neljapäev, detsember 27, 2012

that black man

Ebony and ivory.
"Daddy, who's that black man?" "Shh. Be quiet!" "But the black man?" ""That's Dave Benton." "Is he from America? He looks like Obama." "No, he's from Aruba, I think." "Aruba?" "It's an island."

This dialogue took place at a Christmas concert at the Vanemuine theater in Tartu. And, I have to say, I quieted my child, not only because the rest of the audience at the Dave Benton and Annely Peebo concert seemed stiff and conservative and not welcoming of small children interrupting Härra Benton's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," but because she noted that Härra Benton is of a different race.

It was a reflex, of course and everything here is contextual. I am a product of place and time and have grown up thinking of people of African descent as being sensitive about their identity. But I am in my own way a time capsule, and little girls today don't know much about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and, of course, the Reverend Al Sharpton, nor have they seen a Spike Lee movie. Even in the US, it seems like the passions of the postmodern, post-Civil Rights political correctness identity crisis have long cooled. And the fact is that Dave Benton is a black man, especially when he's standing on stage next to Annely Peebo, who looks like the heroine of a Wagner opera.

It was a good concert by the way, a fun tribute to every stereotype about Christmas concerts -- blaring saxophone solo, anyone? -- and there was also the pleasant mismatch of Benton's smooth operator finger-snapping crooning and Peebo's scintillating soprano, which billowed up into the higher octaves like plumes of hot steam off an extinguished Christmas fire. My daughters' favorite song was "Feliz Navidad," and even the old ladies with the wooden faces were clapping along by that point, but my handling of the topic of racial identity also was turning in the back of my mind.

According to a book I have been reading called Nurture Shock, so-called white parents rarely talk about race with their children, and if they do it's usually packaged in some gunky "skin color doesn't matter, it's what's inside" gobbeldygook. I say "so-called white" because I think "white" is a bullshit term used by Americans to separate themselves from Europeans because of our/their massive hybrid inferiority-superiority complex ("I'm not a filthy cheese-eating European, I'm white"), but that's neither here nor there.

The truth is that the "we're all the same/skin color doesn't matter" argument would never pass my kids' sniff test. My eldest daughter is asking me questions all the time like, "Why are most rappers black?" And here I am, driving the road between Viljandi and Tartu, passing farmhouses and forests, wondering if I should start with slave work songs or Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" or just skip ahead to Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang. Or I could have said, "That's not true, Eminem is a fine rapper and he's not black. See, what are you talking about? Skin color doesn't matter!" Too bad Mr. Benton himself wasn't in the backseat so he could have leaned forward in his trademark white suit and answered simply, "because black people are awesome."

Usually my response to "Why is that man black?" is "Because some of his/her ancestors came from Africa." Seems like a pretty legitimate take on the question. The roots of many popular American music forms also trace back to Africa. Don't ask me. Ask James Brown. Okay, he's dead. But listen to his music. The answer is Africa. It's a way of thinking I have picked up from the Estonians, for whom nationality is a deep and meaningful construct. The very words "German," "Russian," or "Finn" are loaded with shared ideas about those nationalities related to genetics and history.

In a way, I am teaching my children to think similarly. Connect the man's blackness with Africa. Why is Obama black? Because his father was from Kenya. See, it's no lie, and it's not mixing up the message with complex concepts that little kids have a hard time grasping because they didn't grow up listening to Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet. And, to compare, why is my family white? Could it be that most of our ancestors come from Europe? Sometimes the answers to the most difficult questions are as deceptive in their simplicity as the melody of a good Christmas standard.

teisipäev, detsember 18, 2012

in his own write

Market research.
I'm half way through João Lopes Marques' Estonia: Paradise Without Palm Trees. Or maybe I am a third of the way through. Or 55 percent. The Portuguese-born writer has assembled for me a collection of his work, a collection that does not proceed chronologically in terms of when the pieces were written, so I have taken the liberty of starting the book at the end and working backward to the beginning, with some guilty pleasure reading about wife carrying contests and provincial girls along the way.

João is one of Estonia's resident expatriate writers. There are many of us -- how many I do not know. Vello Vikerkaar certainly counts as an expat writer. And Abdul Turay's got a new book out this week called Väike Valge Riik ("The Little White Country") about Estonian political culture. I'll get that one for Christmas maybe and read it too. I jest that it's market research for the next Minu Eesti book. But based on what I have read from Vello, João, and Abdul, I can see that we are all very different writers, and that our similarlity begins and ends with the fact that we are foreigners living in and writing about Estonia.

Vello is the recluse. Nobody knows who he really is or if that's even his real name. Plus he's got a bit of a mean streak."Life isn't fair," seems to be a recurring theme. Yet he's affable too, he can turn the charm on and off. If he were one of the actors who have played James Bond, he'd easily be Sean Connery.

