WIPs Conversation: Domnica Radulescu on Her Work in Progress

Domnica RadulescuDomnica Radulescu is the Edwin A. Morris Professor of French and Italian literature at Washington and Lee University, and is a consultant with the Romanian Studies Association of America. She is the author of two best-selling novels: Black Sea Twilight (Doubleday 2010 & 2011) and Train to Trieste (Knopf 2008 & 2009). Train to Trieste has been published in twelve languages and is the winner of the 2009 Library of Virginia Fiction Award. Her play The Town with Very Nice People: A Strident Operetta has been chosen as a runner up for the 2013 Jane Chambers Playwriting award given by the Association for Theater in Higher Education. Her play Naturalized Woman was produced at the Thespis Theater Festival in New York City in 2012. She has authored, edited and co-edited several scholarly books on theater, exile and representations of women and received the 2011 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. She is also a Fulbright scholar and is presently working on her fourth novel titled My Father’s Orchards and on a new play titled Exile is My Home.

Domnica, as evinced by this chapter (“We’ll Always Have Hollywood”), Country of Red Azeleas packs a powerful punch through beautiful prose, bringing together soul mates Lara and Marija in an LA reunion after many years, ones which included horrific episodes in Marija’s case during the Bosnian War. When in the novel does this chapter appear?

The chapter “We’ll always Have Hollywood” comes towards the end of the novel and is of crucial importance in the development of the story as it reunites the two heroines after a long period of separation. Up to this point in the novel we have traced the destinies of the two protagonists starting from their childhood growing up in the former Yugoslavia, partly in Sarajevo, partly in Belgrade and then separately throughout their different and tumultuous journeys. At the start of the Bosnian war in 1992, Marija and Lara part and go their separate ways: Lara immigrates to the United States by marrying an American literature professor and Marija returns from Belgrade to her native Sarajevo where she works as a wartime journalist until the summer of 1995 when she and her family become the victims of atrocious war crimes by Serbian soldiers. Following the summer of 1995 all communications between Lara and Marija are interrupted, yet the reader follows for some time their separate stories: Marija’s story as she tries to recover from the terrific traumas suffered at the end of the war and her own immigration to the United States and Lara’s story as she becomes a professor of political science in the nation’s capital, as she has her daughter Natalia and as her marriage dissolves into a rollercoaster of adultery, a turbulent divorce and custody litigation.

Throughout this section, the reader closely follows Lara’s viewpoint as she undergoes a tsunami wave of emotions, one moment in bliss beside her old childhood friend and confidante, the next stricken with disturbance and discomfort at the sight of Marija’s glass eye, or the thought of Marija’s child, the offspring of a Serbian soldier rapist. Does the novel also employ Marija’s POV or utilize a third-person voice, or is the story told strictly by Lara?

The novel is written entirely in the first person and it does also employ Marija’s point of view in sections that are titled “From Marija’s Notes.” Marija’s experiences during the siege of Sarajevo as she is reporting from a bomb shelter and struggling to survive amidst sniper bullets and shells, her recovery from the violent acts perpetrated upon her and her immigration and settling in Santa Barbara, California are all told in Marija’s point of view. Lara however is the unifying narrative voice that not only tells us the story of her personal and professional struggles as an immigrant in Washington DC, but that also pulls together all the strings of the narrative and brings it all together in the end. The intertwining of chapters each told in the respective heroines’ voices gives the reader a sense of the uniqueness of their experiences, contributes to the suspenseful atmosphere and creates a sense of urgency and immediacy of their stories.

Marija truly inspires with this quote: “You either survive something like that or you don’t, you know. And then if you don’t die you might as well survive with flair…I’d rather be beautiful, it’s my revenge!” What led you to develop such a character?

Several elements both from my own experiences and from the research I engaged in for the writing of this novel have led me to develop Marija’s character and her unique way of relating to the world, to others and to her own suffering. The ways in which people not only survive trauma but also reinvent themselves in the aftermath of traumatic experiences and historical violence has always been an obsession of mine. I grew up in Romania under the most gruesome Communist dictatorship of the Eastern bloc. I escaped my country and settled in the United States in the eighties. I also grew up to the sound of my parents’ stories of World War II, bombardments, Fascism, Stalinism, famines and floods. Yet despite all this I gathered, during my life in Romania, myriads of magical memories of natural, artistic and human beauty growing up amidst the brooding Romanian Carpathian Mountains or in the counter cultural and vibrant intellectual life of Bucharest amidst dissident poets and artists. One particular photograph of my maternal grandparents dating from the times of World War II has always haunted me: they are both dressed in ball gowns, radiant and happy and there is an orchid beautifully placed in my grandmother’s hair. Their house had been bombed by Russian bombs and they had to seek refuge in a different part of the country. Yet they did not miss the chance of a ball and of dressing up for it and dancing under curfew and under bombs. The same with Marija and the stories I have heard from Bosnian women artists, activists and survivors of the war. A Bosnian poet who was living in Sarajevo at the time of the siege told me that when people went out they put on their best clothes sometimes, women wore nice dresses and men wore suits with starched shirts and ties, just as a form of defying the war, the violence and the ugliness and desperately holding on to shreds of beauty, humanity and normality. In the chapter in which Marija talks about life under siege in Sarajevo she says: “I was focused on survival like everybody else. But I was also searching for something else. I was focused on an idea of beauty and strength that might emerge from the rubble.”

