Author Q&A:
Nora Ikstena

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The first of a wave of translated novels by Baltic authors that are set to be published this year, following the London Book Fair Baltic Market Focus in April, Soviet Milk (Peirene Press, £12, translation by Margita Gailitis) considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character in the story tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter. Banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, her sense of isolation increases. 

There are many parallels between the book and your own life story. To what extent is the book autobiographical?
There are many autobiographical parallels in Soviet Milk, but of course it is fiction, so the places and my mother’s story aren’t entirely true. When I started out as a writer, 20 years ago, my writing style was very metaphorical, but as I’ve grown as a writer and experienced more in my life, my writing has become closer to realism, where it’s no longer black and white storytelling.

The two central characters in the book are a mother and daughter. We get to know each of them intimately, yet we never learn their names. What is the reason for this?
This was done intentionally, as I wanted to generalise the story, to show that it isn’t just “my” story or from one family – it is relevant to many. It’s a story told about a generation and a nation, therefore the names were not essential, as the difficulties experienced between the mother and daughter are universal and mean something to everybody – the setting of Soviet Latvia just gives this relationship another layer.

Like your own mother, the central character is a talented and committed doctor who is trapped professionally by the Soviet regime. Is her unhappiness, intellect and cynicism a direct response to Soviet rule, or is it hard to imagine the person she may have been otherwise?
We often imagine what our life would be like in different circumstances, but for the mother in the story her whole life was spent under the Soviet regime – imagining another life was the only way to survive and give hope. I’m sure that my mother, and the mother in Soviet Milk, would have been different in another situation, because there was so much restricted from them. You couldn’t have a good education, travel, read freely, which is hard to imagine looking at it from today’s world. This book is in memory of my mother, as with her sacrifice she did something for me.

In your opinion, what impact did the Soviet regime have on women?
I don’t think we need to divide our view between women and men, as the Soviet regime was equally hard on both. It impacted the natural development of the countries involved; in the 1920s and 1930s Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were thriving in Europe, and we were culturally and economically advanced. But then, for 50 years we were frozen in time, divided nations; the people that went into exile after the Second World War and those that stayed. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all terrible. To us it felt like a normal life but just in very particular, difficult circumstances.

After studying in Latvia you moved to New York. However you returned back to your home country. How important was it for you to tell the world about what life was like under Soviet rule?
I still remember the first time I went to New York, and visited the international writers house, which was around 20 years ago, when I was 26. At that time it was impossible to talk in America about the similarities between Stalin’s regime and the Nazis’ regime, as Russians were still seen as winners in many people’s eyes. Now it is often discussed how the two coincide, with the awful atrocities that happened. It’s incredibly important, even today, to talk about what happened as it’s still happening across the world – nothing is resolved.

Your mother took her own life at the age of 54, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Did she ever believe there was a future for Latvia free from Russia?
Yes, she did believe but my grandfather, who died before the end of the independence, had lived through the war and therefore never saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I still think it’s a miracle what happened, with so many Baltic people standing hand in hand throughout the states, singing about revolution. We were lucky.

After returning to Latvia you helped establish the Latvian Literature Centre. How important is it for you to embolden other Latvian writers to have a voice?
I started to travel to literary festivals and events very early on in my career, and I always thought I was a lonely scout championing for Latvian literature. We established the Latvian Literature Centre to build our force, and now we are at our highest point working closely with the London Book Fair as its market focus, with a great new brand, going as strongly as ever.

Soviet Milk has been met with acclaim in Latvia. What do you hope to achieve by reaching English readers?
I really am so excited that Soviet Milk has received such an incredible response, and in a way it’s unusual, as the story is located in Soviet Latvia with so many small episodes that are specific to the people that lived there and remember the history. Yet it seems to be of great interest to readers abroad, as they are learning about something that is so alien to them, combined with a very personal story, which hopefully gives the Soviet regime more meaning and depth, going behind the statistics.

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