In this month’s literary arts profile, we talk to Portland author Jim Newman about how his work as a television journalist on WCCO-TV and OPB informs his satirical novels.
Gina Ochsner’s first story collection, The Necessary Grace to Fall, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, one of the most prestigious awards given to a debut work of fiction. But the early award, far from blunting her ambition, seems to have galvanized her toward ever more exotic subject matter and locales. Ochsner, an (almost) life-long Oregonian, has written stories that range from Alaska to Texas and Siberia to the Czech Republic. Her most recent book, The Hidden Letters of Velta B., follows multiple generations of a Latvian family as they deal with the secret, and not so secret, history of their family and their country. Not content to stop there, Oschner threw in a pair of enormous ears, a little magic and a handful of the Latvian song-poems known as “dainas,” to create a beautiful, tragic and mesmerizing account of a fascinating place and people.
ELEVEN: I know it was a fairly strange experience that drew you to Latvian culture. Care to elaborate on that?
Gina Ochsner: I’d read this book by Pauls Toutonghi, who lives here in town. I was so struck not just by the sheer craftsmanship of the story but also what the story was about. But also how beautifully he wove deep insight about human character, how humans behave into this story. In his bio note he mentions that he’s Latvian and I thought, “Wow, if this is how Latvians write I want to read everything that’s ever been written by Latvians, whether it’s about Latvia or not.” So I went running down to the independent bookstore in our town and I had the story in my hand; it was called “Regeneration.” I said, “Look at this! This is beautiful, this is amazing. You’ve gotta help me find anything you’ve got about Latvia, anything written by Latvians.” And it was just this little bookstore, and the clerk’s looking at me like, who’s this crazy person? And she says, “Nobody comes here looking for those things, but I think I can help you. I’m Latvian.” It’s one of those serendipitous moments, where lightning struck, and for the next eleven years, Dace helped me with much of the research for the novel. It’s research that you cannot get out of books.
11: How did you make the transformation from reading about this culture that you knew nothing about to actually traveling to Latvia to meeting all this folks that have continued to guide that journey?
GO: Well it was Dace again who said, “If you’ve been bitten by the Latvian bug, which it looks like you have been, you have to go, you just have to.” And I did, and I went and I have a long and established history of not knowing what I’m doing and getting really lost. And the first thing I did was get lost, in the Swedish airport, not even in Latvia yet. This man with snow-white hair came up to me and said, “Pardon me, but you look very lost.” I said, “Yes I am, as a matter of fact.” And he said, “Allow me to help you, I also am going to Riga. This is the right bus.” And he gets me on the bus, and he makes sure I get on the right plane.
So we arrive an hour and a half later in Riga and I’m looking at my instructions to get to the hostel, and I can’t figure out the bus system. And I hear the same voice, “Excuse me, but you look ridiculously lost again.” And I say, “Yes, I am,” and I’m showing him the map. And he says, “Well, I’m a rather important person. I have a car that’s come for me. I will take you where you need to go.” And I’m thinking for a minute…and he must have read my mind and he says, “By the way, I’m not a dirty old man.” [Laughs] He says, “I have four grown children.”
So it turns out that he’s sort of a diplomatic…something. He lives in Sweden. He’s a very famous poet in Latvia and in Sweden. He’s Latvian. His name is Juris Kronbergs. He’s involved in the Latvian Institute which helps translate and publish work by very well known Latvians in Latvia, but it doesn’t often get past Germany or Sweden, we don’t get it in the United States. So he’s kind of in this cultural liaison position, and it turns out he knows everybody. Everybody. So he arranged a series of meetings with some pretty amazing people. One of whom is the current Poet Laureate in Latvia Knuts Skujenieks. Knuts spent several years in a Gulag work camp.
11: So he’s got some stories?
GO: He’s got some stories. He was sent there for having a single issue of the Encyclopedia Britannica in his library. It was the most ridiculous case. Everyone knew that this was a ridiculous case, even the prosecutor. Knuts refused any international help because he said that would be admitting that I did something wrong, which I have not. So I asked him, “What is the secret? How does one survive a Gulag camp?” He said, “Two things; first one: poetry.” He wrote two poems every day and he figured out how to smuggle them out. He said, “I apologize I can’t tell you how I did that.” By the time he was done there he had thousands of poems.
