I’m afraid that I will lose the personal connection between the reader and the protagonist.

***

Last night, I remembered reading a fascinating article a few months back on Simcha Jacobovici’s website called Palestine: History of a Name.

The ancient Romans knew that a name was powerful when they began to call Judea Palestine in 135 CE. Simcha Jacobovici explains that Palestine means “the land of the Philistines,” who “are the people of Delilah and Goliath. (…) they were an Aegean people from the area of modern day Greece.” In the Old Testament, the Philistines were the villains, the arch-enemies of the Jews, and the Romans chose to rename Judea Palestine for clear political benefits.

“After the Philistines disappeared from the historical stage, the name “Palestina” lingered on. Meaning, the people were gone, the name lingered. It appears in references here and there in classic Greek writings e.g., Herodotus. By the time Jesus was born, there hadn’t been any Philistines in the area for some 600 years. The name does not appear anywhere in the Gospels. And the people living in Judea at the time of Jesus – including Jesus and all his disciples – would never have referred to their country as “Palestine”. Even the Romans didn’t call the area Palestine. Remember, when they crucified him, the Romans put a plaque over Jesus’ head with the inscription – in three languages – “King of the Jews”, not the “Philistines” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).” – Simcha Jacobovici

The Romans began using this name after a long series of revolts that followed the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE.

“When the Bar Kochba revolt was finally put down in 135 CE, the Romans exiled the majority of the Jewish people and renamed Judea “Palestina”. To be clear, “Syria Palestine” officially became a Roman province about a century after Jesus’ crucifixion. The idea was to erase the Jewish presence from Judea and to designate their homeland with reference to their Biblical enemies. It was a last humiliation. To also be clear, there were no Philistines at the time and even if some had miraculously survived, they were not Arabs but Greeks.” – Simcha Jacobovici

A name is powerful, the Romans knew that. In my neck of the woods, after the emperor Trajan conquered the Dacian kingdom of Decebalus in 106 CE, he razed the capital, Sarmizegethusa Regia and built another one, a mere 24 miles away, called Sarmizegethusa Ulpia. To this day people are confused about the two sites because they have the same name, and that was the whole point of Trajan’s decision.

***

The Name of the RoseToday, as I was writing this blog post, I looked up The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco, one of my favorite novels of all times, which ends with the following paragraph:

“It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”

Eco, Umberto (1994-09-28). The Name of the Rose (Kindle Locations 7420-7421). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

The last words of Eco’s novel translate approximately to “Of the pristine rose only the name remains, we hold empty names.”

People wondered much about this ending, so Umberto Eco explained in 1984:

“the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topics (the great snows of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed.” – Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose.

I was going to use these quotes today to illustrate the importance of a name – a geeky thing I like to do sometimes, illustrating – but then I discovered that in a 1996 lecture at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Umberto Eco admitted that he might’ve got the verse wrong:

“Moreover someone has discovered that some early manuscripts of De Contemptu Mundi of Bernard de Morlay, from which I borrowed the hexameter “stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus”, read “stat Roma pristina nomine” — which after all is more coherent with the rest of the poem, which speaks of the lost Babylon. Thus the title of my novel, had I come across another version of Morlay’s poem, could have been The Name of Rome (thus acquiring fascist overtones). “– Umberto Eco, The Author and his Interpreters.

Which changes everything about this book, doesn’t it?

***

Changing a name turns out not to be as simple as a Replace All.

Changing a name is a rite of passage that needs to be acknowledged as such.

Changing a name is breaking a pact and making another: that I will stay true to the story, even though I will lie about this one detail. Will you trust me after this?

If you do, my series continues with its old new protagonist, Radu Codrescu.

Next: The Two Ends of the Telescope (1989 CE)

Previous: A Job Well Done (1986 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

Our Borders: A Job Well Done (1986 CE)

It was a beautiful afternoon at the end of the summer in Transylvania, but Radu Codrescu, 24, and his friend, Iulian, didn’t have eyes for the tawny hues along the train tracks. They sat in an empty freight car chugging on its way from Arad to Oradea, and waited for the right spot to jump off, where the train tracks and the Romanian-Hungarian border were only two hundred meters apart.

Many things had changed since the two friends had got out of jail, in the fall of 1984. Radu and Florina had divorced, Radu had moved back into his mother’s apartment in Bucharest and had taken a job as a plumber and painter at ICRAL. He went to the State Security and filled in the five standard forms requesting the authorities to allow him to emigrate.

