Carmen Bugan's Revolutionary Power of Words in Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police

Carmen Bugan’s poignant book Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police illustrates the revolutionary power of writing in times of great tragedy


Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police tells Carmen Bugan's personal memoirs of growing up in Romania during the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. A lot of the book is about her Father who led the way as a political dissident against the oppression and was eventually imprisoned for his outspoken resistance, but the earlier chapters describe her pastoral childhood in the Romanian countryside. It is a truly devastating story that touches on migration, imprisonment, violence, starvation and exile, but the thing that struck me was how poetic it was.

There is no sugar coating the horrors that took place during that period of Eastern European history. But Bugan does not focus only on the overall history, cold and at an arm’s length. If anything, she emphasises the crippling effects that human cruelty can have on youth and innocence. She begins her story by painting poignant reminiscences of her early years, with beautiful imagery of rural life, which though quite simplistic, is also an absorbing child's perspective of what happiness is. Happiness is not over complicated. It is in the senses. It is in togetherness - family. Apart from making it a breath-taking read, this imagery serves two purposes.

Firstly, it emphasises the impact that politics can have on a personal life (in Bugan’s own words "Politics and the personal cannot be separated at all in some periods of history"). It shows this by lulling the reader into a false sense of security with beautiful moments, only to shatter that peace suddenly with a horrible event. This accentuates how it really must have felt for Bugan as a child caught in that awful time. Secondly, it illustrates how Bugan is being almost revolutionary herself by portraying that although she has been witness to awful cruelty, she refuses to allow it to take away her appreciation for the beauty of her world, for the simple pleasures. She won't let anything embitter her soul.

How can this be possible when someone has endured such hardship? Perhaps with all that cruelty at the hands of humans Bugan has retreated into an appreciation of nature? But no. It is clear that Bugan is writing her poetry with the intention of reaching out to people and connecting with them. This is the true strength behind her work. If her poetry had simply the purpose of escapism it would still be admirable, but in fact Bugan is using it to connect to others who have suffered to help them identify their feelings in a medicinal way. Speaking to people on a deeper level of healing is what makes this work an antithesis to human cruelty. Look at how she describes migration, "It's when you're the stork homesick for the stab of the oak tree in your backyard and you come home to rebuild your nest." This is just one example of how she relates human issues back to nature (migration, occupation, oppression) and in doing so, she shows that we are all part of the same world.

I was lucky enough to meet Bugan at a speech she did for Liverpool's Writing on the Wall festival.  She started her speech by describing how she first started writing. Speaking of her Father's imprisonment she said how, at age 13, "When Father had gone, I wanted to bring him home with my words". So she started writing poetry. This was when she discovered that words, "cross boundaries, put suffering into shape and form, others as well as mine... writing is a communal activity [which] heals the writer and the reader. [When I write] I feel I am healing the damage that politics has done to my family."

It's not hard to decipher that the written word is a huge theme in her book. One only has to look to the title. Her Mother and Father used the written word as a weapon. The said buried typewriter was the device on which Bugan’s parents produced pro-democratic pamphlets, so it had to be buried to hide it from military inspections. Meanwhile, Carmen was discovering her ability to write and "finding solace in language". "The more I had the right words to the experience the better I felt". But is this enough to enable you to keep your humanity?

There is an especially harrowing section of the book that describes the lines of people queuing to get their food rations. Bugan says how "at three everyone is dignified...all the buttons neatly shining on their coats, each face with a pleasant smile...civilized. At five, (the time of the distribution of food rations) each person forgets custom and civility and I see neighbours pushing each other, fighting for a loaf of bread."

This scene is an emotive representation of the techniques that dictatorships employ in order to control people. Strategies like mass starvation, alongside propaganda and control of knowledge (which ultimately spread fear) are what strip human beings down to their most animalistic states. They're floundering for self-survival and this is what breaks down communities, basic human kindness and co-operation. This concept of animalism is juxtaposed against Bugan's message of the power of language because often it is only by creating something actively that we can rise above that state. In the book, Bugan's father says, "You must have higher ideals in life, you must see beyond your belly." This is what can make humankind better than beasts in these crucial moments; the ability to create and therefore either escape, fight, educate or find a solution through that.

This is what her Father does with his typewriter, the typewriter transcending into a metaphor for freedom itself. The purpose of Bugan's parents stays alive as long as words are formed and action kept alive. We have seen this throughout history. Look at Anne Frank. Her diary was her tool for survival and since its publication it has made a connection with millions of teenage girls the world over.

Bugan spoke about how when her Father was in prison the prisoners would draw and write things on the bottoms of their shoes in matches. They would recite poems to each other, "walls were like manuscripts, unfinished books". She quoted her Father who said, "You go to prison in Romania, it's like going to university" and that "giving the prisoner scribe a pen would make him a man".

The phrase knowledge is power is now old and over-used. But hearing this brings home the fact that it is a power, not only the knowledge but the words themselves, the stories. Passing on knowledge and education to each other inspires hope and aspiration. It allows a person to feel that the suffering endured in the moment isn't all there will ever be. Bugan says, "you cannot take the dreams away from anyone who dreams." But stories do even more. Telling your own story of suffering in times of such fear, and therefore silence, makes those stories true. It gives the person telling them validation. It shows the personal behind the politics which disarms the idea of people being statistics, numbers, figures. It shows the world as a rich, eclectic tapestry. It displays your vulnerability which when voiced can connect to the vulnerability of others and that is where our true strength lies: in our honesty, our vulnerability and ultimately our connectedness. Only when able to share our true selves can we gain any real power. Add lyricism to our language and it becomes a true contrast to the language of oppression.

What can we learn from this? Bugan finished her speech by saying that once we understand the power of words we need to question everything we are told. We live in a time when the media, politicians and advertisers use words in a clever, persuasive and manipulative way and we need to learn to read between the lines, strip back the layers of the messages we're being sold. Bugan said, "humankind can remain functioning as long as we remain questioning. We have reason to worry only if we don't pay attention to language. Language can be very destructive." It can turn us against each other, it can distort facts in favour of its own agenda, we know this, but it can also make us feel that we are powerless to help in situations where perhaps we're not, where the solution isn't as complicated as the papers would make us believe . We have tragic situations occurring right now and perhaps the solution is simply kindness. Humanity. We can, however, counteract these false messages by (in the spirit of Ian McKaye) always, always questioning, everything and also, by writing ourselves.

Bugan says, "We all suffer in some way. Language can be very healing. [Nothing is like] those moments of quiet and lucidity when creating a simile, a metaphor. The act of creating, itself, of going deep into what words themselves offer in different contexts trains your mind to be quiet."

In addition to this, literature allows access to talk heart to heart. Just a simple story can open someone up to the possibility of hope, unity and love.

To conclude with final words from this inspiring woman, "the important borderline crossed is the border between silence and words." When your words are taken away from you so is your freedom. Keep hold of your voice.

By: Kaya Purchase
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