Five years ago, as a newly hired professor at the UT Chattanooga, I got lucky enough to be the thesis adviser for J. Kasper Kramer—an as of yet unpublished, but deeply talented and insightful, writer. I knew from seeing her short-form work in workshop that she was a good writer. It wasn’t until I saw the manuscript for The Story That Cannot Be Told that I understood just how good. Since coming out in October, the novel has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal. It’s also been named a Junior Library Guild selection and one of BookPage’s most anticipated releases for the fall of 2019.
The Story That Cannot Be Told is a powerful middle grade debut that weaves together folklore and history to tell the story of a girl finding her voice and the strength to use it during the final months of the Communist regime in Romania in 1989. It interweaves history and folklore in lovely ways, and while it’s marketed as a middle grade novel, it was originally written for adults and that complexity shows through.
I am happy and excited to have had the opportunity to sit down with Kramer recently to discuss the development of the book since I last saw it as a thesis project, and its reception.
The Rumpus: It’s surprising to me now, but I have never asked you how you came to write a book set in a country you’ve never been to that’s heavily informed by folktales that aren’t the ones you grew up on. How did this book come about?
J. Kasper Kramer: I can tell you the exact night I came up with The Story That Cannot Be Told! So, for quite a while, I lived in Japan with my husband, where I taught at an international school. We had both always loved Japan, so we’d moved there to teach after college. (“Just for one or two years” somehow turned into five. I think, in another life, we stayed there forever.) Some of my coworkers and best friends were Romanian women—expatriates like me—and since I was working on a different novel with influences from Romania, one of them came over to my house to help with research. The plan was that she would tell me some fairy tales and folklore, but after we’d been talking for a while, she started telling me other stories, too—stories about growing up under Ceausescu and Communist reign. Sitting there listening, taking notes as fast as I could, I realized I had a very different book to write.
Rumpus: And indeed, this book is about the power of art helping to topple a fascist regime at a time when America is facing its own tests, and yet you need to be able to sell the book to a middle grade audience, which means not just kids but also their parents and the librarians who serve them. How do you balance talking about this as the theme of the book with the need to be careful in a way you might not need to be in adult fiction?
Kramer: Since it’s a middle grade book, we’re not positioning it as too political, but there are themes throughout that encourage readers to fight back against oppression—especially through the power of storytelling. In my author’s note in the book, I talk about how I believe that stories helped take down the communist regime in Romania. My research suggests this, but it’s one of those things where the academic community at large hasn’t accepted it. I can’t help but believe it, though. In the 80s, there was an influx of black-market VHS tapes and music tapes into Romania. It was the first time that foreign entertainment could be cheaply and easily reproduced and smuggled into the country. This made the 80s the first time that Romania had access to the outside world in decades. There’s a documentary I tell everyone to watch called Chuck Norris vs Communism, and the whole thesis of the film is that this influx of foreign movies created a revolutionary spirit in people because they suddenly saw what they didn’t have. There’s just something beautiful and wonderful about that—about the fact that popular American 70s and 80s action movies and fantasy movies might have helped lead people to a revolution.
Rumpus: I feel like when we talk about movies that might foment social change, we often think of very heavy, very message-driven films like Schindler’s List or documentaries in the vein of Bowling for Columbine. But in your book, it’s instead fantastical, even frivolous movies that lead your characters toward resistance.
Kramer: There is a chapter in The Story That Cannot Be Told where the protagonist, Ileana, and her father watch films like Ghostbusters at this secret, forbidden viewing party they sometimes attend. And while there isn’t a political agenda to that movie or many of the others they see, Ileana has all these big revelations, like, Oh, this is what a grocery store with full shelves looks like. This is what it sounds like when people say what they want in public. It’s all presented so casually in these films. It’s just everyday life in the United States—well, except for things like the ghosts and giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man—and that message is more powerful than any polemic one could have been. This isn’t a revolutionary thing. It’s just what grocery stores look like in other countries. Americans buy milk in big plastic jugs—honestly, even just seeing the abundance of plastic was a big deal to Romanians. There’s a chocolate bar that Ileana has in the book, and it’s like a sacred object to her. She spends so much of the novel thinking about when she’s going to eat it or how she might split it with all the people she loves. And yet, in one of these American movies, she sees someone take a bite of a chocolate bar and throw the rest away. Of course, this touches on something uncomfortable about American capitalism and consumerism, I know, but seeing that had a huge impact on Ileana, because she never could have imagined it on her own.
