From feeling like a ghost in your own language to the search for a queer voice in poetry and other spaces
Author of the Week: Latvia
Literature and courage
People have told me that they see me, as well as my writing and my ‘female’ stand-up performances as brave, maybe even a little bit provocative. I suppose it is not at all difficult to appear brave in a culturescape that still remains politically inert and to a great extent reflects the silence prevalent in Latvian society generally about topics and ideas which might challenge the status quo or in any way deviate from so-called normality or traditional Latvian values – a notion put forward by national-populists. Sometimes it seems that all it takes to be perceived as provocative is to do anything at all in relation to feminism or LGBTQIA+ issues.
As a matter of fact, I do not see myself as brave or provocative – not as a person, not as a poet – although I would no doubt like to be. And even if I do feel brave on particular occasions, this bravery does not seem much like a choice. At the same time it does not come without consciously forcing myself to speak up or do something, either. Mostly it feels like being exposed to harsh wind. I mean, here I am, 31 years old with two poetry collections already published and still just fumbling around, trying to figure out how to write about my experience as a young queer woman living with a disability, searching for ways, how to meaningfully describe and explore these fundamental parts of my existence in an adequate and honest, but simultaneously poetically satisfactory and captivating manner.
Each poet and each human being could (and probably should) ask themselves at which moment politics first stepped in their lives, how they responded, and why. Was it a choice? During my school and university years I quite often got in trouble because of talking or fighting back; often there was no other option for me, I just had to. During my primary and secondary-school years I was heavily bullied. In Latvia we do not have any officially regulated support system for students with special needs, and my teachers often ignored mine. Since I am visually impaired I would need texts and other study materials in formats accessible to me, or I would require more time to accomplish some tasks. I was surprised to notice that my peers often interpreted me speaking up on such occasions as creating unnecessary conflict or unpleasant situations on purpose, and they mostly never felt any need to get involved somehow or react to what was happening. I remember them explaining their unwillingness to say or do something along the lines of, ‘I am sorry that this is happening, but, you see, I just want to avoid conflict, I cannot stand the tension it creates.’ Well, I do not enjoy conflict, either, but I did not get such privilege to choose avoiding tension, when someone attacked me in the classroom or when I was walking home after school. In my school years I was a constant target for verbal, psychological and sometimes also physical abuse from my schoolmates, and nothing much was done about it by adults, because twenty years ago the assumption that being in any way different was a valid enough reason to be targeted, and was even more normalised in our society than it is now. If you happen to have a body that violates a standard of presumed normality, you do not have a choice not to be politically involved, because your whole being, your whole existence became a political act long before you consciously reflected on such notions as ‘political’, ‘otherness’ or ‘resistance’. Or, perhaps, there is another choice, and that choice is not to exist at all, or exist in some kind of twisted, corrupted, distorted manner. I had my fair share of grappling with that choice, as well.
Having a socially marginalised identity, especially overlapping marginalised identities, has political, social, emotional and economic consequences in every society. But these consequences are even harsher in societies with an authoritarian past, especially if it is not always dealt with thoroughly and honestly, and a socio-political climate is created where the inability to heal from past collective trauma together with the legacy of corruption precludes aspiration for true democratic values. Deviating from the norm in such circumstances may mean social isolation, not being able to access certain services and places. And even if you are privileged and independent enough – as I consider myself to be – you still constantly have to battle the biases, misconceptions, economic hardship and other practical and psychological difficulties. That leaves a considerable impact also on your writing; it affects what and how you are able to write, defines what you can and need to say, and what you cannot.
Contemporary Latvian poetry and literature in general are not very political. However, more authors and books dealing with socially pressing topics and representing voices that were silenced before are appearing. For example, topics such as the unequal position of women within households and family settings, woman’s sexuality as well as violence against women as a huge and still often ignored and unspoken social issue more often appear in the contemporary works of Latvian literature, and in public discussions.
