AuthorKurvet-Kaosaar, Leena
PositionNarrating Migration and Diaspora - "Geography and the Art of Life" by Edmunds Valdemars Bunkse and "Otsekui tolkes. Teema variatsioonidega" by Kabi Laretei - Critical essay
  1. Introduction

    Taking as its starting point recent interest of the field of life writing studies in the interrelationship of space and subjectivity (see, e.g. Watson 2017/2007, Kilian and Wolf 2016) and the focus on the mobility of memory in contemporary memory studies (see, e.g. Assman and Conrad 2010, Craps et al. 2017, Erll 2011, Radstone 2011) the current article focuses on the role of spatial positioning in the construction of subjectivity in the life writings of two exile Baltic authors,

    Edmunds Valdemars Bunkse and Kabi Laretei. Attesting to the relevance of places and landscapes in Baltic life writing in general, Bunkse's Geography and the art of life (2004) and Laretei's Otsekui tolkes. Teema variatsioonidega [As if in translation. A theme with variations], (2005) that are characterized by a continuous process of seeking equilibrium between (both forced and voluntary) mobility and the state of being settled in different manner foreground the spatial dimensions of self-narration that stem from forced dislocation and exile.

  2. Life writing, space and exile

    In his quintessential essay "Reflections on Exile", Edward Said defines exile as "the unhealable rift forced between a human being and his native place, between the self and its true home". Despite having the potential of providing an invigorating 'plurality of vision' premised upon an alertness to different cultures contributing to 'an awareness of simultaneous dimensions' that Said refers to as 'contrapuntal', for him exile is ultimately a condition of loss and deprivation--including the loss of (being settled in) place--that can never be fully overcome or compensated for (Said 2001:173). Yet in particular in the early version of his essay on exile, published in Harper's Magazine in 1984, he also underlines the creative and subversive potential of exile, its' capacity to "break barriers of thought and experience" and to "restore identity, and even life itself, to fuller more meaningful status" (ibid.: 53-54). Complex and often strenuous spatial associations stemming from geographical and physical displacement, confrontation with other cultures, feeling of homelessness and the extended hope of returning home are often listed as significant factors shaping literary and autobiographical modes of representation of exile (see Israel 2000:1-22, Neubauer 2009:398, Suleiman 1996:1-6). Exile life writing can be characterized by a focus on spatial challenges emerging as the result of an uprooting from a native and familiar environment and having to cope with movement and dislocation or, as Andre Aciman (1999:13) has formulated it, a state of 'permanent transience'. Exile Latvian anthropologist Vieda Skultans (1998:56) has argued that "social and spatial dislocation demands the plotting of an individual life trajectory in a way that the illusions of permanence and predictability do not". According to Kilian and Wolfe (2016:4), "movement decenters place, just as it decenters selves and their place-related identities". Although the condition of exile should not be seamlessly integrated into general conceptualizations of mobility, "a dynamic of (re)creation and decreation of the self" that is premised on movement and harbors a subversive potential can also be traced in exile life writing in a variety of ways. It can range, for instance, from explorations of the "reparative potential" of engagement with landscapes capable of alleviating the sense of displacement of exile (Adams 2012:152) to the gradual abandonment of all hope of "a spatial anchoring" (Jilani 2015:60).

    Capitalizing on the centrality of movement of "people, media, mnemonic forms, contents and practices" (Erll 2011:11), contemporary memory studies have turned their focus away from questions of place and location, dominantly due to longtime association of place and memory to frameworks of national remembrance. While acknowledging the importance of critical consideration of memory on the move, Susannah Radstone (2011:111) also emphasizes the continuing relevance of "our locatedness in histories, in place, in culture" that is instrumental in "producing the never random associative leaps that constitute the rhetorics of memory". Relying on Stuart Hall's understanding of the fundamental role of the sense of place in the formation of cultural identity (see Hall 1995:186), Berberich, Campell and Hudson (2012:18) list "memory, trauma, diaspora, language and history" among key forces that shape the dynamics of "the real and imagined senses of self and place" that play a significant role in the comprehension and conceptualization of the socio-cultural and nature-related contexts of the contemporary world.

    In the field of life writing studies, questions of the interrelationship of space and subjectivity have been receiving more systematical critical attention only recently. As Eveline Kilian and Hope Wolf point out in the introduction of the first ever collection on life-writing and space, although

    [who] we are, and how we narrate ourselves, depends on our ability ... to locate our identities within space ... life story has traditionally been thought of as a chronological movement, a narrative that unfolds over time and meaningfully connects events, thereby constructing continuity and coherence (Kilian and Wolf 2016:2). In a similar vein doubting whether "only the temporal dimension ... gives meaning to experiences", Pauli Tapani Karjalainen (2003:88) sums up the relevance of space in life experience by emphasizing that "human life is a topocentric reality". Including a section on space in their 2010 edition of a comprehensive overview of life writing studies Reading Autobiography. A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (2010:42) introduce the term emplacement "as the juncture [of] location and subject position [---] from which self-articulation rises". As Smith and Watson (ibid.: 42-43) conceptualize it, location entails 'geographical situatedness' along the axes of "national, ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual, social and life cycle coordinates to which the narrators are embedded via experiential histories" and subject position refers to "the ideological stances [---] adopted by the narrator toward self and others". Earlier considerations of the relevance of space in life writing includes the work of Russell West (1999:110) who in his study of Joseph Conrad's Congo-diaries argues that "the spatial structure implied and indeed necessitated by this temporal structure is generally ignored by critical accounts of the genre. Relying on the work of Gaston Bachelard and Henri Lefebre, West (ibid.: 110) emphasizes "the role of spatial relationships in the production and reception or interpretation of meaning in society [---] from the intimate domain of bodily dynamics through geopolitics". In her analysis of Walter Benjamin's Berlin Chronicles Griselda Pollock (2007:65) highlights the spatial or even topographical model (bio-geo-graphy) that is elaborated in Benjamin's text that aims at "setting out the sphere of life--bios--graphically on a map". Pollock proposes to view Benjamin's text as a process of life-mapping (as opposed life-writing) that "supports the creation of social and historical memory as the register of emplacement, cultural space and social worlding" (a phrase that Pollock borrows from Spivak). Such mapping practice is characterized by perceiving experience as a sequence of spatially cued events that "come to inhabit the subject by providing the spatial coordinate by which the formation can be recalled, linked and assembled into the subject-sustaining structure--memory" (ibid.: 66). (1)

  3. Bunkse's and Laterei's contexts of displacement and mobility

    Kabi Laretei (b. 1922) left for Stockholm where her father Heinrich Laretei, a well-known Estonian politician and diplomat was the ambassador to Sweden a few days before the Soviet Union occupied Estonia in June 1940. Commenting on her mother's telegram requesting Kabi to take a boat to Sweden immediately, Laretei (1989:202) writes: "I was in rebellious spirit and all my friends in Tallinn agreed that my departure was ridiculous. This was the last boat that left independent Estonia". The Estonian embassy in Stockholm had to be handed over to the Swedish authorities and the Lareteis were lucky that Heinrich Laretei was not released to the Soviet authorities who had sentenced him to death; nevertheless, they were left without homeland, citizenship, a place to live or money. Although Kabi Laretei became a world-renowned concert pianist, she attributes the decision to pursue a career in music to necessity rather than personal choice. "I had never dreamed of becoming a concert pianist," she writes, "now I had to become one quickly [---] driven by a need that was not organic [---] but determined by external circumstances"...

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