Thursday, April 21, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

(Pencil drawing by Viestarts Aistars, "Rita pardomas" or "Morning Daydream")

The musky, moist flavor of a night
in your arms
still on my tongue,
eyes wander out the office window.
Mondays move that way.
With the lazy float
of a fall leaf.
Reluctant to hit ground,
dance on a loose breeze
a moment more, zag, swirl, sweep,
just a while
longer. I resist

giving myself
to the cuffing
of an hourly tick
of work
well done,

still seduced and honeyed over
by time spare, easy, slipping
loose like the fall of a well worn shirt
from a bare shoulder.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Walking in Beauty

by Zinta Aistars

Calvin Hill’s Journey from a Navajo Reservation in Arizona to the ministry of the Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Published as a cover story in the November 2004 issue of Encore magazine.

All Calvin Hill ever wanted as a boy was to grow up to be a good shepherd of sheep.

But then one day a huge iron dog leapt over the rocky rim of the Canyon de Chelly mesa in Arizona, speeding towards the horrified Navajo children on the other side. At least, to the little Navajo boy, that is what it seemed to be—an iron dog of monstrous proportions. Across the side of this silvery beast, after all, was the silhouette of a black dog. But the speed of its approach, its thunderous noise, the shadows of human beings inside, all were something Calvin Hill had never seen before in his eight or so years on this earth. He had never seen a bus. He did not understand the hieroglyphics on its side that spelled “Greyhound.” He was Navajo, and he spoke Navajo along with Hopi and Zuni, but the language spoken by the men with white faces emerging from the iron dog was strange to his ears. He cried out to them in his Navajo tongue, but they answered in their own, pushing and shoving the children towards the bus, hitting them with wooden paddles when they froze in terror, or hung on to their elders for protection.

“But my grandmother only said to me,” Calvin Hill recalls, “‘now it is your turn.’”

Well over three decades have passed since that day, but Calvin, today the reverend of Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, touches his forehead as if the scar there still pulsed with pain. When the wooden paddle in the white missionary’s hand struck the forehead of the terrified boy, the skin had split and bled. He had pleaded with the white man not to hit him, had pleaded with him to speak to him so that he could understand, but it seemed to the boy that the man’s tongue was defective.

“I had never seen a white man before,” he says. “I had never seen a tie around a man’s neck, and I thought it must be his tongue, hanging long and black down his chest, and that that was why he could not speak Navajo so that I could understand.”

The missionary, however, was speaking English, and the Navajo boy was herded onto the bus with the other children, who threw themselves against the windows with their cries so that Calvin believed the great iron dog must have been digesting them. Helpless, the Navajo mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, watched as their children were taken away, not to return home again for years. They were to be taught English and the Christian faith in special Indian boarding schools run by the missionaries. Calvin watched from the window of the bus as his grandmother, wiping her tears with the hem of her skirt, grew to a tiny dot in the distance. The United States government had passed a bill requiring the education and assimilation of the Navajo children into the white man’s ways.

Calvin explains, “From that time on, we were not allowed to speak our own language. We were told that Navajo was a satanic language, and we were punished if we were ever caught speaking it. The ways of our culture were strictly forbidden.”

That meant that the Navajo children, as soon as they got off the bus, were stripped of everything that signified their culture. Boys who had not had their hair cut since birth had their long gleaming black braids cut short against their skulls. The children had to exchange the clothes to which they were accustomed—woven blankets worn as ponchos, pants made of natural fibers—for the synthetic materials of the white man. Instead of bare feet, or the gunny cloth they were accustomed to wearing on their feet, the children had to wear shoes for the first time in their lives. Uncomfortable and itching in his unaccustomed apparel, little Calvin soon developed a rash that spread across his skin.

“The rash was so bad, that the missionaries brought me to a clinic, and I was given an ointment to apply to my legs.” That, he says, is when the sexual abuse began. Along with the emotional abuse, the constant shaming of his ethnic roots and the forced separation from his family and home, this was how Calvin Hill and other Navajo children were introduced to the Western Christian culture. He was no longer addressed by name, but called, simply, number 66.