Rumpus: Ileana’s understanding of what is possible is changed and framed by the art that she consumes. And with this book, you are creating art that is going to be consumed by other people. So what in your art are you hoping that your readers are inspired by? And I want to ask you actually in two parts, because I know the book is being sold as a middle grade book here in the US, but I also know that you didn’t intentionally write it as a middle grade book and that it’s being marketed as an adult novel in Germany. So first, what do you hope that your middle grade readers take from this?
Kramer: I want middle grade readers to learn about the power of stories and how important it is to find their own voices and to tell their own stories. If anyone tries to stop them from telling their own stories, I want them to insist on finding a way to be heard and standing up for what they believe in. When things don’t feel right, they probably aren’t. Even if the whole world around you is telling you that something’s okay, it may not be. Ileana lives in a world where it’s normal to not be able to say certain things in public—or, honestly, even in your own apartment. It’s normal for her to have teachers disappear because they teach something in class they weren’t supposed to. But Ileana knows all of this is wrong. She can feel it in her gut. And she holds on to that belief even when everything around her is telling her to sit down and keep quiet.
Rumpus: What do you hope that adults take from this book?
Kramer: Just because The Story That Cannot Be Told is categorized as a middle grade novel absolutely means nothing in terms of whether or not adults can enjoy it or find deeper meaning in it—and that goes for most children’s literature. I suppose I hope adult readers are able to see some of the parallels to things happening in the real world today, here in America. Because this is historical fiction, I obviously don’t directly draw any of those connections, but I feel like anyone can see how easy it is for things that we take for granted—like freedom of the press—to disappear.
I also want adults to see that often in dark times the most vulnerable people are writers, teachers, artists, and scientists. Those people have the power to spread knowledge, so they’re almost always targeted first and silenced. We’ve seen this happen over and over throughout history. When people like that start coming under attack in our own country, we should be terrified.
Rumpus: So one of the things I, as an adult reader, took from the book is that it seems as though—with the exception of her father—the adults around Ileana are not trying to help her understand the world. They’re just trying to shelter her from it. I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but when she gets in trouble it’s in part because she just doesn’t understand what the dangers are. And I’m wondering if the book has sort of a warning there for adults about the dangers of lying to children about the ways the world works?
Kramer: I was a kindergarten teacher when I was living in Japan, so I’ve taught children before, and I definitely believe that children are capable of far more than we often give them credit for. They understand much more than we think they do, too. It’s us—the adults—who aren’t ready to burst that bubble. We want to shelter children so they’ll feel safe. I understand that, of course—I feel it too—but I think there absolutely is a danger there. If, early on, Ileana had been told exactly what was happening—if her parents had just sat her down and told her that they believed her uncle was dead because he had written something he shouldn’t have written—the story would have unfolded totally differently. Ileana would have been more careful and she wouldn’t have made the same mistakes. I think, when the dangers are real, we have to be honest with kids, even if it means that they might feel a little less safe.
Rumpus: Now that you’ve had the opportunity to go around and talk to kids through school and library visits, I’m hoping you’ll tell us a little bit about that experience. What’s it like to meet your readers when your readers are children?
Kramer: So the book is dedicated to Mr. Howell, my fifth grade teacher. I was fortunate to have a lot of people in my life who encouraged my writing even as a child, but he was the first teacher to make me feel like I was really good at it—like I really could follow my dreams and end up here. Things came full circle a couple weeks ago when I got to go back to my elementary school, where Mr. Howell once taught, and talk to the third and fourth graders. It was so much fun, because what kids take away from the book is so different from what adults take away from it. The things they laugh at are so different. I did a little presentation about storytelling for the students, then read a bit of a chapter, and afterward I got such amazing comments and questions. For instance, there was a little boy who was really worried about how one of the reimagined fairy tales ends. In the story, there’s this prince who’s trying to trick the princess protagonist, and he gets his arms eaten off by a dragon. Most of the kids just laughed, but some of them looked kind of uncertain. And this one little boy, he was clearly pretty conflicted. So he turns to his friend, looking very concerned, and says, “It’s okay, though, right, because he was an evil prince?” I loved watching him try to decide whether being “evil” was enough justification for letting a dragon eat off a prince’s arms.
