Cristina A. Bejan, PhD
1. Why did you start writing?
"Honestly as long as I could hold a pencil I have been a writer. I have always had something to say. I have always had a cause to fight for. I have always felt that there are stories that need to be told. I think the question is more: Why would you not write? That would never happen willingly. I am always writing, thinking, creating, and learning. And a fun thing to add is that I am one of those old-school people. I write by hand and also by computer. Some of my favorite creations were originally scribbled down in notebooks by hand."
2. Your journey in three different genres: academic, theatrical, and poetry, is intriguing. How did you get involved?
"I have always been this way. I have always been a total nerd. I was the student who took extra classes in high school so I could learn a second foreign language. I was the student who never took a lunch break with friends, instead I did my homework in the library. My favorite classes were foreign languages (German and French) and history. Also I had to knock out as much school while physically at school, after that I always had theatre rehearsal – and a rich social life in the Durham, NC theatre community. As for theatre, I have been writing and putting on plays since childhood with my sister and our friends. I wrote my first real play at age 14. It was inspired by my artistic idol at the time Jim Morrison. Since then I have written 18 more, some of which have been performed in the US, UK, Romania, and Vanuatu. And a couple have been published as well. But when I describe myself I am careful to say 'theatre artist' rather than 'playwright.' Because I am one of those theatre people who can and loves doing everything: producing, acting, directing, sound design, lighting design, marketing, dramaturgy, dialect couching, etc. As for writing poems? That started at age 10 my first year studying German in school. I wrote poems in German because it was secret, it was my own. And if my parents ever opened up my journal, they wouldn’t be able to read what I wrote! Since then, I have been writing poems here and there, whenever I was called to. I have been writing mostly in English, Romanian, and French. And those 'here and there' poems became my debut poetry book 'Green Horses on the Walls.' Now the moment I became a spoken word poet was in Washington DC in 2010 at the Busboys and Poets (former) 5th and K location. I rode my bike there to share a poem and I have never looked back. My stage name Lady Godiva was given to me by the chair of my Rhodes scholarship selection panel – which is a long story. From Busboys I got invited to other open mics – some known, some word-of-mouth. It was (and still is) a very supportive and safe community, and I am so grateful that I was welcomed as a member no questions asked."
3. Before writing theatre, did you act? Did you always have the confidence to write spoken word poetry that requires acting, confidence, presence, and movement?
"I am a trained Shakespearean actress and that was my professional plan until 2001, my second semester of college at Northwestern University. That is when I discovered that I was interested in more than learning about theatre. Luckily at Northwestern you can study everything so I quickly became a double-major with Philosophy. I succumbed to my inner nerd and from there earned a scholarship to graduate school. That said I have been performing onstage since childhood, and I have acted in shows since 2001. Once an actor I will always be an actor and that experience has 100% made me a better spoken word poet and educator. Spoken word absolutely requires acting, confidence, presence, and movement. I never wanted to be a spoken word poet growing up because I simply did not know that that existed. But I did listen to a lot of rap in English, Romanian, and French before I moved to DC in 2010 and I think that laid a great groundwork in my mind. Spoken word became the magically synthesis of everything artistic I cared about: poetry, my languages, performance, activism, my family history, community, and catharsis."
4. How do you draft spoken word poems? Do you distinguish spoken word versus a regular poem?
"First I should clarify that I am a spoken word poet who has been lucky enough to have her poems published in print form. So I do not claim to know that much about “regular” poems. When I write poetry, I don’t draft my poems. I get an impulse. I sit down and the poem flows onto the paper. Some might say that spoken word is not as sophisticated as regular poetry – because often it is free-flow, stream of conscious – instead of drafted or crafted. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to break into the regular poetry world. Poetry Twitter is only a few people talking about each other and posting about the same poets’ names over and over. As a spoken word poet my poetry life in the online universe is Instagram where people share videos of themselves delivering their poems. During the pandemic we have also had a lot of Instagram Live open mics, and it was that way that I was able to launch my poetry book at my spoken word home at Pure Poetry DC. I am not sure that answers your question. Suffice to say, I am a spoken word poet in a print poetry world. I feel very fortunate that poems that have lived onstage are also available in print form, thus making them more accessible. But I am not leaving spoken word for regular poetry now that I have dipped my toe into the regular poetry publishing world. Spoken word is my first love and the way I write poetry. It has also been an important artistic and activist community for me since 2010."
5. What compels you to write stories about your ancestors? How can you ensure that the information is true to your family’s history?
"Story-telling and oral history were the first modes of documenting history since the dawn of humankind. Of course we can never know if all the information is 100% true as history is passed down by humans and humans are flawed. Another thing to consider is that each person has their own perspective, their own 'version' of the story, so what might be true for one is the opposite for another. What I have done as a poet is share both what I know from oral history of my family and also my own expertise as a trained historian in 20th Century Romanian history. My poems are true to me, as someone who suffers the inherited trauma of the crimes of communism. Both of my dad’s parents were arrested by the communists and disappeared for periods of time. My father and his family were severely punished by the Romanian Secret Police because my dad stayed in the US illegally (meaning he refused to return to Romania). I am sure there are many things that I do not know, and in a sense my adult life has been an effort to understand my father, his family, and Romania itself, as so much was forbidden to me and my sister growing up during the Cold War. This quest has included many magical things such as learning the Romanian language, making Romanian friends for life in Bucharest, and also providing me a beautiful community here in the US as a member of the Romanian-American diaspora. I also wrote an Oxford PhD (turned book) along the way for which I studied Romanian culture and political extremism, that investigation (though not related specifically to my family) has been a journey of self-discovery as well. And I think that it is wonderful for anybody to want to know more about their ancestors and to reconnect with a perhaps lost identity. In the USA we are forced to assimilate, and I think it is beautiful to see so many people now investigating their roots, and yes – I believe – finding themselves."