“For the next two and a half years, I answered to a number. I was forced to wear clothes like white people wore—a white shirt, a tie, wing-tipped shoes, and a beanie cap. I was told I could not see my family until I introduced myself by saying ‘hello, I am Calvin Hill, I’m a Christian Navajo.’”

It was 2 ½ years before Calvin could return to the Navajo reservation where he was born. He was allowed short visits during that time, but always accompanied by one of the watchful missionaries. The beanie cap had to remain on his shorn head, but the tie and the shoes came off as soon as he was back on the reservation. He was not allowed to go home for the holidays, but that, he says, was of little meaning to a Navajo boy who felt no attachment to Christian holidays, only longed for the celebrations of his own culture.

“I was not given a choice to become assimilated into the culture of the missionaries,” he says. “I was institutionalized. I learned to speak English, and I learned about Christian theology because it meant survival. But I was a little boy full of hatred and anger. In my heart, I was Navajo.”

Along with beatings, young Calvin received instruction on how to read and write in English. The Navajo language, he explains, is not a written language, but one that is passed on in the oral tradition of storytelling. Wisdom of the elders, history, and lessons are all told by one generation to the next. Calvin struggled to learn to speak, read, and write this new language, not realizing that he was handicapped by dyslexia. He was put into special education classes when he couldn’t keep up with other children, and he was told that he was “retarded” in his ability to learn.

While being told in one of the worlds that he straddled that he was slow to learn, in his other world, his native one, Calvin was part of a proud tradition of medicine men. His grandfather was chosen by the elders, his father was chosen, as was he. “A vision is given to the elders,” he explains, “no one knows who will be chosen until given this vision. My father became a Presbyterian minister, but he always kept his two lives blended.” Calvin points to a photograph on the wall of his living room that shows his father—a minister wearing a turquoise colored bandana around his head, his long hair pulled into a ponytail beneath it. It is a tradition that the son, too, holds close to his heart, blending his two cultures.

“It was a long time before I could let go of the anger in me,” he says. But there was something in the Christian tradition that he could accept. While resisting the doctrines of Christian theology, he embraced the idea of the Christian faith. The boy in the Indian boarding school was given a picture of what he was told was the Christ figure he must accept as his own. In the picture he saw a white man with blue eyes and blonde hair, so unlike his own dark skin and darker hair. He longed for his glossy black braids, for his grandmother had taught him they were a blessing from his creator, a symbol of what came from the heavens and ran like rain towards the earth below. The three plaits of hair symbolized the intertwined mind, body, and spirit of a man. When they were braided together, it was a symbol of balance and harmony.

“I could not believe that the Christ the missionaries taught me about was a God who had died for only one elite group of people. I did not accept their doctrine. I was not a Christian by their terms—but I did become a follower of Christ.”

The boy returned to the Navajo reservation, grown older, taller, and wiser. In his heart, he kept what was good, and struggled to leave behind the rest. Like his father, he found ways to combine the world of the Navajo with the world of the white man. Now in his teens and back among his family, he let his hair grow long again. He was no longer “66,” but Calvin again, and he found that an education had meaning for him.

“I resisted the teachings of the missionaries,” he says, “and I challenged them. But I found a faith that connected me to God. I had to let go of the anger, because it was hindering my relationship with God and with other people.”

When Calvin was 14 years old, he faced yet another test of his strength and faith. He watched helplessly as his father, riding a tractor with a backhoe attached for digging a grave—as a minister he was also in charge of his church’s burial grounds—fell beneath the machinery when a part of the backhoe accidentally detached. His father’s back was broken in three places. Calvin was helpless to save him, but his hero status in his son’s eyes would remain lifelong. His father had been one of over 400 Navajos who had served in the United States military as a “code talker,” speaking a coded Navajo to transmit secret messages in combat. He had served in every branch of the military before Native Americans were yet given the right of United States citizenship. (See sidebar below.)

