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Eastern European Historian Emanuela Grama on Romania’s Heritage

Emanuela Grama is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. She received her PhD in Anthropology and History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2010. Her first book, Socialist Heritage: The Politics of Past and Place in Romania is currently in production Indiana University Press. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @emanuela_grama.  

What books are you reading now?

I’m currently re-reading Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy. This is a 1,400-page novel about the world of the Transylvanian Hungarian aristocracy at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th). Banffy wrote this novel after the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, musing both elegiacally and ironically about his Hungarian compatriots who could not see “the writing on the wall”—in this particular case, the disintegration of the empire and of the social and political order it represented. 

I am also reading Holly Case’s The Age of Questions, a brilliant intellectual history of the many “questions” that emerged in the 19th century and the ways in which political actors at that time tried to make sense of the inherent radical changes brought about the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism and the modern age.  

In general, I am the type of person who reads multiple books at the same time, according to how I feel on a particular evening. Right now, I’m moving in between several volumes, including Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archives, an edited volume entitled How We Read (@punctumbooks), and Jill Lepore’s These Truths

What is your favorite history book?

Obviously, my answer to this question would continue to change probably from one month to another, depending on what I am reading at the time. One of the books I’ve read recently and loved—as in, I-could-not-put-it-down type of love—is East West Street by Phillipe Sands. It transgresses the genres, being at the same time a family memoir, a love story, and a historical analysis of the intellectual trajectory and biography of the legal scholars who coined the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” each echoing a particular understanding of the relationship between individual, state, and society. 

Why did you choose history as your career?

Actually, I could say that history chose me. I am an anthro-historian working in a history department and I am teaching courses in European history as well as in cultural anthropology. I was privileged to be a graduate student of and receive my PhD from the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History of the University of Michigan. As part of this program, I took a wide range of courses, from socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology to historical methods and theory and the historiography of modern European and Eastern European history. During grad school, I learned how to think as an anthropologist when doing archival research, and as a historian while in the field. Specifically, I constantly tried to consider the historical and political conditions under which an archival fond was constituted, organized, and made available to researchers—and even sometimes, as I’ve learned during my recent research in the National Archives in Bucharest, Romania, re-classified for political reasons. (In Romanian, there is even a special word for this process, re-secretizare, meant to signal that particular files and archival funds are being re-classified, often at the request of specific political actors in the government).  

In my work, I continue to draw on insights from both anthropology and history. For instance, I recently published an article about some of the art historians and collectors who worked with the communist government in post-1945 Romania to reorganize the nationalized art collections and to form a socialist network of art museums. I drew on a wide range of primary sources, such as memos of the meetings, donation deeds, inventories of the collections, communist party meetings, etc., and I relied on anthropological theories about property and value to look at these sources in a new light. Specifically, I used Weiner’s brilliant concept of “keeping-while-giving” to argue that these collectors and art experts became particular “arbiters of value”, straddling two distinct political and social orders: the interwar and the early communist periods. 

I employ a similar strategy in my forthcoming book, Socialist Heritage: The Politics of Past and Place in Romania (Indiana UP, 2019). The book is a social and political history of one place: the historic district of the Old Town in Bucharest, Romania’s capital. I approach the Old Town as a window onto understanding broader political and cultural changes during the communist and postcommunist periods. This district had historically been a place of transactions and transgressions, a place that defied easy categorization. When the communist officials wanted to transform Bucharest into a modern socialist capital, they initially wanted to demolish the old houses in the district. The architects hated its aesthetic heterogeneity, its narrow streets, its old houses. They wanted it gone. But in the 1950s, some archaeologists found the ruins of a medieval place, and used them to fight back the demolition plans. In the end, paradoxically, the Old Town shifted from being an urban eyesore to be portrayed as a key heritage site of the socialist state and of the Romanian nation. After the end of communism, however, this heritage turned into a burden, a symbol of a time that everyone wanted to forget. 