“I was taken seriously by the authorities even after being in jail,” Radu Codrescu said. “They would let people leave the country after they had been steady about it for four, five, six years. (…) I had to say where I was headed and I think I wanted to go to Austria at that time. (…) The reasons I listed were complex. I mentioned that I was beaten up when I wanted to go visit another country. ‘Visit’ was an exaggeration, but the beating was real, so that stood for a reason. Another was that I got fired based on my past and that I was discriminated against in the workplace, that there were repercussions from authorities, and that the bottom line was that I had a right to decide where to live my life on this planet. Aside from suffering in their country, I had a right to hold a personal preference about the place I called home. And that was all I had to say. They told me to leave the forms with them and to wait because they would let me know in a few years what was to happen to me.”

In 1985, Radu applied to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Bucharest. During the exams, he met Laura (name changed for privacy reasons), a beautiful high school graduate. Neither of them got in that year, but they began dating right away, even though Radu had a criminal record and Laura was the daughter of a well-connected colonel in the State Security. When Radu told Laura about his plans to leave, she never tried to stop him, but made it clear that she wasn’t going to join him because she didn’t want to ruin her father’s career.

The freight car rolled at about 10 km/h. Radu and Iulian were hopeful that this time they were going to make it over the border because this spot wasn’t like the others they had tried. They had learned about it from Iulian’s stepfather, who had been a frontier officer, but who only began talking after a few glasses of wine, one evening that summer. The old man had told Iulian about a spot along the border, between Sânmartin and Grăniceri, where people didn’t know to go and soldiers didn’t expect fugitives. He told Iulian what time the soldiers made their rounds and how far they patrolled, and anything else his son needed to know to make it to the other side. Iulian called Radu and they decided to try it out as soon as possible.

“I trusted [Iulian] because we had been through many adventures together. We had been together at sea, we had gone to the Danube together, and we had gone to prison together. I could’ve gone with him anywhere, we were like brothers, and we trusted each other.”

If they succeeded, they were going to head to Austria. The Hungarians didn’t guard their frontier with Austria the same way they did with their Romanian side. They focused on checkpoints, and they didn’t fire at people, the way the Romanians did.

Radu and Iulian stood on the edge of the freight car platform, holding onto the frame of the opened doors. On the right side of the tracks there was a cornfield; on the left side there was open land, toward the frontier, with full visibility for the guards. It was around four in the afternoon. The train slowed down to a crawl, and Radu jumped off the right side of the train, and slinked away, toward the cornfield. Then Iulian tumbled behind him, his face twisted and pained.

“When he jumped, he most likely landed on a stone, and one of his foot bones broke out through his skin, pushed up from his sole. His fractured foot swelled up immediately; it became almost as big as his thigh in a matter of minutes. In broad daylight, [Iulian] had to keep his mouth shut despite all the pain that shot up his foot and leg.”

Radu wanted to go back, but even that wasn’t easy. There wasn’t going to be another train for hours. They couldn’t just step out of the cornfield and start walking in the soldiers’ arms. They had to sneak up to a road nearby, but Iulian didn’t want to risk hitchhiking. He wanted to go on with their plan. He could manage his pain, he told Radu.

They waited in the cornfield until nightfall, until they figured out how the soldiers moved under the moonlight. There were no other lights – Iulian’s stepfather had been right about that. Radu couldn’t bear to see his friend in the terrible pain he was, so, when the night patrol finished its first round, he hauled Iulian on his back and carried him across the field, into Hungary.

In less than half an hour they were outside Romania, but they didn’t have time to celebrate. Around six in the morning, a truck driver stopped for them and took them to Békéscsaba, a town westward, where Iulian had some distant relatives. The truck driver was Austrian and he offered to take the two Romania fugitives to Austria, but Iulian needed a doctor to take care of his swollen and bruised foot, after more than half a day since the accident.

Iulian’s cousin was not happy to see him, but she and her husband took him to the communal polyclinic where the doctor put Iulian’s foot in a cast and gave him pain medication. Then they all returned to the cousin’s house where she fed them and offered to take her uninvited guests back to the Romanian-Hungarian border.

“Iulian kept telling me that I should go on to Austria, but I couldn’t let him out there, with those people. I had to take care of him.”

They had crossed once, they were going to cross again, as soon as Iulian’s foot healed, even if they had to wait until the next spring, when the snow melted. Crossing the border was no longer an impossible task.

