Carmen Bugan at the The Power of Storytelling international conference in Bucharest.

Carmen Bugan at the The Power of Storytelling international conference in Bucharest.

The Power of Storytelling international conference in Bucharest just concluded its fifth edition this month, and thanks to conference founder Cristian Lupsa, editor of the nonfiction journal Decât o Revistă and a 2014 Nieman fellow, and his colleagues, Storyboard will bring you transcripts from some of the two-day conference’s sessions.

This year’s event had a theme guiding each keynote and panel: a sense of place. The speakers tackled the idea of place in a story and the way it is conveyed, depicted, researched, and understood. They shared stories of places visited for research and work (Paterniti, Banaszynski, MacNaughton), but also places they grew up in and places that changed their perspective on life (Jones, Perjovschi, Bugan). Outside the conference hall, audience members were challenged to debate the idea of space through photo exhibits, but also by drawing, illustrating, or writing about important places in their lives.

Our third speaker is Carmen Bugan, poet and author of “Burying the Typewriter,” the internationally acclaimed memoir on life under the communist regime, discussing the process of creating literary work from personal testimony.

A few years ago my family and I received access to the surveillance files kept on us by Ceausescu’s Securitate from 1961 until 1989, when we left the country. They amount to a state-generated, public narrative of a deeply private family life. The two documents I will be discussing here are part of a complex story about people (those who spied, recorded, transcribed, reported, and us who formed their objects of observation); at the same time, they are examples of a specific story about language. Reading my personal “biography” in the secret-police speak of the files sends me back to a self I both recognize and don’t, creating another place of writing, which I could not have imagined before. I am caught in the conflict between the free, fluid language of memory and the shackled, impersonal language of surveillance reports. The Securitate portrayal of my youth writes over my memories and into my memory gaps, turning me into a palimpsest that combines the public voice of documents with my private experience. The “official” narrative in the records illuminates at times the past with details I had forgotten (it does not represent my own memories) and at times obfuscates the truth, or outright fictionalizes major events in my life, using a language that seems factual. In this sense it complicates the process of creating literary work out of personal testimony/history. Writing about the secret police narratives of my life in Romania started as an attempt to write the self, free, to detangle myself of this extra narrative; however, lately it is turning into a process of questioning whether memory can rescue and rebuild a sense of personal, and indeed artistic, identity out of surveillance records.

I seem to constantly define a “place of writing.” This is probably due to continuous homelessness, thinking of one country in terms of another (or a succession of countries where I recently lived). To me the place of writing is a specific place (geographical, emotional, of the mind) understood from a sense of personal and artistic identity. I think of it as an originating kind of place that writers hold inside themselves, without which they cannot create—a kind of spiritual place, a soul, if you will. I imagine that all writers, whether they admit to it or not, write from a locus of certitude about who they are. This is usually the language: They belong to a language and that language belongs to them, even if absolutely everything else falls apart. By this I simply mean “native language,” or “mother tongue,” that the experienced writer cultivates into his or her unique voice. It’s when the native language becomes unstable, when writers are forced to abandon it, or when experience simply destroys the transaction of meaning or truth between a writer and her language, the notion of the “place of writing” itself becomes destabilized and abstracted. Over the years I have come to think of this “place of writing” more in terms of the language inside the language—the yolk inside the egg, the dialect and the mannerisms peculiar to the writer, that fundamental inner language which needs to be fiercely protected and which fuels everything.

When experience simply destroys the transaction of meaning or truth between a writer and her language, the notion of the “place of writing” itself becomes destabilized and abstracted

The new place of writing where I find myself these days is at the rift between the public and private and, more fundamentally, at the rift between the memories I have kept as sacred, as a foundation of my identity and the memories brought on, or implanted by the records which re-orient me toward my native place, the people I thought I knew, and my own earlier self. In other words, the new place of writing is a fractured identity (what I knew and what I didn’t) as much as an accumulated, sometimes conflicting, and sometimes supplementary information that can best be expressed by the term “archival identity.” So I have come to think of my native country, and my native language as places before and after the records.

The Romania of personal memory is simultaneously a lost paradise and a place of suffering, which I nevertheless left reluctantly. I’d like to read to you a poem called “Making the Hay Mattress” (from The House of Straw) where the language is laden with images, and my grandmother is a symbol of lost magical childhood moments. My Romania is an idealized country of the mind.

