Monday, August 18, 2008

Mara Zalite (1952 -): Voice of Blood

Published in Her Circle Ezine, April 22, 2008

by Zinta Aistars

Words splash at my feet,

the voice of my blood talks, whispers and

fills the chambers.

Glittering river.

Here, I am.

~ from the poem, “Language,” by M. Zalite

What we are denied, we often learn to treasure most. Of those basics that a human being needs to live life well, surely language—the ability to communicate freely—is one of the building blocks upon which nearly all else in civilized life is built. Language is our means of self-expression but also our vehicle of connection with the rest of humanity.

Mara Zalite (zah-lee-teh) is a child of the Soviet Union, born in 1952, in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, but returning to Latvia with her family at age four to grow up in the then Soviet-occupied Baltic nation. Among the many losses of freedom in Latvia at that time was the loss of free speech. Indeed, even just the use of the Latvian language was discouraged, if not made into a punishable offense, substituting instead the language of “Mother Russia.” And still, Latvian literature flourished, as various art forms often do in suppressed areas. Art has always proven to be a survival mechanism, if not a tool for revolution. Language, the word that is more powerful than even the sword, carries great energy and life force, and no one understood this better than those standing at the Soviet helm. Zalite, having lived in a time when language was denied as well as in a time when language in all its varied facets flourishes again, has a strong appreciation for her native tongue that emerges repeatedly in her various literary art forms. It is the voice of her blood, she writes, it is her identity. It is, one senses, the carrier of her personal battle cry.

Zalite writes in varied genres and forms: poetry, prose (essays), drama, lyrics, even rock opera. In whatever genre, Latvian folklore has a consistent presence in her work, not only tying her to the roots of Latvian language, but also to Latvian history—the identity of her people. Toward the final years of Soviet occupation in her country, she was known to weave protest into her work in a cry for Latvian independence—which indeed came to fruition in 1991, as the Soviet Union fell at last. Her play, “Pilna Maras istabina,” or “Full Mara’s Room,” staged in 1983, was her groundbreaking work that won her the attention from critics, readers and viewers, that would push her literary career forward. This and many other Zalite’s works have central female figures, adding a second and parallel voice for women’s independence in an independent country. The play addresses the masculine energy which has brutalized the earth and its nations, and renews a cry for the return of the feminine energy, the ancient Mother (earth and nature), mother of all mothers, to take her place again.

Zalite has also published many books of poetry, collections of essays, song lyrics and scripts for musicals. Her work has been translated into German, Russian, English, Estonian, Swedish, and other languages, yet as one who has the privilege and pleasure of reading her work in its original Latvian, to my ear and sensibilities, her work sings best on its own instrument.

One of Zalite’s better known essays, appearing in “Unfinished Thoughts,” is titled “The Cross and the Sword.” In it, she brings up some of those themes and concepts that those who have been long oppressed hold perhaps in higher esteem than those who have long known only freedom. Not only a deeper appreciation of one’s own native language, but the soil that nourishes it—one’s own free land. Delving into ancient Latvian history, dating back to the 13th century, when Latvia was known as Livonia (an area that today also covers parts of Estonia), Zalite traces the appearance of various symbols and their ties to the masculine and feminine in what we think of today as Latvian folklore. In the feminine group falls the concept of homeland. The masculine centers on power and aggression, expanding borders and too often expressing itself in battle and rape and a violence of power over another, but she recalls, too, the nurturing of the mother figure, and what greater mother than one’s land, or homeland. Zalite’s appreciation for her own rediscovered culture is poignant, but as modern times of a shrinking globe urge, she also considers Mother Earth, and that we must show gratitude and care for the mother that has birthed us all. In this mix of escalating mothers, from one’s own corner of the earth, to the earth itself, Zalite urges an appreciation for the diverse cultures of every homeland, for a greater array of self-expression is a wealth to be preserved and cherished. To be a global citizen is not to forget or abandon one’s homeland, but to bring it, rich and full with its unique tapestry of people, to the global arena. More perspectives, more solutions; more diversity, more treasure, benefiting all.

Zalite’s unique voice, its mix of the ancient and the contemporary; the oppressed and the free; the feminine in balance with the masculine; brings the Latvian literary tradition to the global doorstep in a way that perhaps few others can who have not traveled her unique path in life.
A graduate of the University of Latvia, the country’s most prestigious institute of higher education, with a degree in philology, Zalite has worked on various editorial boards and in the Writers’ Union of Latvia. She has been the managing editor of one of the country’s most esteemed literary periodicals, “Karogs,” or “Banner.” She is the president of the Latvian Authors’ Association.

No comments:

Post a Comment