11: How many years did he spend there?
GO: Seven. So he had seven hundred times seven poems by the time he was released. He said, “The other thing is sense of humor. You have to have a sense of humor. You know what the soviets cannot abide? They cannot abide a sense of humor. That’s the one thing they don’t understand, and can never figure out how to contain or suppress. So that was the key to the Latvian culture. That they are passive resistant. They figure out how to subordinate and work around. Looking at Latvian history then it all started to make sense. Knuts was the perfect example of using his words, powerfully, to undermine Soviet rhetoric. The Singing Revolution in 1989, I don’t know if Knuts was a part of that, but I imagine he was. I thought, these are amazing people. They bend, but you cannot break them. That is fascinating to me.
11: At what point did all the stories you collected start to weave themselves into a story you could tell in a relatively contained book?
GO: It took about four years to gather, and then start to see where the through line would be and I realized, I need to create a town that did not actually exist with people who were modeled after real people but did not actually exist. I did some research in the eastern part of Latvia. I heard there was some contention over the Latvian language law. There was a little bit of tension between Latvians and Russians over which language is going to be spoken more often, which is the official language, what language is used in the schoolroom.
11: So you were fascinated by the idea of languages as culture?
GO: Yeah. So I went to the East and hung out with some of the families. I kept waiting to hear them talk about how tense things are, how people are always up in arms, because it’s a small town. There are Jews and there are Romani, gypsies, that seem like a homogenous group of people. It’s not a homogenous group of people. I guess after asking a lot of leading questions, my hostess said, “It looks like you’re looking for something that isn’t here.” I realized that I was trying to write a book with all this conflict and tension that doesn’t exist. I need to write a different book. It became then a story about how people can be reconciled with a lot of contradiction, which is how a lot of us have to live in the real world.
11: I wanted to ask about the dainas. They felt like poems, but they are always referred to as songs.
GO: So they’re sung, and usually performed in a group, but not always. Some of them are almost like a droning chant. Some of them have a melodic line. But it’s in the dainas that their culture is really codified and maintained and preserved because they describe all of the pantheon of gods and goddesses. You know, who does what. Laima is the goddess of fate and people will say, “Oh Laima, spinner of my fate…” When you read them you get a sense of what they believed in, what they valued, why they thought the way they did. It’s a record of their history of being occupied by the Poles, the Swedes, and then the Germans. In the dainas they describe the proper way of going out and how to plow your field. Some are instructional, some are warnings, some are laments and dirges. Some are history.
11: Did you create any new dainas?
GO: I did. I wrote a few. I tried to look at how they were set up and just wrote a couple short ones.
11: So you’ve added to the canon?
GO: I added one, I think. I tried not to be too creative because I felt like I might be stepping on toes. But I knew that the dainas were absolutely going to be essential to any book about Latvia. When I went to a book fair in 2008, the former president of Latvia got up to give an address to just a small group, and she said, “Sorrow, my big sorrow. I put it under a stone and I step lightly over it.” Then she said, “I was born singing, and singing I grew. And when I die I shall go to heaven singing.” I thought holy cow, if the president starts an address with a daina, I think these are important! All the Latvians recognized it. She knew how to make a connection with people. I knew in 2008 that I was going to really have to get a hold of some of these.
11: There are also some magical elements to the book which were so subtly interwoven that you almost forgot that it wasn’t a straight realist work. Is that indicative at all of Latvian culture? Do they live with a little of that magic?
GO: I think some do. Again, it depends on where you go. There’s an acceptance of superstition, of belief, of this blended world crossing over. The world beyond this world that is perceived but not seen. So I just had a lot of fun pulling on the different traditions: Jewish, Romani, Latvian and Russian.
