neljapäev, veebruar 10, 2011

the vanity of giustino

In the beginning, you just start writing. You write, and you write anything because anything is better than a blank page with its cursor blinking back at you. I started writing the second part of Minu Eesti, My Estonia, that same way — whatever came out, came out, and a lot of it stayed. Only later did the story begin to congeal and I could see it for what it was. But that was later, not at the beginning.

I wrote what became the prologue at Vello Vikerkaar's place in Nõmme. I stayed there for a day or two in December 2009, taking advantage of his hospitality and couch and free books and magazines. His wife Liina made me pasta and told me of how she had once hitchhiked to India. Terrific people, the Vikerkaars. This stay coincided with a photoshoot for Anne ja Stiil. It was just as one would imagine it, with makeup artists and stylists and lighting specialists.

Later I strolled over to the National Library on Tõnismägi to man the Petrone Print table at the Christmas Fair and sign autographs and listen to a recording of a cool jazz version of "Põgene, Vaba Laps" that was being played on repeat at a nearby booth. And while I was sitting there, listening to "Põgene, Vaba Laps," wiping the makeup from my face, I had to ask myself the question, how the hell did this kid from Long Island wind up writing a monthly column for a goddamn Estonian women's magazine?

It's not like it's a bad gig. I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out whatever it is that Estonian women want to read about. But, let's just say that when I was eight years old, lying on the grass outside my home, staring up at the stars, longing, dreaming, yearning, I never thought about being a columnist for an Estonian women's magazine. Not once. So it had to be fate, right? It was my fate to be their columnist. I tried the fate argument with Vikerkaar, but the cantankerous Canadian cuss wouldn't have any of it. He's one of these literary frontiersmen who still refuses to admit that someone else is driving the bus.

And that set the framework of My Estonia 2. It's a debate. Fate versus free will. The dreaming boy in the grass versus the columnist for an Estonian women's magazine. Which side are you on? Since it takes place in 2003, it's a story about a 24-year-old father to be trying to adjust to the realities of his new life in a foreign land and wondering if they are what he longed for. It's why the Estonian title of the book is "What do you want?" -- Mida sa tahad?

The reason there even is a second book is because I never finished the first one. I was hundreds of pages in, closing in on my deadline, and the publishing house hierarchy was asking, "When will it be finished?" And I realized that I was only half done, and if I had kept on like that, I would have wound up writing a 700-page opus about an 18-month period of my life. So there had to be a part two, if only to finish what I started with part one.

This begs the question: Will I write a 350-page book about every year of my life from now on? The answer is no. This is a two-time affair.


While I was writing the first part and, especially after I finished it and became alienated from it, as it seems a lot of writers become from their work, I developed a reading habit. I had always read before, but not like this. I was just devouring books. As soon as I finished one, I needed another, and so on. Some stayed with me, others went right through me, leaving little residue.

One that stayed with me was Epp's book, Kas süda on ümmargune? It's translated in English as Around the Heart in Eleven Years, but between us it's just known as "The Heart Book." The reason this book stayed with me is because I read it at least half a dozen times, as I helped to edit the English version. Epp plays with time and memory, the storyline leaps back and forth through the years, and it creates a sense of disorientation, of timelessness. I enjoyed this lack of linearity and wanted to apply some of it to the second part of My Estonia.

Another book that stayed with me is Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. After I wrote the first part, I developed a hunger for ex-pat fiction. So I looked up the regulars. Tried a little Hemingway. Delved into Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But bull fights and the riviera aren't exactly for me, if you know what I mean. Miller was far closer to my reality, and therefore easier to appreciate. He's known mostly for the obscenity trials. This was the man who carpet bombed his audience in the 1930s with the "c word," cunt that is, but I've never been roped in by a narrator like that. He was foul, at times, but he was also honest. And when you are frequenting the red light district of Paris, you have to be honest.

Plus, it was Miller who introduced me to the concept of the "fictional autobiography." And that is what this book is. It's nearly all true, and yet, it's a work of fiction. It must be, and you'll see why. But I bet that most autobiographies contain an element of fiction. People tend to not remember the same things the same way.

There were other books that served as guideposts: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, Tristessa by Jack Kerouac, The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell. Even Goldfinger by Ian Fleming. I am sure that if you squint at My Estonia 2, you can find traces of all these authors. I listened to Django Reinhardt while I wrote most of it, and revisited Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. So I had something in mind, but what was it?


