Romanian-American historian, theatre artist, and spoken word poet, Cristina A. Bejan was born in the United States to a Romanian father and an American mother of Irish, Danish, Dutch and German heritage. She holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford. Her published work includes a collection of poems that has just won the 2021 Independent Press Book Award, Green Horses on the Walls (Finishing Line Press, 2020), and Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania: The Criterion Association (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). She has written nineteen plays, several of which have been performed internationally, and she performs her own poetry under the stage name “Lady Godiva.” Cultural diversity plays an essential role in Dr. Bejan’s life and work. She is an advocate not only for Romanian-American writers but also for writers and artists of various nationalities and ethnicities, particularly through the arts and culture collective, Bucharest Inside the Beltway, of which she is founding executive director. For a more extensive biography and detailed information about her work, please visit Cristina A. Bejan’s website, mentioned at the end of this interview.
Growing up American, how did the interest in Romania come to life and grow to such an extent that it is now intrinsic to your work?
My father came to the States on a government scholarship right when Ceausescu was pretending to be friendly with the West, and Nixon was kind of falling for it. There was this very brief window where there were merit-based scholarships for Romanian students to study in the United States and part of the deal was that they had to go back to Romania. Of course, my dad didn’t fulfill his part of the deal. What that meant was that the Securitate [Romanian communist secret police] basically went full force in terms of terrorizing my family in Galati, which is my dad’s hometown, but also terrorizing my father and mother in Boston.
By the time the 80s roll around and I’m born, all I know is that my father is a little different than all the other parents around. And I always wondered, why can’t we see our family in Romania? There was always this mystery, and I felt like I didn’t know fifty percent of me. My father put me and my sister to bed each night telling us a bedtime story from his youth in Romania—he was a professional basketball player on Romania’s national basketball team; now he’s a professor of mechanical engineering. Then, in 1989, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall, and hearing of the assassination of Ceausescu and his wife became a vivid childhood memory for me. But that also meant we could all go to Romania. So that’s how it all began.
What do you think Americans can find appealing in Romanian culture?
First of all, I’m coming at this question as an artist myself. I was always doing theatre and that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I actually went to college to train as an actor. I veered off track by becoming a nerd in college, so I didn’t end up becoming a professional actor. Then I moved to Bucharest in 2007 as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Bucharest, conducting research for my PhD at Oxford. It was getting involved with the theatre scene in Bucharest that opened my eyes to the risks that artists are taking in the world and the daring questions that artists are asking. It made me feel that what had been going on in my arts world in the States was very tame and safe. I felt like in Romania it was dangerous and exciting. In the two years I lived there, I met my collaborator, Rucsandra Pop, at a festival. She is a playwright and poet in Bucharest; she is one of those involved-with-everything type creatives. But I see that with all the Romanian authors I’ve collaborated with during the pandemic; everybody is involved in so many things. And that is the spirit of the Romanian artist. I think there’s something in the water, in the Danube, that makes people more willing to push the envelope. I think it’s the daring and risk-taking that are appealing, and that is the spirit that inspired Bucharest Inside the Beltway, the arts group that Rucsandra and I started.
Tell us about this group.
Rucsandra was in Romania and I was in Washington, D.C. in 2013 when we launched it at the Romanian Embassy in D.C. with a show that I wrote, a satire about Washington, D.C., very much inspired by Eugène Ionesco’s absurd approach. From the beginning, Rucsandra and I agreed that it would not be just theatre but a platform for all arts, including the literary arts, inspired by the Romanian spirit and legacy, but for everyone. We were in D.C. for six years, and then I came to Denver and brought Bucharest Inside the Beltway with me. Since the beginning it has been focused on promoting local artists and talent, from theatre festivals to dance performances to arts exhibitions to spoken word. We promote and produce work and collaborate in every language; this isn’t just an English-language venture, which is proving to be more and more important.
Bucharest Inside the Beltway acts as a beacon of diversity. You are launching RADIANCE, a virtual residency and showcase, featuring playwrights who represent Denver, Mexico, the Hmong people, Kenya, Romania, Italy, UK, the Cherokee Nation, and Washington DC. Please share some details about this initiative.