It was around this time in his life that Calvin took up bull riding. Part of a rodeo that took him on nationwide travels, he won many trophies, earning money for college. He was the first of his family to earn degrees from higher education institutions. Bull riding in the Midwest and later attending school here, he met Sheri-Ann, an Ojibwa woman whose family was from the Upper Peninsula but had grown up in the Detroit area. Calvin earned degrees from Calvin Bible College, the Reformed Bible College, and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He is currently studying simultaneously for his master’s and doctorate degrees in a dual program of theology and cross cultural studies at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

Once again, in the classroom Calvin was challenged on his learning abilities and would encounter prejudices against his Navajo roots. “I was told I was too ignorant. I questioned the doctrines I was taught, and I was forced to repeat classes I didn’t need. When I wrote papers stating that the Christian faith was for all people of all races and ethnicity, I was given bad grades. But when I transferred to another school, my grades immediately went up.”

Calvin laughs amiably now at the questionable practices of his educational advisors. But he wasn’t laughing then. He admits: becoming the leader of churches in Michigan has worked as a kind of therapy for him, making peace with his God and with his enemy—the white man. The irony of being a spiritual leader to congregations of almost entirely white people has not escaped him.

“Again and again,” he says, “God led me to these churches. No matter how much I wanted to return to the Navajo reservation in Arizona, life led me here to Michigan. Three times I returned to the reservation, but each time I would receive a call to return here.”

Calvin has started and led over 40 churches in the Midwest. Starting new churches and planting the seeds for new congregations, he says, is easier than to nurture them to growth, but in each one he has left such seeds of compassion for one’s fellow man, care for the abused and neglected, and a deep appreciation for beauty in life.

“I don’t want anyone to feel alone when suffering from abuse,” he says. “No one needs to live alone with injustice.”

If the churches where Calvin ministered were initially reluctant to accept him, his congregations warmed to the peace and compassion emanating from him towards the common man. His Navajo roots seem to bring something to the white man’s world that has too often been missing in the rushed, modern life of so many.

“Western life has led to great frustration,” he says. “People have pursued physical beauty while ignoring the richer beauty of an inner kind, the wholeness of body and mind and soul as one. We have pursued material things and live in big houses with televisions in every room, but in truth, we are more alone than ever, caught in our own misery. We are out of balance and feel a loss of harmony as we drift away from our creator and the abundance of the earth around us.”

Abundance comes, Calvin repeats in a soothing voice, abundance comes. Walking in beauty is a concept rooted deeply in the Navajo culture, and it means to walk with your Creator, partnering with God as co-creators, and embracing the wholeness, even the ambivalence of all things that are life.

“The Navajos recognize that life has in it all things and so we must accept all things. That in beauty, there is also that which is evil; and with happiness comes sadness, as with life there comes death. To live an abundant life, we must feel and accept it all. We cannot escape the sadness. A full life means to accept all that is offered in balance.”

To achieve that balance in his life, Calvin Hill returns annually to the Navajo reservation of his youth. With him go his wife and three of his seven children. Two are grown, two live on the reservation permanently. Calvin’s grandmother awaits their arrival.

“My grandmother has seen six generations of our family,” he says with pride. “She is over one hundred years old now, although we don’t know exactly by how many years. She talks to us about her memories of Geranimo. She tells us about the days of the cavalry. She reminds our children about the history of our people, the Long Walk, a journey of 300 miles in the 1800’s when the Navajo were forced to march by soldiers, when the aged, the weak, and even pregnant women who could not keep up were shot by the soldiers. She remembers and she helps us remember.”

All of Calvin Hill’s children speak the Navajo language. They all enjoy the stories their elders tell them, and the tradition of storytelling continues. An unlikely venue for storytelling sometimes appears in the letters Calvin writes to their schools to explain the occasional absence.

“Their mother may write the reason for an absence,” Calvin chuckles. “But I may write a story or a poem about the day. The teachers keep my letters.”

Playing the flute, an instrument he made himself, Calvin also entertains crowds at the occasional Art Hop in Kalamazoo, or in a classroom at a local school, or at a community gathering, recounting ancient Navajo legends between the sweet sounds of his music. If he is the spiritual leader of the Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church, he is equally a medicine man, counseling those who come to him for guidance. He takes part in area pow-wows, putting on the colorful clothing of his native people. His long braids have not been cut since his high school years, but the hair at his temples has been trimmed so that, he says, he can wear the feathered headdress with ease. The turquoise earrings he wears have been passed down to him over the centuries, generation to generation.

