Why I do not write in my native language

Series 3 No. 2 - Diaspora

People ask me so often why I do not write in Romanian that I think about it long and hard. First, I do not want to write in the language in which my family suffered interrogations, prison visits, threats of all kinds. I certainly do not want to remember all the times when we wrote to each other and burned our words:

The first time I found the country code for Romania in the telephone book I understood how far away from home I was.  Because the 1989 Revolution began very soon after my family and I arrived in Michigan, the lines were busy and the connection was bad: there was the white noise between the words, as if they needed time to go across the ocean, only to get stuck in our throats.  I had the feeling that I had arrived at that place ‘far away’ from which I was never to return.  That experience of distance has deepened over the past fifteen years.  Now I can say that in writing poetry too, I have arrived at some ‘far away’ place, from which I will not return.

Like most people in my native country, I started writing in my youth.  Perhaps my poetry-writing would have stopped at some point in late adolescence if I had not begun to write to my father’s photographs.  My father protested publicly against the Ceausescu government in 1983 and was condemned to ten years in prison for ‘propaganda against the socialist regime’. (He had spent seven years in prison for protesting against the incoming communist government in the 1960s, before he married my mother.)  Writing about my father gave me a kind of certainty that he was still alive and it was something that my mother, my brother and sister, as well as our larger family, very much liked.  Our collective grief was being given words which eased the pain.  

In 1985, after my sister, my brother and I were denied access to the schools we wanted to attend and my mother was being pushed from one menial job to the next (at one point being even refused the job of feeding cows at the collective farm nearby), she was ‘advised’ to divorce my father to prove to the Party that she would not ‘pollute’ her children’s minds with ‘anti-communist propaganda’.  My father was brought across the country, from the Aiud prison to our town.  We saw him being taken from the black van into the courtroom.  He was handcuffed, his feet were in chains.  Many people found out about this ‘public trial’ and a crowd began to chant his name under the windows of the courtroom.  After the divorce was finished, my mother and the three of us children got separated from each other: we were all dazed.  I don’t remember which buses each of us took home but my mother asked me to wash the windows in the kitchen.  I wrote about the divorce with my fingers on the dust of the window.  Then she asked me to put it on paper.  I guess that might have been one time when I knew that writing was ‘important’ for keeping the day alive in our minds.  So I tried to be as faithful as I could to the experience and to what I was feeling.  I must have been fifteen years old.  In the event, when we left the country, my little notebook with what might be called the root of my book Crossing the Carpathians, was confiscated.

My experience of writing poetry in English can best be explained by telling you about the making of the poem about my parents’ divorce.  In Romanian, years ago, I called it ‘Divortul’ or ‘The Divorce’.  When I began dreaming in English and when the words started to come to me in English, I felt an undercurrent of newness inside.  There was freedom and exhilaration: my tongue was slowly getting untied and I wanted to see what it all sounded like in my new language.  First I wrote what I remembered of the poem in Romanian and then I tried to translate it: it was called, successively, ‘The Courtroom’, ‘An Oath of Love’ and finally ‘The Divorce’.  Many of the first English versions had too many explanations in them: why my mother was forced to divorce, what happened in the courtroom – as though the whole history of the country needed to be told just so that the poetry itself could come through.  Then, as I got more settled in my ‘far away’ place, I learned how the narrative could be put into images which conjure back the narratives.  And so it happened with many other poems, until the English language began to thrill me with its sounds and the Romanian words never returned to translate the poems back.  Lately I think that it would take much effort to put the culture I am writing from now into the Romanian culture I had left just before the Revolution.  And if I tried to write in Romanian now, it would be more like going back home on an old (linguistic) map.

But there is more to it than that.  People ask me so often why I do not write in Romanian that I think about it long and hard.  First, I do not want to write in the language in which my family suffered interrogations, prison visits, threats of all kinds.  I certainly do not want to remember all the times when we wrote to each other and burned our words: we were surveyed twenty-four hours a day for the last five years that I lived in my country and everything we said was recorded by microphones set up around the house. I hated subtexts, lies, the fear of words.  Now I belong to those people who write in a learned language.  And I belong to those who strive to define their responsibilities as people who were born in one country and live quite willingly in another. This might seem to many the kind of thing one ‘grows out’ of.  But the reason why one writes in one’s native language, from exile, is that the native language has beauty and truth in it.  Poets write in their native language to remember the warmth of their home, the customs of their villages and towns, their happy youth.  They want to recreate a sense of home, a warm cocoon around the icy experience of exile. But my exile is my cocoon.  I like it here in English more than I like remembering kids calling me ‘daughter of criminal’ in my native language: that never sounded safe or good or home.  When I stopped looking behind my back to see if anyone was following me to harm me, I stopped looking at writing poetry in my native language.  I think the poems themselves make my choice seem less harsh or less impertinent.  In my situation it is not that bad to be on the side of forgetting.

Fortune-telling poem

She wheeled her pleated
And frilled skirt
Right through
The wooden gates.


She had the lips
Of one who lies
For happiness.

A red ribbon
And silver coins were woven
In her braids.

Her beauty was her wealth
And she charmed me.


After she told my fortune
She said to the wind, ‘unbraid my hair,
Loosen the coins from my head,
Free me from telling lies to those who need them.’

So the wind wound her in his arms
As he does with the willows
And a pile of coins sounded on the ground like bells.

Poor prophetess without her lies,
She ran along the river.

I followed her
With a good-luck coin pressed in my palm:

As we crossed the water
I could not remember the fortune she told me
And without illusions, tears
Fell to the ground like bells.


He often talks of mountains and itinerant
Youth, years of driving movie reels

Up empty roads, to peasants’ hamlets, where
They drank tuica, wore flower-embroidered shirts.

At painted monasteries the wooden toaca
Sounded first in the heads of rain-washed saints

Then rolled through haystacks down in the valleys
And narrow streets with smiling old men.

I know he left a harsh father, his carpenter shop—
The dogs took him as far as the last house of his village; then

Sadness and rented rooms, he talked with the blind wind,
Prayed for one smile in the blueness of his father’s eyes.

Then politics and prison, and I know there
He whistled through the visor in the door
In the bowels of the stone, the pitch of interrogation rooms.

Life of the Black Sea after that: the woman he loved
The children, roads lined with walnut trees – he drove us – 
A cigarette in his hand.

And suddenly I see us fifteen years ago:
Helen Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Nights we all danced and wept with happiness and freedom,

Mom singing at the stove, brother and sister practising grammar,
The five of us like fingers to a hand. We saw America:
We repaired TVs discarded on the street,

Each of us had a TV in our room and movies
And dreams we planned
To bring through once we’d learned English.

His soul at sixty-nine is like the mild sun
On the window, warming up the house,
And America now is at war with all its dreams.

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