Domnica Radulescu’s Dream in a Suitcase, an extraordinary story of our time, surfing on the geography of exile
By Michèle Sarde
Translated from the French by Dana Chirila
Can a dream travel in a small suitcase and eventually become reality?
To answer this question, writer Domnica Radulescu puts on paper a gripping account of her life and her writing. In the 80s, the narrator left her native Romania with a small suitcase containing a few summer things, a first volume of short stories entitled “Yes but life”, and a legal visa for Italy. Later, she will fulfill her destiny as a refugee in America, then as a global citizen of a free country. This novel about exile and the kingdom, about nostalgia for the lost homeland and a fearful, hard-earned access to a new homeland, about loneliness and the sense of exclusion, ends with that form of resilience that is the writing of a book, then its publication—a universal homeland, a planetary homeland made of all the small belongings that constitute our countries of birth and adoption. Only art can unify in an identical nostalgia each of our individual lives that we must live to the full before the Great Departure.
As in a fairy tale, the dream cooped up in the small suitcase that the young Romanian woman carries away from a country where she cannot live freely will lead the reader into a zigzag of adventures, on the roller coaster of the back-and-forth between her native country and her adoptive country, in a frantic odyssey whose Ulysses is a woman in search of an Ithaca constantly within reach, yet just beyond her grasp.
Is it possible to return to a native country more democratic and more livable after the revolution against the Ceausescus? To a first love fractured by history and time? To a model of the female bound by old conventions? Step by step, this book will shed light on why such homecomings, whether geographical, historical, or generic, are literally impossible. And for good reason! But it will also show how these returns and flashbacks allow the character to move forward.
This is the story of a wandering: between the life of a woman, mother, lover, and the life of career, work, creativity. Between two husbands, two children, two languages, and so on. But the metaphysical question or that of identity is not about “who”, but about “where”. Where am I? Where is my real home? Bucharest or Chicago? Brasov or a small town in the Confederate South? The answer is in resilience, in art, in the novel, in the theatre, which make it possible to overcome all these contradictions. The kingdom is in the book.
This book could be called simply “A Life”, like the novel of the same name by Maupassant. Not just any life. The life of a woman of our time, able to take her story to dizzying heights. Maupassant’s book Une Vie is a fiction written by a man about a fully submissive female doomed to disillusionment and self-destruction. In Dream in a Suitcase, the life the heroine dreams of will not lead to boredom, a succession of disenchantments, abandonment, and death. This life will be worth living. She will be tossed away, torn from her roots, carried away by the winds of history, but standing tall like the tree in the yard of the Confederate sheriff’s house that she has made her own.
Dream is simultaneously the memoir of an émigrée, the saga of a refugee in search of the American dream, and testimony to the experience of an increasing number of migrants who cross the planet by land, air, or sea, to achieve a peaceful life for their children and descendants.
It is also a history lesson on totalitarianism in the last century, including the one imposed by the Soviet regime on the satellite countries that emerged from the Second World War, with its incessant surveillance, its privations and the omnipresent shadow of the Securitate, the terrible police that hunted down citizens even in their most intimate actions, even in their most private whispers. Its secret agents haunt and feed this story with an incurable trauma, an open sore on a wound that will nevertheless become the very source of writing. Expatriation in a land of freedom will unleash in the author a sincerity, an honesty, even more exceptional for having grown up in a country of censorship and terror.
First there is Romania, the native country, the magical aura of the Carpathian forests, the hills inhabited by mythical shepherds with their flocks, the landscapes, the smells and flavors of almond and rose jams prepared by maternal hands, the reminiscences of a small street, a mountain path, the taste of a last kiss, the immeasurable pain of separation on a station platform. Everything that could not be named in a country petrified by the gag on speech, and whose true goal of clandestine escape is called freedom of expression.
And then there is America, first an idealized figment of a young girl’s imagining, hungry to build her life, who knows nothing of the obstacles and torments of immigration, even in a country made up of immigrants who must drop off their suitcases when entering and erase the memory of their homeland to become full citizens. That is precisely what the narrator refuses to do, resolved to hold onto her suitcase and to build a new life for herself and her family without renouncing the other one. This she will achieve by blending the Romania of her childhood, youth, and first loves, with the America of her adult life. Gradually, as she puts down roots in a small town in Virginia, she will experience other loves, bear children, gain tenure at the university and win recognition of her talent as a writer. Like so many other women, she is a Mother Courage, who will eventually find her home and her spacious garden with its majestic oak reigning over a “people” of trees dominated by apple trees, a magnolia, and young maples. And make it her home.
