John Balaban was born to Romanian immigrant parents, Phillip Balaban and Alice (Georgies) Balaban, both of peasant stock. The family name Balaban comes from a Polish count who led a force against the Turks in about 1510. Balaban’s father, Filip Balaban, was born in Lovrin, a village in the Banat; his mother, Alexandra Georgies, came from a nearby village in southwestern Transylvania. The population was predominantly Romanian in the countryside; however, the people did not enjoy any civic rights and freedoms. After their respective families immigrated to the United States before World War I, Balaban’s parents met in 1930 in the United States. They married and had two children, John and his sister, and their assimilation was quick and thorough.
Balaban showed an early bent toward the humanities, became a student at Pennsylvania State University, and majored in English. In 1966, he earned his bachelor’s degree with the highest honors. He secured a much-coveted place at Harvard University, where the next year, he received his master’s degree. Balaban accepted a position with the International Voluntary Services, a predecessor of the Peace Corps; he fulfilled his alternative service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. As a graduate of Harvard, he received appointment as instructor in literature and descriptive linguistics at the University of Can Tho in South Vietnam (1967-1968).
The next year, Balaban served as field representative for the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children, a Boston-based group that offered hospital care to children. It was at this time that he met his future wife, Lana “Lonnie” Flanagan, a teacher. Between 1970 and 1992, he taught English and creative writing at his alma mater, Pennsylvania State University, and taught twice as a Fulbright lecturer in Romanian universities.
In the early 1980’s, John’s and Lana’s only child—a daughter, Tally—was born. A westward trip across the United States, during which he hitchhiked through the desert to escape the “technological sublime,” helped him cope with his memories of Vietnam. He recorded what happened during that trip in Blue Mountain. Words for My Daughter continues his attempt to contain the past, make sense of what happened, and offer wisdom and guidance to his daughter.
From 1992 to 2000, Balaban served as professor of English at the University of Miami. In 2000, he earned appointment as professor of English and poet-in-residence at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.