Someday Calvin Hill plans to return to the Navajo reservation in Arizona and stay. It is home, he says. It is where he belongs, where he is not required to prove himself and where his values are not questioned. He can be what he is and what he was meant to be: the boy who was meant to grow up to be a shepherd of sheep, but who grew up to be a man who leads people of two very different worlds towards a better understanding of one another—and to walk together in beauty.

SIDEBAR - Navajo Culture and History

The Navajo people, or Dine (pronounced Di-neh), believe that the Creator made the world, the humans and the beasts that inhabit it, to live in harmony, balance, and peace. Every part of the natural world is interconnected with every other part, and when all work together, harmony is achieved. When this interconnectedness is broken, harmony is lost.

The Navajo are the largest tribe of North American Indians, having traveled from Northwestern Canada and Alaska to the southwestern part of the United States during the 15th century, where they settled near the Pueblo Indians. Today, the Navajo reservation, called Navajoland, covers about 14 million acres of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, including the Canyon de Chelly National Park, Monument Valley, Little Colorado River, the Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the Navajo National Monument, Bistri Badlands, the Petrified Forest National Park, and many other areas of value both historically and in terms of natural beauty.

More than 200,000 people live in the reservation today, although the Navajo population had been decimated to a mere 8,000 during the 1860’s, when the United States government destroyed much of their settlements and drove many of the Navajo people on what is now known as the Long Walk. The United States army, led by Kit Carson, drove the Navajo from their land, surrounded by their four sacred mountains, to Fort Sumner. Hundreds of Navajo died during the Long Walk The weak, the very young, and the elderly were shot on the trail if they were unable to keep up.

Calvin Hill, a Navajo from Arizona, who today is the Reverend at Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church, recalls the stories his grandmother passed down to younger generations about the Long Walk. “She told us about babies who cried in their mother’s arms because they were hungry. The soldiers dug up anthills along the path and threw the babies into them, leaving the babies to die. Those too sick or too hungry to keep up were shot and left on the trail. And yet in history books and in movies, it is the Navajo who are called savages…”

The Navajo were allowed to return to their land by the Treaty of 1868 after four years of torment. Today, the reservation is governed by the Navajo Nation Council, the largest Native American government in the United States. It embodies an elected tribal president, a vice president, and 88 council delegates who represent 110 local chapters of government. The Council meets regularly at Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo nation. One of their goals is to achieve economic self-sufficiency, while preserving their own traditional value and culture.

The Navajo are a deeply spiritual people whose traditions and language are passed down generation to generation through the art of storytelling, dance, and art. At the end of every summer, the Navajo Nation Fair, the world’s largest American Indian fair, is held in Window Rock, Arizona. More than 100,000 people attend the five-day festival that includes an intertribal pow wow, rodeos, horse races, arts and crafts exhibits, livestock exhibits, parades, a carnival, and various contests and competitions.

With the tourist trade being of such importance to economic self-sufficiency, the Navajo exhibit and sell their jewelry and artwork throughout the reservation. The Navajo are known for their unique silversmithing, woven blankets and rugs, and baskets that are not only beautiful but have stories woven into their designs.

Placed prominently in front of the hearth in the Hill home is a basket given to Calvin and his bride Sheri-Ann on their wedding day. It is a reminder of where they have been and what will sustain their marriage lifelong. Parts of the design signify the four sacred mountains surrounding the Navajo reservation, Calvin explains, while its center signifies the place from which all human beings emerged, surrounded by symbols of earth and sky. While some of the design shows areas of troubles that the married couple must overcome in their life together, other parts of the design signify harmony and the love of family.

Navajos are also known for their jewelry, intricate silver designs, often combined with turquoise and black onyx. Turquoise holds ceremonial significance to the Navajo because of their belief that it was brought up to the earth from the underworld with the first man. It is used not only for decoration but also in various ceremonial rituals. While it is believed that the Navajo began working with turquoise sometime after their return from Fort Sumner, where they were forced to live after the Long Walk, their silversmithing began around the middle of the 19th century, melting down American silver dollars and Mexican pesos for their metal.

