Native Estonian Kristiina Ehin is an internationally renowned poet, whose collection The Drums of Silence was awarded the British Poetry Society Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation in 2007. Ehin has published six volumes of poetry, three books of short stories and a retelling of South-Estonian folk tales. She has also written plays and radio broadcasts, and has won Estonia’s most prestigious poetry prize for Kaitseala—a book of poems and journal entries written during a year spent living as a nature reserve warden on an otherwise uninhabited island off Estonia’s north coast.
Her latest is Walker on Water from the Unnamed Press, translated from Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere. LARB A.V. spoke with her at a reading at Skylight Books, where she was also joined by her partner, well-known Estonian musician Silver Sepp, who enchanted the crowd with his mix of traditional Estonian music and found-object instruments.
LARB AV: To start, can you describe your new collection of stories, Walker on Water?
Kristiina Ehin: I wrote them in a very specific state of mind, and though I can say that I created these characters, actually they really came to me—I saw them in this room, in this air. They came as very frightened and very silent creatures. I just felt that I had to give a voice to them, like for example, to this woman, who’s been married at least eight times and whose husbands have always been called Jaan. It’s the most common name in Estonia. And this woman, she kind of confesses—the tone is confessing. Why did she get married so many times? She never wanted that, it wasn’t her dream, but it went as it went and there are several reasons she talks about. And several unconscious patterns that also show themselves in the stories. It’s a very playfully tragic experience for me to write.
What more can you tell us about the main character?
She is a very contemporary woman, but at the same time really ancient things happen to her. She has a strange hobby, one of the strangest you can find. She thinks it’s fine to keep this hobby alive and not to give up, but everybody thinks it’s strange and impossible. But she feels that the moment she gives up her hobby, that she will forget how to love. So these things are deeply connected. Her self-expression and her ability to love.
And that hobby is walking on water?
Yes! (laughs). Her special talent is walking on water, and she discovered that it is a thing that she can get better at, and so that is what she does. Defining her balance on the stormy sea, it is a symbol, an image of finding a balance in love and in life in general. And maybe loving somebody until the end of their life in all of this world is almost as impossible as walking on water—but still possible. So there is plenty of hope in this story, the way I see it.
We know little about Estonia, can you describe it?
Well that is like asking me to describe the taste of a potato without mentioning a potato. The most important thing for me, however, is the language—for me as a poet, the language that is my tune, my colors, my world.
And it has very few speakers?
Yes, just one million native speakers. And it’s not an Indo-European language, it’s a Finnic language. We have fourteen cases, for example. We have a lot of words to describe nature.
Have you always been interested in folklore?
For several years I was studying literature at Tartu University and I read a lot, but I didn’t feel inspired enough to write myself. And then I found this department at Tartu University called the Comparative Folkloristics Department. It was a very cozy place with a lot of sofas and tea pots. And I just felt so good there. I started to read a lot folk tales, a lot of fairy tales, a lot of legends and most of all folk songs. I found the oral tradition to be so fresh, surprisingly fresh. And I found it to be so modern.
I also felt some pain because of what had been done to these fairly tales and folk songs during the Soviet years. And not only in the Soviet Union, really, I think it’s everywhere, these sweet Hollywood endings, where everything is written just for children. And not even for children, I don’t think children really care! For me, as a child I wanted something totally different. I wanted something deep, fresh and surprising, and I found all of that in Estonian folk tales that had never been published. I dug myself into the archives there, actually among the biggest in the world together with the Finnish and Irish, and I found stories that really intrigued me. Maybe some of this comes from my father, who was a surrealist author. He made us write surrealist poems for Santa Claus, for example. We have this tradition in Estonia that you have to read poems to Santa Claus, and my mother and father were not conservative at all, and they didn’t want to hear Jingle Bells or any of that. So we read classic poems; Turkish poetry, Russian poetry, English poetry and our own poetry. That was my childhood’s mystery, so I don’t know if I was tricked into literature but it gave me a taste.
You spent a year on uninhabited island as a nature-preserve warden and it resulted in a book of stories. It seems like it was a very primitive kind of existence there, so I wonder: What were your most valued possessions? What was the one thing you relied on most during that very lonely time?
Basically I was a garbage cleaner on this island. One of my jobs was to keep this island clean and in order. The storms were quite big and all the world’s garbage would just blow onto the shores, so especially after the big storms, it was a lot of work to do. And in the first place, I had just been living in Estonia’s big city, small for you but big for us. At first I didn’t know how to feel, going around in big boots and a garbage sack, but then I felt that it’s one of the most honorable jobs in the world to do—to keep one beautiful paradise beautiful. It’s a cold and magical island. The nature is covered with moss, this very tender moss. If you step on it once, your footprint will remain for fifteen years at least. So, it was a very tender piece of the world to protect. The poetry collection I wrote there is called Protected Territory. It’s the image of how to keep it clean on the outside, yet meanwhile a part of your soul might not be so civilized.
But what was that thing? What did you rely on the most?!
I had been fighting against becoming a writer because my mother and father both were writers and I thought I would never want to have such a difficult job. The island was a place where I actually needed to write. I was thirsty for the evenings, to have my pen and paper and my diary and to write down my experiences.