In her first novel, Justine Toms tells the story of the women's camps in the early years of the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria, and now she is working on the second one – about how those who were different lived in the 50s and 60s
The women's camps under the totalitarian regime, the transition from World War II to the socialist era, and the Armenian genocide – these are the main themes of Clair de Lune, the debut novel by Justine Toms. We know her as a pioneer in the field of online marketing and digital media in Bulgaria, author and co-author of many books in that field, but also about sustainable business practices, blogging, and – more recently – about podcasts. She teaches at NBU and SoftUni, is involved in a number of different initiatives, and is one of the kindest and most active people we know.
The novel is a result of her purely historical interest in the 1940s and 1950s, and the many interesting stories she has collected, which were just waiting to be told. A central question in the book is how such a change could have happened in Bulgaria, and how a rather progressive society could have fallen into such a vacuum. The main story is about her family, the protagonist is her grandmother, and Toms conducted a number of interviews with older people, read books and delved into the State Archives to ensure the accuracy of her work. She notes timidly that, compared to other works of fiction about this period released in recent years, hers stands out because the action takes place in a women's camp. "Very few people know there were women's camps at all, there were two of them," Justine explains. "It is rare to encounter the women’s perspective on this issue, even more so when it's told by the women themselves."
People who don’t fit the mold
The book has been finished, published, discussed and warmly received by many readers, but Justine's interest in this era hasn’t flagged, and she is already working on her second novel, which is set a decade later, in the 1950s and 1960s. It focuses on the lives of people considered different during the socialist regime. She was inspired by the exhibition Homosoc at the Port A Gallery in 2019, which presented the first comprehensive study of homosexuality under communism, following an idea by Simeon Vassilev from the GLAS Foundation. The director of research for the exhibit was Dr. Veronika Dimitrova from the Department of Sociology of Sofia University, whom Justine consulted as an expert on the topic. "For me, the central conflict is that socialism claimed to be humane and humanistic, but it was actually the opposite – it made those claims and built camps, and sent people there to die, it made those claims and literally used gay people," she points out, noting explicitly that her novel is about many kinds of difference during the time of the socialist regime, not just about queer lives under socialism.
Clair de Lune, the debut novel by Justine Toms
Because the Party insisted on everyone fitting the same mold, Justine says, everyone who was different was an inconvenience to the Party, and was treated badly and rejected in one way or another. Among them are queer people, many artists, Roma people. "The segregation that is still a huge issue in our society started back then." For Justine, it is curious that it was mostly gay men who faced problems with the authorities, while women were persecuted to a significantly lesser degree. "Same-sex intercourse was illegal, gay people were forced to undergo treatments, it was quite harsh: gay people were considered crazy, they were sent to mental asylums, put into solitary confinement," Justine says. Some of them were used by the authorities as informers to keep tabs on foreigners coming into the country, and to perform sexual services. Their spots were most often bathrooms, parks, city toilets." My story is set in Varna, there are these famous places around the sea – a warm spring close to the North Beach where gay people gathered on certain days, they had specific rituals. And the persecution, and the fact that cohabitation was impossible, made their relationships quite fleeting."
Literature, history and language
If we think about how our children learn about history, Justine continues, they learn about the past mostly through literature, because "books create a different kind of memory." As much as she collects and uses words and expressions from specific eras, Justine writes in the language of the modern reader, because it's important to her that these stories reach more people, especially young people. In the novel, gay people will be referred to as homosexuals, because this is a hallmark of the time and shows how they were perceived by society. In the 50s and 60s, language was quite mutilated, factual, naturalistic, and from today's point of view you could say it was quite silly at times. For example, when they were forced to write denunciations of others, some of these people found ways to indirectly mock the authorities. "They tell someone to write a one-page denunciation. Let's not forget that during the socialist era, it was not the quality that was important, but the quantity. And he sits down and starts writing extremely ridiculous things to fill the page: that cup has a very small handle located at the top of the cup, etc."
According to Justine, socialism caused a "bug" in Bulgarian society that runs deep to this day. "The present day mafia infiltrating our society is born out of this falsity, out of this lack of care, out of being told that someone else will make every decision for you. Out of our tolerance for the ugly, the dishonest and the unjust, because these things were everywhere," Justine argues. Bulgarian society is processing these phenomena little by little, but the difficulty comes from the fact that people are still afraid – because everything was imposed on them by force – and this fear is passed on subconsciously from generation to generation. According to her, the antidote is self-respect, because when you lack that, you can also allow yourself to disrespect other people, the environment, or the neighbor whom you’ve been asked to denounce. On the other hand, the problem is also aesthetic, because the socialist aesthetic imposed on Bulgaria replaced a lot of what was authentically Bulgarian.
Justine cannot say when her second book will come out – writing is what drives her, not the thought of publication. And would she tackle a novel set in the present day? "I'm not that interested in the present. I'd rather write something futuristic. Today is murky and bloody."
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