“A nation of book lovers” – Bookmunch in Latvia

Earlier this month Bookmunch was in Latvia to check out the book scene of this small but dynamic country, which celebrates one hundred years of independence this year. The visit was organised by the British Council, which works with the London Book Fair every year to showcase one country or region’s publishing market. This year’s market focus is the Baltics: Latvia, together with neighbouring countries Lithuania and Estonia.

By all appearances Latvians are a nation of book lovers. The recently inaugurated National Library in Riga is a striking 14 storey glass building overlooking the river Daugava. It contains over four million titles, and inside a ‘wall of books’ showcases favourite titles donated by Riga residents and foreign visitors.

There is a strong appetite for collaborative projects. We saw a performance by a rock band, Sigma, whose lyrics are written by various Latvian poets. For part of the concert they were accompanied by a string quartet of student musicians. The Orbita poetry collective write independently, but work together to create visual representations of their poems.

“Our literary superstars are all poets” said one of the authors we spoke to. Whereas Latvian writers have only started to work with the novel form during the last hundred years, poetry goes all the way back to pre-Christian times. Nearby Nordic countries had epic poems; Latvia had a short poetry form called Daina; which was often sung. Even today, Latvia publishes more poetry than prose.

Poetry appreciation starts in childhood: the Bicki Bucks series, 100 pocket sized editions of poems, traditional and modern, were illustrated by various Latvian illustrators. The series was also a surprise hit with adults, who collect them.

For more than half of its life as an independent country, Latvia has been under Soviet or German control. People now feel they can (mostly) speak openly about that time, and it is one of the principal themes of Latvia’s contemporary literature. Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk, (recently published in the UK by Peirene), tells the story of a complex mother-daughter relationship, further compounded by the political environment of the time.

Soviet Milk is part of an ambitious project by publisher Dienas Gramata, who commissioned a series of thirteen books telling the story of Latvia’s 20th Century. The novels, each of which covers a specific period of Latvian history, have been hugely popular, and several of them have made it into English.

Nonetheless, reaching an international audience is difficult when you write in language spoken by less than two million people. Nora Ikstena talked about how, early in her career, a New York publisher advised her to switch to English as she would never reach a world market if she continued writing in her own language.

The Latvian Literature platform works to overcome this hurdle, offering financial and logistical support to foreign publishers to help with translation and publishing Latvian literature. Over the next two years forty titles – fiction, poetry and children’s literature – are set to be published in English.

Very few Latvian authors write full time. “I was on the night watch in Soviet times; that’s where I wrote my poetry,” said Inese Zandere, one of the country’s most esteemed writers. “In the past writers were night watchers or firefighters. The new generation are advertising copywriters.” She considers herself lucky, because her day job left her mind free to create.

 

Lucy Chatburn

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