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…

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