Radu went shopping in the better-supplied stores of downtown Békéscsaba and spent all his money on presents for Laura. When the night fell, Iulian’s cousin dropped them off less than a kilometer away from the spot where they had crossed over earlier that same morning.

“We went back the way we came. We waited for the patrol to pass, and then we crossed the border behind the soldiers. We were back in the cornfield. I carried Iulian that time too, he used me as a walking cane and at times I hauled him on my back. We were both very tired and Iulian couldn’t walk anymore and I couldn’t carry him anymore. So I left him between cornplants, I walked to the road, and I hitchhiked a ride to Timişoara.”

In Timişoara, Radu went to the house of Iulian’s stepfather and told the retired officer where to go to find his son. The old man was foaming. “I’m going to lose my retirement rights if anybody finds out about this,” he kept saying. But he got in a car and went up there, to the cornfield, and picked up Iulian.

Radu was excited to see Laura again and to show her the nice things he had bought for her. West-European corduroy pants and a leather purse – she loved them. And she loved seeing him again. Since it was that time of the year, Radu reapplied to the University and was admitted that time. He left his plumbing job for a better one at a state cybernetics center, while waiting for the day when he and Iulian could go back to the cornfield on the Hungarian border.

It was still fall when Laura and Radu found out that she was pregnant, so they got married in February 1987.

“We had our daughter and I had to help [Laura] with the baby. So I put my plans about fleeing the country on hold for a few years.”

Radu and Iulian talked on the phone less and less, each of them busy with his life in his own city, and, after a while they lost touch altogether and have never seen each other since.

Next: What’s in a Name?

Previous: A Time for Love (1986 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

[Updated on 2/6/2014: changed the protagonist's name.]

Our Borders: A Time for Love (1986 CE)

Some nights, my father got up before two, sneaked out of our apartment and headed west, across the green nursery, along the water pipeline crossing Lake Cătuşa, and got there around three, when he was least expected. Some nights, my mother woke up when he slipped back into bed, but she didn’t ask him questions. She went back to sleep, until five or so, when she had to wake up, make coffee, and iron a clean shirt for her husband.

CSG7For those six months, I barely saw my father. It was as if he had moved out. The only trace of him was the pile of dirty clothes on top of our small washing machine. Some evenings, if I stayed up long enough, I would see him in the kitchen, dipping bread into his bowl of hot broth that my mother had made for him.

“Tell me that story,” I asked my father not long ago, during our weekly videoconference.

Blast Furnace – Wikipedia

It was 1986, and my father was 36 years old. In the fall of ’85, the President of Romania, Nicolae Ceauşescu, came to my hometown and met with the managers of Galaţi Steelworks (CSG) to discuss the repairing and revamping of the largest of CSG’s six blast furnaces. The lining on the refractory brick wall had begun to crack. Inside the furnace the temperature reached 1,300° Celsius (2,372° Fahrenheit), and if molten pig iron seeping through the cracks reached the casing of the furnace, it would’ve perforated it within seconds and spouted out, incinerating everything in its way.

“How long will the repairs take?” Ceauşescu said.

“One year, Comrade Secretary General,” said Dumitru Nicolae, the director overseeing all the blast furnaces.

“Comrade, think again,” Ceauşescu said.

“Six months would be very difficult,” Dumitru Nicolae said.

Ceauşescu got up from his chair at the table.

“Be done in four,” he said and he left.

CSG4First Secretary of Galaţi County Committee, Carol Dina, himself an engineer, together with the top engineers at CSG looked at their workload: replacing the steel-plate lining of the furnace, replacing the refractory brick wall, replacing the oxygen tanks, the methane tanks, the air vents, the raw material silos, the chutes. They couldn’t squeeze the schedule into fewer than six months, so they announced March 1986 as the beginning date for the repairs, when in fact work would begin two months prior, in January.

“If they took such a huge risk,” my father said, “how were we not to shoulder it?”

Blast furnace #6 was the largest in all of south-eastern Europe, producing 6,500 cubic meters of pig iron during one expulsion, so the other  five furnaces were now going to make up for the drop in production due to furnace #6 being shut down. The work schedule was seven days a week, twelve hours a day, two shifts, one starting at 7 a.m., the other at 7 p.m. Since the work was done in secret, there was no pay above the 120 extra hours allowed per person each year.

