Testimony in practice: A Land Full of Heroes

German and Romanian writer, Carmen-Francesca Banciu, has been working with Professor Sara Jones and the Testimony in Practice team.

We caught up with her to discuss some of the recent activity including bringing her novel – A Land Full of Heroes – to life in theatre, and hosting writing and youth artist workshops with Sara in Birmingham.  

Please can you explain your collaboration with the Testimony in Practice Team?

I got in touch with Testimony in Practice through the network Culture and its Use as Testimony, created by Sara Jones. The content of most of my books, especially that of my Trilogy of the Optimists and A Land Full of Heroes caught Sara’s attention and she invited me to join the Network. All these books are dealing with a personal history that is embedded into the collective one and are representative of the socio-political system I was living in until the Revolution in 1989. In this case the communist one, characterized by its ideology, and all the consequences for the individuals and for the society, the dictatorship and the annihilation of the self.

Could you briefly describe the story within A Land Full of Heroes

The novel is essentially about two topics: the theme of revolt, the radical change in a society, the manipulation of individuals and society under the oppressive political system of the communist dictatorship. In the case of the Romanian revolution, the question is: was it kitsch, coup, war or revolution? With the help of my characters in the novel I try to understand the events I witnessed and to answer the question of how far our resistance and our rebellion went. Was the revolution an act of rebellion or an act of the consequences of manipulation?

The other important topic in the book is the collapse of a society that was intent on defining itself as a community, as a collective that always spoke of "we" and banished the individual. It is about the emancipation of the individual, the rediscovery or the struggle of the "me". Many of the characters in the book, as happened in society, lose their language, their will, and stumble and stutter until they learn to say "me" again. In this process of transformation, similar to a natural catastrophe, many feel helpless, abandoned, lonely, overwhelmed, and are themselves lost. It also means the discovery of self-determination and self-responsibility for one's own life, but also involves the responsibility for the community.

What did it mean to you to have your story brought to life on stage?

I believe that it is my responsibility as an artist to share experiences of communism and overcoming it. The idea of the play emerged from Sara during the Network meetings and I understood that the time came to extend the ways, my means of expression, if I want to reach people. It was a personal and artistic challenge to transform my thoughts and my material into a play, to work on a collaborative project, on something about me and by me shown on stage with the participation of many others.  It was also the challenge to allow myself to show vulnerability as an artist and as a person on stage, as I played my own character. It was a challenge to work together with a theatre company, while as a writer I always worked alone and decided by myself on the selection of what is relevant and what I want to show from my work.

Playing myself on stage, I was also filtered through the eyes of the stage-director and I had to see how this can work without giving up myself and still accept and play myself as an interpretation of anyone else.

Another filter was my daughter, the actress Meda Gheorghiu-Banciu, who wrote some of her monologues from the perspective of the daughter, or played my character Maria-Maria, or my younger self. By using the videos created by Eugenio Szwarcer and Carles F. Giua of their trip through Europe following my traces from Romania to Berlin, La Conquesta, but also Meda with her monologues, put my life story and my books in the present context, showing the actuality of the experience:  borders, manipulations, being stalked/observed in your private life, and other aspects of our contemporary world. Also Eugenio´s  ingenious mise-en-scène, which allowed us to perform on stage events from the present, as well as going back to different layers of the past  helped give me an overview of my own experience.

It was a way to reflect on the past, on my life in the communist context and in the context of geographical migration and migration into another language and culture, on my work as an artist and its impact, on my vulnerability and my personal growth and what does all this have in common with the challenges of our times. I’m interested in how these experiences can be useful to those that watch or read it. How could it help transform prejudices, make us curious about the life stories of others, let us want to encounter each other as equals on a common ground and learn from our different experiences. Selecting relevant fragments from my novels and from the dialogues over months between myself and the stage director Carles F. Giua, working with him to put them together and create a narrative line, was also an interesting experience to participate in.

Could you briefly explain the workshops you have been working on and what you hope they will achieve? 

The workshops, in this case, were a natural consequence of the Network. It moved the discussion from an abstract level to one that made it not only more comprehensive but also applicable in everyday life. Writing about oneself, putting oneself in the context of society, looking at the life experience of one's own through writing helps to get control over one’s own life and integrate better into society. Sharing this with your co-participants, getting feedback from the workshop leaders and from the participants and students helps exchange experiences and discover the uniqueness but also the universality of your own experience. It helps keep the world together, to heal personal and common wounds and strive for peace.

Why is a collaboration between researchers and the arts important to you? 

We live in a time that is more and more trying to rationalise everything and to reduce our life to efficient units of time that create material profit. But we have to understand that we cannot measure profit for society only through material results.

Everything that seems non-efficient on first sight should be eradicated. But we know from history that evolution, development in science and other fields happened, or was made concrete after it emerged first in the imagination of a writer, an artist, a philosopher (Jules Verne and many other writers of science fiction are proof for that). Also, people from the scientific fields developed their theory by letting their imagination fly freely and not by censoring it and obliging themselves to be efficient. 

Arts and Science have something in common in this case, lots of great achievements rise from the subconscious and will be worked on using a conscious process. That´s why nowadays interdisciplinary collaborations can help solve longstanding problems in unexpected ways.

Our society became very complex and it is neither plausible nor advisable to drive in a single track. Science and the arts, the humanities: we all need each other to penetrate deeper into the secrets of life and to help people and society to answer questions and find themselves. To redefine themselves under the new circumstances. 

Do you think it's particularly important to share stories in this way in the present political situation?

I consider that the experience of communism, of dictatorship, or revolutions and radical changes are very important and should be communicated.

The history of the 20th century´s is marked by (at least in Europe) the collapse of Empires, by the rise and fall of Nazism and by the rise and fall of Communism, as well as by wars, especially the two World Wars. 

Communism has to be understood against all the prejudices that still exist and has to be incorporated into the history of the humanity not only as an antagonism to capitalism but as a step in the evolution of society. Even if it became abusive, criminal, and failed its purpose, at his origin, it was an attempt to improve lives and create equality between humans, a humane life for everyone independently of their gender, nationality, race, religion, political or sexual orientation.

This is why it is important to teach about Communism, to learn from its mistakes and try to develop something new.

Even if none of the participants in the A Land Full of Heroes project, except Sara, the initiator, were native English speakers, we came together as an international project using English as Lingua Franca. Coming from so many places, with so many roots: Romanian, German, Argentinian, Italian, Spanish, English, Polish, Sara managed to help us in many ways (re-)create Europe together. Or, maybe, the world. This was an attempt to create awareness for our common global problem-solving goals through art.