‘Books saved my life and my sanity’: An Interview with Banned Author Carmen-Francesca Banciu
By: Lisa Hoover
Carmen-Francesca Banciu is an author, journalist, and lecturer who grew up in Romania as the daughter of a high-ranking member of the Communist party. She studied in Bucharest, going on to win the International Short Story Prize in Arnsberg, Germany in 1985, leading to a ban on her works in Romania.
Her last novel Lebt wohl, Ihr Genossen und Geliebten/Farewell Dear Comrades and Lovers was on the Longlist and nominated for one of the most important awards in German speaking countries, the Deutsche Buch Preis. Three of her books have been translated into English and a fourth will appear this fall.
She is currently working on a documentary play in collaboration with the Department for Modern Languages of the University in Birmingham and the theater company La Conquesta del Pol Sud from Barcelona, recreating and performing her autobiographical story for the stage.
In addition to her contributions to the German National Broadcaster Deutsche Welle and other publications, she is deputy director and co-editor of Levure Litteraire, an interdisciplinary multilingual and transnational e-zine founded in France by the Romanian-French poet Rodica Draghincescu. The e-zine has editors in many countries and a readership in around 200 countries. She also serves as a commentator for various news organizations and regularly teaches creative writing. She served as a writer-in-residence for Rutgers University in 2005. She also teaches her own self-created course on creativity and creative writing called Touching Life.
I was fortunate enough to speak with her about her experiences in a recent interview, which follows. The interview has been lightly edited.
Lisa Hoover: First, can you tell me a little more about yourself? What was it like growing up in Romania?
Carmen-Francesca Banciu: I was born in Romania at a time when Communism was on the rise and life after the war seemed to improve also because of the new political system.
My father, who was born in a small mountain village into a poor farming family with 6 siblings, got involved with the system at an early age. He owed his political career partially to his charisma and his natural rhetorical talent. My mother, an illegitimate daughter of a Jewish professor, wanted to escape the ties of her petite bourgeois family and her secret Jewish heritage and married a man of the New Era in my father.
Both of my parents got involved with politics during a time in which Communism and the idea of building a better world, a New Era, was on the rise as well as the idea of the New Human of the New Era.
Their ambition was to create a model family, to dedicate themselves to the building of the new society and the molding of their child into the New Human of this new society, the New Era, the so called Golden Age/Epoca de aur.
The New Human of the New Era was meant to be a highly moral person totally dedicated to realizing and living up to the ideals of the New Society and ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of the community. If necessary, the New Human was expected to extinguish their personality for the sake of becoming a useful, well-integrated element in the context of the society/community.
I was brought up with these tasks, this burden, with this ideal, with the idea of using my time in a mindful way, conscious of the importance of becoming a useful element to the society, to educate and develop myself so as to become the New Human, and to do something useful every moment of my life. I was to strive to become the New Human and to be a role model for my peers.
LH: What was intellectual freedom like for you growing up?
CFB: I learned to read and write at a very early age and I never gave up on books and on continuously educating and developing myself. Books saved my life and my sanity during Communism. And not only during Communism. Even if mother controlled my pockets, my copybooks, my diaries, while school and party controlled our entire lives, I had the privilege to access a very rich home library, a well-stocked school library and the library of our city. In Romania they used to translate the newest works of world literature, as long as it did not criticize the Communist system. We had access to the great literature that appeared worldwide.
Later in Bucharest the world opened up to me other critical works while frequenting the Library of the British Council, the American Library, the French, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Goethe Institute. Libraries were a home. It was not recommended, but it was not forbidden to enter this cultural institution, even if this meant to be even more observed.
Even though my mother was obsessively vigilant of my activities, always violating my privacy by checking my diaries, my mail, my pockets, she never ever monitored what I was reading. She appreciated books and thought that books are the most important support in one’s life — the only thing you can rely on. I wrote about this also in my novel Mother´s Day, Song of a Sad Mother.
The only thing that can help you find answers for most of the questions one is confronted with is reading. She never said it outright, but she meant that books not only give you answers, but also the tools to help you think for yourself and find your own answers. This was the greatest gift ever given to me. This was the tool that helped me survive during the most difficult part of my life in Romania, the last years of Communism. I always relied on books and on expressing myself through writing and art.
Children of party functionaries were meant to become the next generation of functionaries. Consequently, they were under strict observation, and the party and the security system intervened as soon as they tended to deviate from the party line. I was observed in my development form an early age. All of the information was put in a file. I became aware of the existence of a file on me at age 16 and I had to answer for my supposed deviations in many months of interrogation sessions soon after I turned 18.
All of these things had serious consequences on my adult life in Romania until the fall of the regime. During my entire adult life spent in Romania until the Revolution, when life threatened to become unbearable, and I was afraid that I had come to the end of my sanity, what would save me was reading a book. This gave me the feeling of infinite freedom and restored my hope that someday the world would open its gates to me. One of the books that I’ve read several times is Hemingway’s Moveable Feast and the books and diaries of Virginia Woolf. But not only these.