As for LGBTQIA+-related topics, they are still rarely represented in any of the art genres. Last year saw Neona pavasaris (Neon Spring), the first Latvian film in which a lesbian relationship was depicted in a realistic and non-stigmatising way; it was not nominated for the National film award ‘Lielais Kristaps’. The situation in literature, compared to the contemporary cinema or theatre scene, seems to be a bit better. We have writers, such as Ilze Jansone, Rihards Bargais, Kārlis Vērdiņš, Elīna Kokareviča and Ausma Perons, who in their prose and poetry deal with various aspects of queer topics. However, when I was growing up in the nineties and becoming a teenager at the beginning of the millennium, the Soviet regime, under which homosexuality was a punishable crime, had just recently fallen apart, and queer topics in Latvian literature were practically non-existent. Of course, there were no anthologies of Latvian queer fiction or poetry available, either. We still do not have any, with the exception of The Faces of Slovenian and Latvian LGBT literature, an anthology created under the auspices of the Punctum literature festival, whose 2022 edition was dedicated to the topic of communities.
When I think about the voices I was able to identify with growing up, these were rarely found in Latvian literature, actually rarely found at all, because I read what was available then. I believe it is important to note here that liking or being excited about a piece of literature, being compelled by the beauty of language, is not the same as being able to recognise oneself in a particular text. I remember accidentally finding The Passion by Jeanette Winterson in the children’s section of the library. I had no idea how it happened to be there. I was probably eleven or twelve years old when I first read this book, and it had a significant impact on me. I was well-read at that time and reading challenging books, originally not written for children, was nothing special for me. But this book was different. There are no explicit or direct depictions of same-sex relationships or sexual encounters in The Passion, at least I do not remember any, but the book with its magical mingling of realities and gender identities is charged with subtle underlying homoerotica. This strange, magical story intrigued me, held a secret, like Willanelle’s heart, stolen by another woman and lying somewhere deep at the bottom of a canal in Venice. Winterson’s novel communicated something fundamentally important, something I needed to know, to find out about myself, and it did so the way poetry usually does, through metaphors and figurative speech, and it talked straight to me.
Sadly, this has not changed much. It is still the case that, if I wanted to read a book that mirrored aspects of my queer experiences, that book would most likely not be by a Latvian author and not in the Latvian language.
However, it is not that we do not have any authors who depict and explore queer realities in their work, it is rather that we are not used to seeing them and their works, we do not have an established tradition of queer literature. At least not yet.
Is it important to build such a tradition? I think it is. Like everything else that reflects on social realities, it may serve as a political tool which normalises the presence of queer identities, bodies and relationships in the wider social context by making them visible and speakable. Perhaps such works are needed the most by queers themselves, especially teenagers and young adults, so they could find their representation in a poetic or fictional work, as every person should be able to do. If we do not make an effort to anthologise what queer literature we have and make it more visible, we run the risk of having it go unnoticed, even by readers who may need and enjoy it the most. For example, I have recently discussed this with my girlfriend, who is not professionally involved in contemporary Latvian literature, and the only Latvian queer author she had heard about was Ilze Jansone.
It is problematic, if in your formative years the only literary representations of yourself you manage to find only by chance. It leaves an impact on you not just as a reader and a human being, but also as a new writer (poet in my case). The silence and censorship in literature you have grown up with transforms into a practice of self-censorship. And that self-censorship unfortunately starts to affect you long before you even begin to realise it.
When my first poetry collection Saulesizplūdums (The Blur of the Sun) was published, I truly believed in the power of universality. In these poems there are, of course, hints of my queer and non-normative experiences, however I also remember neutralising and hiding them in associations and surreal abstractions, here and there changing the gendered pronouns. Thus differences that may later transform into categories of political otherness and resistance were then left only vaguely formulated and almost invisible, except if you specifically wanted to look for them. I was so used to adjusting my capacity to identify with literature that barely spoke about me, and so I readily modified my own poetics, so as to make it seemingly more accessible to a wider readership. Because that is how I had learnt to survive – by adjusting.
