My relationship with Eastern Europe, where I was born and raised, can best be described as “It’s complicated.”
I am where I am now mostly despite, rather than because of, where I am originally from. At least, that’s what I think today. Political climates and social oppression disturbs our relationship with language in brutal and unexpected ways.
On today’s Morning Talks in the Mirror, I want to share my tale of literacy, identity, and accessibility that spans generations. Trust me, you’ll have fun!
A matter of life and death
The year was 1944. The Soviet Union spread their thorn laced wings over my grandparents’ village again. My grand folks were 15 at the time, and that’s when their childhood ended.
The Russians came, and in one night, from Romanians we became Moldovans. That’s how my grandpa used to start telling me the story of his life. For 15 years, they wrote and spoke Romanian. One day, they couldn’t anymore: it was prohibited.
Romanian is a Latin language. In order to exert power, they changed it to Moldovan. It was the same Romanian when you spoke it (initially!), but when it came to writing – it wasn’t anymore. The whole script and alphabet was changed to Cyrillic (Russian alphabet). Which means that the whole population of what we today know as Moldova, and parts of Ukraine, became illiterate overnight.
Think about it. One day you go to school and you’re well into reading the adventurous books of Jules Verne, and the next day you can’t. You’re 15 years old, and you have to learn to read again. And do it all under the watchful eye of ‘the Party.’ If you can’t, you’re an “enemy of the state”, and you’re marked. Being literate was, in the most direct sense of the word, a matter of life and death. When I was 15 years old, my biggest challenge was figuring out whether I’m wearing a Metallica or Pink Floyd t-shirt to my school party. Perspective, humans.
Never read Soviet newspapers before dinner
The year was 1961. A beautiful human being was born, my mom. She learned to write and read Romanian (aka Moldovan) in Cyrillic. Imagine this: ю ар ридинг зе мачикал Эрзси букс, ин зэьр орижинал Инглиш, бат зей лук лайк зис. Did you get that? Definitely makes the neurons in your brain do double work at least. But not for my mom, because that’s what she learned. There was no other mother tongue she knew.
My grandparents, their whole life, sang Romanian songs in secret. Also in secret, they borrowed and read books written in Romanian with Latin script. They read only during the night, and never talked about it.
My mom, she was a Komsomol, in the Young Communist League. She had the time of her life, and my grandparents let her, because that’s how they kept her safe. One day, when she was in 9th grade and trying to sneak out in the middle of the night to meet up with her friends, she saw a very dim light in my grandma’s room. She was reading Forest of the Hanged at candlelight. Confusion swept down on my mother’s face; she didn’t know my grandma could speak French: because a book with Latin script could have only been a French book.
The next day, curiosity took over, and she grabbed the book that was hidden under the squeaky iron bed. In those times, every Komsomol kid learned French at school. It was like today’s English – you need to learn it if you want to get ahead in life.
“Never read Soviet newspapers before dinner,” my grandpa used to tell my mom. For a long time, she thought it was just my grandpa’s love for the writings of Mikhail Bulgakov. Now, she began to understand that it was so much more.
Reading the Forest of the Hanged, written by Romanian author Liviu Rebreanu, in Romanian script, was heart-stirring. It was not French, it was Romanian, as it was supposed to be. So she read more. Night after night, at candlelight, reading books that could have ended their lives, my mom and my grandma bonded over re-learning their mother tongue.
Being born in 1989 and how I got so smart
I’m smart, and I unlearned to be afraid to say it. I was born in 1989, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. I learned and spoke my Romanian. Still, my mom insisted I learn the Cyrillic alphabet at the same time. You never know what can happen, she would say. She was preparing me for all the possible futures. Parents dream of their kids going to medical schools or being lawyers. My mom dreamt of keeping me alive. Even though we were out from under the Soviet Union, and Moldova was an independent country, making sure I was literate in all the ways she could think of was my mom’s way of ensuring my safety.
Today, I love the person I have become, and I’m grateful to my mom and my grandparents for everything they did for me. What they did for me was out of love and fear. Fear for my life and fear for my future.
Literacy should be a choice. Literacy is a right.
It was not a choice for me. It was my shield and my weapon. I am where I am today despite where I’m originally from. I am grateful for who I am, but I can’t always be grateful for how I got here. Today, access to literacy is still a privilege, and is still being used as a weapon.
Literacy affects our lives in all ways: our identity, our health, our happiness. Personal and professional opportunities depend on our ability to access information. Literacy touches us every day, from signs on the road to books on our shelves (or hidden under beds!). The world is healing; the world is fighting the good fight. We, the people, have a choice. And literacy is a human right.