There are many themes in this new book. Fate is certainly one of them, but the other is alienation, both from the country of origin and the new country. The main character returns to Estonia and tries to fit in there, even though he is deeply foreign, can't speak the language, doesn't get the humor, and can't even remember his new relatives' names. There is also the theme of alienation between people within Estonia, and how the narrator reacts to this different emotional climate.

Another theme is Europe and, especially, Estonia's new place in the pantheon of northern European countries as this limbo land – this gritty kid from the streets, to steal a line from Fletch — that has exited the post-Soviet orbit only to wake up to Scandinavian-style consumer culture. That's why a great number of the settings in this book are banks and office buildings and shopping centers. Those are the places where Estonians spend a lot of their time! When people hear "My Estonia" they think you are going to write a book about some old forest brother sitting in the woods somewhere reading Kalevipoeg. But Selver is just as Estonian as a song festival, isn't it?

There are other ways to look at this book, as a coming of age story, a clash of idealism versus reality, old versus new, past versus the future, America versus Estonia. Oh well. How much can you really write about a book that you wrote? That defeats the point of the book, doesn't it? I finished this book at our kitchen table on the day after Christmas, 2010, slightly over a year after I started it in Vello's living room. It's not easy to write a book when you have a full-time job and a family to look after. But I did it, and for that simple reason, I am satisfied. I hope readers are too. And since this book is due in stores on or around February 24th, it is dedicated to the Estonian people.

Elagu Eesti!

51 kommentaari:

LPR ütles ...

So Vello Vikerkaar is a real person?

Giustino ütles ...

I slept on his couch. He better be real.

Reine ütles ...


LPR ütles ...

Sounds like a stage name for somebody who prefers to stay anynomous. If he is real, more power to him. I got his book.

Priit Piimapukk

Anonüümne ütles ...

Will it be available on amazon as well? I'm well excited!

viimneliivlane ütles ...

Looking forward to the second book - enjoyed the first one tremendously.

Is Piimapukk for real? If so, how do they handle that in America?

Võlusaared ütles ...

Loved your first book and am introducing it to young adults and their parents, but older folks are really enjoying it as well! Keep on writing, I'm sure there's a three lurking there somewhere! Can't wait to get Number 2!

Võlusaared ütles ...

Loved Book Number One! Can't wait for number 2! And I'm sure there's a 3 lurking there somewhere...I am introducing 1 to young people and their parents - but older people really enjoy it as well. Great job!

stockholm slender ütles ...

Excellent news, congratulations Giustino! I enjoyed the first book very much, nice to see that there's a follow-up. Life is odd, isn't it, unpredictable. A chaotic process if any, I don't believe in fate, but I do believe in chance...

Christine ütles ...

I Believe In Fate

Timbu ütles ...

I gave the first book as a gift to my mom's husband, now he's hooked and collecting.

Nick ütles ...

Congratulations Justin. I was hoping for this to appear one day. I found your first book last summer by chance when visiting Saaremaa and absolutely loved it, cover and all. It's inspiring, entertaining and brilliantly written. Somewhat familiar as well. And it should be translated into Finnish.

Since you published your soundtrack for the right state, I'd like to praise another piece of expat autobiography. Along the enchanted way by William Blacker is simply great. When we're at it, well, Phillip O Ceallaigh should really be recommended as well.

Mardus ütles ...

The National Library is on Tõnismäe, not Toompea, which is where the Parliament and the Russian Orthodox Church and the Million-Moneys-Toilet (aka "miljonipeldik" & "miljonivets") are... In U.S. parlance, the Toilet to Nowhere :P

If you didn't know yet, then "vets" is derived from vee-tsee and that, in turn, is derived from WC :D

Pene ütles ...

I loved reading it, Justin.

Giustino ütles ...


Muidugi. But here is a question -- what is the real difference between Tõnismäe and Tõnismägi? I would say Tõnismägi. I have noticed some people say Lasnamäe and others say Lasnamägi.

LPR ütles ...

Maybe this helps:

Lasnamägi = Justin, Tallinn, mets, mina, sina

Lasnamäe = Justini, Tallinna, metsa, minu, sinu

LPR ütles ...

With all these 14 cases and staggered word endings and exceptions to exceptions one would think all estonians would be some kind of math geniuses ... but, most of us suck in math just like the rest of the world. What gives?

Giustino ütles ...

That makes grammatical sense, but on maps, for instance, it's referred to as Lasnamäe, not Lasnamägi.

I think the Tõnismägi/Tõnismäe issue may arise from the fact that the street there is called Tõnismägi. When I lived in Tallinn, people around me called it Tõnismägi, not Tõnismäe.