João is Portuguese, but beyond that, he is a European. I can sense it in his well thought out dissections of everyday life in the capital city. There is a measured cadence to his manner of writing, and yet there is also coolness to it too, a euro reservation that frustrates me at times. I want João to get angry, maybe rob a bank. But he doesn't. He's just too cool. If he were a Bond actor, he'd probably be Timothy Dalton, sliding down a hill in a cello case.

Abdul is British, which means he can say pretty much anything and, as long as he's got his spectacles on, people will revere it as the words of an Oxford professor. Plus he's got gravitas. It's like he got off the plane at Tallinn one day, and the next he's on primetime TV talking about economic policy. Some balls. So he has a way of carrying himself, but he's no empty suit. If he was, he would have been devoured by tabloid wolves long ago. Because of this bold brashness, I'd have to call him Daniel Craig, whether he likes it or not.

And me? I am unintentionally funny. My wife calls me "Mr. Bean" because I can't walk across a room without knocking a lamp over. I worked hard on a novel last year called Montreal Demons. It has its humorous parts too, but it is also has some darker themes of sex and religion. It's gotten positive reviews, and some who have read the English version say it's better than the Estonian one. one reader even said it was like Gonzo with some Raymond Chandler and a hint of Hemingway, which made me feel really good.

Yet people in Estonia don't want Hemingway from Giustino. They want comedy. They want oozing floods of meat jelly and exploding blood sausages. It's like I'm Peter Sellers in Casino Royale. Even if I tried to play the role straight, people would still think I was joking.

Sometimes I wonder if every European country has its local purveyors of English-language literature. I would think it fine and good if they do. And I think it is fine and good that Estonia has Vello, João, Abdul, and even that clown who wrote My Estonia to kick around. Why, it's like having Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, Daniel Craig, and Peter Sellers in the same movie.

esmaspäev, detsember 10, 2012

little saint nick

Al, Brian, Dennis, Mike, Carl ... but no Nick
Nikolaus came to my daughter's preschool the other day and handed out gifts. It was a major event. It was also the first time I had heard this name, or one like it, uttered among the Estonians. You see, there are no Nicks in Estonia. I know Markus, and Martin, and Märtin and Marko. Kaarel and Mihkel and Luukas and Vello. But as far as I can recall ... there is not one Nick in Eesti at all.

I could never understand this. There are Nicks in every other country. Nicola in Italy. Niko in Finland. Nikolao in Esperanto. Sure, I have known some derivatives here in Estonia. There is Klaus, the workman who works on our house in Viljandi. Then there was Nils, the nihilistic musician with the ponytail who wore black all the time and lived next door to us in Tartu. Yet there seems to be an aversion to Nicks. When a friend gave birth to a boy, I suggested the name Nikolai, which I thought could have a certain tsarist flair (because anything old is fresh and new in Eesti-land). The tot was christened Sander instead.

I took up the subject with Sven the baker here in Viljandi (because there are plenty of Svens in Estonia) and he sort of laughed at me and told me it was the simplest thing in the world. "That's because Nick," he said, "is the Estonian equivalent of 'dick.'" And not only. The verb nikkuma has the same meaning as the English verbs "to fuck" and "to screw." For Estonians, the phonetic "Nick" is a thing or a thing that one does with one's thing, but not the actual person who has the thing or who does the doing with said thing.

The dialogue with Sven occurred at the local Christmas fair, where I butchered several unrehearsed Christmas songs on stage. I was going to learn "Little Saint Nick," a rocking Beach Boys tune, but gave up when I realized that my crooner's voice could not do justice to Brian Wilson's California surfer cool. "Good thing I didn't sing that song," I told Sven. "They would have thrown gingerbread at me."

Roll Call

I realize that it's been a while since I last updated my "Gateways to the Northern Dimension" list and that many sterling web logs may have escaped my notice. If you know of anything worthy of inclusion that concerns the northern lands of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and assorted duchies, provinces, and former imperial masters, please share.

neljapäev, detsember 06, 2012


The singer, not the song.
It's been a while since I read Purge, and it was not an easy book for me to read. Sometimes books are like that, they come to you and then you flip through a few pages and put them on your shelf, beside all those other books you would like to read. Then one morning you pick it up when you are on the way to the WC, and finish it later that afternoon. Purge was one of these kinds of books.

Of course, my expectations were too high. I saw Oksanen's face in so many places, I began to wonder if was my own face, or just another one of my many faces. She has an image though. At the Helsinki Book Fair last month, it towered over the many sellers and booths, the poster of Oksanen. I walked into a vast exhibition and convention center, face to face with Angry Birds and whatever else, but all I could see was a giant Oksanen looming in the distance. Did she have another book coming out? I wasn't sure. What was most important was that she existed and was perhaps writing something new.

So I had my expectations. I cannot say that I loved the book, or understand its success. Still, 99 percent of the books available at the local shop aren't worthy of one's time, so something like this, a historical drama with pregnant themes shines through the shit. And I also cannot deny that Purge touched me in some way, or at least it has stayed with me. I can remember most of the characters, my images of them, their relationships to one another, the scenery. It's certainly like a film, and when I was informed that it was originally written as a play, it made perfect sense.

