Category Archives: Identity

A Book About Sentient Beings, Great and Small

Front and back covers of the English-language version of a Latvian book.

Sometimes I wonder how I manage to have any friends at all. Take what I did to the talented Rīga illustrator Rūta Briede shortly after I was introduced to her by someone I knew from my childhood. Rūta had sent me the drafts of three books merely to give me some idea of the current state of children’s literature in Latvia; I responded by sending her three single-spaced pages of comments on one of them, addressing everything from color scheme to parallel construction to atmospheric science. I did say in the accompanying message, “Please understand that they are just initial reactions and that I, like many Latvians that I know here, state my opinions far more forcibly than I should, or even than I intend.” But that didn’t stop me from having the same sick feeling after hitting “Send” that I had as a child after I couldn’t keep from doing something that I knew full well was wrong.

Remarkably, Rūta could read between the lines. She understood that I would never have bothered doing any of that had The Dog Who Found Sorrow not meant so much to me. You see, it was one of those rare books that took children’s feelings seriously, and I was one of myriad others who grew up wondering why their experiences during war and displacement and other dreadful events were routinely trivialized by similarly distraught adults. It bothered me so much that when, late in life, I wrote my first story,“Making Soup,” I gave voice to a one-month-old infant and made her position clear from the start:

A woman on a bicycle stopped to tickle my stomach. It was bad enough she did that without my leave, but then she turned to my mother and said, “Thank God she is too young to understand.” Perhaps I was too young to play the piano or read Proust, but I was not too young to understand what went on around me. I understood before I came into the world, when my mother carried me inside of her. She gasped, and I had no air to breathe.

Rūta grants this sort of awareness to all sentient beings, both great and small. She uses a grown dog as her first-person narrator, and this dog demands that he be taken as seriously as my verbal infant. As depicted through evocative grayscale illustrations provided by Elīna Brasliņa, Rūta’s former student, his ears are erect, not floppy, indicating that he has not become domesticated and does not want to be seen as either an able assistant or a pampered pet. Similarly, his nose is long and pointy, not short and round.  And being a thoroughly modern urban male, he not only walks upright and wears a coat but also grows pink roses, which he sometimes soothes with his harmonica. Accordingly, Rūta calls him “suns”—not the endearing “sunītis“—in Latvian, a language seemingly dominated by such diminutives.

Thus, Rūta and I were, more or less, on the same page. Then I had to tease her about the book’s themes and endanger our rapport. If only I had limited myself to exclaiming, “How Latvian!” This, after all, was the first reaction that I received from poet and publisher Clarinda Harriss after I asked her to look at the book. Clarinda, you see, had learned enough about my native land to know that this was so. Even enough that she had incorporated me into her story “The Vinegar Drinker” and made my character provide the protagonist with a recipe for galerts, an elegant aspic made mainly of pigs feet. But I had to take it further, much like a child has to test the limits. Referring to the sorrow that permeates the book, I sent Rūta a video clip from the Onion News Network featuring Latvian American actress Laila Robins demanding that her subordinate give her a hit or she would make him her news director in Latvia. “You know what the Number 1 hobby in Latvia is?” When he indicates that he does not, she unsmilingly says, “Sadness.” Fortunately, Rūta said she found it to be funny.

But sadness was so painstakingly detailed in the book that I came to believe it was meant to be something more than a national tendency. This particular sadness started out as mysterious black smoke that poured out of “everything that was lonely and abandoned,” causing residents to cough and destroying both the color and scent of roses, only to form a large cloud “as dark and hard as a cast-iron pan,” impenetrable to raindrops, which turned out to be tears. In contrast to the modern dog and other up-to-date denizens of what could easily be Rīga, this sadness had an old-fashioned feel, reminiscent of the soot that once coated cities during the Industrial Revolution. Doing some digging, I learned that Latvia is still dealing with the legacy of ecological damage brought about by the poorly planned industrialization that occurred after it was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. And that, despite the impressive economic gains and the cultural rebirth that followed the restoration of independence in 1991, Latvia is losing population at an alarming rate and even the vibrant city of Rīga, sadly, is now called “The Capital of Empty Spaces.”