11: And the son has very large ears…
GO: Enormous ears. And this is something else; Lāčplēsis is a huge myth that every Latvian knows. It means bear slayer. The story is that there’s this man who has these enormous ears and because of these ears he has special powers, he’s super-duper strong. He’s like Superman. The idea is that any time Latvia is ever threatened by a foreign invader … at the time it was written, I think it’s during that first Latvian uprising, and Latvian nationalism, in the early 1800’s, Germany was threatening Latvia, Germany was occupying. So the idea is that the Bear Slayer can wrestle to the ground and defeat any foe. In the story there’s a bear that comes charging out of the woods and he grabs it and rips its jaws apart. He’s that strong. So he’s a huge symbol for Latvians, even today. National Independence Day is Nov. 18 and people wear the bear ears [Laughs] It’s akin to our Paul Bunyan stories, but Paul Bunyan wasn’t a rallying, unifying figure for all, he’s just a fun folktale and nobody really believes that. This is something that during the Soviet era they could tell this story. “You know who the bear is now?”
11: So you adopted that, obviously. Sort of in the same way that Latvian culture has adopted itself in ways. To adapt to whatever it needs to be at that time.
GO: You take the myth and slap a saddle on it and you ride it. So we have this boy with these ears, but he doesn’t do what maybe people thought he was going to do. He doesn’t become president. He uses those ears, they are a special power, but he uses them to hear better, more wisely. It’s through the ears that he hears things that will later lead to a way for them to find reconciliation with one and other. Which is what they really need, in this little town. So he does have the super powers, it’s just a reversal of what people think those powers will be used for.
11: Were you ever afraid of being an outsider, if you were going to step on Latvian toes or misinterpret their culture?
GO: Absolutely. It was a very necessary fear I think. I have to be aware of that, and I did make some mistakes in the beginning and someone did point them out to me.
11: Did you have Latvian readers?
GO: I did. I had about three Latvian readers and they were of different walks of life, had different experiences. Some lived in Latvia some were in Greece. Some had never lived in Latvia, but grew up in a highly Latvian home in the United States, speaking Latvian, going to Latvian school. Strong, strong ties to Latvia. I would constantly ask, “Now, just to get the sensibility of how these people are thinking, and what they’re doing and talking about. Is this at all a Latvian way of approaching problem solving?
11: The tone of the book even.
GO: The emotional logic and tone of the book. Because obviously I don’t want to sound like an American pretending she understands how Latvians think or feel. So I would ask them often. Read this section, what do you think? By and large they said, it isn’t exactly but it’s probable, it’s conceivable. We can imagine people talking like that.
11: We understand that what you are doing is fiction, so we’ll give you a little leeway.
GO: Yes, I asked my friend Dace, “Do I even have a right to write this book?” She said, “Some Latvians will say no, but I’m telling you you should write this book. There will be some Latvians who will absolutely hate that an American was so arrogant as to undertake such a project but you have to understand, that’s the Latvian view. You just write exactly what you think needs to be written.” That gave me some permission to keep going. Knowing that I do have to fact check, assiduously. I do need to run things by people.
11: Do you ever feel that you bit too much off?
GO: Every day. I have big boxes and boxes of research, and I thought, what have I gotten myself into? And there’s no way I can encapsulate all of Latvian history and thought, the culture. So I’m just going to try to take just this tiny slice. I do know a little about Baptists in Latvia, so I’m going to focus on what I do think I know, or where I do have the contacts, the people who can help me. I did run across several Romani folks and they were very useful with the research because they’re a voice from the margins. They’re highly ignored. And they want their story told. Often it’s overwhelming so it’s a question of scope and focus.
11: Eventually you were able to whittle it down?
GO: With a lot of help from the editor. I had a very good one here that helped me with that. I think that’s why it took me eleven years. I needed four years to rewrite it. I had to rewrite it a couple times.
11: Well, if you want to sing us a daina, we could get it up on the website.
GO: I’m gonna pass on that, but I’ll leave you with one that’s in the book. “My little wolf rumbles/my little wolf hums/my little wolf has a white paw/if this doesn’t make it better/it won’t make it any worse.”»
– JP Kemmick