Rumpus: So, the book has a running series of reimagined fairy tales in it about a princess known as Clever Ileana, and one of the things I love about them is that it feels to me like they recapture some of the darkness of the original fairy tales. Your work often relies heavily on fairy tales and folktales. I’m wondering if you can talk about the way that you incorporate these sorts of older narratives into your work and how you draw inspiration from them.
Kramer: So, I’m a true geek at heart. I love fantasy and science fiction and horror—in books, movies, video games, all of it—and of course a lot of these kind of stories have their origins in folklore and fairy tales. One of the things that drew me to Romania in the first place was that I didn’t know a lot about their fairy tales and folklore. And when I started researching, I was surprised because so much of it was completely unfamiliar. For instance, I’d never heard of a balaur before.
Rumpus: I hadn’t, either. What is a balaur?
Kramer: A balaur is a Romanian dragon that has multiple heads, usually three or twelve, and their spit turns into precious gems. Heroes often fight them so they can get rich, and of course balauri are always evil in the stories, but in mine… perhaps not so evil. I love going back to the roots of fairy tales, digging through to the heart, and refiguring the tropes. Many fairy tales are problematic—more often than not, women are treated terribly. For instance, the folk tale that I draw from the most for my novel, “Cunning Ileana,” is a traditional Romanian story about a clever princess. She outwits three evil princes who are trying to make her and her sisters betray their father. The princes do horrible things to Ileana. Of course, since she’s so clever, she gets out of all of it, but at the end of the traditional story, she still marries the youngest prince—the one who was most earnestly trying to kill her. She marries this guy and they live happily ever after—and it’s disgusting! I mean, he’s still trying to murder her on their wedding night, and this clever, brave heroine becomes the good submissive wife at the end of the story.
When I reimagine fairy tales, I get to draw all the nonsense like that to the surface and poke at it, while keeping the fun stuff intact—curses and epic battles and magical creatures. I get to play with all the patterns and tropes, and if I don’t like something, I just change it. This fits perfectly for my book anyway, because the fairy tales are in Ileana’s voice, and one of her habits is changing the endings of stories. Even the title, The Story That Cannot Be Told, refers to an actual story that Ileana wants to tell and change. However, that particular one is forbidden.
Rumpus: So this is a book that you’ve written about a little girl who is also writing this book.
Kramer: Ha! Yeah, I guess it is. Us writers. We always write about writers. Or readers. I am determined to someday write a protagonist who does not like to write or read at all—not even a little—because that sounds like a big challenge. Putting myself in the mindset of someone who doesn’t love stories? I wonder if it’s even possible.
You know, one of the things that I noticed pretty late in the revision process is that all of the writers in Ileana’s life—the people she’s looking up to—are men. At first, this made me a little concerned that I’d missed tightening up an important thematic thread, but then I realized that Ileana’s always changing stories in ways that make the male writers around her uncomfortable. There’s a part where she changes one of the princess stories pretty dramatically and grotesquely, and her uncle, who’s a poet, is particularly disturbed by it. He’s like, “This isn’t how fairy tales go.” But Ileana’s insistent that the ending is fine—in fact, it’s great. And this habit of changing stories? This specific habit—of all her writing habits—she gets from her mother, who isn’t even a writer at all.
Rumpus: As a writer, what story do you most want to change?
Kramer: What story do I most want to change? I want to change the story of where America is headed as a country right now. I want to feel confident that my choice to move back to the US was the right one—that I’m safe here and that the people I love are safe here. The thing about historical fiction and children’s literature and fairy tales—really about all carefully crafted fiction, no matter the genre—is that there’s a lot of truth to be found, even when we’re looking at the past of another country or the future of a world that doesn’t exist. There can be warnings and reminders in the retold and imagined. We just have to be willing to see them.
Read an exclusive excerpt from The Story That Cannot Be Told here!
Photograph of J. Kasper Kramer by Dustin Kramer.