Undaunted by the impossibility of his undertaking and the obscurity of my references, the dog, armed only with a ladder and a curtain rod, pokes a hole in the cloud. Once inside, he is surrounded by sorrows, at least one of whom is female. I see them as the mothers, sisters and wives of men such as my uncle who were first conscripted into the German Army against their will, then punished by the Soviets, who deported them to remote regions such as Kazakhstan and imprisoned them in slave-labor camps, but I have such an overactive imagination. Not knowing what to do, the dog—”How Latvian!”—resorts to music, which results in dancing, which breaks apart the cloud and releases the tears, which wash away the soot. That isn’t as unlikely as it seems. Between 1987 and 1991, Latvians participated in an Estonian initiative, The Singing Revolution. It culminated in a human chain spanning the three Baltic nations that could have hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. Less known but maybe more important is the role of the Environmental Protection Club, which resisted the industrialization, in constituting the core of The Latvian National Independence Movement. Success in blocking the building of a hydroelectric dam emboldened many other opposition groups.

“Hey, that’s too heavy a load to place on such a slender volume,” you—or even Rūta, who is currently participating in the London Book Fair and conveniently unavailable for comment—could say. But remember that once a book is released, it belongs to the reader. And I have decided that I have rights that extend beyond those of a regular reader. Rūta was kind enough to acknowledge me in the back matter, which, in my mind, makes me the dear dog’s agnostic godmother. Which requires that I look after his future. And it is a future that already includes East Asian nations such as  Korea, Taiwan and China, where politician oppression and industrial pollution are realities that seep into the consciousness of the largest and smallest beings. And it is a future that could well include temporary settlements around the world that house young and old victims of the worst refugee crisis since the one that I experienced. As well as great American cities such as Detroit and Baltimore from which affluent families flee and leave behind much that is “lonely and abandoned.”

But before I press “Publish” and, yet again, cringe at the thought of what I have unleashed, allow me slip in one more layer of meaning. Although Rūta and Elīna might disagree, I cannot help seeing the dog that they brought into being as their alter ego. Or even a second self representing contemporary Latvian illustrators as a whole. One reason—other than the sheer impressiveness of their body of work—that I am so taken by them is that, unlike many others, they have managed, without denying its existence, to put Latvia’s troubled past  behind them and briskly move forward. And it turns out that I am not the only one to feel that way. Rosie Goldsmith, an award-winning British journalist specializing in the arts, has observed that while contemporary Latvian writers seem to be burdened by the past, illustrators, in contrast, appear to be liberated. One could say that it is almost as though some well-drawn dog has ripped apart a dark, oppressive cloud and let color and scent return to the roses.

Note: Rūta Briede is a graphic designer, a lecturer at the Art Academy of Latvia and an art editor at Liels un Mazs (Great and Small), a Latvian children’s book publisher. The Dog Who Found Sorrow is Briede’s first but not only collaboration with Elīna Brasliņa, an accomplished artist in her own right who translated Briede’s The Queen of Seagulls, which received an International Baltic Sea Region Jānis Baltvilks Prize in 2017. For more on my dealings with dogs, read my essay “Me, As Mammal.”

 

The dog, who played the harmonica for a rosebush, plays for the sorrows.

 

Some “lonely and abandoned” buildings in Rīga being revived bit by bit.

 

Some well-deserved recognition for Latvia’s new “liberated” illustrators. 

 

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Two illustrators at the 2018 London Book Fair, which features Latvia.

Monuments and Museums

One portion of a polarizing Soviet-Era war memorial in Riga, Latvia.

Like many people in the United States, I was appalled by the violence that erupted this weekend at the white supremacist rally ostensibly organized to protest the removal of a Confederate monument from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. And, like some of them, I could not believe that it was happening again. You see, my native land, Latvia, was invaded by Nazi Germany during World War II. And support for this and other atrocious acts was spread by similar torch-lit, flag-waving, slogan-chanting rallies—first small, then massive—that Adolf Hitler used to fan the flames of racism and nationalism.  Only then, it was the United States and its Allies that fought to restore sanity at considerable cost. Which few, I fear, tend to recall.

