What is it like to grow up with a parent who is a revolutionary? That came up in my previous book-from-every-country read, Giocanda Belli’s memoir The Country Under my Skin. Belli was the mother of several young children at the time she was active in the Sandinista movement fighting against the Nicaraguan government. When she went into exile in Costa Rica, she went so far as to blackmail her ex-husband into giving her custody of their children when he argued that her lifestyle as a member of a guerrilla movement was not best suited for bringing up children. I must say, I thought that he had a reasonable point.
What did her children think about their experiences? It was hard to tell, but they seemed to at least have some mixed feelings about their mother’s involvement with the Sandinistas.
I got to read a first-person perspective on being the daughter of a revolutionary in Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan whose father who spoke up against the Ceausescu government in communist Romania. The book starts slowly and pleasantly with memories of growing up in rural Romania- holiday traditions, farm chores, and story-telling. As Carmen grew older however, she became more aware of problems like food shortages and cronyism and also of her parents’ activism in speaking up against the government.
The family bough two typewriters, one openly (they had to register it with the government) and another one covertly which was buried in the backyard when not in use. This allowed the parents to argue that the anti-government pamphlets they produced could not possibly be for them since the type on the pamphlets did not match their typewriter. The family was already under suspicion from the government when Carmen’s father decided to conduct a one-man public protest in a nearby city. He was arrested and the rest of the family was put under constant surveillance and suspicion.
Carmen Bugan clearly resented her father’s actions and the consequences they had for the rest of the family. It’s not that she didn’t support his political goals, but rather that she thought that he didn’t have the right to put his family at risk by acting without their agreement. Particularly since they’d actually held a family meeting and her father had agreed to limit his activities.
It’s a sticky ethical question- do parents have the right to put their children at risk for their political beliefs? Gioconda Belli considered the fact that the Nicaraguan government was not known to retaliate against the families of their opponents when she decided to join the Sandinistas. She said she wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Threatening people’s families is clearly a powerful tool that governments can use for control. Of course, objectively speaking it’s the people doing the threatening who are to blame, not the dissidents whose families are threatened. But how do you decide that its right to put your family at risk? That the benefits of your actions will be large enough to outweigh the costs? And can you make that decision for other people?
Burying the Typewriter was also a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.