From one end of the book to the other, Romania changes. And the American dream vanishes from the little suitcase and traverses all those ups and downs we call disappointments, disenchantments, regrets. But the narrator moves on too. Never mind where! Exile is everywhere to be sure, but the kingdom is within ourselves and others, in love for children, husbands, lovers, friends, and especially in writing, the finest form of sharing between the self and others.
The alternating sense of exclusion of a nomad wandering between two worlds and that of a citizen of the world at home everywhere is the very fabric of this unclassifiable book, and ultimately embodies the diversity of genres.
Its carefully constructed architecture avoids bland chronology and tracks the back and forth, the detours, and the entangled strata of the past, by repeating them, reviving them in other forms, imparting different colors and meanings. Their echoes give this book a lyrical and poetic tone whose keyword, the Romanian word dor, untranslatable, expresses the very essence of that feeling, the blues, declined across many registers. The nostalgia of being at home in the very heart of elsewhere reveals too that it is elsewhere itself that becomes our homeland. Only the dor can evoke with such grace and accuracy the torments of separation and its melancholy, this aspiration, this inexplicable desire, this longing for all that has been lost, all that could have been lost, all that one might have had without having it: “an inexplicable longing and yearning for everything you lost or might have lost or might have had but never got”.
The originality of this theme is that it is viewed through a woman’s eyes. In a world of men, woman is a perpetual exile, forced by millennia of servitude to adapt to a world forged and administered by triumphant virility. The narrator must overcome a host of obstacles to achieve this freedom to be a mother, a teacher, an artist, and even a lover, without returning to square one: submission to a husband or to a system that confines women within a category from which they have never entirely broken free.
Dream tells a simple, universal story, one in which all of the world’s women will recognize themselves. It recounts the difficulty of successfully leading one’s life on all fronts at once—family, children, career, creation, love—within a space of time limited by the fatal biological clock that obliges young women to succeed and achieve everything simultaneously. But this story is further complicated when you come from elsewhere, when you have a foreign accent, habits, a culture and a distinctive mentality, and when you do not know the codes of what has come to be your children’s homeland. The young Romanian woman will discover them little by little and adapt them to her mold, not mold herself to them. She manages to remain Romanian while becoming American in the full sense of the word. This is the strength of a people of émigrées. And literature accompanies this transformation not only as a tool but also as a source of inspiration, because the successful immigrant transforms the host society as much as the latter transforms her, and this is how racism and xenophobia may give way to understanding and sharing.
To wage this war and achieve peace with oneself and with others, with one country and another, with one language and another, this Mother Courage has all the qualities of courage and dignity that such struggles demand. But what strikes the reader in this protracted inner struggle is the love of life that carries her along and keeps her standing, looking to the future with eyes wide open. An example of resilience illustrated by a firm, direct, precise, often lyrical style, infused with a humor that vanquishes anger, a spirit of mild derision, in which many readers will recognize themselves.
The narrator-turned-author will eventually open the little suitcase, worn out by so many round trips, and she will transform it into a trunk where the dream will multiply. And from the contents of the trunk she will make a novel, transforming the dream not into reality, but into fiction. From this duplication will emerge two young women, the author and her character, the girl on the departing train and the girl who watches her into the distance. The first will be material for the fiction of a first novel. The second is the one that tells us the true story in this masterful memoir, which contains them both, author and character, but also the two homes, the two continents, the two languages, the old roots and the new. And the miracle will happen, publication and success. This new adventure, at the very heart of the existence that started as a fantasy sealed like a genie in a bottle, is told with honesty and exceptional simplicity. Certainly, with it comes the dream of celebrity, but the payoff of glory is a bitter potion, a reality that the author turned star evokes as sincerely as she conjures the tomorrows that disappoint and the drawbacks of fame that anchor the ephemeral in the history of literature.
Dream tells the in-between of writing and publishing, succeeding and starting again. A woman who has met life head on, a refugee who has integrated without losing her identity, the very symbol of America’s ability to Americanize all she touches. Between young America and old Europe, migrants are the new pioneers of a citizenship that spans the world, America being its microcosm.
An extraordinary story of our time, surfing on the geography of exile to make it the place where we are everywhere at home, told in a feminine language translatable into all the others.
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Michèle Sarde, Professor Emerita at Georgetown University, is a French novelist, essayist and biographer. Her work focuses on women, as well as personal and historical memory. Sarde’s numerous books include Colette: A Biography (Académie française award), Regard sur les Françaises (Perspectives on Frenchwomen, Académie française and Académie des Sciences morales et politiques awards), Vous, Marguerite Yourcenar, Jacques the Frenchman: Memories of the Gulag, Revenir du silence (WIZO award, to appear in English with the title “Returning from Silence: Jenny’s Story”). www.michelesarde.com