Soviet Milk: an Interview with Latvian author Nora Ikstena
In her new novel, Soviet Milk, Latvian author Nora Ikstena has pulled off a singular feat. In deceptively simple language she deals with themes such as oppression, power, freedom, religion and motherhood, all the while leading the reader skillfully between two narrations and two different time periods: beginning in 1940s Latvia, just liberated from the Nazis, and Soviet-occupied Latvia in the 1970s and 80s.
“When I started to write in two voices my Latvian editor told me, you’re on thin ice,” said Ikstena in a recent interview. "But I persevered, and I think it works."
It does indeed—Soviet Milk is the kind of novel that instantly draws you into two parallel lives: a mother’s and her feelings of pain and despair as she lives under Soviet occupation, and her daughter’s, as she tries to understand and deal with her mother, her subsequent coming of age, her courage and her hope. In a mere 200 pages, Ikstena captivates and enthralls us.
Ikstena has been writing professionally since 1995 but Soviet Milk, translated by Margita Gailitis, (published in Latvian in 2015 with the title Mother’s Milk) was one-of-a-kind for her in several ways. To begin with, it was part of We.Latvia.The 20th Century, a collection of historical novels about different eras in recent Latvian history written by established authors, whose only constraint was to choose a particular time frame. Then, it was a departure in style for Ikstena. “It was a surprise for my readers that the form and how the story was told was different from my other books,” said Ikstena, adding that for her, the book took a long time to write—a year.
“As a writer you try to find your style. You look at magic realism, metaphors. But I was feeling so liberated that I spoke in black and white and in short sentences. It’s similar to how your understanding of things over the years becomes simpler. It was also a moment when I felt the Latvian language very deeply.”
Finally, Soviet Milk is autobiographical, and she had been thinking about the story for 20 years, ever since her mother died. “In my writing I was always trying to tell my mother’s story, from my first novel, Celebration of Life, in 1998. I realized that to tell that kind of very deep, personal story, which is a psychological drama, you need the distance.”
The character in Soviet Milk, like Ikstena’s mother, is a gifted doctor, who studies in St. Petersburg, specializing in gynecology. Trapped professionally by the Soviet regime and its occupation of Latvia, she is unable to experiment in her work, nor live freely. Drawn to the mysticism of religion yet outwardly an atheist, she is frequently suicidal, and it is only thanks to her little girl (Ikstena) that she keeps one foot in the real world.
The book’s title refers to mother’s milk—the young doctor disappears for five days just after giving birth and the baby’s grandmother feeds her chamomile tea in the place of milk. The baby (Ikstena) grows up to be lactose-intolerant and the mere smell of milk nauseates her. In an agricultural society such as Latvia’s, fresh, warm milk directly from a cow’s udders was considered healthy, but for Ikstena’s mother, her milk, and Latvia’s milk in general was poisoned by oppression and power. Yet Ikstena uses a common Latvian expression several times in the novel to describe a body of water that is “as warm as milk”. Ikstena’s favorite drink though, remains chamomile tea from those first days of her life.
It seemed to me that since I was born I’d been trying to get my mother to connect to life. As a helpless infant, as a child of limited understanding, as a fearful teenager, as a young woman. And she always seemed to be striving to turn out her life’s light. So we struggled—always ending in stalemate. Although one day the light would be extinguished for ever.
Ikstena’s mother ended her life when she was 54, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Now, at 48, I feel how early it is to leave life,” said Ikstena. “In a way, she gave me the rest of hers. Hers was a miserable life—to spend her prime years under this regime.”
Ikstena, like her character in Soviet Milk, left her home in Riga where she lived with her loving grandparents and went to live alone with her mother who had been sent to run a clinic in a rural area.
“When I lived with my mom I was 10 years old and when I saw my niece at the same age I realized how young I was to understand what was happening with my mother. I felt she didn’t have a desire for life and I was trying to keep her alive, to keep her with me.”
Several fictional characters with religious undertones are brought into the story, adding a dimension of faith, forgiveness and as Ikstena says, gentleness. The first is the Russian Orthodox Serafima, who the young doctor helps when she believes she is unable to conceive. Although the doctor has lost faith in herself and life, for Serafima, when she becomes pregnant, she is a hero, in whom she sees only goodness. There is the patient who has cancer, who shows the doctor a small Orthodox church in the woods. And then there is Jesse, inspired by a member of Ikstena’s family, who was a hermaphrodite. “She was so generous, she was filled with love. My mother wanted to help her with hormone therapy. When I was writing about Jesse I had this particular woman in mind.”
The fictional Jesse also brings the doctor a section of a book that is to be destroyed, the year is 1984, and while the characters never discover which book it is, the doctor becomes obsessed with the character in the excerpt, Winston, who is, of course, George Orwell’s protagonist from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
“The first translation of Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in Latvian in the 1950s with a Swedish publishing house, translated by exiled Latvians. Someone brought the book to Soviet Latvia and the KGB censored it,” said Ikstena. “I realized that someone who didn’t know anything about Orwell might understand that she actually lives in this text.”
Another literary reference in Soviet Milk is Moby Dick. “It was one of my mother’s favorite books because of Captain Ahab, who is larger than life, and wants to cross borders. In Moby Dick my mother found her true feelings, because [otherwise] she was really trapped.”
Meanwhile, the doctor’s daughter encounters Teacher Blūms in secondary school, who offers students an after school class on cultural history. Little by little Blūms teaches them about their own culture, about political manipulation and opens his students’ minds to other possibilities and horizons. Blūms really did exist, and Ikstena didn’t even change his last name. She was a little afraid of what he might say, but once the book was published he wrote to her, deeply affected.
A last example of why Soviet Milk was a new experience for Ikstena was that she wrote it in her grandmother’s home. “I used to work in writer’s colonies and would travel to different places all the time to write. This time I felt it was completely different. It was like there was a before and after Soviet Milk. I don’t need to go away anymore. My generation came to the literary scene in the 1990s and 2000 and we had a desire to go out, to get experience outside of our country. Now it’s not necessary anymore. I don’t have this urge to go away, it has been fulfilled and there is the pleasure and joy that the book is going to all these places.”
By this, Ikstena means that Soviet Milk, of which 20,000 copies have been sold in Latvia, will appear in translation in a number of languages including English, Italian and Swedish.
“Now I feel these big waves around the book in honor of my mother.”
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the Market Focus countries at this year’s London Book Fair, 10-14 April 2018. Public author events around the UK are organised by the British Council literature.britishcouncil.org.
Banner image of chamomile flowers by Roksolana Zasiadko