I also explore how the district became once again a political resource for the postcommunist elites, who used it to naturalize a more exclusionary concept of citizenship, one that depended on property ownership. They did so by promoting the Old Town as a symbol of Bucharest’s European history and by attempting to alter its social and architectural fabric—evicting the homeless, changing the utilities infrastructure, adding new pavement to the narrow streets. In parallel, however, they refused to assume responsibility for the state-owned old buildings, many of them in decrepit condition, and implicitly for the state tenants’ precarious situation. The case of the Old Town reveals how these new elites managed to deny their own role in the increasing economic and political volatility of postcommunist Romania, and instead place this responsibility exclusively with the poor. 

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

This summer, I spent two months conducting research in two archives in Bucharest, Romania. Over coffee with an old friend, I was very excited to tell her about some of the documents that I found. But my mood suddenly changed when she looked at me unfazed and asked: do you really like doing this? Her question took me by surprise. Of course, I should have realized that some people might view the act of reading dusty old documents as a waste of time. My answer was yes, I do like it, but I did not sound too enthusiastic. I thought that a specific example would be more persuasive, so I told her how once I found a draft of a love letter hidden among some boring bureaucratic forms. 

The letter was written on the back of some typed documents, a long backlog of art objects in a museum collection. Who knows how that letter ended up in the archives? Maybe the writer did not have access to blank paper, and he wrote that letter on some pages that he did not think were of much value—but then he forgot to take out those pages from the file. I will probably not be able to use that love letter as a source for an article or book chapter, but I am thrilled that something like this could happen in an archive; to stumble upon a trace of an anonymous bureaucrat’s intimate anxieties about a seemingly unrequited love, and to feel empathy for someone living in a different time and place (in this case, it was Romania in the aftermath of the second world war, as the letter was dated on January 1, 1945). My friend did not seem too persuaded, but she nodded diplomatically when I told her the story. 

What I love most about doing archival work is the potential of creating a story out of disparate pieces. But the road from posing a research question and finding primary sources to the end product, often a book, is a long and twisted one. To succeed as a historian, to walk to the end of that road, you need to be patient, to be hard-working, to embrace failure, chance, and serendipity, to be open-minded, to be willing to revise your thinking and arguments along the way, and especially to be persistent. 

It is a long road, but it needs not be solitary. We need to find ways to make our tentative arguments heard, by sharing them with friends and colleagues; to go back to reading good fiction when we feel that our writing becomes stale; and especially to find a community of kindred spirits and mutual support—either in our own department, academic circles, or on #AcademicTwitter. We need to actively search for empathetic peers; and generous friends who would want to engage in conversation and allow us to talk about our work. 

Obviously, to find those peers and especially to keep them in your intellectual life means that we also need to be equally generous with our time and ideas. And here I would draw from my experience conducting interviews. Listening, truly listening to someone, takes tremendous effort and energy. (During my fieldwork, after one hour and a half of a conversation with someone, when I was trying to follow every word and think about each possible significance of every utterance, I would become so tired that I would often need to take a nap.) I have tried to apply this active listening during conversations with my peers and my students. I don’t always succeed, but when that happens I feel I can truly engage with someone’s ideas in a fresh and generous way. 

Ultimately, in my view, the best historian is a kind of magician; one that can transform a puzzle of disparate dusty documents into a persuasive analysis and an electric narrative. And whenever a friend asked them whether they like what they are doing, this historian would answer: “Yes, I love it! Let me tell you about this time when…” And then a true, genuine and generous conversation would follow.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I was privileged to learn a lot from Katherine Verdery and Gillian Feeley-Harnik, my PhD co-advisers, both brilliant anthropologists who seriously engaged with historical analysis in their work and conducted extensive archival research in addition to fieldwork. Their scholarship represents a model of astute analysis and intellectual rigor. 

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

I once had a student who was completely silent in class and even looked a bit aloof. It was the beginning of Spring semester and this was a seminar of around 15 students. I wanted to better understand why: did she have a very busy schedule that would not allow her to get prepared for this class? or did she find the material plainly boring? I invited her to schedule an appointment during office hours. During that meeting, she admitted to me that she could not follow the class conversation and that she felt always behind. I asked her to describe to me how she studied for the class. She took out one of the books assigned for the course and I took a look. All of the pages were highlighted, because, as she put it, she felt that everything was important. I realized how much work she had been putting in this course, and also how lost she might have felt dealing with all that information. I told her that she needed to learn how to skim read, a skill that is so important in college. 