Mardus ütles ...


Well, all hail Wikipedia!

The English-language article about Tõnismägi has that Tõnismägi is both the street name and the hill, yet Tõnismäe is the subdistrict.

Declensions (some) should go like this:

* Nominative is always Tõnismägi
* Tõnismäe tänav
* Tõnismäe asum (subdistrict)
* Läksin Tõnismäele — may mean both ontop of that hill and/or the street.
* Yet: Lasnamäe is nominative for the city district, because it's a proper name in and of its own.

So, Mustamägi, Õismägi, and Lasnamägi only refer to mountains with those names (Born and raised in Tallinn, it always eludes me where those hills really are); Mustamäe, Õismäe, and Lasnamäe are actual city districts. You may know already that these three districts were Soviet-built and are sleeping areas. The three are sometimes referred to as "mäed", or "The Hills" or "The Mountains", but the former has a double entendre for those who know the MTV that doesn't play music videos anymore.

A similar district like that in Tartu is Annelinn. In the U.S. these may be known as "The Projects" — and lo and behold, the article even has a piccy of a historic piece of Mustamäe: That house and two others of the same fashion next to it were model Mustamäe housing landmarks in most all Soviet-era books about Tallinn and Estonia :)

Lingüista ütles ...

Well, as a linguist, what I have noticed (and a couple of times even actually read claimed as true) is that, for most city and village names, even though the nominative form ("Lasnamägi") 'does' exist, it tends to be interpreted literally ("Lasnamägi" sounds like an actual hill), whereas the genitive form ("Lasnamäe") is what most people would use to call the city even in non-genitive contexts.

So yes, you "should" say Lasnamägi on väga ilus and Lasnamäe tanav, but you "do" say also Lasnamäe on väga ilus. Probably because place names are so often in non-subject positions ("Lasnamäel") that the inflected, genitive form "feels" like the default form for that word.

(According to the description of Estonian I've looked at, the word "Tallinn" is actually an exception: if it followed this usage, it should be "Tallinna", but it isn't.)

From what Giustino says, I gather there are some people who do say "Lasnamägi" to mean the place, not the hill. Given my lack of contact with actual Estonian as spoken by Estonians in Estonia, I can't really say; it's just what I've read.

I'll ask the native speakers here: does my impression sound OK to you? Can you use "Lasnamäe" as a subject ("Lasnamäe on väga ilus"), and does this feel "better" (or "worse") than using "Lasnamägi"?

Lingüista ütles ...

From Mardus' last post, I gather my impression was correct: Lasnamägi, Tõnismägi are the hills (wherever they are), and Lasnamäe, Tõnismäe are the districts (even as subjects: Lasnamäe on ilus, etc.)

My source says that this is the influence of hearing these words more often in the locative form (where the genitive stem is used: Lasnamäel), so one "back-forms" an originally false neo-nominative "Lasnamäe" that replaces the 'originally correct' "Lasnamägi" and becomes the 'new correct' form for the nominative. One ends up with two words, "Lasnamäe" the district and "Lasnamägi" the hill. (Except both have the same locative form "Lasnamäel", which should therefore mean both "on Lasnamägi, the hill" and "in Lasnamäe, the district".)

Aren't languages fun? :-)

Troels-Peter ütles ...

Yes, they are :)

I wonder if this nominative used as a genitive also has to do with the difference between "terrain names" and "settlement names" that toponymists operate with.

It seems that in Estonian the genitive has become the way to derive a settlement name like Sillamäe from the terrain name Sillamägi so the name of the town means "bridge hill's (understood: town)".

That would explain why Tallinn is not a genitive form. It's already a settlement name by itself, "linn" denoting a town.

I know it was "Tallinna" in the very first years of independence, but this form was given up, possibly because it didn't reflect the actual usage.

notsu ütles ...

BTW, Tallinn is no longer an exception when we also take town district names in account: Pelgulinn, Annelinn, Hiinalinn...

notsu ütles ...

And sometimes I say "lasnamägi" just because it sounds funny. Like I sometimes declinate "õlle, õlle, õllet".

LPR ütles ...

This discussion reminds me a brief converstion at the Tartu University cafeteria in the fall of 1987 when Paul Ariste after hearing that I was from Türi, noted matter of factly: "i-mitmus eesti kohanimedes on haruldane". And then chuckled to himself, very contented.

This was his raunchy humour.

Linguista's comment aren't languages fun, brought back this sliver of memory of one of my many previous lives. Thank you.