6. What do you hope people take away from your work?
"That it is possible to turn grief into good, to heal yourself with creativity. That creativity is also a vehicle to preserve history and memory. Once you write the stories down – whatever the form they take – they will be there for the future generations. I hope that my work can show that creativity (poetry, theatre, etc.) can be a platform to address difficult issues and advocate for social justice and societal change. A lot of my work is about mental health and sexual assault – I am an advocate for both NAMI and RAINN – and in my creative work I have been free to tackle those often “taboo” topics, and in doing so hopefully reduce the stigma surrounding them. Something I learned from my artistic collaborators in Romania is to be risk-taking and fearless in my art, I hope that I am and that it shows. Artists should never hold back punches – we should always be pushing the envelope – calling for the better world that we envision. Many people have told me over the years that I am brave and courageous for even writing about such topics as inherited trauma, the crimes of communist Romania, colonialism in the South Pacific, and the difficult issues I mentioned above. I don’t view it as bravery but as two things: 1) for me it is catharsis to write about these topics; and 2) in doing so I hope my creative work can be a vehicle for education about topics that we – as a society – are so reluctant to talk about. Through my work I hope that I can combat ignorance."
7. What inspires you?
"My parents inspire me. They both pursued education (both earned PhDs) and instilled the value of education in me and my siblings. We were always talking about everything in our house – politics, history, global affairs, the world map. We were always told that if we did well in school, we could achieve our dreams – no matter our gender. It is my education that has opened all the doors for me so far in my life. Of course, earning my degrees (in Philosophy and History) took a lot of hard work but I also had a blast doing it. I am very lucky to teach at a university where the students truly value going to college and the opportunities their degree will offer. My students do not take their studies for granted and I learn so much by being in dialogue with them. I consider myself a life-long student. Nelson Mandela said that 'Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.' And I genuinely, passionately, believe that."
8. What other writing project(s) do you hope to take on someday?
"My next book publication is a collection of four of my 19 plays entitled 'Finally Quiet….4 Plays from Washington DC.' My next academic book will be the first comprehensive biography in English of Romania’s famous historian of religions (who had fascist ties in his youth) Mircea Eliade. And as for poems and articles, I am always writing here and there (as I said!). One of my poems was just accepted by the Poetry Society of Colorado for publication in their Centennial Anthology. I was asked to submit my most recent poems to a literary journal recently. Before that I published a couple of poems in Romanian in Opt Motiv online journal. And I just published an advocacy piece I wrote about mental health in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month for the ARCHER blog. And – as of yesterday – I want to research and write about my Denver roots. My mom sent me the PDF of her mom’s family archive and it turns out I am a 4th generation Denverite!"
9. What writing advice do you find totally useless?
"I don’t believe there are any rules to be a writer. I write creatively whenever I feel like it and always meet the deadline. I have never experienced 'writer’s block' because I don’t force myself to write. I also don’t think you need training to be a writer – I don’t believe in MFAs (though I have close friends who have them). I understand getting the higher degree for writing if you want to teach and/or make professional connections, but not to become a better writer. I feel that either you are a writer or you are not. A diploma in writing does not make you a writer. And studying something else (a different subject than writing) will make you a more well-rounded person and that knowledge can enhance and inspire your creative work. Also the something-else you study could lead to the day-job you enjoy while you keep writing when you feel like it."
10. And finally, what do you enjoy doing that you don’t talk about enough. Tell me all about it!
"I enjoy spending time with the older generations in my family. I was my grandmother’s roommate and caretaker for her final three years of life. Now I am plotting to get my parents to move to Denver. And when I am in Romania, the most important person for me to hang out with is my mătuşa Veronica in my dad’s hometown Galați. I also enjoy spending time with my fur-daughter Pickles, who is a rescue mix of everything and the reigning Queen of Denver."
Hear Cristina read her poem "Bucharest."
Cristina A. Bejan (she/her/hers) is an award-winning Romanian-American historian, theatre artist and spoken word poet living and creating in Denver, Colorado. She grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and received her BA in Philosophy (Honors) from Northwestern University, where she also studied theatre. An Oxford DPhil and a recipient of the (Rhodes) Scholarship and a Fulbright, she has held fellowships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Georgetown University, and the (Woodrow Wilson) Center, and has taught history at Georgetown and Duke Universities, among others. She currently teaches history at Metropolitan State University of Denver where she was selected as a Finalist for the 2021 Faculty Senate Teaching Award. A playwright, Bejan has written nineteen plays, many of which have been produced in the United States, Romania, the United Kingdom and Vanuatu. She writes creatively in five languages and has been published internationally in every genre she writes in: academic, theatrical, and poetry. She is founding executive director of the arts and culture collective Bucharest Inside the Beltway. Under the stage name “Lady Godiva,” she performs her poetry across the United States and Romania. She has written "Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania: The Criterion Association" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and
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