Making the Hay Mattress

The best part of all that was dancing:
In August, at the summer cleaning,
She threw away mattress and pillows

Stripping the beds to ideas on the empty floor,
Where, with hammer and nails she reinforced
The shapes of wobbly wooden frames.

Then in a new white case we stuffed fresh hay;
After she sealed it tight, she summoned us to dance
The hora on top, to even out the surface,

Soften flowers and grass.
Barefoot, we took dance lessons on the mattress case
Stomped our feet, clapped our hands and laughed.

So it came to be that till she died,
In August we danced and slept on flowers at night.

It is also a Romania of humiliations, of being dragged to the courthouse to see my parents’ divorce (which I put in the poem “The Divorce,” Crossing the Carpathians), because the Securitate wanted my mother to show publicly that she disapproved of my father’s politics. It is a place recalled through memories that have remained intact:

The Divorce

Before they brought him to the courtroom, they gave him three apples:
‘Your wife sent you these.’ He cradled each apple in the cup of his hands,
The smoothness of their skin became the cheeks of each child.

Inside the courthouse there was a quiet opening and closing of doors.
A crowd of people was chanting his name under the windows.
When the door opened, I saw his bare feet in brown shoes.

His children held each other tight against the wall.
Their breaths, white with cold, were rising towards the ceiling.
They listened for the voices of their parents.

When the divorce was over, he was allowed to see them:
They kissed his chained hands, promised to be good, let their tears fall
On his prison uniform with his own, all three of them burying him.

How I wished we could hide him with our bodies and take him home!
The Securitate peeled us off him. But we were the apple seeds left to grow
In the sound of his chains on the cement floor.

I wrote these poems in English, the adoptive language being a safe place of writing which seemed honest to my condition as an immigrant to the United States, the condition of a political refugee.

This writing in English, about a life that is re-made almost entirely with memories of Romania, was self-sustaining and had its own logic. But then, in 2010, I received the first 1,500 pages of secret police files on my father, and in 2013 the rest of 3,000 pages of files on my mother arrived in a couple of carton boxes from Bucharest.

Here are two examples of the files, which I would like to discuss:

Point of Interest No. 4 Unique Exemplary
No. 00714/29/  08.08.1987 Lt. Maj. N S.
POST no. 5 186/72
No. of files-1-(one)

at the visit with his daughter

At the visit with his daughter, the obj. is overjoyed to see her, after which he inquires why “mother” has not come to see him. His daughter Carmen says she could not travel because she is ill.

Then the obj. asks about other news from home, how they manage, if they experience hardship, and how they finished the school year.

To these questions from the obj. his daughter answers that life at home is hard: they have no wood for winter, no one to help them. As for school, she said she finished the year well. Next year she will take the baccalaureate exams and prepare for the entrance exams to University to study paediatric medicine, in which she thinks she might succeed.

Referring to his own health, the objective tells his daughter that he was very ill with his nerves but now he is calming down. (He asks for medicines), and then he says, “It is possible that this autumn I will come home—you never know!”

At the end of the conversation “Butnaru” advises his daughter to do her best until he returns home, try her hardest to get into University, to take care of her mother and her little brother and after he will come home things will become easier.

The visit closes.

Transcribed I.V./08.08.1987

When I first read this file, I thought, “This is a linguistic event in itself, stronger than any poetry I ever wrote, it’s so immediate, and half-literate in such a raw, life-like way.” I also thought “My God, I don’t remember this visit at all!”

Absurdly, the conversation is “transcribed from the Romanian language”: what other language would have been possible in our case, and in that prison? The reader is given the name of the officer in charge of the transcript and presumably the visit. And we also know that this file is “strictly secret” and there is only one copy of it. “Secrecy” reigns. I don’t know if the numbers on the document indicate the files kept on us, or the conversations my father participated in while in prison, and I don’t know what Post no. 5 signifies unless it’s the visiting room. Post no. 5, place of interest—they are used almost euphemistically: You simply need to know their coded meanings to get around to figuring out where you are. The language that describes my visit to my father is fragmentary, exact, boring officialdom—he asked, to his questions from him she answered—it’s a complex label that was glued to that day. I wonder what the daily life of the transcriber was like, and what he thought and felt as he listened and watched my dad and me talk—if indeed he was the person who did all these things. It must take a certain strength to produce such a matter-of-fact document. I love the title of the document though: “Butnaru,” which is the surname of my mother’s adoptive father (my lovely grandfather Neculai), is now a codename for my father. The subtitle indicates that my father is the main character in this transcript: he is described, monitored, observed, analyzed “at the visit with his daughter,” though he is never described as an inmate, but rather as the abbreviated “obj.,” the “target,” or “the object of observation.” The visit could have occurred any nondescript place.