Japung ütles ...

nice blog,..

viimneliivlane ütles ...

Not so funny about Türi as that one took me a while to digest - if you have gone to that town you do not say Türis but Türil. Go figure...

Mardus ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
viimneliivlane ütles ...

Just possibly we are over-analyzing declensions.

I ask - why didn't Tartu name their new sleeping district Annemäe?

viimneliivlane ütles ...

Just possibly we are over-analyzing declensions.

I ask - why didn't Tartu name their new sleeping district Annemäe?

Troels-Peter ütles ...

Yes, we're really off topic. What is the district actually called?

notsu ütles ...

Well, there is no actual "mägi" in or near Annelinn, it rather sits in the river valley - while Lasnamäe is obviously on a cliff and Mustamäe got its name from the hill that Nõmme people call "Mustamäe nõlv" and Mustamäe people call "Nõmme mägi". Don't know about Õismäe though.

Troels-Peter ütles ...

It sounds a bit Soviet, doesn't it? "Come to Estonia and settle in lovely Flower Hill".

viimneliivlane ütles ...

Some Tartu people call Annelinn Chicago which I suppose is easier to decline than -mägi or -linn.

plasma-jack ütles ...

The original Õismäe was a village formerly called Õisneeme, situated near the entrance of the open air museum (they might have more information about the etymology there). And the area commonly called Õismäe is officially Väike-Õismäe, although its much bigger than actual Õismäe.

Rainer ütles ...

"It sounds a bit Soviet, doesn't it? "Come to Estonia and settle in lovely Flower Hill"."

Oh? To me Õismäe (Bloom Hill) along with district called Lilleküla (Flower Village) have always sounded like potential hippie colonies.

caleb ütles ...

Hello, Giustino. Just finished reading My Estonia part 2 the other day. Now I have to find something else to do in my spare time. My wife sent me the ebook for valentines day :) I think I enjoyed Part 1 much more. Part 1 reminded me more about Evelin and Estonia. Part 2 reminded me of myself.... I laughed so many times... yet, it was bitter sweet. I moved to a new apartment just because I knew I couldnt handle my dad's criticism when he would come to visit me for the first time. "The shower is in the kitchen and the toilet is in the hallway!?!?" eh, too bad... I liked kooli tanav. well, except for the schizophrenic old lady across the hall who would scream all day.

Rainer ütles ...

I nearly laughed my ass off reading the part where Jüri Kuuskemaa refers to Justin as "Mr. Timberlake". Too funny to imagine.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Flower Village district borders with New World in Tallinn. Nice.

Troels-Peter ütles ...

"The original Õismäe was a village formerly called Õisneeme"

I rest my case, then. Nothing Soviet about that.

Except that "-mäe" seems to have become a generic name for Eastern Bloc(k) quarters.

Rainer ütles ...

"Except that "-mäe" seems to have become a generic name for Eastern Bloc(k) quarters".

You live in the wonderworld of stereotypes, don't you?

plasma-jack ütles ...

"The original Õismäe was a village formerly called Õisneeme"

I rest my case, then. Nothing Soviet about that.

Indeed - the name Õisneeme was first found in a XVII century document. More like post-Gustavus-Adolphus kind of thing.

Troels-Peter ütles ...

"You live in the wonderworld of stereotypes, don't you?"

Rainer, you're definitely over-interpreting what I wrote. I'm well aware that -mäe is en old ending of Estonian place names like I wrote further above.

I was merely looking for an explanation why the quarter, built in Soviet times, was renamed from -neeme to -mäe, since there's no hill anyway.

Since we're already off topic and this is mostly for fun I don't see why I shouldn't make such a suggestion without being accused by you for living in a world of stereotypes.

I'm sad that you have taken this liberty towards me, and since you don't know me, I suggest that you go to my blog and find my mail address, and we'll continue the discussion there.

The trouble of discussing in writing is that it's easy to misunderstand the intention of each other, thereby taking all to seriously what others write.

This does not excuse not assuming good faith, though.

Rainer ütles ...

"Since we're already off topic and this is mostly for fun I don't see why I shouldn't make such a suggestion without being accused by you for living in a world of stereotypes."

I really got you good, didn't I?
My intention was not to hurt your feelings. If that is what I did, I'm sorry. But allow me to explain myself.