Of course, writing was the other pillar of my survival. I have gathered my own experiences and experiences of others similar to mine and given them to the characters of my books. One of my most important characters is Maria-Maria. You can chart her development through all of my books.
LH: I understand you were subjected to a publishing ban in Romania in the 1980s. Were your works targeted specifically or as part of a larger ban? Why?
CFB: My first book was published in Romania in 1984. A year later, due to awards I received for a short-story that I submitted to an international contest in Germany, I was banned from publishing the award-winning story and other short stories that I had published without the permission of the Censorship Authority.
My award-winning short story, which has been translated into English with the title, “The Beaming Ghetto,” shed light upon of the food shortages and dismal conditions of everyday life in Communist Romania in a caustic and detached tone. The fact that my work happened to get two awards in the capitalist world caused me to be banned from publishing until the fall of the regime in December 1989. My career as a Romanian writer came soon to an end. Due to the fact that I’ve been writing in German since 1996, my books are non-existent in Romania.
There was no protest in response to my publication ban, neither by the Writers Association, nor on the part of the state-owned publishing house (all were state-owned). No cultural institution took a position on it, with one exception: the German-language literary magazine Neue Literatur, which served a small audience and published my short stories and announced the award. But the magazine’s courage was penalized and in order for the issue to be allowed to appear, the magazine had to rip out the pages with my story to allow it to be printed.
Several books and authors were banned during the time of the Communist dictatorship. Several authors were punished for their provocative writing, which was considered offensive to the regime and a betrayal of the values of Communist society. Another banned author was Herta Müller, the late Nobel Prize winner, the poet Ana Blandiana and many more.
LH: Were you still living in Romania during the Romanian Revolution? What was that like?
CFB: Every large city in the country at that time had a weekly literary magazine. Bucharest had at least four or five with 30,000 copies per issue. And the output of these magazines was never enough. The whole country read literature, which then replaced the gap created by the lack of a free press. One read the text, but one gave particular attention to the gaps, and engaged in the so-called practice of “reading between the lines.” One went to the theater to collectively eavesdrop all that was not said and to listen to the breaks/gaps between the dialogues.
It was a society that was characterized by a scarcity of almost everything: of food, of toilet paper, of construction material, spices etc. People used to wait in line for undetermined periods of time for food as well as for books. The lines started sometimes around 2 o´clock at night.
On the black market, you could exchange books for meat, oil, sugar or butter, for services or for a favor. If you had access to newly published books, you could bribe the policeman, the doctor, and even the butcher.
I left Romania almost one year after the Revolution. About the Revolution there is too much to say. I spent the night of the breakdown of the system in the street together with the other protesters. I took my oldest daughter, who was eight at that time, to the demonstration and put her life in danger, something that I will never forgive myself for.
To talk about that night, the next day, the new dawn, the impact of the Revolution on the society would take me too long.
I wrote a novel about this, it’s titled: Ein Land voller Helden, A Land Full of Heroes. I consider it one of the most important books I’ve ever written. There are also some descriptions of the atmosphere of that time in some stories of my book Berlin Is My Paris (PalmArtPress 2016), in Mothers’ Day, Song of a Sad Mother (PalmArtPress 2015) and in other novels not yet translated into English.
LH: What can you tell me about your work as a translator for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative? How did you get involved?
CFB: I got involved with the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative by chance. I was Facebook Friends with the translator Rachel Hildebrand and she posted an announcement looking for translators of the Bill of Rights for Libraries in several languages. As books and libraries matter so much to me, because I am conscious about the impact that books make on people, especially on young people, because I think it is vital not only for the contemporary, but also for future generations to have access to books in translation, I wanted to offer a modest contribution of my own by translating the Bill of Rights into Romanian.
This task also coincides with the fact that I resumed translating literature from different languages since I started to feel at ease with not only expressing my thoughts in German, but also with writing my own literary works in this newly adopted language, a language that I now feel to be my own.
LH: How do you think translating the Library Bill of Rights can add value to literature initiatives worldwide?
CFB: I think that it is important to provide a set of rules, an orientation for the librarian as well as for the person interested in consulting a library.
My opinion is also that the neutrality of the libraries is legitimate and right. This attitude implies that the readers are educated enough to be able to have a critical view on the information they are reading.
I am confident that the people looking for answers to their questions in a library are also already trained to think, to reflect and that access to information will help them develop a fuller and more complex view on the topics they are investigating.
In this respect, I think that translating the Bill of Rights and making it available in as many languages as possible is part of educating the members of society to recognize when informative material is ideologically/religiously instrumentalized, if it aims to incite people against each other, or to discriminate in any form and thus to learn to deal with it critically.
For more about Carmen-Francesca Banciu’s books, visit her website at banciu.de/de/books. Her books are also available at amazone.de and amazon.com/Carmen-Francesca Banciu/e/B001JOPW6I/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.