According to the transcript, which mixes direct quotes from us with paraphrases of the conversation transposed into secret-police speak, I made the visit by myself. Dad showed no sign of worrying about me, he accepted the explanation that mother was ill, and went on to ask the news from home, after which he told me about his own health. For the non-experienced reader of these kind of secret police files, the only indication that this meeting took place somewhere in captivity is my father’s encouraging comment that he might return home.

There is a whole, and bigger story in here, which I have put in a poem called “Aiud” in my book Crossing the Carpathians as well as a chapter in my memoir Burying the Typewriter. They contain my memories of conglomerated prison visits, not a specific one, though there is a dialogue between my father and my brother Catalin, aged two and a half on the first prison visit, a dialogue that has remained perfect in our collective family memory and has gone into both pieces. But my writing expresses my own feelings which have given me a sense of who I was at that time in Romania: As such, it is not a document or a court testimony, but rather a moment of truth that I brought out from silence to speech, a rite of passage, a moment in time, which I recreated in order to give the reader the essence of that experience of that particular time and place. Reading this transcript makes all the other visits seem somehow less significant: During those visits I benefited from the comfort of my brother, sister, and my mother, and the physical safety of being with them. I also remember being far more scared and intimidated by being in prison. None of this is happening according to this transcript where I appear in the guise of a very self-controlled adult: I don’t cry, I don’t shake, I speak clearly, and there is no sense of grief when I say good bye to my father. The visit simply “closes.” What I am left with on reading this document is my previous poem as one version of the past, my identity as a freaked out teenager as one version of myself (the private version) which are being “written over” by the official record of a visit taking place in one particular day, at one specific “place of interest,” where I exchange particular information that has been recorded, transcribed, and is therefore un-deletable and true.

This is the rift—between official language and private expression; between Romanian language of the transcript and my translation of it nearly 30 years later in exile; between the first sense of the self and the second sense of the self. If I actually made this visit I don’t remember, I must have been far stronger psychologically and emotionally than I ever gave myself credit for. But why don’t I have a memory of this visit? Was it trauma? Was the whole visit an invention of the secret police to pretend that they actually allowed my father regular access to family when in fact they didn’t? Yet the dates in August correspond. After reading this document I have written the new poem about Aiud, a poem situated at the rift between languages: that of secret police-speak and that of memory.

Another files which has made an impression on me is more personal yet. Here it is:

Internal Ministry
District Inspectorate Galati
Nr. 0012822/ 12.11.1986
Ex. 12.22.1986
Personal: for Comrade Colonel V

Regarding the existent information in the case Bugan Mioara, wife of condemned Bugan Ion, it appears that their daughter—Carmen—student in the class XI (4th year) at the Agro Industrial High School Tecuci became friends with T. L., student in 1st year in the sub-engineering program at the Technical Military Academy Bucuresti.

The parents of T. L., upon discovery of this friendship, knowing the deeds that the father of Carmen Bugan has committed, and having been unable to persuade their son to renounce this friendship, travelled to her home where they addressed her with words of insult, injury, and calumny. Words of this kind, including death-threats, were also addressed to her on the phone.

Bugan Mioara, the mother of the girl, said that she would contact the courthouse of Tecuci to sue the parents for their behavior: but from our own checks to date, she hasn’t fulfilled her intention.

Chief of the District Securitate
Major L. V.

