How writing a book answered a thirty-year-old question

Carmen Bugan always wondered what effect her father's one-man protest against Ceaucescu in 1983 had on her fellow Romanians. Two years after her book Burying the Typewriter was published, she found out about the impact he had on one man's life.

Carmen Bugan always wondered what effect her father's one-man protest against Ceaucescu in 1983 had on her fellow Romanians. Two years after her book Burying the Typewriter was published, she found out about the impact he had on one man's life.

by Carmen Bugan

The question ‘Why I write?’ surfaces at some point in every writer’s life. The events in the past few days gave me an unexpected answer.

On 10 March 1983, my father, Ion Bugan, left our house in a small village in Eastern Romania and drove to Bucharest to stage a one-man protest against Ceausescu. From the day the secret police walked into the house and placed me directly under interrogation, aged twelve, I have been wondering what the witnesses of my father’s demonstration had seen.

As a refugee in the States, I wrote a poem called ‘The demonstration’ in which I imagined Dad with ‘the flag of his country draped around his chest, / the portrait of the dictator decorated with black ribbons’, and pictured him being arrested while ‘none of his countrymen said a word’. I pieced the images from my father’s testimony, I tried to be there looking on. I thought that poetry could handle personal history, and it did, the book with the poem in it got published.

Burying the Typewriter - Carmen Bugan

Later on I wrote a book about the costs of my father’s protest to the family, to us children, and called it Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police. Writing the book led me to the surveillance files that the Romanian secret police, the Securitate, kept on our family. I found the map of my father’s protest carefully made by the secret police.

Last October my family and I travelled to Bucharest to see the demonstration trail 30 years after my father’s protest, in order to understand better what happened that day. We returned to a different city, another life, a buzzing colourful place that clashed with my father’s memory. Buildings changed, roads rebuilt.

We walked around with the map of my father’s protest that was made by the Securitate. I read the declarations given to the police by the passers-by but no visual details emerged. I still couldn’t picture my father.

My book led to the making of a BBC film and radio programme on the life of my father, and I wrote the online article to go with them. I didn’t think anyone would read it. 

Last week, in response to the BBC Magazine piece, I received an email from my US publisher. The email comes from a man who was a fifteen-year-old boy, in a bus in Bucharest, and saw my father’s protest. It is astonishing to receive the gift of this man’s memory: I can see my father now, through his eyes. Finally the picture arrived, through time, miraculously fresh and alive. 

We are both inheritors of the same historical moment: me, the twelve-year-old child who saw her father leave to change the world, he, the fifteen-year-old boy who saw my father changing the world. And we are continents apart: me, my father, this man who witnessed his protest. Life feels like a great circle.Truth has a way of coming out, unbidden, through the mouth of others. Even if it takes thirty years! 

People who were there and witnessed my father, validate our lives, our experience and our choices. But they also bear witness to the fact that Romanians were capable of standing up for themselves, something that is not so well known around here.

On 3 April 2014 18: Erin wrote:

Fan mail!

From: Alex Toader

Date: Thursday, April 3, 2014 11:26 AM
To: Erin
Subject: so moving and true!

Hello Erin,

My name is Alex Toader and I am writing to you in regard to Mr. Ion Bugan and his story. Yesterday a friend of mine sent me a link to the BBC article regarding Mr. Bugan life story in Romania. I myself a political refuge from Romania arrived in the USA in December 1983 was brought to tears reading the part where he was arrested in March of 1983 in Bucharest in Piata Unirii for driving his car with placards against Ceausescu and the communist system.

The reasons of my tears is the fact that I was a 15 year old boy waiting inside of a bus and witnessed his car being swarmed and blocked by black cars, being dragged out and taken away. For years I have wondered what has happened to the man that displayed such courage and stared a criminal system in the face. A whole bus full of people went quiet and when the bus finally was allowed on its route nobody would have even the courage to talk about it in fear of the unknown "securitate people" that where everywhere.  At home I told my parents about it and they were not convinced until the following days when whispers about the man with the placards on his Dacia that called Ceausescu a criminal. Afterwards my mother told me to say nothing or discuss nothing of what I have witnessed to anybody not even family members or friends since ourselves were under the system’s watchful eye. A thirty year old question has been answered for me, I just ordered the book, I am looking forward in reading it!

This man is a hero, such display of courage are rarely seen and I consider myself fortunate to have witness it. I am very happy for the Bugan family and I offer them a thought: his struggle made lifelong imprints and was not in vain, also please extend my best wishes and regards.

Thank you for your time and Best Regards,

Alex Toader

Writing the family story in Burying the Typewriter has been emotionally difficult to say the least. Recreating a childhood, recreating the loss, being able to see the patterns of our lives in our Romanian years, all of it has been tough. Yet it was a pleasure also. Now I am writing a book called Life Without a Country in which I reflect on having lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and our experience of the secret police documents.  But it would be difficult to carry on doing this work if it did not connect with its readers in a meaningful way. 

Like it did when I was writing poems to my father's pictures when he was in prison. The poems helped my sister, mother and me heal our pain. Now once again writing changes my life. It allows me to reach out there where others had lived too, and there is a sense of victory over darkness. So I am grateful for this reader’s testimony to a moment in his life, thirty years ago. Maybe my father’s protest had something to do with the Revolution in Romania. I spent a lifetime wondering about this.

As for the BBC Magazine piece, I almost didn’t write it.