Student and Master Change Places: My friendship with Carmen Bugan
Still absorbing the English language and only beginning to define her family’s agony and the journey that landed them in Grand Rapids, Carmen Bugan entered my sophomore Multicultural Literature class in the fall of 1991. She was passionate, as quick a learner as I have ever encountered, and possessed of a fiery drive to master the art of poetry and to confront the grim politics and psychology twined about her core. Little did I know that she would become a lifelong friend, that I would witness her father’s first public testimony of what had been done to him as a prisoner, stated in Romanian and translated by Carmen, at the Amnesty International Ceremony she had organized while a student at the University of Michigan. Then and in years since, she and I have been engaged in complex dialogues about Dante and Shakespeare, poetics, textual criticism, politics, publishing, child-raising, relationships and matters of the heart.
Nor could I foresee that my wife Sue and I would be invited to help with the family’s move to their own home, to witness their acceptance of American citizenship. We were honored guests at her wedding to Alessandro, and as an older couple whose children have grown, we shared in their excitement and occasional confusion as young parents with spirited children. As I have published her work in my magazine Big Scream, helped her find publication and introduced her to the University of Michigan Special Collections Library’s curator so that her father’s papers could be placed in the famed Labadie Collection of radical documents, so too she has found places for me at readings and ceremonies, given me leads for publication and we have celebrated each other’s successes. At this point, as her Burying the Typewriter goes to print after winning the prestigious Bakeless Prize, I am excited as her former professor and fellow poet, musing with the old proverb, “the master fails if the student does not surpass him or her.” Returning to her family in Grand Rapids, she is one of ours, deserving every accolade we can give her.
Other articles by the same author
As a writer and citizen of the world, Carmen Bugan has many roles. The Grand Rapids-based poet is a Romanian expatriate, eldest child of Ion and Mioara Bugan and chronicler of her father’s heroic stand against the tyrannical Ceauşescu regime in her home nation. She is also an honor graduate of Grand Rapids Community College, the University of Michigan, the Poets’ House/Lancaster University in Ireland and earned her doctorate at Oxford University, U.K. As a poet, her first book, "Crossing the Carpathians," earned wide acclaim and quickly sold out of its first printing. She is also an essayist, a reviewer for the Harvard Review and PN Review, and most recently, winner of the Breadloaf Bakeless Prize for her memoir, "Burying the Typewriter: A Memoir."
The memoir has many of the characteristics of the bildungsroman, a coming of age story in which the narrator explores his/her growing awareness of the true nature of experience. It is also an unmasking of illusion, a descent from innocence into chaos and horror perpetrated by the Ceauşescu regime—and it is the struggle to come to terms with the gradually unfolding awareness of her true situation as the daughter in a family torn apart by that horror. Finally, the tale becomes one of retrieving familial love, celebration of her traditional culture, of confronting difficult truths, and of returning to Romania to remember her own beginnings and learn the full story through the files opened by the government years after the fact.
"Burying the Typewriter" begins with idyllic chapters describing Bugan’s early childhood, celebrating an innocent time being raised by her grandparents while her parents worked, portraying a world of imaginative traditional ceremonies, vacation on the Black Sea, Christmas and Easter celebrations:
at Easter we bake the cozonac [sweet bread] in the clay oven in the yard, which is so big you have to fire it for days and you have to crawl into it, whereas at Christmas we bake everything inside... We are beginning to rehearse carols and dances." (page 21)
Even the death of her bunica [grandmother] is given its transcendence through song, for “mourning is a gentle release of pain through a song about eyes turning into bluebells, bones turning into flutes, and the belly growing into a tree. Maybe this is why in so many Romanian stories there is someone playing a flute under a tree—souls speaking with each other” (page 52). Carmen allows herself and her siblings the innocence of those years in this narrative, and the truth—that her parents are involved in radical dissidence against a tyrannical regime—is carefully shielded from the children and from the readers.
The first hints that something is wrong come as quick shocks. Although Bugan did not know it at this point, her father had been arrested and imprisoned once before, when at age 26 he had protested against the incoming communist regime. Now age 11, she and her siblings were disturbed by food shortages and official searches of homes where families were suspected of hoarding food, and by her father’s increasing agitation while listening to the illegal Radio Free Europe, where Romanian expatriates tell stories of torture at the hands of the regime. Her father brings home a typewriter and has to register it with the authorities. He records a program wherein a priest recalls helping a young dissident suffering in prison:
"My father cries; the whites around his eyes become red, and there are tears running along his cheeks... His body is stiff in the chair, poised in the direction of the radio. The young man the priest speaks about is my father... I begin to feel that there is a world of secrets and danger around my parents." (page 74)
Bugan is later suspicious when he begins burying the typewriter in a plastic barrel, and at night she hears her father and mother typing in the living room by night, the door locked and the windows covered with blankets. Eventually, she and her sister discover a huge banner on which is written “I ask for the trial of the Ceauşescu family for crimes against humanity, and the economic downfall of the country!” (page 81).
They also discover stacks of paper, the flyers her parents have been printing and distributing in secret, with more demands for human rights, freedom of opinion, hot water and electricity and freedom of assembly. Her fears come to a head when her father leaves on March 10, 1983, making a famed one-man protest in the public square in Bucharest, for which he is arrested and disappears to his family.
From this point on, they find themselves social outcasts, interrogated over and over, spied on by Securitate agents who watch the house day and night. The walls of the house are bugged with microphones so that they cannot speak with each other about their real concerns except by writing messages on paper and destroying them immediately. Eventually, her mother is forced to divorce her dad, who is now imprisoned, kept alive only because Amnesty International has made him a famed prisoner of conscience. When he is finally released, he is a broken man. The whole family is placed under house arrest and constantly harassed by guards.
Perhaps the most poignant and difficult moments of the book come during this period, when the family cracks under the pressure, with her parents arguing and the dog poisoned by agents. Bugan herself, now 17 years old, confronts her father. “’This is the freedom you left us with when you left, just like the freedom you now experience,’ I say through tight jaws.” (page 161). Bugan will eventually be the one who evades the Securitate, making her way to the American Embassy and getting the visas the family will need in order to emigrate to America, landing in Grand Rapids on November 17, 1989.
In the Sunday Times review of the book, reviewer Bee Wilson notes that “it is a stunningly powerful piece of writing, a modern classic.” Burying the Typewriter is certainly an important book in the tradition of protest literature, a remarkable testament of a family’s strength in the face of horror and of Ion Bugan’s determination to stand for liberty at a time when others fell silent and cowered beneath the terror—even when it exacts a terrible price on his family. The wonder is that the Bugan family not only survived these years, but that Bugan returned to her homeland in 2010, given the right to finally see her father’s files. She had already written most of the book, but having this access left her with contradictory emotions. She wrote, in an email to me, that “I came out loving my father as I never thought I could and as I will never be able to tell him directly,” but she also noted:
"I am not sure how to approach all of this at the moment but I am very glad to be back here so that I can make sense of it... Unwittingly, the Securitate has given me now a lifeline to a past any child would only dream to have access to. So I have a whole life in my hands as it were."
Bugan did, of course, make sense of it, and this remarkable book testifies to the strength required to survive and flourish in the face of oppression, finding liberty and a new life. Bugan will return to GRCC on September 20, for a lecture and discussion at 108 Sneden Hall (2:45-4:30 p.m.) and an evening reading and book signing at the college’s library (7:00-8:30 p.m.).
Disclosure: David Cope and Carmen Bugan are longtime friends.