The “We got it back last night” is a lovely refrain; accentuated by the implied We’ll always have Paris, and the imprint left by their seeing Casablanca together once upon a time. Both women are highly attune to art and its cultural impact, and Lara is intrigued by Marija’s take on film, and her belief that by documenting atrocities the medium desensitizes viewers to such torment and horrific violence more than it serves as some sort of warning. And too, how post-modern critics deem the human experience a living “text,” and Marija’s aversion to that notion. So, then, what is art’s role in the matter? Can art depict and generate a proper understanding of human pain and suffering?

For me, art is an awakening. The question of the role of art and of the artist vis-à-vis the violence and injustice in the world is an agonizing one for me. As a politically engaged artist and citizen of the world, as a refugee from a brutal dictatorship I believe art should create an oasis even in the midst of the worst brutalities, an alternative life of the imagination that would awaken readers and spectators and urge them to pose important questions of themselves such as: “What is my role in today’s society?” “How can I initiate or contribute to change in my world?” “How does one survive trauma and keep one’s integrity of body and soul?” However, I do not believe in art that becomes the vehicle for various ideologies or that is preachy, as that often has the opposite effect and also tends to be quite boring. Neither do I believe in art that idealizes violence or on the contrary, indulges in blow by blow descriptions of violent acts. Aesthetic choices also bear an ethical weight, and rather than perpetuating or repeating traumatic acts through recounting them in narrative, drama or film the work of art should lead us to understanding and transcendence of trauma, to recovery and wholeness. It’s all rather ineffable and one cannot be prescriptive when it comes to art and its role in society; it’s a very fine balance between achieving aesthetic beauty and civic responsibility, between creating art that is both aesthetically and politically engaging and it is an agonizing search, but the journey is worth the trouble if one is a passionate artist and cannot live without creating. In a way the chapter “We’ll Always Have Hollywood” encloses an ars poetica of sorts, as do some other episodes and statements from Marija such as the following one from her notes: “’Tell the truth without telling the story. Once you tell the story it’s become fiction and someone will like it and want to sell it or buy it.’ But how could you tell the truth without telling the story I always wondered? That was Marija’s conundrum.” And then Lara’s description from the present chapter also points to a possible way of dealing with violence in art: “She shrouded us in a cozy cooling silence forgetfulness dis-remembering that wasn’t really like you forgot everything but like you remembered but it didn’t touch you and you said good bye to it.” So it is all very contradictory, the artist has to be able to achieve an aesthetically unified work by bringing together opposing tensions, forces, needs: tell untold truths while startling the imagination, initiate social change without sermonizing, awakening not just emotions but lucid thinking. It is not sure whether art really changes the world as so many of us engaged in its creation would like to and need to believe, but what is certain is that we can’t afford to not keep creating. Every oasis created by the imagination with tenderness and responsibility is a move against violence and injustice.

At what stage is the novel? Do you have a timeframe for completing the manuscript?

The manuscript is in its final stages of rewrites, revisions and polishing and I foresee having a complete manuscript in several months from now. This would complete three years of work at this novel.

What other creative projects might you have currently in the works?

I have started a fourth novel titled My Father’s Orchards inspired by the story of my parents during and after World War II during the Stalinist period of Romania. I am also working on a scholarly book titled Theater of War and Exile that is already contracted for publication, and am also working on a new play titled Exile Is My Home.

Thanks, Domnica. Is there anything else you’d like to share or explain to readers?

Country of Red Azaleas is my first novel that departs from my Romanian heritage and themes and deals with characters from a different East European country. As someone who grew up in that same part of the world, The Bosnian war of the nineties haunted and troubled me and the subject matter and the characters imposed themselves to my creative imagination like an inescapable necessity. I travelled to Serbia and Bosnia a few years ago, I saw the camps at Srebrenica, talked to women artists and activists, survivors of the war and connected profoundly with the people and the physical and cultural post-war landscapes, to the degree to which I felt Bosnian. Similar to my first two novels this one also explores the ways in which political violences affect personal lives, the quest for love and fulfillment in the midst of great historical vicissitudes and obstacles, and the immigrant experience. However, Country of Red Azaleas is at its core the story of two empowered creative women and of the love between them, of the ways in which this love and friendship is put to the test and survives. The title stands for real and imaginary spaces of beauty, love and redemption that bloom out of suffering and destruction with indomitable strength and brilliance.


Read “We”ll Always Have Hollywood!” from Country of Red Azaleas, Domnica Radulescu’s novel in progress