Yet something about the characters deeply annoyed me. One of the main story lines in the book was Aliide's deep affection for her brother-in-law Hans. And by the end of the book, I still couldn't see what she saw in the guy. Sure, it takes place many years ago, so perhaps this elementary school tale of unrequited love and jealousy could have played out between grown adults, but so many times I just wanted to reach through the pages and shake the young Aliide and maybe throw a glass of cold water in her face and say, "Stop being so naive!" My own cynicism prevented me from relating to such a story.

The character Zara seemed equally as naive. I think we all smelled sexual slavery the minute her friend in Vladivostock started to chat her up about promising opportunities in the West. I have known plenty of such naive young people in my life, perhaps once was one, and can believe in such turns of events. But as a reader, as someone in the story, I could not invest my emotions in such circumstances. Was it more tragic that she was a prostitute or that she was duped into becoming one?

Something about this book reminded me of DH Lawrence, or the half of Lady Chatterley's Lover I read before I put that down (and still haven't retrieved it on the way to the WC). Perhaps it was the relative powerlessness of the female characters, and how the external world, represented by male characters, fenced in their decisions, their lives. Constance Chatterley goes from Clifford Chatterley to Mellors, the gamekeeper. Her life is defined by her relationships to two very different men. Aliide's world is, again, defined by her relationships to two different men -- her brother-in-law Hans Pekk and her husband Martin Truu. And Zara is actually a slave to men -- to her pimp and his clients. Was James Brown right when he sang, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"? And here I am, living in Estonian matriarchy, thinking it's always been the other way around.

Anyway, let's contrast that with Oksanen, a woman whose life is now fenced in not by men, but by the overwhelming success of this novel, and who will spend the rest of her writing career trying to live up to those great expectations, or trying to distance herself from it. It's a phenomenon I have known at a much smaller scale. I would love to read a book about a character like Oksanen. Maybe she could write one. Or maybe that would be a little bit too much like Reality TV.

teisipäev, detsember 04, 2012

the heiress

This time with no mustache.
When I first set foot on Estonian soil 10 years ago, the prime minister of this land was a man by the name of Siim Kallas. I didn't know that then, and the March 2003 elections brought to Stenbock House another man with a different disposition who I would come to recognize on sight. That man was named Juhan Parts. But this is not a post about Juhan Parts, though I know you all wish it was.

Anyway, Siim Kallas, a peculiarly likable fellow. He is one of the chosen few who never age. Go back to those photos of Kallas from the IME project in 1987 and he looks exactly the same. He's even got the same dapper mustache, which would look odd on any other fellow, but seems to suit him, in fact, I am afraid to know what he looks like without his trademark vüntsid.

I caught him once at a Lennart Meri Conference where the moderator butchered his name, referring to the gentleman with the two 'i's as "Sim." "Sim this," and "Sim that." I cringed everytime he said it, but Siim (rhymes with scheme) didn't wince once. Instead he went on and on about something that I cannot remember but sounding very intelligent and using hand gestures that signaled his self confidence to the audience.

Siim did his part during the EU accession referendum in 2003 by urging Estonians into voting yes by summoning the ghost of Kekkoslovakia, a derogatory term for Finland in the post-war, pre-EU years, where the president had to phone Moscow before deciding anything, even if he wanted to take a piss. In following years, Härra Kallas flew away to Brussels to become a commissioner of something (vice president for mobility and transport, thank you very much) and Tartu Mayor Andrus Ansip became the new face of the Reform Party and has been for the past seven years, leading Kallas' political baby through two successful elections.

But Kallas has another a baby, a biological one. And these days in Estonia her face is everywhere. Kallas' baby is not really a baby anymore. Her name is Kaja and she is 35 years old and she is very pretty. Of course, she has a sterling CV with accomplishments as a lawyer and businesswoman, ambition, intelligence, but she also happens to look really good, which is why magazines just can't help but make Kaja Kallas their cover girl. For weeks (months?) it seems that she has appeared on the cover of all printed material in the nation. The stories about her feed an intense public interest.

"Could she be Estonia's first female prime minister?" one tabloid even ventured to ask. Hmm. Could she? Even people who despise the current leader have confessed to me. "If she would run, I would vote for her."

Given the public's dissatisfaction with Mr. Ansip and his party's sinking approval ratings (just a point or two over the opposition Social Democrats and Centre partisans in the most recent poll), this regular Estonian magazine browser here has begun to smell a PR offensive. With the stench of Silvergate, and whistleblower Silver Meikar's expulsion from the party (an event that Kallas publicly distanced herself from), the ship of the current government is taking on water. Party investors stand to lose state capture opportunities. And an aging statesman (and there could be no finer a term for Siim Kallas) could see his political legacy as architect of Estonia's perpetual number one party tarnished. We are left to wonder, can his daughter and true political heir bail them all out?