This week, the Baltic Women Writers' Tour touches down in Oxford, with an evening of poetry in translation at Waterstones Oxford on the evening of 2 June, and a panel at Oxford Translation Day on 3 June! The tour aims to shed light on new and extraordinary literary talent from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia: to uncover and highlight the emergence of women’s writing in each country, to analyse Soviet legacy, and to give a stage to contemporary women voices from the region. Full details of the tour programme can be found here.
The writers were interviewed for the Oxford Writers' House by Erika Lastovskyte.
You spent most of your life living outside of Lithuania. How does your experience as a translator help you to connect with your Lithuanian roots? Could you tell us a bit more about the history and practice of translating from Lithuanian and your experience in translating modern and contemporary voices?
I grew up in Canada but my parents were WWII refugees, so in a sense I grew up in a lost (or to borrow Rushdie’s term, an imaginary) homeland.
I grew up in Canada but my parents were WWII refugees, so in a sense I grew up in a lost (or to borrow Rushdie’s term, an imaginary) homeland. When I first went to Lithuania in 1989, I very quickly began working in translation because there was an urgent need for translators during the independence movement. It’s a role that has become part of my fibre and one that structures my experience of living between two worlds; of feeling part of both and neither one at the same time, as so many émigrés do.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how translating helps me to appreciate a text in a way that I can’t when reading in Lithuanian, which I spoke and read in only a rudimentary way as a child. I have spent over a year with the Lithuanian émigré modernist Antanas Škėma’s 1958 novel Balta Drobulė (tentatively “The White Shroud”, forthcoming from Vagabond Voices): a challenging, multi-voiced, intertextual and almost multilingual work loosely based on the author’s own experience of displacement. Though I fell in love with the book in Lithuanian, it’s only now – as I approach the end of the translation process – that I’m beginning to grasp and enjoy it fully in the English.
It’s a very exciting time to be translating Lithuanian literature, because there seems to be growing interest in Baltic writers in the English-speaking markets: the small Lithuanian to English translation community that I’m part of is becoming quite busy!
Your book, Soviet Milk – initially titled Mother’s Milk – is about to be published in the UK. Why has the title changed? Could you tell us more about the book itself, and some of its prevalent themes?
My novel Soviet Milk will be published by Peirene Press in London this September. Its original title is Mother’s Milk and it explores the destructive effect of a superpower regime on the individual. Beyond historical fiction, it offers a kind of psychoanalytic and self-therapeutic retrospection.
The novel underscores each person’s individual agency: the fact that there is no predefined societal standard that one must live by.
The novel also underscores each person’s individual agency: the fact that there is no predefined societal standard that one must live by. In the novel, a young woman is forced to go to a dance, and later finds that she has become pregnant. She gives birth to a baby daughter. For the rest of her life (and the novel’s narrative) her mother and stepfather, and then also her daughter, try to protect and save her. However, the mother’s inner world is calibrated to the current of a different existence. For some of us, like the young girl’s mother in the novel, our survival instincts may be inherently so fragile and crumbling under the burden of existential issues, that we can collapse under the weight of hopeless circumstances. While we can only guess why this happens, the daughter in the novel comes to the conclusion: “Thinking about mother, about her and my birth, I can’t free myself from thoughts about damned destiny, which can be just happenstance, or perhaps the outcome of some big, incomprehensible plan. We were born then and there and that shaped our lives.”
A mother’s milk was a luxury product under the Soviet regime. In my novel, it symbolizes not nourishment for the newborn (which in Soviet Latvia could be replaced by bottled milk from a substitute centre), but rather the survival of the human race, humanity and national identity, which within the metaphor of a mother’s milk encompasses a memory of better times, freedom, survival and love. This kind of milk should be available to every soul who enters this world. However, Soviet ideology has rendered it lifeless: ‘Soviet milk’ thus stands for the poison of the system.
Mother’s Milk sold more than 25 000 copies in Latvia, becoming a national bestseller. Translations into Italian, Hungarian, Estonian, Swedish, Georgian, Macedonian, and Russian are forthcoming.
One of your main academic interests is Soviet literature and women's writing. Could you tell us more how the Soviet regime influenced women's engagement and representation in literature from the Baltic countries? Does it still inform contemporary writing?
It’s a common knowledge that while the Soviet system paid lip service to gender equality and women’s emancipation, the reality was different in many respects. At the same time, for the Soviet citizen, femininity was related to state conformism and therefore received a bad reputation. While literature was seen mainly as a means of resistance during the Soviet occupation, and dissident writers were held in high esteem, they were most often men.
My work focuses on novels by some officially-sanctioned Soviet Estonian women writers using the model of the female Bildungsroman. This term, born in Western academia, draws attention to the problems of female self-acknowledgement in literature – so how did things play out on the Eastern side of the iron curtain?
It is perhaps unsurprising that fictional stories of strong women protagonists seem conformist in the Soviet context. Breaking out of the confines of one’s home feels less rebellious, if this vision is enforced by the state. Nevertheless, stories of strong women were written and read, and that must have meant something.
Nevertheless, stories of strong women were written and read, and that must have meant something.
On the other hand, those strong women characters in the Soviet era still corresponded to many conventional standards of femininity. Corporeality was taboo, along with mental illness or homosexuality. This closed off from exploration many topics which were keenly explored in the Western female Bildungsroman of the 20th century. So contemporary, 21st-century ’post-socialist’ literature still has new paths to open in that respect.