Journalist and novelist Tatiana Tibuleac in an intimate keynote at the 2019 Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest

Journalist and novelist Tatiana Tibuleac in an intimate keynote at the 2019 Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest

It is widely believed that storytellers can turn almost anything into a good story, which gives them a bottomless well of topics. But even the celebrated ones, like Romanian-Moldovan writer Tatiana Tîbuleac, who won the European Union Prize for Literature this year, can struggle excavating certain narratives.

In an intimate and heartfelt keynote at the 2019 Power of Storytelling conference last month in Bucharest, Tîbuleac shared moments from the story of her own family. It’s a story “took three generations to heal” as it has been carried and passed down from her grandmother to her mother to her. It’s a story that, despite her success as a novelist, she’s still not sure how to write. Her story about coming to terms with that story provided glimpses into the challenges of writing honest memoir — and the dangers of burying the past.

“You should never trust a person who is hiding in her writing to tell you a story about healing,” she said, referring to the conference theme: Stories Heal. “But here I am.”

For other reports from this year’s Power of Storytelling, see Longform podcaster Max Linsky’s five rules for effectively awkward interviews, Longform podcaster Evan Ratliff on writing about villains, and Robin Kwong on how the Financial Times is merging  digital innovation with emotional storytelling.

Tîbuleac comes from a family of storytellers who valued words above all else. Tibuleac’s initiation into that heritage came from her grandmother, when she was a small girl growing up in a village in Moldova, then part of the Soviet Union.

“For me, my grandmother was like a messenger from another world, a better world that I didn’t have a key to,” Tibuleac said in the opening of her keynote. “I wanted to look like her, talk like her, be like her.

“But the thing I liked most about her, the most magical thing ever, was that she was making up stories for me.”

Tîbuleac cherished those stories, which were only meant for her; if other children from the village came by, the stories would stop until she and her grandmother were alone again. But it was only much later that she understood why: “She was not just making stuff up. She was preparing me for the real story. And in our family we call it “the story of the needle.”

The needle had always been in her grandmother’s house, pinned high in a decorative wall carpet, so that it could never be misplaced or lost. “It was a big needle, with a huge eye that could thread anything. Even a life. Sometimes I would feel that in that needle is concentrated all her strength and life, and if I lost that needle she would die.”

The history of the needle started in July 1949, when “enemies of the state” — in the case of Moldova, dissidents who opposed Stalin’s policies or people of Romanian origin, like Tîbuleac’s grandparents — were deported to Siberia. One night, five soldiers came to her grandparents’ house and gave them 10 minutes to pack a few belongings. Her pregnant grandmother took a loaf of bread, some money and an icon. At the last moment, she plucked the needle from its place on the wall carpet and tucked it into her clothing. The soldiers laughed at her and told her she wouldn’t be needing a needle where they were going.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Tibuleac’s grandparents were herded onto cattle trains with other prisoners. Some of them died of illness or exposure on the two-week journey to a gulag in Siberia. Others committed suicide. Tibuleac’s grandmother lost her baby. But once at the gulag, grim as life was, people started building simple houses and the foundation of a village began to take shape.

“It’s amazing how life can go on in a place designed for death,” Tibuleac said. “And after a few weeks, they found themselves living. And there, in the taiga, the needle came to life. Everyone seemed to be needing a needle. It’s such a small, trivial thing that you can find in each house, but you couldn’t really buy it where they were; it’s just one of those objects you possess. And no one had thought to bring a needle — only my grandmother. That needle brought them together. People would come to their barracks to take it for various things. They would use it to make clothes for children, from the clothes of people who died. Or to take out splinters from underneath their nails because they were cutting wood every day. To make shoes from tree bark. The needle was needed.”

As the needle was shared, so were small moments of warmth and friendship. So it went for seven years. Then, even as hope dimmed, Stalin died — and Tibuleac’s mother was born.

“They called her Vera, which in that language they hated — Russian — meant Faith. She was a little sunny girl in this land of never-ending snow and cold, and this name was like a laughter in death’s face.”

Stalin’s death brought release from the gulags. Although some of the villagers refused to return to the countries they felt had betrayed them, Tibuleac’s grandparents returned to Moldova: “My grandmother told me she missed the sun most. The journey back took one month and in her arms she had little Vera. But in a pocket, like an external heart, a second child, she had the needle.”

