Our Voices – Why This Book, Why Now

Currently, I am working on my first book. 

Our Voices is an experimental literary memoir, a deeply personal, lyrical, and political family story spanning three generations, exploring the impact of censorship and political oppression on self-expression and health through multiple points of view.

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Why this book? Why now?

  • a personal experience of communism
  • a divided Europe
  • a question
  • a movie
  • an answer

A personal experience of communism

We often take our freedom of self-expression for granted. I don’t. I grew up in a dictatorship, without even knowing it — at first —  and as a child I witnessed one of the bloodiest falls of communism in European history in my home town.

My grandfather – a poet and lover of words whom I’ve never met in person – was a political prisoner at the rise of communism, decades before that. His story put an enormous strain on my family history; this story and its aftermath are something we are still dealing with, in both visible and less visible ways, and constitute the main topic of my current book Our Voices.

His story is not unique, but it is representative of a certain time and place in European history. Communism brought many limitations to individuals and society at large:

  • closed borders; whoever tried to leave the country, usually by crossing the Danube at night, was to be shot or at best tortured and thrown in jail
  • food rations were the norm; many people, including children, were malnourished
  • many people served as informers to the Secret Police; they were given certain privileges in exchange for information about so-called class enemies, defined loosely as whoever was considered to manifest an “unfriendly” attitude towards the (only) ruling party (including being aware of and discussing international politics); this led to a general lack of trust in others in society, especially those closest to one’s family
  • there were no legal contraceptive means; women were expected to reproduce and thus generate more and more work force for their country (if possible have up to 4 children), which inspired Margaret Atwood to write The Handmaid’s Tale
  • populism/exacerbated nationalism: school and even kindergarten days started with patriotic songs and poems; all school celebrations included manifestations of patriotism
  • censorship: one couldn’t openly discuss a number of very disturbing issues, not even at home with one’s immediate family; there was one local newspaper, one national TV channel, and — in line with how class enemies were defined — listening to radio stations that addressed international politics, i.e. Radio Free Europe was forbidden
  • above all: constant fear for one’s life and physical freedom, suspicion, and isolation.

“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

– Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

To be clear: what I am describing is not world building in a dystopian novel; it is not fiction. This was the everyday reality of my “normal” childhood, of those of my generation, and several generations before us; recent European history that very few Europeans or North Americans still know today, or care to know more about. Through my writing, I want to change that.Our parents and grandparents — those still alive — still do not talk about their experience of communism. They are still afraid of the consequences. If they don’t do it, I believe it’s up to us, the younger generation that still remembers how life was like before and after — to speak out, to speak up, and break through the silence.

A divided Europe

The Iron Curtain created isolationism and, in doing so, a lack of empathy, an estrangement, an “otherness”.  To this day, this division within Europe still exists. Trough my writing, by using means like poetry and personal storytelling, and a child’s point of view, I want to lift the veil and remove the collectivist discourse introduced by communism.

I want to bring forward the personal stories and move beyond an  “us” and “them” discourse of borders and boundaries. I aim to show the individual behind the group, whose longings and sufferings are no different in the East versus West, except that they are burdened — to this day — by more limitations, rather than talk about masses of people and providing statistics.

In his book The Captive Mind, originally published in 1953, in plain rise of communism, the 1980 Nobel Prize laureate Czeslaw Milosz points out how little Americans and Western European know about Central and Eastern Europe, and how littler they care to know. How this “other” “less loved” Europe has long been a territory of semi-colonialism for the “richer”, more “civilised”, more “invasive” Europe.

Talking to friends and fellow writers in North America, I realised that the American discourse on diversity and inclusion is often limited to racial and sexual identity issues. There are, to this day — and there have been over the past few decades — numerous immigrants from former “Eastern block” countries living in the US and trying to call it their home. The same with Germany, where I now live.

Thus, it seems fair to say that little, much too little has changed over time. This is something rarely acknowledged, and even more so, rarely talked about. I was amazed to see how little these well educated peers knew about social issues outside their borders. How easily they’d talk about white privilege, without actually knowing first hand how matters of perception of national belonging manifested somewhere else, and oftentimes even within their own borders. But my friends were not being ignorant on purpose. There is a need to talk and write more about this. To bring certain social topics closer to the public eye.

The lack of economic and political power, combined with decades of silencing and isolationism, equals silencing and discrimination even today. Some of the power-related issues that we debate on a regular basis in our contemporary society may be more visible than others; we need to look beyond skin colour alone.