“Sand painting has become almost a lost art,” Calvin says of another Navajo art form that he still practices. “My father and grandfather taught me how to create sand paintings, but today almost no one does it correctly,” he says. Once made for ceremonial purposes only, today they are often made with the tourist trade in mind. Where they once represented only sacred ceremonies and symbols, depicting the Holy People, now parts of the original designs are used in decorating figures, nameplates, and vases.

Most everything in the Navajo culture has spiritual roots. Different religions, including Christianity, are now incorporated into ancient traditions, but the Navajo people still strive to remain true to their traditions of a life balanced in harmony with others and with the earth.

SIDEBAR - The Navajo Code Talkers

By 1942, as World War II raged in Europe, Philip Johnston was too old to serve in the military—but he had an idea about helping in the war effort. The attack on Pearl Harbor had decimated the Pacific fleet. American allies Britain and France were suffering under heavy German bombing. Secret American battle plans were being deciphered by enemy forces prior to being carried out, resulting in the loss of many lives. With Japanese cryptographers expert at deciphering secret military codes, communications had to be more secure, and Johnston had an idea about using a language as code that he was sure could not be deciphered by enemy forces.

Johnston was a civil engineer and the son of a Protestant missionary. He had grown up on the Navajo reservation and had learned to speak the native language of the Navajo children, even though speaking it had been forbidden. He knew it was a complex language with words that would change meaning with the smallest variation in inflection. He knew it was a language without an alphabet, not written down on paper, but only passed on from person to person. Almost no one outside of the Navajo reservation could speak it.

Johnston returned to the reservation to find Navajos who could speak English with as much ease as their own language. He brought them along to Camp Elliott, a Marine base near San Diego, California, to demonstrate to the military staff how the Navajo language could easily be manipulated to translate into a kind of code a typical military field order. Sending these experimental messages from one Navajo to another, placed in separate rooms, quickly proved to the Marine officers that the Navajo language was perfect for creating an unbreakable yet accurate code.

Marine recruiting personnel came to the Navajo reservation looking for more recruits that could speak both English and Navajo. They also had to be in excellent physical shape so that they could serve as messengers in combat. Two hundred Navajo were enlisted and sent to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. They were to serve in the United States and overseas.

At Camp Pendleton, the new Navajo recruits devised a military code from the Navajo language. A group of 29 Navajo worked to create this code that to this day has not been fully understood by any save these native Navajo speakers. Code words were short and easy to learn, although indecipherable to Japanese cryptographers. A 26-letter phonetic alphabet was created using Navajo names for various animals and birds along with whole word substitutions for some sounds. A small English vocabulary was used in combination with Navajo equivalents for the English words. The result was so simple yet effective that no one but the Navajo could break the code.

As for the Navajo recruits, they proved themselves highly capable and dependable in combat. They gained respect for their strength and endurance, their scouting and tracking ability, and their ability to live in the sparsest conditions.

Over the duration of World War II, 421 Navajo code talkers served in every branch of the military. They participated in major Marine assaults, including Iwo Jima, the Solomons, and Peleliu. More than 800 messages were sent and received at Iwo Jima by the code talkers without a single error, ensuring victory and saving lives.

Using a language that had been forbidden but a short time before on the Navajo reservation, these men served a country that at that time had not yet given them the rights and privileges of citizenship. It was not until December 1971, that President Richard M. Nixon presented the Navajo code talkers with a certificate of appreciation, thanking them for their service to the United States.

Monday, April 18, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

(Portrait of Zinta by Viestarts Aistars)

We speak quietly of the dreams dreamt
but by harsh morning light – gone.
We speak of the wonder of innocence,
that sharp intake of breath
when first you see pale naked flesh,
press palm to breast, sip nectar
between parted lips, whisper
promises into the pulsing shadow -
there, at the base of her neck.

Was there a first time?
Now it seems fool’s gold,
a mirage that beckons
but shimmers ever one step
beyond the one you take.

Young, you longed for the wine
of experience, of knowledge,
of accumulated victory –
the more, the better.