CSG3My father was in charge of the repairs at the twelve raw material silos (four-story tall structures) and the conveyor belts that fed the iron ore, coke, limestone and alloying elements into the furnace. His team usually had 120 specialized workers, but now he and his foremen were leading 500 workers transferred from all over Galaţi County. They worked inside a covered unheated structure the size of a football field. In February 1986, when temperatures dropped to -26° Celsius (-15° Fahrenheit) and people had trouble breathing, they tied colored rags over their faces and kept working. My father’s team had red mufflers, which made it easier for him to keep track of them, up on the scaffolds and down between the silos.

“How did you feel during that time?” I said.

“Stressed,” he said. “But useful,” he added later.

My father had three direct managers, who were so afraid of taking blame in case something had gone wrong, that they never showed up at the worksite, leaving everything in my father’s care and only checking with him by phone. My father’s hands were always smeared with vaseline and his tongue always rough with debris dust. He began spitting, clearing up his throat and expelling the phlegm. When he came home, thinner and gaunter by the day, my mother watched him slurp his hot broth, wolf down his loaf of bread, and crawl into bed. One night, he sat up in bed, eyes shut, cleared up his throat, and spit out on the wall. Then he dropped back on his pillow, fast asleep, and my mother took a rag and wiped the wall clean.

CSG1In March 1986, the official repair work began at furnace #6 and the other five furnaces went back to normal production levels.

I don’t remember much from those days, except that I was in third grade and in love. There was a cute boy with blue eyes, who lived on the next block, and whose path I crossed each morning as I took my brother to daycare and took myself to school. When I returned from school, in the afternoon, with my apartment key on a string around my neck, I hoped to see that boy again, and many times I was disappointed. At home, I warmed up my lunch and ate it while I dreamed of those blue eyes and listened to fairy tales on vinyl records. Some days, the neighbor next door came knocking at my door and asked me to lower the volume on my turntable because her husband, who worked the nightshift at the steelworks, couldn’t rest. I don’t think he was able to rest anyway, not with all the unsupervised kids in our building huddling on the stairwell when it was cold and rainy, or bouncing the ball and screaming outside on sunny days.

In six months, my father’s team had only one minor accident, when one worker injured his hand. Throughout this time, Carol Dina, the First Secretary, worked directly with my father, checking with him on the phone and keeping written documents to a minimum.

In June 1986, furnace #6 was ready to be fired up again. Carol Dina organized a big ceremony to celebrate his workers’ outstanding accomplishment at the CSG’s cafeteria. Each of my father’s three managers, who had kept their distance during the repairs, received fat envelopes stuffed with 100 lei bills. When my father’s name was called, and Carol Dina handed him a thin envelope, my father didn’t even open it. He looked the First Secretary in the eye, tore the envelope in half, threw it on the floor, and walked out. On his trail, people whispered that the man was crazy and was surely going to get in trouble for disrespecting the bosses. He didn’t.

“I felt insulted,” my father said.

He went back to work. I moved on from the blue-eyed crush to a dark-eyed one in my class. The green nursery was replaced with a cemetery.

CSG6

“Were you happy at work?” I said.

“I liked being outside,” he said, “rather than wear the same white shirt for a whole week and not get its collar dirty.”

“I don’t know much about your work there,” I said. “Tell me about it.”

My father, Georgel Aramă, and I (1987)

My father, Georgel Aramă (1987)

And he did. We talked for hours. I took notes. His eyes gleamed. In the process, I moved past my disdain for that polluting behemoth that had been outside my window all my childhood, and began to realize what an amazing machinery it was. My father explained to me the different stages of turning ore into steel plates of varying thickness and elasticity. He also told me about his people at the rolling mills, how he knew every single one of them, how he knew their children’s names and how, when they had a hard time at home, he would listen to them, and help them if he could. He told me how, during those six months in 1986, he would wake up in the middle of the night and go check on his nightshift workers, then come back home to get one more hour of sleep.

While he talked, I finally made sense of an image stuck in my memory from when my father once took me to see the “fire snake” running inside the Hot Rolling Mills. I was in middle school and I remember the ground vibrating as the plate of hot metal advanced on the conveyor belt. I remember the red sparks dancing high up in the air, I remember the jets of water hissing and cooling the metal down as the steel was squeezed between two huge pressing rolls and thinned. I remember the gigantic roll of steel moving up and away. And everything was big. And everything was loud. And my father stood right next to me. And he had built and tamed that monster of fire and smoke. My father.