Which is why we do need concrete reminders such as monuments in public places. For me, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the best example. While the war and, initially, the memorial itself were divisive, the main section was designed in a way that provided a place for people of all persuasions to contemplate the past while considering the future. Composed of two walls etched with service member names, it was configured to represent a “wound that is closed and healing.” It was also given smooth surfaces that reflect people standing nearby, symbolically bringing the past and the present together.

In contrast, the Charlottesville monument was never meant to have a unifying effect. Situated on a tall pedestal astride a spirited steed, a larger-than-life Robert E. Lee, the military leader of the Confederate states that seceded from the Union after Abraham Lincoln was elected president on a platform opposing the expansion of slavery, stares straight ahead with unseeing eyes. Rather, it serves as a constant reminder to African Americans, among others, that defenders of slavery are still revered, over 150 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Ironically, such a statue might have dismayed even Lee, who had presciently argued against erecting such monuments, writing:

I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,

Worse yet, data dug up by the Southern Poverty Law Center show that most of Confederate monuments did not exist until decades after the end of the Civil War. Installation peaked in the 1910s and 20s, when Jim Crow laws were being enacted, and the 1950s and 60s, when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. The Charlottesville statue, finished in 1924, might have been more a tribute to nationalism and racism than to a Southern soldier. The statue’s defenders underscored this by chanting “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” while on their way to Emancipation Park.

The question now is what to do next. For what it is worth, I offer my peculiar perspective. While I spent the first 35 years of my life in the United States north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I have also lived three years in Alabama, a former Confederate state, and the past 20 some in Maryland, a slave-holding state that stayed with the Union but played a complicated role. Moreover, I was born in Latvia, which has its own divisive history and, not surprisingly, a similar monuments problem. Putting all this together, I would like to make three points.

No monument tells the entire story

Consider the Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army. Situated in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, it celebrates a win by Communist Russia over Nazi Germany. While Latvians were expected to love it, it did not have the desired effect. You see, this victory was accompanied by the Russians re-occupying the Latvian homeland, which, alas, lasted from 1944 to 1991. (The original name was “Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist.”) Moreover, the monument was completed in 1985—some 40 years after the fact—during Perestroika, a reform movement that loosened the Soviet stranglehold on Latvia and strengthened the push for independence. So certain parallels with Confederate monuments can be drawn.

Which is why I can dismiss a suggestion that the  Friends of C’Ville Monuments made, stating Confederate statues could be improved simply “by adding more informative, better detailed explanations of the history of the statues and what they can teach us.” Apart from the fact it is unlikely that the real reasons monuments were erected would ever be included, attempts to summarize the complete story of the people and events being commemorated is way too much to ask of, say, a poor plaque. Historical context is best left to museums. Fortunately, there are two large ones that fill this need: the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, which opened its doors just last year, and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which has been around in Riga since 1993.

Removing monuments is about making, not destroying, history

For all the earnest talk about preserving the past, toppling statues that commemorate oppression is a time-honored tradition. In the United States, civilians and soldiers pulled down a statue of King George III in Manhattan a mere five days after the ratification of the Declaration of independence, an act depicted in a Johannes Adam Simon Oertel painting. Which is more or less what happened to a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Riga in 1991 once Latvian independence was restored. Except that engineers were involved and a video is  available. In fact, historians such as Sergei Kruk document both the rise and fall of monuments in scholarly works such as “Wars of Statues in Latvia: The History Told and Made by Public Sculpture.”