Older, you long for the balm
of a single truth, one fine oasis
in the endless desert
that withstands your shadow,
how very close you stand,
breathing it in and it you,
and you no longer caring
about all that you will never know.

At last, it is enough.
It is enough.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Act of Drowning

by Zinta Aistars

(Pencil drawing, "Woman in Waves," by Viestarts Aistars.)

She is born of the foam, the spittle and spume
of the sea, sand grit collecting in the seashell coils
of her ears, pearls tucked inside the pink of her palms.

This is the baptism of her father's desire,
his washing into and through her mother
earth, globe of molten fire at core,
and a narrow hope renewed.

Her father's gentle and most tender
violence, a passion veiled
by night and broken stars
littering the black bowl,
the soup of midnight sky,

and weeping, weeping an endless grief,
a blistering burn of sorrow,
a longing luminous and lasting
through the thrum and split
of the heart breaking open like overripe fruit

too long in the sun.
Such is love.

Echoed, recalled,
of the kind that drowns
and leaves the lungs gasping for air,
for the salt of the earth,
begging for benediction.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Shadow Crossing

by Zinta Aistars

Shadows cross –
days that ache with days
that sparkle seam to seam,
edge to edge, wake to sleep.
I lean
my shadow day on the shoulder
of your gem day, and you spill
sparkle across my shadow
so that the mud of my shadow
squelches to the ground, absorbed,
dissipated, dissolved, and returned
to me a new brand and color
of light, the kind of light
that spreads yellow like melted
butter, for the sweet and the salty
of being me being with you.
The we of us. The us who
have begun to walk
the same pace, a matched gait,
my one and a half
to your long stride,
my spoon to your ladle,
your trademark Guinness black
coffee mug clinked up against
my black witchy mug of the maiden
dreamer, sitting on a crescent moon
white light sliver, white gown
flowing, flowing, like the words
we trade, words that bust walls,
words that build walls
around us, shatter between us,
from secret words, planning words,
journey words, trip over words,
bubbling and foaming, frothing
words, earth trembling and shaking
and moving words, sugar words
whispered between the shiny space
between clouds, the mortar between
bricks of the stone fortress around
us. All of those kinds of weapon
words, dam broken and open river
of words that wash shadows
clean from the river bed
so long run dry.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Writer's Wrack

by Zinta Aistars

The words staple me in place.
Hands to pen to paper.
Wedged between the edges
of page after page,
a syllable of angst
slip sliding and always

just just just

out of reach.

How it tantalizes.
Tease. Flirt that it is,
the word that tickles
on the brain, under the chin,
tongue tip,
behind the collar,
between the breasts—
ants in pants.

Caught beneath a finger nail
like a sliver of sharp pain,
red rash spreading at that point,
middle back, between the blades,
where the scratch

won’t reach.

Be still, you flea, for just this
Be mine, you, now,
held firm in my penned grasp.
Precise. Clear. Bull’s eye.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

Tell the pattern –
tap of new rhythms,
secrets slipping spools,
sacred mysteries escaping traps,
the accumulation of minutes,
hours, days, weeks, months, years
becoming a multi-layered
and infinitely starred universe,
a bursting cornucopia of flame,
a tangle of sweet, a web of sour,
thread weaving through thread,
fabric of endless sky,
unfolding tapestry, blended weave:
here is you, here I am,
and where the dance begins,
there is the elastic hope –
in this, the colors won’t clash.

History filtered through future,
today a mist passing over all,
tomorrow becoming a fast yesterday.
And here you are, in that
yesterday, and here,
today sliding instantly
out of a knot of loosened
tomorrows, there, now here,
here, you, and
still holding my hand.

The tangle this – that you, the savior,
are also my downfall,
the cure held out in
the same soft hand
that knifes my throat.
My comfort is where the pain
takes first blooded root,
and healing happens
by the entry of a wound.

Inflict your love then,
like a slap and thrust,
may I be throttled
by affection, whipped by your devotion,
comfort offered in an executioner’s
stranglehold, to be salved
by your sudden and most tender approach-
I cannot take this road without you.

No one bleeds you like those you love,
no one loves like those who bleed.