After the Revolution of 1989, CSG changed names and hands, and, in the process, the management neglected to replace the refractory brick wall on furnace #6. The wall cracked and blasted hot molten steel all around, killing a young woman on a crane and three ground workers. The furnace was shut down for good in 1996 and turned into scrap metal.

CSG2My father retired in 2002. That day, he stood at our kitchen window and looked outside, at the sprawling steel plant where he had worked all his life. My mother walked in and saw his slouched shoulders, heard his heavy breath, saw his hand wiping at his cheek. She backed away and let him say goodbye.

I don’t know what my father feels when he looks out the window every day, at the dark silhouette in the west. He’s not very forthcoming with his feelings, even when I ask the same question in three different ways. But I know he likes to take pictures of the sunset, and the clouds, and sky over the six blast furnaces of the former CSG.

Next: A Job Well Done (1986 CE)

Previous: Doing Time (1984 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

[Updated on 2/6/2014: changed the protagonist's name.]

What I Hate About Writing

I’ve rarely found myself on the receiving end of violence, but there have been a few times. One summer day, when I was thirteen, I ventured into the green nursery on the outskirts of my hometown in Romania. The nursery was just outside my apartment window in Galaţi, and it felt safe and familiar, with its rectangular patches planted with shrubs and flowers, and further away, with its young poplar trees that would one day line up the streets of my city. On warm summer evenings, I used to turn off the lights in my room, open the windows and take in the perfume of roses and the songs of nightingales coming from the nursery.

I was wearing a t-shirt and a knee-length skirt that day. The sun was overhead. The sky was clear. It took maybe ten minutes to walk the few hundred meters from my apartment building to the chicken wire fence that surrounded the rose patch. The flowers were in full bloom, all colors, all sizes, all shapes. The sweet, complex fragrance hung low in the air and I kept taking in lungfuls when something stirred in the corner of my left eye.

Actaeon, Palace of Caserta, Italy (detail) – Wikipedia

Actaeon, Palace of Caserta, Italy (detail) – Wikipedia

It was a big stray dog, the color of dirt. He had rounded the fence and was trotting toward me. I felt a jolt of fear. Vicious stray dogs are still a fixture of Romania and I had been bitten by dogs before.  I knew that running would only make the dog chase me, so I inched away from the fence, away from the roses, toward the  buildings, toward my apartment. Then I saw another dog, coming from my right, and on its trail, another, and another. Closing in. A cold shiver ran up my back and stiffened the nape of my neck. My heart started running before my legs even flinched. I knew a story about dogs smelling fear from afar, but I couldn’t help but feel fear. I was taking small backward steps, when I realized I was now in the middle of a circle of dogs. They growled and showed their fangs. They slowed down, cautious now, but looked at each other, over bristled shoulders. They were a pack, and the dirt-colored dog was in charge. He kept coming, head lowered, neck straight, lips drawn out of his teeth’s way. I called on them, good doggies, but that only made them advance faster.

I looked over my shoulder at the weathered building where my family was, behind one of many rows of windows. I called, Help! but my voice didn’t carry far. When I turned my head, the dogs were even closer. My hands were sweating, and the pack leader was now just feet away from my leg. The growling of dogs was loud, but the ringing in my ears was even louder. I knew I was not supposed to run, but I turned on my heels and ran. As fast as I could. It felt like flying, as if nothing could hold me back. Effortless, I was high on adrenaline. I could see the dogs at my sides, dashing, and then the dirt-colored one sprang and flung himself at me. His muzzle met my right thigh, his teeth pierced my flesh through my skirt. It didn’t hurt. I pushed right through, and kept running, and running, and running, and then I was back at the entrance of the nursery. The dogs halted and turned away.

I lifted my skirt. I had two rows of teeth marks on my right thigh and a huge bruise around them. The throbbing set in. I needed an anti-tetanus shot and a series of anti-rabies shots if I were not to die a biblical death.

I sometimes dream of being chased by dogs, of running past them, of stopping and facing them, of fighting them with my bare fists, of biting through their hide, of ripping their heads off. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine how people in ancient times saw violence, when violence was part of their lives in ways not possible today.

I stay out of trouble and I live a pretty safe life, but as a fiction writer, I can’t keep my characters safe all the time, nor should I. I send them to war, I make them die in childbirth, I poison them, burn them, impale them. That’s the part of being a writer that I hate: the research of violence. I watch gory movies, and I keep my eyes open, even when my gut is churning. I read history books and historical novels and I imagine what it’s like when fear wipes out pain, and pain piles up on fear. I stare at the worst that humankind has to offer. And then I write down the pains of the flesh as vividly as I can.