Knowing that the past is replete with missing monuments, those wishing to preserve particular ones put restrictions in place. This is often an imperfect deterrent. Officials in Riga reference a 1994 treaty with Russia as reason the Victory monument must remain, leaving it to radical nationalists to try—unsuccessfully—to burn it down, then blow it up. Much like officials in Durham, North Carolina, who cite a 2015 state law, then leave it to protestors to successfully— albeit with some arrests—pull down a Confederate statue and stomp on it. Officials also bring up cost and logistics considerations. According to one report, there are still over 700 Confederate monuments in public places. And monuments can be massive. The Victory memorial includes two statues and a 260-foot obelisk that some say resembles the Citadel complex from the video game Half-Life 2.

Of course, there is nothing quite like a crisis to grease the wheels of government. Unless, in the United States. it is being put to shame by a black woman. Citing public safety concerns in the wake of the domestic terrorism act that capped the Charlottesville rallyBaltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh—with no public notice, no fund-raising, no re-loction plan—”quickly and quietly” had construction crews remove all four Confederate statues. Which led University of North Carolina history professor David Goldfield to say that this could be part of a “rolling cascade” of cities and states ridding themselves of or relocating such statues. Which seems to be what is happening.

Unless countered, missing monuments continue to exert influence

Just because a monument is gone does not mean it is forgotten. According to Kruk, communists still flock to the spot in front of the government building where the Lenin statue once stood, celebrating his birthday and the anniversary of his death as well as Revolution Day by laying flowers on an empty walkway and foiling plans for a new monument to fill the space. So even if the Lee statue is removed from Emancipation Park, I would not be at all surprised to see some strange combination of white supremacists and Lee devotees congregating there. And installing, say, a more acceptable version of the current Emancipation Memorial or something showing the release of Latvians from the Soviet yoke might only make matters worse.

You see, both the United States and Latvia are deeply divided nations for reasons that date at least as far back as the Civil War and World War II, respectively. According to some, the 2016 election revealed “two large coalitions, roughly equal in size but radically different in demographics and desires,” with “race and identity as the main political dividing line.” Similarly, there is a serious split in my native land between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, with the former constituting about 62 percent of the population and latter representing the largest minority at about 27 percent. Moreover, there was a drop in ethnic Latvians from 77 percent in 1835 to 52 percent in 1989, and this is attributed to the Russian occupation. As a result, Russian residents have been subjected to a range of discriminatory practices, including those regarding the granting of citizenship.

It seems to me that new types of monuments must be built that allow both sides to acknowledge past losses and heal old wounds that prevent them from moving forward. That would require honest national conversations from which a shared vision of the future could emerge. But even if that cannot occur anytime soon, there could  be some agreement to construct a few monuments, large and small, along the lines—but not in imitation of—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, providing both nations with places of temporary respite.

Note: Optimist that I am, I can see a day when people with different perspectives can, at least, smile at some of the inherent ironies. The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, for example, was created by the combined efforts of Henry Shrady, a New York sculptor better known for his memorial of Ulysses S. Grant, and Leo Lentelli, an Italian immigrant. And the Victory monument in Riga commemorating Nazi defeat was designed by Lev Bukovsky, who had once served in the Latvian Waffen SS Legion.

Me, As Mammal

Zeke, my first non-human mammal friend. (Photo: Duncan R. Munro)

There was a time when I wondered whether something was wrong with me. I was often uncomfortable being called “Latvian,” for one. “C’mon,” I countered, having spent most of my formative years in the Midwest, “I was little more than one month old when I was bundled off to Austria.” “Quite so,” anyone who heard that could respond. “But you don’t identify much with Austrians or Americans, either.”

Truth be told, I have tried to wriggle out of any show of group commitment more fervent than a perfunctory reciting of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Such as all that stuff that I had to say as a self-conscious 16-year-old at the far-too-public rite of Lutheran confirmation. Or all that stuff that I had to scream in support of high school and college athletic organizations. My lack of zeal for my undergraduate football team was particularly perplexing since it was a Big Ten powerhouse. That this occurred in the Sixties, when the U of M was the “Hotbed of Liberalism,” did not help, either. I shrank from affirmations at SDS meetings. While markedly different, they seemed similarly coercive.

I came to claim that the best I could do was accept membership in the human race or, more accurately, the Homo sapiens species. But even that rubbed me the wrong way once it struck me how disturbingly the Bible, which forms the basis of my Judeo-Christian culture, starts out:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. [Italics mine.]