One could ask, why? If I saw a lack of queer poetry, written in my own language, why did I not simply write it myself? Because this is how silence and self-censorship works, it operates in the form of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls symbolic violence: ‘a gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims, exerted for the most part through the purely symbolic channels of communication and cognition (more precisely, misrecognition), recognition, or even feeling’. I did not make these kinds of decisions or reflect on them consciously, like I am able to do now. I had had enough trouble on a daily basis on account of being different and I was not eager to fully embrace and perpetuate these differences in poetry, probably the only field in which I felt free and safe. In my teens and early twenties (I was 22 when my debut collection was published) I was also not politically educated or engaged.
It is extremely complicated to write about yourself in a language in which you do not exist or in which words used to name your sexual identity or your body are part of medical vocabulary. In literary texts and everyday communication these words are often still offensive, outdated and anachronistic. However, a lot of people, also those well-educated, insist on using such names. They do not see or choose not to see the political dimensions of language, arguing: ‘these are just words, available in Latvian, stop being so sensitive!’ I, as everyone who works and creates using words, know perfectly well that words are never just words. They construct and destruct realities and identities. Words have a capacity to heal or destroy people and their lives.
This discrepancy between who you are and what is possible to express in your own language creates an enormous feeling of estrangement. It is a realisation that your language – the one in which you think, feel and create – does not want you; suddenly it becomes monstrous and cold, and you are not safe in it. You start to feel like a ghost in your own language and in the space it has created around you. You become confused, you start to stumble, to flinch, to feel shame. Non-existence and being overwhelmed with shame to the point of shivering when someone addresses you, throws at you these degrading names, are the two worst things that any language, but especially your own, can do to you.
To survive you have to search for a new voice, a different one. For new words and new ways to say the old ones. If you do not, deep down you know you are going to die. This is when bravery, which is simultaneously forced on you and chosen deliberately, comes into play. It arises from a very cold place, when you have stood in the harsh Eastern-European autumn wind for so long, you almost cannot feel and move your limbs anymore. From that state and place a queer voice starts to form. It will take a long time for it to fully bloom and flourish. And it is going to be painful, because healing tends to be. But, remembering what Audre Lorde has said, nothing could be more painful and more dangerous than silence.
Another language can serve in this process of searching for your own queer voice. I can find words that do not exist yet in my own language first in another one, in English. Because I need to be able to define myself, to know who I am, to be able to talk about myself and not be hurt every time I am named. But I cannot and do not want to write my poetry in any other language, but Latvian. So I look for words in my own language, and I do it slowly. Poetry, after all, is a magical space, a queer space of its own, which allows me gradually to find words and the voice I am looking for. Poetry has helped me to survive the worst, because not being an ordinary language allows you to explore, to play, to dwell in what you do not yet understand, but already know, and it teaches you to practice speaking of what matters the most.
I do not think I am truly brave. If I were, I would hang a rainbow flag on the Freedom Monument, like Polish activists did in the summer of 2020 with monuments and church statues in Warsaw, to remind Latvian politicians that LGBTQIA+ rights matter and are still unprotected in our country (this I would do myself, if only I had allies), or I would probably smash the windows of the Russian embassy in Riga, which during the Christmas season they lit up in the colours of the Russian flag. The point is, I do not feel brave just because I have written a couple of poems or articles or done some stand-up performances in which I admit that I am bisexual or have a disability, or because I reflect on these matters. But maybe I just do not like the concept of bravery itself, because it too often calls for heroes and forgets the need for systemic change and everyone’s responsibility for that change to happen. However, publicly peeling off layers of your being to uncover the oppressed, hidden but vital parts of yourself is definitely not an easy task. In literature and other art forms we should search for ways to do this ourselves and encourage others to do it, in manners that may be scary and difficult, but stay as safe as possible.
 Pierre Bourdieu: Masculine Domination. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 4–5.
Katrīna Rudzīte is a poet and publicist. Author of two poetry collections, Saulesizplūdums (The Blur of Sun, 2014) and Ērti pārnēsājami spārni (Comfortably Portable Wings, 2020). She is interested in possibilities to create a better and more equal and inclusive society. Sometimes performs together with ‘Women's Stand-up’. She studied social anthropology and theory of culture.
Photo by Lelde Vaivode