Kätlin Kaldmaa is a universal literary figure who does – and achieves – many things. She is an award-winning poet, a prose writer, children’s author, translator, editor, organiser of literary events, writer, exporter of Estonian literature and importer of foreign literature, someone who presents her own creative work and that of others, a teacher and mentor to authors, the international secretary of the worldwide association of writers PEN International, and someone who speaks out for and defends imprisoned writers and female authors. 

What inspires you to try out different literary genres? Is it a kind of personal challenge? Is it no longer possible for authors nowadays to just stay quietly holed up in their studies writing? 

To my mind, there are no boundaries in literature. Every subject needs a form and shape of its own. What I write comes from within and without at the same time. The only creative control I have is to give it time, and I’ve been able to do that in recent years. I would like the world to be a better place. That sounds banal, I know. For me, it means first and foremost giving a voice to those who don’t have one. There are almost equal numbers of men and women in the world, but even so you don’t hear or see or read much from women. I always stand up for girls and books. This spring, for example, we started the PEN/VIDA Count to monitor disparities in literature across the globe. There are no figures on it. Which of your activities is particularly close to your heart? Literature is closest to my heart. With literature you can confront silence. I see – and not just in Estonia – that girls and LGBT+ individuals have the least say in the world. Women and girls are not a minority; however, they have been marginalised throughout literary history. So I’m very keen to act on that, and give girls the courage to express themselves and the skills to do it. The children of today can change the world of tomorrow, and the surest way of doing that is to give a voice to the girls of today. I want to do that both in my books and in my other work. To me as a person, freedom is the most important thing. 

The way you live and communicate, your lectures and your books all show that you’re an international writer. Would cherishing your roots (such as: taking part in Song Celebrations, having a place in the countryside, preferring Estonian products, etc.) make you a different kind of writer?

All of us are formed by our experiences. To be honest, I’ve never really understood this idea about roots. I spent the first eighteen years of my life on a Soviet kolkhoz. It was a hard-working rural lifestyle along the lines of Tammsaare’s social epic Truth and Justice where the children basically did as much work as the adults from early childhood onwards and in the summer we worked at least eight hours a day in sugar beet fields or making hay, and then several hours in the evening minding the animals. In the evening, two of us three children would help our parents look after the animals, but every third evening you could stay at home and read, it was a great time, a real break, home alone. My mother worked on a tractor for fifteen years and my father managed all the barns in the kolkhoz, so I have a very precise idea of what rural life was really like. Besides hard work, there was time for reading books in the evening and beyond that there wasn’t very much at all. And all that physical work means that someone who has lived in the countryside for 60 years is a completely different being from someone who’s lived in a city for 60 years. Living in the countryside and getting by has never been fun. Particularly in earlier times of course, now you see more and more of those enormous enclosed lawns with robot lawn mowers. The world’s most invasive species (whose success is based on being cute) is the cat, and the most widely-spread plant is grass, and they’re both harmful for the environment. So I don’t really take the idea of roots too seriously. I’ve never been to Estonian Song and Dance Celebration. I did move back to the countryside after many years of living in the big wide world, not to the central eastern part of Estonia of my childhood though, but to North Estonia, by the sea, where there’s moss instead of grass and the winters are surprisingly mild. Ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to see the world and experience different cultures, and I’ve had that opportunity. Those experiences taught me that Europe is my home. The title of my next poetry collection translates as My Wings are My Roots (‘Mu tiivad on mu juured’). That’s true for now. Whether it’ll still be true in five years’ time I can’t say. 

You’ve said that you moved to North Estonia, by the sea. It feels as if your daily life and creative work is response to the call of Thálassa, Thálassa. Water, the sea and the ocean are among the themes of your books. Why are you so fascinated by large bodies of water? 

Thálassa, thálassa really does have a big influence on my creative work. In terms of the word itself, thálassa just means the Mediterranean, which I encountered in Greece. For me, Greece is thálassa first and foremost. The origin of the word is unknown, it existed even before Ancient Greek did. Like thálassa itself. In Iceland the ocean is something completely different – a big frozen water mass, solid with ice in winter. I can’t deal with the Baltic Sea. It’s too cold for swimming, the fish have too much lead in them; I’m still trying to work out a view on it right now. Water can be so different, even though it’s all one and the same. Water always takes the form of a container. Water always seeks balance. Water is life. Water supports me. In Greece I swim so much that my friends often ask to see my hands, to see whether I’m developing webbed fingers from so much swimming. Thálassa is. Did you know that when the Mediterranean was formed, the African elephants were trapped on a tiny island and they evolved into mini elephants there? 

I enjoyed your novel No Butterflies in Iceland (‘Islandil ei ole liblikaid’) which was open to numerous interpretations. It’s an extremely rich and varied work, dealing with people and nature, power and society, men and women, tradition and innovation, among other things. It’s been translated into several languages. What interests me though is how this great book was received. 