This project was the initiative of Amanda L. Andrei, a very visible playwright on the Filipino theater scene in Washington, D.C. Amanda’s mother is from the Philippines and her father is from Romania. She had the idea that she wanted to do a global virtual residency. Now that everyone has embraced Zoom, we can invite playwrights from all over the world. She also wanted to make it very specific to Bucharest Inside the Beltway by reserving at least one spot for Denver, one for Washington D.C., and of course, one for Bucharest. There was a very thorough application process and we got so lucky in terms of the caliber of the writing samples. We had people from so many countries, such as Iran, New Zealand, Australia. We interviewed them on Zoom and ended up with seven finalists. Amanda will be running writing workshops every Saturday for the next two months and everyone is developing their own original play. Sometimes actors will come in and read some of the scenes. Then, Bucharest Inside the Beltway’s promise is that we will produce the showcase of the plays, both virtually and also in person, in Denver, depending on how things develop with Covid. That will be our Denver launch.
You are also a theatre artist who has written nineteen plays and performs poetry under the stage name “Lady Godiva.” How did you choose that name?
When I became a nerd in college, which was inevitable because I come from a very nerdy family, I certainly never thought that I’d be a spoken word poet. As I was approaching my senior year of college at Northwestern University, a couple of professors recommended that I apply for graduate fellowships so that I could go to graduate school in the U.K. I knew I wanted to get a PhD, and I did ultimately win the Rhodes scholarship. So, I’m in my final Rhodes interview in Washington, D.C. The person who was chairing that interview panel, God rest his soul, was Johnny Apple, a very famous contributor to The New York Times. One of the panelists interviewing me was the former head of the CIA, who had become the director of Freedom House, that has an office in Romania, and I had done my college internship at Freedom House in Bucharest. Apparently, I was just grilling this man, I was relentless in my demands about how he should help Romania. Then the panelists said, “it’s a shame we can’t see you perform,” and I said, ‘I can do a monologue for you.’ So, I performed a monologue from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: when Abigail is accusing everyone of being a witch—and you know the play is an allegory for the McCarthy era—and apparently, after that monologue, some of the committee members had tears running down their faces. Finally, they announce I’m one of the four winners, and Johnny Apple pulls me aside and says: “you know, it’s not every day that Lady Godiva walks through that door.” He named me Lady Godiva!
In terms of the poetry, I was always scribbling down poems in notebooks with no intention of ever doing anything with them. Between 10 and 14, I was studying German in school and was writing poetry in German because I didn’t want my parents to read it. So, in 2010, I’m a postdoc in D.C. There was the famous Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and performance and bookstore chain throughout the D.C. area, and they had a location about two blocks from my apartment. One Wednesday night I just went there and read one of my poems, and I was hooked. That became my outlet during my time in Washington, D.C. I actually got scouted there and invited to an underground spoken word open mic, and from there to other undergrounds. It was this community, all together, supporting each other. Something that’s very important about spoken word is that it deals with social issues, so you can be very political and angry. It doesn’t have to be flowery poetry about all the beautiful things in nature. I had some things in my life that I needed to process, and I was able to do that through writing these poems. I believe that my theater background helps. It’s like with a playscript, so much more fun to read it out loud with each other. That’s how it is with spoken word poems; they are really meant to be read aloud.
And so much is in the delivery. Someone could read the instructions for a blender and make them interesting while someone else could read the most rousing text and yet sound boring.
It’s amazing that you mention this. I love primary sources when I teach history and I always teach Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech. A student picked up on this this semester: it’s about being an orator and how powerful it is to be able to captivate an audience. Of course, Winston Churchill is one of the greatest orators of all times.
You teach history at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver). What is exciting to you about teaching history?
