by Jean Roberta
My life has rarely been in synch with the times. In the 1980s, I was scrounging a living, raising a child, and trying to finish a Master’s thesis in English to the satisfaction of my advisor and committee. That was the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, when unrestrained capitalism made a comeback. (I was one of the many who weren't lifted up by that wave.)
In the summer of 1989, my life suddenly improved. I spent my first night with the woman who is now my legal spouse, I was granted a Master’s degree, and I got a positive response to my first three erotic stories. (The editors sent me a letter, saying they “accepted” all three, but then the publisher went out of business.)
In 1990, I was given a little joblet in the local university, in the Faculty of Extension (which offers non-credit classes); I taught creative writing to senior citizens for a modest fee. In 1991, I was given a more serious job, teaching literature and composition to a class of reluctant first-year students who had to take it. (Some of them tried to persuade me that they didn’t need the class because they already knew how to write. I kept explaining that I didn’t have the authority to give them a free pass, even if I had wanted to.) The salary was still so modest that I juggled several other part-time jobs at the same time, including interviewing medical doctors for a medical marketing research firm. In 1999, I finally got job security when a new “Instructor” position was created, and I was offered a contract. My income suddenly increased, I had an expense account, and I was eligible for raises.
Best of all, my first erotic story was published in a print anthology in 1999. (The background of this story deserves a blog post unto itself. It's about a sex toy in a lesbian relationship -- the theme of the print anthology -- and I named it "Something Natural" in sarcastic response to some lesbian skirmishes in the hellacious Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s.)
I was well aware that while my life was improving, all hell was breaking out in other countries. In the world at large, the 1990s were the decade of genocide. Unfortunately, my mind seemed to be tuned into the Hell channel – and I was the one who tuned it.
Let me explain. In 1985, I auditioned as a writer and performer in The Funny Pages: An Evening of Improvisational Theatre. This was a project launched by high school students in Junior Achievement (which enables teenagers to learn how to be entrepreneurs), but the performers were all adults with some acting experience. I was hired by the director to write a satirical political skit, perform in it as an actual Canadian politician (Flora MacDonald), and keep the audience entertained between acts.
The director told me to pretend to be a little old immigrant lady dressed in layers of clothing with clashing patterns, including a kerchief. To encourage me to get into the role, he told me to pick an actual country from somewhere in Europe and invent a “language” of sounds. At the end of every act, I was to walk onstage and have a “conversation” with an English-speaking person who was willing to help me. I was to react by pretending to be outraged; I was to “tell off” the other person by raising my voice, waving my arms about, and then walking offstage in a huff.
This role was far from politically correct. Whatever. I wanted to get paid, and I hoped the acting experience would bring me some long-term benefits.
I decided to be the Little Old Lady from Herzegovina, the name of a small nation that existed before World War I. I thought the name sounded funny, possibly even more so than “Saskatchewan.” I created a “language” full of spitting consonant sounds. I got laughs.
The paper programs that were handed out to the audience featured a cartoon image of the Little Old Lady on the cover. I still have mine.
I don’t regret the experience, but no one in the cast got paid a cent. Someone dropped and broke a borrowed sign that was worth $200 Canadian, and paying for a new one ate up all our profit. And I never got enough acting experience to launch a career on the stage. By the 1990s, The Funny Pages seemed like part of my past, when I was a jean-of-all-trades.
In 1991, war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, which fell apart as soon as the old Soviet Union came to an end. A Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was declared, and a democratic vote established the right of non-Serbian residents of that region to secede from the rest of the country. The Bosnian Serbs didn’t accept the vote, and they were well-armed. They launched a war of “ethnic cleansing,” which included mass rape and mass murder. The headlines were full of it.
For several years, no other country intervened. Finally, a U.S.-led coalition of NATO forces stopped the Serbian army and forced them to negotiate. In 1995, the former Yugoslavia was divided in a way that was intended to allow for several ethnic “homelands.”
As far as I know, I have no ancestry from that part of the world. That didn’t prevent me from having nightmares after every massacre was announced on the nightly news. In my dreams, I was in a landscape I didn’t recognize, surrounded by the flames of burning buildings and the screams of civilian victims. I was confronted by an old woman I didn’t recognize at first. But then – oh my god – I knew her. She was the Little Old Lady I had impersonated.
She was definitely outraged. And she was not playing for laughs. She spoke to me in a language that sounded real, and even though I didn’t understand the words, her message was clear enough: Do you find this funny? Am I a joke to you? Would you laugh if you knew how many of my loved ones are dead or missing?
Of course, there was nothing I could do for her except apologize. In time, the nightmares stopped. However, it was hard to forget some of the things I saw, including soldiers mutilating the faces of women they had raped, simply out of spite. I asked myself whether I was more sadistic and perverse than I knew – otherwise, why would I imagine such things?
Then I read a newspaper article that described exactly what I had seen. I didn’t invent the atrocities. My mind was simply tuned in to events I couldn’t control.
Luckily, I didn’t have similar nightmares about the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, probably because I had never tuned in to that part of the world.
Since then, I’ve tried to avoid inventing first-person characters that I wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night in my head. It’s probably just as well that I’ve never had a serious acting career. Imagine the possibilities!