The Lessons I've Learned From Writing About the History of Another Country

Author of the middle-grade historical fantasy novel The Story That Cannot Be Told  J. Kasper Kramer tells what lessons she learned from writing about the Romanian revolution, and the truths that the histories of other countries can teach us about our own present.
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Author of the middle-grade historical fantasy novel The Story That Cannot Be Told  J. Kasper Kramer tells what lessons she learned from writing about the Romanian revolution, and the truths that the histories of other countries can teach us about our own present. Read her debut author interview in the Breaking In column of the November/December 2019 issue of Writer's Digest.

J. Kaspar Kramer The Story That Cannot Be Told

Picture a leader who holds parades and celebrations in his own honor, who makes certain those who work for him praise him regularly and publicly. Picture a leader who owns a bathroom made of gold, who admires and befriends the dictator of North Korea.

Picture a government, run by this leader, building an incredible, astronomically expensive structure as a symbol of power. It’s so large, it can be seen from the moon. Picture an administration that constantly vilifies the media, that lashes out at any public critique and condemns it as fake, actively trying to silence all press that isn’t positive.

Picture police raiding homes and workplaces. Picture rampant poverty and fear of outsiders.

If you think you know where and when and who I’m talking about, you might be in for a surprise. What you’ve just pictured is life in Communist Romania, where Nicolae Ceausescu’s authoritarian regime came to a violent, bloody end 30 years ago during the 1989 Romanian Revolution.

I’d been living abroad for several years, writing in the margins of my life while teaching at an international school, when I got the idea for The Story That Cannot Be Told. The novel taking root in my head was based around 10-year-old Ileana, an aspiring writer living in Bucharest in 1989. Writing in Communist Romania was quite dangerous, something my young protagonist would discover early in the book. Her uncle would publish an anti-Communist poem. He’d be disappeared by the Securitate, the secret police. In response, Ileana would be sent away to stay with unfamiliar grandparents in a rural, mountain village, where she’d learn lessons about friendship and family and bravery, and ultimately be forced to confront the danger she’d left behind. When I decided to interweave feminist retellings of Romanian folklore and fairytales throughout the historical fiction, I realized my new idea was starting to look very much like an actual book.

I began extensive research with the help of some of my closest friends, Romanian women who’d lived through the 1989 Revolution. Some of them translated political documents for me. Some contacted relatives so that they could tell me their family stories and favorite folklore more accurately. When I moved back to the States for graduate school about a year later, I finally sat down to write. Once I had a first draft, I sent it to my friends, who each Skyped with me for hours at a time, lovingly explaining page by excruciating page all the many details I’d gotten wrong.

After that, things moved with a quickness I’d never expected. I got an agent, and before I knew it, I was on submission. I started getting phone calls from executive editors at publishers I’d only dreamed of. The book went to auction. And suddenly, I was an author.

Then Donald Trump was elected president.

And I started seeing this story I’d written—this story about to go out into the world, set in a troubled time and troubled place far away—in an entirely different light.

I won’t spell out the parallels between the current climate in America and the climate in 1980s Communist Romania leading up to the Revolution. If you read my novel or read some history, you’ll find those parallels on your own. You’ll find those parallels when you look through the blog posts of Romanian expats and exiles. You’ll find them when you learn that white supremacists in our country, such as those at the 2017 Charlottesville rally, wear T-shirts with the name and face of Corneliu Codreanu splayed across their chests.*

I won’t spell out these connections because it means more when you find them yourself.

What I will do instead is tell you about hope.

Because even though it’s taken me some time to see it, at its core, that’s what my novel is really about.

The incredible thing about history is that we can get further away from it, but like any story let loose in the world, we can’t ever erase it completely, no matter how hard we try.

And people do try, all the time.

In Communist Romania, propaganda was everywhere. Media was strictly controlled. Those whose voices might convince others to look past the façade—teachers and artists and scientists—were frequent targets of the Securitate. Textbooks were altered to frame Romania in a more positive historical light. The government painted the country’s participation in the Holocaust, for example, as trivial and innocent. Romanians were victims of fascism, they said. They saved Jews, they said.

Yet people remembered the truth. People like Elie Wiesel, who’d emigrated to the United States after surviving Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The Romanian institute named after him is still digging up mass graves in their forests, and slowly, the textbooks are being rewritten.

There’s hope in history because remembering the past—both the good and the bad—gives us the chance to build a better future.

In Communist Romania, it was dangerous to remember too loudly, to tell the truth, to even get caught listening—but people wrote poetry anyway. They told jokes. They sang anti-Communist songs. They bought illegal movies and music from abroad off the black market and had secret dance parties and screenings at the risk of their careers and their families and maybe even their lives.

They hoped, against all odds, even after decades and decades of living in fear, that things could get better. And when the slightest crack appeared in the glass—when the first riots broke out in Timisoara on December 16, 1989—Romanians ran full force toward revolution.

After The Story That Cannot Be Told sold to S&S/Atheneum, I was anxious—and not just the “normal” anxious that all debut authors feel. (“Is my book really good enough? Do I really deserve this? What if this is my only shot and I fail?”)

I was anxious because I realized that even though my novel was set in the past of another country—a country we rarely even hear about in America—it was steeped in the controversial issues currently fueling our tense political climate: contested freedom of speech, corrupt governments, abuses of power, poverty, police violence, and misinformation.

What if readers saw these connections in Story?

Worse yet, what if they didn’t?

I suppose now that particular anxiety has worn off. The long stretch leading up to publication gives writers time to grow comfortable with the work that they’ve done. (Though it would be a lie to say I don’t often sit back and take a slow, shaking breath, thinking of all the strangers who’ll soon be holding my heart in their hands.)

I told my story, which means it’s no longer mine. It belongs now to the people who read it—and there’s little I can do about what they see or don’t see in its pages.

The new dream is that those it touches will seek more—more Romanian history, more history about other countries that survived similar hardships. And after they’ve been filled up with stories, perhaps they’ll be able to use them to do good. Because remembering the past of places and times far away can help us make the here and now better.

Stories are powerful, but only if we choose to listen.

*Codreanu was the pre-WWII Romanian leader of the fascist Iron Guard, also called the Legion of the Archangel Michael. He was an open anti-Semite and nationalist, who organized death squads and advocated for genocide. Though Communist Romania was founded on (and maintained by) loud declarations of anti-fascism, the day-to-day realities of life in Communist Romania, such as widespread censorship of the media and general oppression of freedom of speech, were often fascist in nature.

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