I am fed up to my teeth with foreigners, who point at things in Estonia, repeating "Soviet, soviet, soviet" because being once part of the Soviet Union is the only thing the (think) they know about Estonia. They try to explain any difference between Estonia and their own country with this Soviet connection, because they can't be bothered to familiarise themselves with what this country really is about. And God forbid should something threaten their fake sense of superiority. There are all sorts of losers with self-esteem issues out there. I am sure you are not one of them.

Back to the subject at hand: if -mägi is Soviet in nature, how come there are -mägis only in Tallinn, and nowhere else?

Troels-Peter ütles ...

"I really got you good, didn't I?"

Yes, well, things just got a little ad hominem there... I just didn't get how what I wrote could be read that way.

It's all a bit silly since it has nothing to do with Justin's post or his book. Somehow the discussion turned to placenames which I think are interesting.

My interest in Estonia goes back to 1983. A funny interest for a child, I know. I remember reading about it in a book by Andres Küng and even telling my playmates about the occupation. They couldn't really relate to it, though...

Things got easier for Estophiles with the liberation in 1991. I must admit that I waited to feel happy until the Supreme Soviet recognised it on September 6th. Then there was no turning back.

"I am fed up to my teeth with foreigners, who point at things in Estonia, repeating 'Soviet, soviet, soviet'"

I thought that might be the issue. And I understand that. Actually it even bothers me to see the Alekandr Nevskij cathedral as a symbol of Tallinn in tourist brochures (although it dates from tsarist times) since the other churches of Tallinn are much more typical of the country. It was quite emotional for me to see Saint Olaf's church from the ship the first time I arrived from Finland.

Anyway, since both Lasnamäe, Mustamäe and Õismäe date from Soviet times, and there's no hill at the latter, I was simply wondering if the Soviets could have made up the name to conform with the other concrete quarters. "Hill" makes it sound attractive. If that's the case I suppose they were just inspired by the two others. I don't know.

Rainer ütles ...

"Actually it even bothers me to see the Alekandr Nevskij cathedral as a symbol of Tallinn in tourist brochures (although it dates from tsarist times) since the other churches of Tallinn are much more typical of the country."

You are not alone.
I think the infatuation with the Alexander Nevsky cathedral can be explained with similar logic mentioned above - to many foreigners Soviet Union = Russia, so when they come to Estonia, they actually expect to see, well, Russia. And when they don´t, they get confused, disappointed, even angry. So when they finally see the AN, they literally drool all over it. They don´t care if it has very limited historical and artistic value, or if it is at odds with its surroundings. The rest matters little.
For those people Oleviste Church just isn´t exotic enough.

Rainer ütles ...

"Anyway, since both Lasnamäe, Mustamäe and Õismäe date from Soviet times, and there's no hill at the latter, I was simply wondering if the Soviets could have made up the name to conform with the other concrete quarters."

That would be my guess, too.

Mardus ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Mardus ütles ...

@Rainer, et al.

Did some research... Now, Õismäe is actually the name of a small village (population in 2008 was 852) in Haabersti and the concrete subdistrict we all know about is officially known as Väike-Õismäe (population 27,697 in 2008). Whilst the whole district is officially Haabersti, it is colloquially known as Õismäe, AFAIK.

While Õismäe does not have any noticeable hills, then a ride from the city centre to Rocca al Mare follows a kind of upward movement, so I guess topologically the area should be on higher plains. Same with Mustamäe, when riding up Sõpruse boulevard from the Centre; one will noticeably ascend between Lepistiku and Vambola bus stops. In Haabersti, Mäeküla ("Mountain/Hill-village") is also in the vicinity, so I guess this, too, should be the justifying cue for -mäe, along with the village name.

Õismäe (or, rather, Haabersti) is also one of the few districts that is typically known for mostly Väike-Õismäe, while other Haabersti sub-districts are known separately, like Rocca al Mare, Astangu, Kakumäe, Tiskre (where some of Estonia's nouveau-riche live), Veskimetsa and others. Well, just like the Centre of Tallinn has its own well-known subdistricts (like the Old Town, for example).

I don't know about the wide expanse that is Lasnamäe, but Mustamäe's subdistricts don't seem to have their own separate and historical identities, or that they aren't as pronounced as the subdistricts of Õismäe (Haabersti) and the Centre.

I found a mistake, so had to delete the previous comment and re-post this.

Troels-Peter ütles ...

Now, that would explain tings in an easy way. Thanks for an informative comment.

Unknown ütles ...

I enjoyed your book very much, I found especially funny the part about the apartment in old town :D I just laughed and laughed until I was out of breath
but I wonder why you didn't consider "the hills"? they are at least clean and have central heating and good infrastructure.