Andrei Guruianu was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1979 and immigrated to the United States in 1991. Before earning a doctorate in English and creative writing from Binghamton University, he worked as a newspaper reporter and columnist, a cook, and an electrician's apprentice. He also worked as a literary magazine and small press editor and publisher, and, from 2009 to 2011, served as Broome County, NY’s first poet laureate.
He received grants from the Broome County Arts Council and the Chenango County Council on the Arts, and collaborated over the years on numerous arts projects with fellow writers and artists. He lives in New York City, where he teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.
Andrei: Yes, I am. Maybe
“SOMEONE IS LIVING MY LIFE,” wrote the Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello in his diary, not long before his death. “And I don’t know a thing about him.”
As an immigrant writer in America, who has largely abandoned his native language, I sometimes feel as if I’m playing my own character, the embodiment of an “I” whom everyone watches from a distance but who is nothing more than a flimsy façade. Sometimes I truly believe in my own act, as if it was never an illusion to begin with. But it doesn’t take much to blur the lines. When strangers ask me to say something in Romanian, or to explain why I no longer write in the “old language,” I feel as if I’m asked to perform yet again, to prove myself or to play the expected role. I don’t blame them. People want to know: How much of an immigrant are you? If you really are Romanian, present your calling card—the words, language, the accent.
Because I’ve been in America long enough, I’m usually not aware of the language I use when I write or speak. Unfailing, though, someone manages to remind me. Even the most casual query will make me self-conscious. I am reminded of an NPR interview with Nancy Cartwright, the actress best known as the voice of Bart Simpson. The most common request that she gets from people is to “Do Bart!” Most of the time, Cartwright humors them with “Eat my shorts!” or “Don’t have cow, man!” But as soon as these words escape her mouth, she explained, Bart’s voice becomes her “real” voice while her natural voice becomes “fake.”
For the exile, this bizarre ventriloquism is not a career but a necessity. We are asked to perform (freely or otherwise) to better adapt to circumstance. The number of years away from our homeland hardly matter. Acting has become second nature, an ingrained mechanism, so much so that the lines can become so blurred that one can no longer distinguish between past and present. Instead, the two form a twisted but continuous loop called reality. This Möbius strip is the immigrant condition.
The paradox of the Möbius strip, a two-dimensional sheet with only one surface, points to the difference between Eastern and Western thought. Western thought, rigid and set in its ways, enforces delineations. Certain laws shall not be broken. That’s just the way things are. Eastern thought, which allows for flexibility and continuity, is less structured but still disciplined. Exile is endurance training. We learn to accept that the old ways of thinking might not necessarily work anymore. Rigidity defines monuments but life demands flexibility.
And so the alien learns to bend and negotiate, to compromise and improvise. Transience and contingency require a Zen practice, but this rarely leads to bliss and enlightenment. Few things are more painfully unnatural than “naturalization.” By necessity, all immigrants live in permanent exile, whether self-imposed or otherwise. No gain comes without a loss. That much is obvious, and that much is made certain by the necessity of living between worlds where the border between past and present, old and new selves, is always being redefined. Under such conditions, life becomes a constant haggle with customs inspectors.
When on cue I say “Ce faci?” (How are you?) or “Bine ai venit” (Welcome) to someone who wants to hear what Romanian sounds like, a secret gate seems to swing open and I finally appear as a concrete being that has a pre-defined and pre-loaded label. I become a copy of a copy that someone remembers seeing once on a PBS special. Luckily, if you missed it, there are repeats. And every time the special plays, we multiply but remain exactly the same, charged with the preservation of an image of history, culture on late-night parade.
And that’s the biggest lie the exile is forced to tell, as easy and as painful as pulling an old line out of a tired repertoire performed to indulgent applause. In those moments, whether Cartwright performs Bart or Guruianu performs Andrei, both she and I become someone else. She is no longer Nancy, mother of two. She is not even a Primetime Emmy winning voice actress playing an iconic pop character. She is Bart Simpson, an animated 10-year-old boy, more real to most adult viewers than their own middle-school children.
Likewise, through my own voice-over, I become—to the exclusion of everything else—a cartoon immigrant, a two-dimensional foreigner. Should I choose not to, what might I lose? Should I choose to play the game, what have I already lost? Either way, I need better representation. That’s the only way to survive show biz.