Taking Inspiration from Latvian Writers

in Authors & Books/Spotlight

In April I spent a month at the Writers and Translators House in Ventspils, Latvia.

While going through my notes from the month I discovered a piece about reading Mārā Zāliīte’s memoirs. She is of the generation that was brought up outside Latvia, in Russia and who returned as a child. I read her book on the beach, the white stretches of Baltic sand while my friend, the Estonian gallerist Triinu Soikmets drew some pictures in her sketchbook. Triinu told me some stories she had heard of people of the same generation as Mārā in Estonia. I can’t remember exactly what and who and why but the disjunction between Soviet and post-Soviet in Latvia and Estonia leaves a huge cultural gap between generations that reminds me of the generation gaps that appeared in the UK after the Second World War.

Some of my new friends at the Writers’ House are Russian writers, who have so much to tell me as well about their lives and their experiences of Latvia and Russia. I feel like I am a cup, brimming over with stories. Will there be any room for my own? But this is a quiet place that lets stories rise to the surface.

One of my tasks on this residency was to work on my graphic memoir, ‘Love on the Isle of Dogs’ and turn it into a more writerly piece, letting the words speak louder, in a more complex processed way. As I am just about to leave for another residency and intend to spend time each day working on this project again – the first draft didn’t work out but hopefully it got me nearer – finding this piece feels apt. I was reflecting on how Mārā’s memoirs helped me then to look at my own, and how I could channel the naïve voice of my younger self.

In Mārā’s book she is a child of maybe six years old. In my memoir I am a young adult but still very naïve. It helps to think of that naivety looking back and writing. I of course did not think of myself as naïve at the time. Maybe I thought I was stupid. Stupid to get myself into difficulties. But I realise now that I was a kind of innocent and this memoir is about me learning about difficult mental health problems, particularly psychosis and what it is. I was married to a man with psychosis and my memoir is our (doomed) love story.

As I leave for Italy to tackle the story again, I wanted to share this poem and this memory, and wish myself luck! If that is allowed.

Learning how to write memoirs by seareading

after Mārā Zāliīe

up to her ankles in plum juice
in a sea of sugar
fellow feasters in yellow stripe circus

jumping on her smock
wet socks wade to Upīte farm

cold feet in cross-current
between Baltic and beachwater
toes ice soles burning cold
fine sand, soft or hard sink or not
take a step to find out

how grandmother
in a circle of adults arguing about bees
in different tongues feels about
books turned rotten from lining the pig sty
no one is sure whats next or whatš

greensmashed on a driftboat
write a greenpen message
ram the roll in a green bottle
roll back my sleeve in the pink sun
fling it awave to my authorchild

to catch the key to a forbidden chest
where she may luck upon a best pipe
long lost like a son by Siberia river
hands shake as grandfather lights
news from the past

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