On researching my latest book, Dreamland, I met astonishing Women from Romania’s past who inspired me in my carer as a woman writer.
How Astonishing Women from Romania’s Past Inspired Me as a Woman Writer
When I started writing Dreamland, my second book of 100-word stories about Romania’s history and folklore, I imagined I’ll write about what I know best, my native country. As I started my research, I discovered surprising legends and inspirational tales about women from Romania’s past who inspired me not only in writing, but in my life too.
Discovering the women of Maramures, northern Romania
A story was born from a legend that sits at the core of Maramures, this land in northern Romania: “Call of the Heart in Maramures, at Its Birth“. Its folk still share it by the hearth during long winter nights steeped in snow. It explains how the people of Maramures would not have existed if it wasn’t for the love and the self-sacrifice of one woman. She gave up her status so she can be with the man she loved. Never mind that she was a giant. Never mind this is a legend.
Time travel with artist women of Bihor, western Romania
More reality than legend, “A wave frozen in stone” was inspired by the oldest cave paintings of Central Europe, located in Coliboaia Cave, Bihor, Romania. Carbon dating placed them at over 30,000 years old; the Palaeolithic period.
Let’s pause for a moment. When we think of cave paintings and the artists who created them, who do we imagine? A man or a woman? Why do we give men priority?
I tried to imagine a woman. Her hands were raw from work and the freezing temperatures of the Ice Age. In brief moments of respite, when she hugged her babe and counted his tiny fingers, basking in their velvety touch, their sweet scent, and unconditional love… had she noticed the transformation her hands would have gone through?
When she cured animal hides, had she noticed the snakes coming alive on the back of her hands?
We call them tendons and veins. What word she used? Were they a mark of pride, proof of a life of hard labour? The only life she could have known.
I like to imagine that she noticed. That she paused to draw breath. And that’s why she could render such anatomically detailed rock paintings. Bone and tendon and muscle. So distinctive that hand, the human hand. And a key anatomical feature by which individuals were, still are, defined.
Creating art, in its many forms.
Clues left in art: Dacian women from Trajan’s Column in Rome
I gazed at bas reliefs on Trajan’s Column countless times. Discerning the Roman army crossing the Danube River ahead of the first Dacian-Roman war; then battle scenes. I noticed Roman soldiers torching Dacian villages, but also Roman skulls stuck on poles around a Dacian fortress. And then, suddenly, I spotted Dacian women dressed in their beautiful attire, the Romanian blouse, “ia”, today a Romanian national symbol. An entire scene on Trajan’s column was dedicated to them. I drew breath. What if the Dacian women were depicted on Trajan’s Column for another reason? Imagine the Roman soldiers’ surprise at having to fight against Dacian men… and women! The Roman soldiers were sourced from all the corners of the empire, fighting someone else’s war. But the Dacians, men and women, were defending their land. I imagined Roman soldiers, their arms lifting heavy swords, gladii, about to strike, then frozen in mid-air realising that among their opponents, handling the curved and feared Dacian sword, the falx, were women too. Thus, the story “Girl Warrior” came alive.
But could all women fight in battles to their hearts’ content?
Fearless medieval women
In medieval times it was the wealth of a woman that saved Bistrita fortress and its inhabitants. The stories I came across made me question if it was her material wealth that saved the town or her bravery. Ursula is depicted on her tombstone wearing a knight’s attire complete with sword and shield. The stone slab is known today as The Knight’s Slab.
Prisoners of their time, women could not be warriors. Despite such prejudice, a few persisted.
At Salina Turda it is said that a rich maiden, rather than having her father remove an entire salt mine and turning it into her dowry, she gave up her engagement ring and chose celibacy. Selflessly, she gave up the tradition, any dreams of being a married woman, than taking over the lad of another state. Thinking, feeling ahead of her time.
Feminism as an ideology and movement was a social phenomenon that blossomed in the nineteenth century, originating in the 1848 Revolution along with other major phenomena such as national liberation movements and labour movement. A giant step away from the cave artist and her work; a longer stride from the woman who chose to be less, for love; and a jump-away from the women who fought in battles alongside men.
As was a Queen’s love and sacrifice for her people.
Drawing inspiration from Queen Marie of Romania
It was the middle of World War I and the German troops had just entered Bucharest. Romania’s capital city was promptly evacuated.
Queen Marie of Romania, born into the Edinburgh British Royal Family, had just lost her youngest child. The tragedy occurred right after Marie, now Romania’s Queen, advised her husband King Ferdinand of Romania to enter the war on the side of the Triple Entente. Even if that meant turning his back on his family, the Sigmaringens.
But a Queen once is a queen forever. So the Marie the mother locked her pain deep in her heart. She placed the dream of her people for a “Greater Romania” and their fight for liberty, first. “At the Great Hour, my country and I were one,” she said. Not much later, the Queen’s political commitment toward her adoptive country proved the leverage Romania needed at the Peace Conference in Paris. Here, the Queen herself attended on behalf of her people, pleading for Romania’s claims.
As a result, the Greater Romania was created. It was an exceptional attitude for her time that a woman in a conservative party was actively involved in war politics and even war propaganda. The Queen never lost faith, she never gave up hope.
The women who never acknowledged defeat
Like the women I discovered before her, they accepted any sacrifice that came in their way and faced danger without flinching. They never acknowledged defeat.
When they shouldn’t have a saying, for no other woman has spoken before. When they had no obvious choice over their life, for no woman has chosen before. When they couldn’t fight for their ideals, because no other woman has fought before. They were the first to do.
Each epoch has seen a battle whose boundaries were pushed a little further. Had they followed one another? No, and yes. Not knowingly, but yes, through the ethos that each one embedded in their X-chromosome.
When they whispered so I can speak out loud; when they fought so I don’t have to, I know that today it is my turn to act, after my mother, and ahead of my daughter’s generation. Therefore, I am a woman writer.
Written for Women Writers, Women’s Books (published 27 June 2022) – with heartfelt thanks to Barbara Bos.
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