I feel very fortunate that I get to be in dialogue with people who bring so many perspectives to the table. I really do learn so much from my students. Also, I’m constantly studying. I feel like I stumbled on this really fabulous way to make a living. I think it’s so important to provide students with as many ways of accessing the history as possible. Of course, there’s the textbook, but I think it’s more the primary sources; it’s oral history if we’re lucky enough to not just read interviews but maybe even meet somebody who survived. We have survivors of communist Romania here in Colorado and they’ve been guest speakers in my classes. And of course, movies and music, I’m all about basically anything to make it more alive. Because the fact of the matter with history is that people were living it, just like we’re living it right now. Also, discussion is so important, in terms of learning from each other. That’s at the heart of building empathy. Learning about other cultures, people, time periods, parts of the world, that’s how we really will be able to fight all of the awful things that have happened.
Your first book, “Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania: The Criterion Association,” examines how the Iron Guard disrupted the harmony of the thriving cultural scene in 1930s Bucharest. The Criterion Association played an important role in this blossoming of culture and included writers Mihail Sebastian and Mircea Eliade as well as other writers, philosophers, and artists. At the core of these intellectual relationships was friendship. Fascism led to betrayals of those friendships, and having read Sebastian’s journal, I’m thinking in particular of the relationship between Sebastian and Eliade. Why do you think fascism exerted such an appeal on many in Romania’s intellectual elite?
Yes, that was my question: how come fascism appealed to these educated, cosmopolitan people? It’s very puzzling. Everybody should read Mihail Sebastian’s diary; it is amazing. What we see in his diary is this very earnest goodwill towards people that kept hurting him. And yes, it’s this loss of friendship, first with Nae Ionescu, his mentor, and then with Mircea Eliade who was one of his best friends and who became seduced by the Iron Guard. It’s so heart wrenching. In my book, I present a list of suggestions. I say that there is no one answer. There are many potential reasons. This group of friends was so diverse and they each had different things going on. The constitutional monarchy was not working then, so what were the options? They see both Italy and Germany looking strong whereas Romania is clearly a mess. It’s around 1935 that these people start to shift and become extremists and that’s part of why the Criterion Association collapsed.
You have actually been asked to write the biography of Mircea Eliade.
This is my desire. People didn’t really know about his legionary leanings until basically the time that he died because his protégé, Ioan Petru Culianu, started asking questions. So Eliade’s secrets start coming out in the late 80s and 90s. I don’t think that’s ever going to discredit him in Romania, but in the States, in his own academic area, the history of religions, it meant that people stopped talking about him. Part of this decision to tackle this project is: I’ve been contacted by one of his protégés, who is a professor at Harvard. I had already been working with Eliade’s main translator who was also a student of his, Mac Linscott Ricketts.
First of all, it would be a comprehensive biography, which we don’t have in the English language. It would be an objective biography, which is what I tried to do with my book about the Criterion Association and the appeal of fascism: to just present the facts and say, ‘I’m not judging here but we need to have all of this compiled in one place for future scholars and anybody who’s interested.’ From my double major with philosophy, I became very interested in Eastern religions and spirituality. I still have so much to learn. I’m not going into this thinking I’m just going to write his life story. I need to understand what he was working on and I look forward to reading his academic writing in terms of his own scholarship. It’s a huge project and it would probably take me at least ten years, but if everything falls into place then I believe that I could execute it. That’s education. We need knowledge. To say that we shouldn’t talk about him because he is controversial, well, why? We should learn everything about all this complicated history.
What are you most looking forward to as we emerge from the pandemic?
I’m looking forward to starting my life here with my family. We moved into the first house that I ever owned; I was a bohemian living out of a suitcase for most of my life. I’m looking forward to really making Denver home, to reconnecting with friends, and to the blossoming of Bucharest Inside the Beltway with the Denver launch, so we can continue to do local projects and virtual national and international projects. My mom’s mother is from a farm in Colorado; my mom just sent me her mom’s family archive and it turns out that I am a fourth generation Denverite. And now I live here! I’ve done so much work on my dad’s family history; now I’m excited to do work on my mom’s family history.
All photos courtesy of Cristina A. Bejan
Top photo: Cristina A. Bejan in Budapest