(Photo of Zinta taken in Barra de Navidad, Mexico)

Monday, April 04, 2005

Interview with Zinta on Insolent Rudder

Zinta Aistars was interviewed by literary ezine "Insolent Rudder", January - March 2003 issue. Zinta talks about being a bilingual writer, and about her upcoming compilation of travel essays. A version of this interview was aired on February 28, 2003 and again on March 10, 2003 on WMUK, 102.1 FM, a National Public Radio affiliate station.

Q: Zinta, you’re a multicultural writer… tell us about that. What does it mean to your writing, what kind of voice does that give a writer?

A: Being bilingual gives me two voices, and then – it gives those voices a wider range. Although I am born in the United States, my parents came here as refugees during World War II from Latvia during its occupation by the Soviets, and so I grew up with the Latvian language spoken at home, and learned English as I began to attend school. Latvian is one of the oldest languages still in use, and it is part of a very rich and old culture. I hold citizenship in both countries – one of birth and one of ancestry – and have lived parts of my life in both. There are times that I feel as if I have this split identity… almost as if I turn into one person when I am living in this little country on the Baltic Sea, where I braid my hair and go to an open-air market every day, draw water from the river to cook and wash my clothes by hand (not that every place in Latvia is like this! Indeed, Riga, the capital, is a very modern and vibrant European city since the Soviet occupation dissolved in 1991, but to live in other towns and villages, out in the country, can be like stepping back in time), and then I turn into another person when I am living in the States. I move faster, I dress differently, my perspective on life takes a different angle. But this is the wealth of having my roots in two places. This is the blessing. It is as if I have more than one set of eyes, more than one way to perceive life and the world around me. And I can tell the stories of both places with different voices.

Q: And are there disadvantages?

A: Certainly. You will see that, too, in my writing. A frequent theme is one of wanderlust, an endless, lifelong search for Home. Wherever I am, I am not fully at home. Wherever I am, there is another home that I am missing. And wherever I am… I am something of an outsider. Not quite fully of that place.

Q: How do you resolve this?

A: I don’t know that I have. It may be that all my life, I will be searching for Home. I think that is common to people who have grown up straddling two or more cultures. If I have resolved it, then it is by learning, over the years, that I may never truly find Home in place, but I can find it in people. In the hearts of my family and cherished friends. My roots are in hearts instead of in soil.

I have also tried to resolve it, or at least deal with it, in travel essays that I write. I travel frequently for my work – I am writer and editor for LuxEsto, the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine – and on these travels I interview alumni, search out their stories for the successes that being graduates of a school that is known for its exceptional study abroad program has brought them. Many of them tell stories about how being exposed to different cultures has transformed their lives – and I can certainly identify with that! But as I write their stories, I often end up writing my own on the side. I long ago discovered that physical travel is never just about traversing physical geography. Travel always means a simultaneous inner journey, an exploration of an inner landscape, even as one sightsees the wonders of the world. How you see the world around you and how you experience it says something about you. And travel means leaving your own comfort zone. It challenges your definition of self. It tests your limits, your skills to survive in places that are new and strange to you. I would end up with stories for the alumni magazine, but then have these completely different journeys to describe – side by side – for other publications. Travel writing has become one of my favorite genres.

Q: Perhaps a book?

A: You’ve been rummaging around on my desk, haven’t you? Yes, a book. That’s my goal. A compilation of travel essays that describes that simultaneous exploration of both inner and outer landscapes. Add into that the landscape of a relationship… because often my travel companion is fellow writer and love, J. Conrad Guest, and you can really get some fireworks on the road. There are few better tests of a relationship than traveling – and writing – together.

Q: Can we get a sneak peek at any of these travel essays?

A: You can! Some of them are posted on a website called (, some have been published in Encore magazine. Most are not yet in print, however, the ones that pull hardest on my heartstrings and thus my writer-muscle. I’ve also written stories, poetry, and countless articles, essays, reviews – and these often deal with the same terrain, just in a different mode of transportation, so to speak.

Q: Any books already published?

A: Three. But you’ll have to know Latvian to read those. The travel essay compilation is my first major book project in English. That in itself, you might say, is a journey…