The story here is actually in what the file doesn’t say, and the silencing of the truth in this record is a linguistic feat, as well as a display of considerable narrative skill. The purely observational language in this file carries with it the undertone of official worry over me being feared and punished by the community for being my father’s daughter. However, when I read this file, I read a report that, according to the clean facts, said: “Our plot is working well, we are isolating the family and Carmen’s friend is doing a good job right along with his parents.” T. L., I know, had been generously rewarded for his job: To use their own parlance, he proved to be a good “legend,” which is a fictional story created in order to compromise or to isolate someone undesirable. The communication by TELEX between the officers of high standing is rich with second meanings. Even though these meanings are accessible only to the family that is subject of this particular communication, for me, as a writer who is the main subject of this file, it is a lesson on how meaning is created, how versions of history are written. Here is a state that can violate something as private as young love, while simultaneously putting on a show of worry that the dissident father had made his own children go through hell, in a community who of course is very keen to follow the party line.

We are all versions of the past, our past and that of the others, the past of our countries and the past of our languages. I still speak the dialect of my village—I kept it as a secret, a source of strength. A source that now helps me deal with the Romanian of the secret files—which is essentially a language of betrayal and suspicion, a language of oppression. The Romanian language I spoke before the encounter with the Securitate has helped me maintain an instinctual love for language though time, whatever national language I happen to speak at the moment. But all these languages, all these different layers of Romanian, and lately all the layers of English (non-native English, American, or British English-es in which I have lived and written) reflect that as writers we often have to position ourselves toward our subject matter, rather than allowing ourselves to be swallowed by it. One of the questions I keep asking myself now is how to write about personal memory when it is part of a collective memory, a collective history?

We are all versions of the past, our past and that of the others, the past of our countries and the past of our languages

Now I live in a different place of writing: an archival identity that incorporates the secret-police speak into the language of poetry. As I write about these files, which contain the past and the secrets of others, I wonder what are my responsibilities toward those others? I wonder how much shall I protect them and how much I shall rely on the fact that healing only comes about when we bring out to light the hard truths. Forgiving is a consequence of acknowledging the pain first, and that all of it is a linguistic concept. I wonder that maybe the beauty I try to put in my poems about Romania might return here, via translation from English which could make it possible for the past to be healed.

The transformation that the reality of the files, and their language, enact on the poetic language is profound. I decided to show the anxiety in the way I write, to show how the language of the files drowns at times my own voice, for the truth is that the life that these files represent has in no small measure influenced my own sense of self. The files draw me out of my carefully built sense of who I have become after my Romanian experience and drown me into their content, and non-emotional, devastating language.

Here is a poem based on a transcript of a conversation that brought back this times some very beautiful memories of listening to Dad, fresh from prison, telling stories to my little brother Catalin, seemingly oblivious to the microphones that we knew too well were planted all over the house. I’ve used text from the transcript inside the poem, and I’ve used the entire file as a free-standing piece too: as a raw material, as a source, not of inspiration, but provocation, to own again that part of my life. I call this a “poetics of question marks.” This is an example of writing from an archival identity, and I think it summarizes what I tried to say about place of writing today.

Transcribed from the Romanian language Strict Secret
POST: 13 I.D.E.R. Ex. Unique
No. Files 1 Date: 23.02.1988
No: 0026124 INDICATIVE 1./ B.I.


At hour 22.00 the objective listens to the news transmitted by the post “Radio Free Europe.” His wife is busy knitting. At hour 22:25 the objective attempts to put Catalin to bed, by telling him a story with something imaginary, the action taking place in the West, with a life of plenty and without worries, a country with lemon and orange trees..

Wife: … It’s good also here with apples, and pears and prunes..

Obj.: … I have been reading the magazine The World and saw that “there” in the developed countries the food problem is something entirely banal, everything is easily available… So where is it better? There where you can find a piece of good cheese or here with a piece of hard black bread?

Wife: Also here is good!…

Transcribed: T.G.


The boy was five years old and he trusted
his father’s stories about ‘a life of plenty,’

‘a country with lemon and orange trees.’
It is ‘something imagined’ the records say.

‘Apples and pears and prunes are also good’
the mother countered (for the microphones?)

no doubt, tired of the ‘hard black bread’
the husband-prisoner brought to her.

But he went on imagining the blooms of
orange groves, endless summer trips

we were to take if not for real,
then in his ‘stories with the action

taking place in the West,’
itself a forbidden word

those days when we secretly cherished
his unstoppable rambling dream.

I sat in silence weighing apples, pears and plums
against mesmerizing gallops across distant prairies.

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