Being the wrong kind of white will get you nowhere. There is no privilege when you are from a semi-colonised part of Europe, not even in the colonising part of Europe. You are forever perceived as the foreigner, the other, even after becoming the citizen of “your” “new” country. 

Telling someone who comes from a former communist country that they have what we now refer to as white privilege is extremely insensitive.

As society at large, if we want to create a space of true inclusion, we need to expand the privilege discourse beyond race and sexual orientation.

Otherwise communism has done what it had always aimed to do: erase our identities. In Europe, there are – to this date – two kinds of white.

Nowadays, the borders of my home country are open, and almost nobody chooses to stay in it. This creates new challenges, both for those who stay and for those who leave. In an interview some years ago, the former president of my home country said: “If they want to leave, let them leave.” All 4 million out of a total population of 22 million. “Let them leave”.

A question: where are you from?

For many years after leaving my home country, people wanted to know where I was from.

When I showed up at job interviews, even after my home country had joined the EU, even though I had successfully completed both my Master’s and PhD in Germany with flying colours, I would be asked — in the middle of the 2009 economic crisis — whether I needed a work permit — I did (because special restrictions still applied to “my” and one other country).

Then I would get labeled one way or another. Mostly, I would be told, generally by people who have never set foot in my home country or read some “news” about it in a sensationalist paper, that I came from a “small” country. 

In her TED talk Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I am a local, writer Tayie Selasi clarifies the hidden intention behind the question “Where are you from?”: to establish the dynamics of power between the one asking and the one being asked.

In line with this, those asking me every so often about my origins didn’t mean small in terms of size, but in terms of economic and political power.

My country was at worst corrupt and at best irrelevant. Indirectly, so was I, in their thinking.

The answer they wanted to hear — the name of a country — often meant that the conversation would right away come to an end. I wasn’t “worth” it, not with this background. There was no real interest about what those origins meant to me, nor was I getting a chance to show them the person I was beyond them.

Such a question can be particularly difficult for those of us who have an ambivalent relationship with our country of origin.

After having been brainwashed with excessive patriotism during my childhood, being associated with my country of birth and all the contemporary prejudices about it didn’t seem — at least not to me — to be my true identity. 

And what if our origins are multiple, hybrid? What if our openness and our becoming play just as big of a role in who we are as the country where we happen to have been born? What if there is more to our origin than “our” country?

Gradually, I learnt to not see my home country and myself through eyes that belittled it and indirectly myself, the person I thought I was. I learnt to deflect these questions, and refused to have my origins and belongings defined by them and the self-implied answers.

I started, with racing anxiety and great discomfort, to write my own answers, and to read them in front of audiences who may or may not have been ready to hear them. I did it anyway:

  • if you want to know me, don’t ask me where I come from (in a poem)
  • I am not lost, I am On The Way (in a hybrid personal essay on identity)
  • Our Voices brings it all together; it is a book that gives voice not just to myself, but also to all those who have been silenced before me, by political oppression and disease (in a book).

A movie: Die Reise mit Vater

In October 2015, I saw movie at a film festival, That Trip We Took with Dad (EN)/Die Reise mit Vater (DE)/La drum cu tata (RO), and a subsequent interview with its director, Anca Miruna Lazarescu. The movie is based on a real story from the director’s family history (as it was lived by her father), set during the time of the Prague Spring. In the small cinema room, there were a number of viewers, who had made a personal experience with the events described in the movie. Watching the movie and the discussion triggered something in me.

I decided to start looking into my grandfather’s story and bring it to life, rather than let it get lost in silence. And in doing so, to try — through storytelling — bring an end to a traumatic circle. 

An answer: my truth, my voice

The personal is political.

My writing is non-fictional, yet it uses tools I learnt as part of my development as a fiction writer. Perhaps I’ve never been a fiction writer and only that. My writing is lyrical, narrative, autobiographical, political, historical, and everything in between. These in-between spaces, if we nurture them – they can grow.

My truth exists in the spaces in between. Not in the centre. I was not born in London, Sydney, or New York. I write in languages that aren’t “my own”. I do it anyway.

I’ll always have to fight, much harder than others, to make my voice heard.

My truth may not exist in the centre, but it also does not exist on the edges, far away from the hot middle. I refuse to be a marginal voice, as society at times labels me. I am anything but.

This is my voice. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

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