The_Jesus_Dynasty_PaperBackMany times I have to reconsider what I know, and mostly for the worse. Recently I read about “the most wretched of deaths,” in the words of 1st-century CE historian Josephus, author of The Jewish War. The details of this type of torture shocked me because, like everybody else, I was very familiar with its imagery to the point of being desensitized. In his book, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, James Tabor explains:

“Anyone growing up in 1st-century Roman Palestine knew the horror of this form of terror by direct experience and observation. The hapless victims of crucifixion, left on the crosses for days, were a common sight to the Jewish population. Josephus reported that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the summer of A.D. 70 the number of captives crucified reached five hundred a day— so many that there was no wood left in the area as all the trees had been cut down.

We know quite a bit about the methods the Romans used in crucifying their victims. Not only do we have literary sources but in 1968 the skeletal remains of a Jewish male victim were discovered in a tomb just north of Jerusalem off the Nablus Road. He was in his twenties and his name, Jehohanan, was inscribed on his ossuary. His remains have given us an amazing glimpse into the details involved in Roman crucifixion as it was practiced in 1st-century Roman Jerusalem.” (p. 218).

Diego Velázquez, Christ Crucified (circa 1632, detail) – Wikipedia

Diego Velázquez, Christ Crucified (circa 1632, detail) – Wikipedia

“We know that the nails were put through the forearms and not the hands, between the radius and ulna bones. In that manner the arms were securely attached to the patibulum (crossbeam). Jehohanan’s radial bones were scored from friction between the nail and the bone. Physiologists have shown that nails through the hands will not hold the weight of a body, and nails through the wrists would have ruptured blood vessels. The “science” of crucifixion required that nails be affixed in a way to minimize bleeding, otherwise the victim would quickly pass out and die in a matter of minutes. The references in the gospels to Jesus’ “hands” being pierced use a Greek word that can be understood as including the forearms. The feet were nailed through the heel bone. It is the largest bone in the foot and as with the forearm, puncturing this bone will not cause profuse bleeding. In the case of Jehohanan the nail is still intact through his heel bone. When he was removed from the cross the nail had bent on a knot in the wood and whoever removed him simply cut the wood away, leaving it attached to his foot.” (pp. 218-219).

Diego Velázquez, Christ Crucified (circa 1632, detail) – Wikipedia

Diego Velázquez, Christ Crucified (circa 1632, detail) – Wikipedia

“Death by crucifixion was a slow process; it could take as long as two or three days. The victims were stripped naked, exposed to the scorching Mediterranean sun. Death resulted from a combination of shock, exhaustion, muscle cramps, dehydration, loss of blood, and finally suffocation or heart failure. Depending on the angle in which the arms and legs were nailed, death could be brought on more quickly, or extended. The buttocks were supported by a piece of wood called a sedecula that offered some support of the body. Over time, as fatigue set in, breathing became acutely difficult. If there was a reason to hasten death, the legs of the victim could be broken, causing the body to slump and making breathing impossible after just a short time.

Josephus relates a story of seeing among the many crucified captives during the Jewish Revolt three of his former acquaintances in a small village near Jerusalem. He begged the Roman general Titus to allow them to be taken down from their crosses and put in his care. A physician was called, and despite his efforts two of them died, but one was nursed back to health and recovered. The Romans often left the corpses to rot on crosses but the Jews had a law requiring those “hung on a tree” to be buried the same day as they were crucified. When allowed, Jews removed the bodies before sundown and buried them. Since Jehohanan’s legs were broken, his death was likely hastened to allow for burial the same day as his crucifixion.” (pp. 219-220).

Two thousand years later, while war still rages in many parts of the planet and death comes to many people in horrible ways, I don’t know much about violence. Back in 1791, the country I live in ratified an Eighth Amendment to its Constitution that states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” People no longer witness public crucifixions (except in Saudi Arabia) or the spectacle of feeding the condemned to ravenous animals (except, allegedly, in North Korea). But I force myself to read the gory news because I’m a writer.

Whether true or not, the detail I read in December 2013 that it took a whole hour for one hundred and twenty dogs to strip the flesh off the bones of Kim Jong-un’s uncle’s wretched bones left me speechless, hands cold, jaws clenched.