Self

Ménage À Trois: My Remarkable Odyssey From Former Communist-Ruled Romania To The US

Photo: Courtesy of the Author
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It has always been about the suitcase: what to take and what to leave behind, what to hold on to, and what to let go of.

In the summer of 1983, I packed up a modest collection of belongings, clothes for all weather, a handful of family photographs, a volume of poetry, a collection of short stories I had written in my native Romanian, I said goodbye to my family, my country, and the twenty years young woman that I was and boarded a one-way flight to Rome for the revolution of my life, with the intention of never returning as long as the dictatorship lasted.

With the passing of years and the acquisition of renewed understanding, the brokenness produced by that initial trauma of displacement has been channeled and transformed into new real and imaginary homes, into mosaics of experience and spaces of reinvention.

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My newly published memoir Dream in a Suitcase is a book I once swore I would never write. ​In the end, it was the book itself that demanded to be written.

I obeyed its call not because I think I have led an interesting or adventurous life, which is always relative and can be topped by more interesting, more adventurous lives, or because I am a celebrity which by most celebrity standards I am not, but because I am a creative artist of the written and spoken word. There came a moment in my journey as a writer when it felt necessary to choose the journey of my own life as the main subject of my next book.  

A particularly important motivator has been the relentless question, “Where are you from?” posed to me in different variants hundreds of times during the thirty-seven years of my life as an immigrant in the United States.

To put it in the words of the writer Sarah Ahmed, this question “becomes something you reside in,” and “to be questionable can feel like a residence.” In the writing of this book, I have thus become the architect of my own residence of foreignness.

Finally, the fact that when my first novel Train to Trieste was published, the question “Is it autobiographical?” was relentlessly asked by reviewers, reporters, journalists, readers, as if that was by far the most important aspect of a book whose completion took me many years of searches, writing and rewriting, has also motivated me to embark on a truly autobiographical literary journey and discover its cathartic potential.

My Dream in a Suitcase is not a memoir in the popular meaning of the word; it is not a report of my life or of its “adventurous” episodes for the sake of a sensationalistic effect.  Its genre is deliberately fluid and escapes definition.  If I were to give a definition to the genre of this work, it would be a memorialistic narrative of self-fiction whose principal unifying thread is the relentless quest for a home, for a place of belonging, whether real or imagined.  

But it is not all. This narrative is also a story of reinvention. It is an exile narrative that attempts to recover and piece together the puzzle that has been my nomadic existence in the hyphenated spaces between countries, cultures, languages, and identities, in the “stolen” language of my adoptive and adopted English as well as in my almost second native language, that is, French.

The arc of my storytelling is shaped in spirals and zigzags following the trajectory of memory which by its very nature is disorderly and does not follow chronological trajectories. Memory is a deceitful and unreliable vehicle of experience in general and the memory of a person displaced from their native locations is manifold more deceitful and unreliable.  

I have deliberately chosen to reorganize the memory of my life’s journey in terms of several defining moments, periods, and experiences, of which by far the most radical was that of my definitive departure from my native Romania and the subsequent settling on the earth of the United States.

It is why I start this work with precisely that experience, the months leading up to it, and the actual day of my departure.  Everything following that day has been an intense and perpetual process of settling, resettling, questioning, invention, and reinvention.

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For a person in exile, the experience of reality is often poised on the edge between a past whose traces are no longer visible in the new spaces of our exile, and a slippery present in which we try to root ourselves without full knowledge or understanding of our adopted earth.

We associate the native spaces with our youth and the adoptive spaces with growing old. At the same time, starting over and groping our way through unfamiliar universes reduces us to a state of continuous infantilization. We are both extremely old and extremely young as exiles. Time and space are eternally out of whack with one another and I have tried to precisely capture this jittery simultaneity of experience.

And as if it were not enough to organize the story of my life into a narrative that oscillates between my native country that is Romania and my adoptive United States, I have taken this narrative even further to trace my journey as it triangulates with a third country, its language, and culture, namely the French one.

France has represented for me the space of my profession as an educator as well as an ideal space untouched neither by the traumas of a difficult past under a dictatorship nor by the trauma of resettling as a political refugee in a different country. 

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Having taught the French language, culture, literature for more than three decades, having journeyed to and fallen in love with France’s vibrant cities, gorgeous regions, and luminous geographies have allowed me to find solace, as well as unparalleled intellectual and artistic stimulation as if making a leap into an ideal country.

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In Romanian, the idiom used to denominate what in English is coined as “native language” is “maternal language.”

For Romanians, one’s native country is also a “mother” of sorts. As French was also the language that I learned in parallel with Romanian from my mother who was a French professor, I could say I have two “maternal languages:” Romanian and French.

There was a time when it felt like the three cultural, artistic, and linguistic sections of myself were at odds with each other and could never be fully reconciled.

Through the crafting of my immigrant life in the shape of the book, I believe I have managed to achieve precisely that: reconcile my three identities and realities into one full picture that looks like a somewhat messy mosaic, an asymmetrical puzzle with many movable pieces but a rich and full puzzle/mosaic from which I draw intellectual and spiritual nourishment on a daily basis and a relentless openness towards the world and its multicolored diversity.

Indeed, I have a full suitcase and as the heroine that I have made myself into while writing this book when she embarks on her immigrant journey states, “I am my one and only suitcase.”

Dominica Radulescu is an American writer of Romanian origin. After settling in Chicago, she obtained a master's degree in Comparative Literature and a Ph.D. in Romance languages from the University of Chicago.

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