Your new book is a memoir of your childhood in communist Romania and an account of your father’s arrest and imprisonment by the secret police. Why did you choose to write it in English?
It needed to be on my terms. I’ll tell you a story. When I finished this book, I had an email from an old friend who confessed that he was a Securitate informer. He congratulated me on my doctorate from Oxford and my achievements in my life. I was freaked out. I felt violated. It’s been 22 years and you’re congratulating me on my doctorate? So, no – I couldn’t go back, I couldn’t say it all in Romanian.
Is that because the language is fatally corrupted by totalitarianism?
Leaving the language was related to political suffocation, which I’d internalised since childhood. I always think of the anger that Czesław Miłosz [author of The Captive Mind] had at the Polish language. Miłosz has been pivotal in helping me to articulate the psychological experience of exile. You both hate your mother tongue and love it. When I left Romania [for the US] at the age of 19, I was reading older Romanian poets, such as Eminescu and Blaga, not the socialist realist stuff.
Was reading those older poets a form of resistance to the regime?
Yes. Miłosz did the same. What you want to do is suffocate yourself with nostalgia – nostalgia for romantic images, for beautiful, unspoiled poetry. You’re longing for a kind of innocence that probably never existed. It’s a primal kind of thing, a search for comfort. That’s why I went back to the older Romanian poets who, for me, were innocent. They belonged to something that was not part of the conversation of totalitarianism.
There was something distinctively awful about the cult of personality that surrounded Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, wasn’t there?
Oh, God, yes. You couldn’t escape their photograph – it was everywhere. One day, Ceausescu came to near where we lived. He loved hunting and used the countryside as his private hunting ground. The schools and factories were closed and everyone was carted off on buses. When Ceausescu’s helicopter landed, they made us all get out of the buses and dance – to show him the happy peasants singing for him.
You left Romania in 1989, so the book has been in gestation for a long time, hasn’t it?
When I moved to the US, I met people who said to me that I had to write my story. I was trying to forget what had happened. And because it was my story, I didn’t think of it as significant. If you’re part of the immigrant community [in the US], you’ll hear similar stories – you’re not a special person. It’s a representative story, not a unique one. Then I got a fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford, where I met William Fiennes. He talked about being burdened by his sense of rootedness – whereas I was burdened by my sense of being not rooted. He said I should write my story. Later, expecting a child led me to take my sense of identity more seriously. I thought I had to give my child a story about where he comes from. It’s hard for me to explain to him why I don’t want to live in Romania. So the sense of urgency with the book really came when I started my own family.
The book is full of small acts of heroism; for example, there’s the teacher who removed you from class to feed you secretly when you didn’t have enough to eat.
When you experience heroism from the inside – the routine, daily aspect of heroism – it actually isn’t as beautiful as you think it is. I wanted to remove the glamour of one person standing up to the tyrant.
But that’s exactly how your father saw himself, wasn’t it? He took himself off to Bucharest to protest against Ceausescu.
That’s right. He wanted to take on the tyrant and he wanted to do it all by himself. He’d seen that the leaflets he’d been distributing had not had any effect. I discovered in my father’s files later on – this is something I’m grateful I didn’t see before I wrote the book – that there were people who had turned in those leaflets to the authorities. And that makes me very sad about my country. This is the sort of knowledge you don’t want to have when you write a book like this.
Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Carmen Bugan’s “Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police” is published by Picador (£16.99)