Honestly, I did not want my name associated with any group that advocated that degree of exceptionalism and imperialism. So I settled for seeing myself as a mere speck in a vast Universe, both the known and the unknown one. That worked when considering major issues such as Life and Death but did little for me on a day-to-day basis.

I saw no viable solution until I reached middle age, which is when I was grown up enough to acknowledge that I was once and probably always will be a displaced person. I started writing about that, then volunteered my services to the Baltimore branch of the International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle a range of refugees in my area. And, once the refugee situation reached crisis proportions comparable only to what my family and I experienced after World War II,  I wrote about my debt to today’s refugees, which was viewed by thousands and, hopefully, spurred some to action. I even sided with displaced plants and took on both those nativists who wage war on non-native vegetation and those who do so on non-native people.

Still, it seemed sad to only be able to identify with people and plants that do not belong. Which got me thinking about Zeke. Never was a sentient being more confident of his place in the world. And more capable of committing to those beyond his own species, Canis lupus. He gave us Homo sapiens licks and wags and cheerfully tolerated all those strange training regimens that we foisted on him. His exceptions, embarrassingly, revolved around the darker-skinned members of my then husband’s British football team. But Zeke made it clear that this was only his anomaly detector at work by also barking furiously whenever the right-side-up version of me turned upside-down during yoga poses. And then showed regret to certain Jamaican gentlemen by returning their broad smiles as soon as he understood that they meant him no harm. Something that some humans cannot do.

He also, interestingly, eschewed the gender stereotypes that so many humans get hung up on. While being the manliest of males—60 pounds of pure muscle and much-admired by the ladies—he felt free to show his feminine side. Even as a raucous adolescent, he became maternal when visiting the two-year-old next door. Even obeying his orders. Even when there were hot dogs involved. All little Michael had to do was say, “Sit,” then, “No, Zeke, no.” He was similarly sensitive to me. While always showing how much he missed me when I returned from work, he then sat back and assessed the situation. And altered his behavior substantially depending on whether I was seriously stressed by the impossible search for a parking space near our Back Bay apartment, preoccupied with the report that I had to complete by the morning or relieved that it was Friday and ready for fun.

Memory of this was his way of reaffirming for me from wherever he is now that we are both mammals. And saying if I accepted that, I could not only become a part something more sympatico than how my own species sometimes seems but also escape its sexist connotations. Instead of identifying as a HOMO sapien or a huMAN or a member of MANkind, I could proudly proclaim that I belonged to a clade characterized by mammary glands. Which, incidentally, both males and females possess. As Randy Laist well knew when he wrote “Why I Identify as Mammal” for The New York Times. Of course, that puts Laist and me in a clade with rodentssloths and sheep. But since we are in the silly season known as the presidential election in the States, I am sure that we are no worse off than if we had simply stuck to humans.

Now, know that this might not work for you. Wesley J. Smith, after all,  wrote a spirited rebuttal, pointing out that Laist—”of course!“—was an English professor, and published it in—of course!—the National Review. But then try to enlarge your view in some other way. If you see yourself as a Millennial, try seeing yourself as a mortal so as not to insulate yourself from people who are closer to Death’s door. If you see yourself as a Republican, try seeing yourself as a US citizen so as not to be in a position to have to vote for someone who is repugnant to you come November. And, my dear native Latvians, try seeing yourselves as members of the United Nations, not just as NATO members, which is currently more convenient. And If you see yourself as a Christian, try seeing yourself as simply spiritual. Or a principled person. So as not to set yourself against Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world. Or agnostics, another rapidly growing group.

And if you have done all that and more, give identifying as mammal another go. Not so that you feel compelled to stop the slaughter of your fellow mammals to fill your stomach, which makes some good come of our inevitable demise, but so as to limit the torture that has become pervasive on factory farms. And then, when you are really ready, expand your identity further so that you become part of the planet, then the Universe. Because that, ultimately, is what you are.