Time passed, as it does. Vera grew up, married and gave birth to Tibuleac, who grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories until she, too, became something of a storyteller, working as a TV journalist in Muldova for 15 years. Her family’s story — threaded through with the story of the needle — followed her like a pestering shadow. But she never explored the topic of deportations to Siberia in her reporting.

“I did nothing with it,” she said. “Nothing. For all those years. I had hundreds of reportages. I met thousands of people. But I never did anything about that story. Moreover, every time I had the occasion to start a debate, to do a show or a serious investigation, I would just push it away. I never wanted to do anything about Siberia and deportees. I could use my popularity, I could use the TV station’s popularity to make a change, but I chose to do nothing.

“In other words, I failed my grandmother, my mom, myself.”

Her distance from her personal story grew after she moved to Paris, married and her grandmother died: “I wanted to be cosmopolitan, I wanted to embrace the world, see other things. This story of the needle seemed so provincial, so far away, so not mine. … I didn’t want to be seen as this dramatic Eastern European who is just boring people with all these things. I wanted to do other stuff, something that would fit my new role, my new home, my new husband.”

When her mother asked her about it once, her response was blunt: “It’s your parents, it’s your tragedy. I’m not that involved.”

But she carried her mother’s question with her into her life as a novelist as surely as her grandmother carried the needle into life in the gulag. And Tibuleac started asking the same question of herself: Why was she avoiding the defining story of her family, which was a defining story for so many under Soviet rule?

“I didn’t want to just write a story,” she said. “I wanted to create a story that would do justice, and I felt I was not ready for it. I had so many questions and no answers. It wasn’t a story to be trifled with.”

Then Tibuleac’s daughter was born, and her mother came to Paris to meet her. She brought along seven notebooks from Tibuleac’s university days, in which she had added in  her memories of growing up as the daughter of enemies of the state. “She just gave me these and said I should give them to my children when the time comes,” Tibuleac said. “She said maybe they will read it.”

That’s when it hit Tibuleac: Her mother was now placing her faith in her grandchildren to carry the story. It was the same trust Tibuleac’s grandmother had placed in her.

“And then I realized why I cannot connect with this story,” she said. “It’s because I don’t know who I am. My grandmother knew, my mom knows, but I didn’t know, because I grew up differently. I grew up in two cultures, two languages.” Her life paralleled the divide in Moldovan society between Russian and Romanian-speaking citizens, and before-and-after eras delineated by independence from the USSR in 1991. One of those languages was that of before, spoken by “the people who tried to exterminate my family.” But now she lives now in the after, and “cannot find so much rage.”

“I understood I didn’t want to write a book like a gun,” Tibuleac said of her internal journey. “I wanted to write a book like a hug. I wanted to write a book not from the perspective of a granddaughter, but from the perspective of the person I became. … I’m a Romanian born in Moldova, living in Paris with her British husband.”

Identity becomes more important as she raises her own children, who speak four different languages at home. With her latest award-winning book, “The Glass Garden” (not yet translated into English), she feels she made a small step towards healing as she recreated the Moldova of her childhood, before the fall of the Soviet Union.

“It’s not the book my family wanted but it’s a book that contains something very precious to me,” she said. “It contains that honest middle, that middle where I’m not hiding anymore. And I think I couldn’t do anything else or write anything else if I didn’t write this book. I realized that a family wound or a nation’s wound is not easy to heal and it takes more than one generation. Because healing requires pain and suffering and struggling, but also forgiveness and acceptance and making peace with yourself. I also understood that having a strong family or nation story can be a burden. It can stop you from many of your dreams. But it can also help you go further. It can be a very strong inspiration and motivation.”

Țîbuleac urged the Power of Storytelling audience to talk to their parents and grandparents while they still have them and to cherish and protect their family heritage, however sad it might be.

“There are people in this world who simply cannot live without telling stories, “ she said. “For these people, life needs to be a story. Because only there, between its soft, enchanted ribs, can they accept evil and pain, sickness and betrayal. Because they know — they know that a story never leaves things unresolved. Even the shortest, saddest story, always makes sure that things are made right.”

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