What’s interesting is that the reception of the novel has gone from one extreme to another. In Estonia it’s been more lukewarm than in other countries. That might also be because the mythological undercurrents of the book aren’t so easy to recognize – motifs from the Bible, the Odyssey and the Icelandic sagas. No Butterflies in Iceland is the story of a woman across the 20th century and I decided to set it in Iceland because I was looking for somewhere where a woman could develop and change without the paralysing impact of the second world war. Having read all those stories of Odysseus, who spent decades roaming the world and waging war, I wanted to know what the women were doing while the men were away. They had all the responsibility for keeping daily life going. How did they manage? How did they feel? There are only a few lines about Penelope in the Odyssey, after all. It’s not a book about Iceland, Iceland is just the place where the characters live. Even so, as a result of reading this book, several dozen people from Estonia and Finland have gone to Iceland and stayed there, and some of them more than once, so I’ve given the Icelandic economy a boost. 

What do you feel is missing from Estonian literature? And what can our literature particularly offer to readers elsewhere? 

Most of all I feel that women’s voices are missing from Estonian literature. That should be encouraged more. On an international level, poetry is really strong here, particularly by female writers, who have a wide range and power, but there’s simply less prose. There have been some voices that filled me with hope, but somehow they’ve faded away. Of course, women authors get a lot of harsh criticism; it’s not easy. You need to have a thick skin. So that’s what I’m waiting for, more prose written by women. And films made by women. 

What do you think about the fact that a significant proportion of Estonian literature is in the hands of women? For example, the National Library, Tallinn Central Library, the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, the Estonian Literature Centre, the Estonian Children’s Literature Centre, the Tallinn Literary Centre, various people at the Ministry of Culture – I could go on – are mainly led by women.

 It’s like that everywhere, not just in Estonia. I go to book fairs a lot and meet booksellers and people from literary centres and agents, and five out of six of them are always women. Men sell footballers and Formula 1 drivers to other men. The higher up you go in the literature world and the larger the structures, the more men you find, and above all they want to publish men’s books, and they spend phenomenal amounts on advertising. In that respect Estonia’s pretty good, women have the power to make decisions and also own publishing houses. At the same time, it’s mostly men making the higher-up decisions at the major publishers. And speaking of Estonian writers and literature, ever since we regained independence less than 30% of all the cultural endowment prizes have gone to women writers, and even less in the first two decades of this century. Books by women authors are reviewed less and noticeably later. This spring we’re hoping to update the PEN/VIDA figures for Estonia to see exactly how this is reflected in the statistics. A couple of years ago we did our first count. Equality is still a long way off, unfortunately. 

Your prose poem / collection of miniatures is now underway, which might be something of a(nother!) surprise to Estonian readers. In this book, you express your love for the places and people you’ve grown close to in rural Greece and Iceland. Could you explain how villages in Greece and Iceland have become so important, like another home, to you, someone born in Estonia? 

Europe is my home and the most important triangle in my life is between Iceland, Greece and Estonia. The book is a declaration of love to my villages in Iceland and Greece, miniatures from life. I could call them travel miniatures of course, there are those as well, the world in miniature, that’s something for another book, but Iceland and Greece and the people there are my home. I could talk forever about both places. Iceland came first, I’ve loved the island ever since my mother told me stories of it when I was a child, even though she’d never been there herself. One invitation I’ll never forget was “Come here and let’s be happy together”. In Iceland, everyone is cared for and appreciated, everyone’s valued. Not to mention the stories and uninterrupted time that have helped me connect with Estonian time and stories. My village and the world’s stories. Estonian culture has been interrupted more than once and so much has been lost as a result. It really hurts me that every now and then, someone tells us again that we should forget the Soviet era. No, we can’t, we mustn’t forget it, it’s part of our story, we can’t erase it. It was fifty years. That time lives on in all of us and instead of forgetting, we need to talk about it, write about it. What’s particularly awful is when literary history tries to link Soviet-era literature to the trends or form of Western literature during the same period. It’s borderline violence. Absolutely terrible. My Greek village is beside the thálassa. I’ve not gotten as far as the mountains of mainland Greece. Every island has its own story, its own dances, its own songs, there’s an enormous cultural wealth. Although I lived in a city for more than twenty years, I’m still a country person at heart, someone who always worries about the right time to harvest crops and whether a rainstorm is about to happen. When a tomato grows between the rocks and ripens in the sun, it feels like a small miracle to me. We had to start heating the greenhouse in March in order to get tomatoes in July. And always thálassa, thálassa, thálassa

Igor Kotjuh is an Estonian poet, journalist, essayist and translator, and a member of PEN Estonia