All posts by Ilse Munro

Ilse Munro was born in Latvia and came to the United States as a war refugee. She was a NASA and Defense Department consultant, then the online editor at Little Patuxent Review and the prose editor at BrickHouse Books. Her short fiction, collected in Cold and Hungry and Far From Home, appears in TriQuarterly, Atticus Review and Wake and made her a finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest and Short Story Award for New Writers. Her novel Anna Noon is in the works. She lives in a historic millworker’s house on Maryland's Patapsco River. For more, see http://ilsemunro.com.

Why I Write

The streets of my homeland, Latvia, the year that I was born.

First and foremost, I write because I can. The same way that it feels good to exercise my body, it feels good to exercise my brain. And since I have been born with more talent for the latter–not to push this mind-body dichotomy too far–I do much more of that. The part assigned to turning thoughts and feelings into words, in particular.

Not that I was one of those who knew from an early age that she would write. Quite the opposite. Though I became proficient in English soon after I arrived in the States as a five-year-old war refugee, it took me a couple of decades to find my voice. Similar to what the narrator in my story “Winter Wonderland” notes after a teenaged girl experiences an uncomfortably close call with alcohol poisoning:

The girl drags a large-toothed comb through her hair, wraps a loose robe around her slim body and starts to slouch down the stairs. She has found nothing worth saving in what she had written about the poem. So much for in vodka veritas, she says with a smirk. At no point in her reluctant descent does she stop to consider how long it can take some people to learn to say what they sense. That without repeated exposure to alcohol or other intoxicants it can be generations.

That it took so long, and even longer–additional decades, in fact–to see writing as a primary occupation, might be a blessing in disguise.

For one, by the time that I was ready to write something that was not work-related I had no shortage of material. When I applied for my Defense Department security clearance at age 40, I could list 32 separate residences spanning two continents and several of the United States. (Subsequently, I stopped counting.) I had taken my formal education to the PhD level and my informal one in diverse directions. I had hung out with folk from the highest echelons of academics, government and private enterprise as well as some from life’s lowest. And I had passed most of life’s major milestones, including childbirth, marriage, divorce and the death of relatives and friends.

For another, I had reached a point where I was no longer constantly immersed in some tumultuous situation or other. Or even several serious ones, simultaneously. Looking back, this mattered more than I had thought. As Margaret Atwood notes in her novel Alias Grace:

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

Finally, I had framed sufficient reasons to justify why I should take the massive amount of time that would be required to create a coherent body of work and why even one stranger should take the time to consider even one small portion of it. I can readily cite the following three, though, doubtless, there are more than those:

1. Growing up, I stood mute as Americans condemned the atrocities of their former enemy, Nazi Germany, but turned a blind eye to the unspeakable acts–far greater in both size and scope–of their former ally, the Soviet Union. Around the time that I turned 21, I spoke out against the draft and the Vietnam War but said little when I was told what I, as a woman,  could and could not do with my own body. And the child that it bore. Approaching middle age, my role as a Defense Department consultant specializing in WMD caused me to be cautious about expressing my concerns that my adopted country was on a collision course with long-ignored segments of the world. When I came to see that suffering was made all the worse when it was silenced, writing became became one logical way to alleviate it.

2. My father had died in 1995; my mother in 2006. I was their only child, and the only other family member with whom I had lived, my maternal grandmother, was long gone. What other relatives remained after waroccupationinternment and emigration were scattered around the world. The concept of family, to which I had heretofore assigned minimal importance, suddenly loomed large. I became aware not only of how remarkable my own particular one was but also how many people of that time–those who preceded, followed and were included in what, in the United States, is called the “Greatest Generation”–also were. And how important it was to preserve their amazing stories.

3. Along the same lines, I had started to take action to located the son that I gave up for adoption at birth in 1966. That was no easy matter, since such records are sealed and I have no talent whatsoever for navigating bureaucratic labyrinths. I made little progress, eventually gave up and have only recently–and tentatively–started again. But what was clear was that, apart from the photographs, some of which have survived from the turmoil of the early 1900s and travelled across two continents, I had to be able to tell him the stories that would give him, at long last, his history. And since I never listened carefully when others told me mine and have trouble remembering what I experienced myself, these, of necessity would need to take the form of fiction.

While these are personal reasons, I believe that what I have to say has broad relevance. I hope that you will read what is presented in the pages of this site and follow the posts, where I and guest authors will address the subject of displacement and the writing process.

Leaving Latvia

From 1944 to 1945, the approaching Soviet Army forced many Latvians to find escape routes to other countries. According to one source, about 250,000 people became refugees. Many got stuck in Courland, and some 50-60,000 were murdered by Soviet troops in Poland and Germany. After the war, approximately 6000 Latvians found refuge in Sweden, 120,00 in West Germany, 3000 in Austria and 2000 in Denmark. In later years, Latvian emigration spread to the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries. Some succumbed to forced repatriation by the Soviets; most expected to voluntarily return once Latvia was free, though that rarely occurred.

Live Like a Refugee

Although Tom Petty uses “refugee” metaphorically, his song captures the meaning of the word. “This was a reaction to the pressures of the music business,” he said. “I wound up in a huge row with the record company when ABC Records tried to sell our contract to MCA Records without us knowing about it, despite a clause in our contract that said they didn’t have the right to do that. I was so angry with the whole system that I think that had a lot to do with the tone of the Damn the Torpedoes album. I was in this defiant mood. I wasn’t so conscious of it then, but I can look back and see what was happening. I find that’s true a lot. It takes some time usually before you fully understand what’s going on in a song—or maybe what led up to it.”

An Unjoined Person

For the opening lines of The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers wrote: “It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person and hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.”