They say those who leave hold on tighter to what they’ve left than those who stay. But what are they holding on to? The reality of what was, or just a dream of what it might have been? American author Inara Verzemnieks delves into these questions of diaspora in this fervid book about her own Latvian heritage.
A deeply pastoral state ‘nestled at the edge of Europe’s psychic north, south, east and west’, Latvia’s citizens suffered badly during both World Wars and the subsequent era of Stalinism. Nearly every Latvian’s family history is ‘cratered with epochs of loss or displacement and sudden chasms of nothing,’ Verzemnieks explains. Her own family was split apart at the end of World War II, her grandmother escaping to the West while her grandmother’s mother and siblings were loaded onto trucks and deported to Siberia. I come from ‘this place of flight’ writes Verzemnieks. ‘Their exile [is] mine, as much a part of me as any characteristic governed by heredity.’ When she returns to meet her long-lost relatives, she finds her DNA singing and a sense of peace she had never experienced before in her life.
It seems extraordinary that any family can bear as much as hers did and not be vanquished or brutalised, and sadder still that the uncaring workings of State turn the powerless into heroes or villains.
The heady prose reads like a novel, her experience refracted through the prism of her rural heritage. A summer evening is ‘warm like new milk’; a neighbour’s mouth ‘soft [and] quaggy, like a field after weeks of rain’; Siberian jackets are ‘turgid, ponderous… green as spoiled meat.’
Words like ‘refugee’ and ‘war’ can lose their meaning under the weight of decades of news stories, Verzemnieks breaks them back open, drawing us into the individual human tales without asking anything from us but our time.
Inara Verzemnieks is an author and a contributor to the New York Times and the Atlantic. Her new book, Among the Living and the Dead, is out now.