Afterwards, we met almost every week that semester and we discussed different ways in which she could go through a book without paying attention to every word. I taught her tricks that I’ve myself learned in graduate school: read the introduction and conclusion first, then read the intro and conclusion of various chapters, skim through pages until you get to a part that catches your attention and then read closely only that section. We alternated between different forms of reading, ranging from quickly skimming some pages and getting one idea on the paper to closely reading a particularly beautiful paragraph or a persuasive analysis—and stopping there.

The student became more and more confident and she began speaking in class. She was soft-spoken, but her comments were poignant and persuasive, revealing her originality of thought and attention to detail. Her writing improved significantly, and she passed the course with a good grade. When I returned to campus at the beginning of the next academic year, I ran into her on campus. She was with her mom and her grandmother. I then learned that she was a first-generation college student—something that she did not tell me during our meetings. She was elated to be done with all of the required courses and to be soon the first in her family to become a college graduate. 

From that story I have learned that I should not imagine anything about students’ silences; that there could be many other issues hidden behind their unwillingness to speak in class. Since then, I’ve tried to encourage every student in my courses to come to talk to me at the beginning of the semester. Such individual meetings have helped me to learn more about each student and forge a more nuanced interpersonal connection, one that would otherwise be more difficult to emerge in the classroom.

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

That more archival funds will be made available to researchers and that more positions will become available for junior scholars currently on the job market. And that more and more students will choose to enroll in history courses and pursue history majors because they will realize how much those courses could contribute to their becoming informed citizens, confident in their beliefs and less prone to be influenced by political manipulation.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I’m not a collector but I love to visit second-hand bookshops and museums.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

The field of Eastern European history has changed both thematically and quantitatively in the last twenty years. This is a byproduct of two major changes: 1) the archives of the former communist governments have been mostly made available for research and 2) a new generation of scholars in the region have begun a systematic study of this treasure trove of newly available primary sources. There is a much more intense conversation and collaboration among scholars living and working in the region and historians living abroad, as I could see at the conferences that I attend regularly (especially the ASEEES, the American Association for East European and Eurasian studies). 

Also, up to the mid 1990s, the field of post-1945 Eastern European history continued to be heavily influenced by topics and assumptions that were themselves byproducts of Cold War: a penchant for political history, the assumption of a clear division between East and West, one that would not pay attention to systematic exchanges among of various European countries within and outside the communist bloc. Things have changed dramatically. Historians have recently shown that such transfers between West and East were part and parcel of the politics of Cold War, and not just simple "deviations" from the ideological normThe politics of urban planning and the relationship between place-making and state-making during communism is another subfield that is rapidly expanding.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I don’t have a history-related saying, but one of my all-time favorites, one that I keep repeating to myself when I get stuck, is “feather by feather.” It is inspired by “Bird by Bird,” the famous piece by Anne Lamott, in which she talks about the trials and tribulations of writing. She starts with the story of her own father telling her brother how to begin and stick with a school project—by drawing one bird at the time and not become panicked by thinking about the magnitude of the whole project. When I was writing my book, by the end I was so tired that I thought that perhaps I could not accomplish even one “bird” at the time—the equivalent of a few pages. So, I deconstructed that “bird” into a multitude of “feathers,” that is, individual words. It felt easier to just think in terms of word counts instead of pages. However, if I think about it, “feather by feather” is also fundamentally historical. It speaks about gradual change, and thus implicitly about history as a process. Almost anything, from political institutions to ideas, concepts, and attitudes, needs time; to emerge, to mature, and to flourish.  

What are you doing next?

I am currently writing an article based on my recent archival research, focusing on the confiscation of the property of the German ethnic minority in post-1945 Romania and on the subsequent negotiations that the Lutheran Church initiated with the communist state to regain some of these assets.

I have also started working on my next book, which draws on archival and ethnographic research to explore how political regimes (communist and postcommunist) in Romania used property confiscation or restitution to negotiate their relationship with Transylvania’s ethnic Germans and Hungarians.  

I am also preparing to start the Fall semester, when I would be teaching a graduate seminar, Methods and Theory in Historical research, and an undergraduate course about immigration.