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Succès de scandale

Santa Remere is a translator and publicist. She regularly writes literary and art critics for local magazines, mostly with a focus on cultures of young audiences and feminist topics. Occasionally, she works as producer of contemporary theatre projects for the International Festival of Contemporary Theatre Homo Novus.

Credits Text: Santa Remere Translated to English from Latvian by Ieva Lešinska. October 05 2023

Succès de scandale

Any comment I make on this subject will sound like making excuses, but my being silent would also sound like a comment. So, it doesn't really matter whether I say something or not – an opinion about me has already been formed, regardless of what I say.

In 2018, I was asked by the editors of a magazine to write something about feminism for the Latvian centenary issue. At that very moment, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls was on my desk, translated into Latvian and ready for review, so I suggested that the best homage to Latvian feminists would be tales in that genre – allegorical, and situated in a global context. And so I did. I had never written a fairy tale before, but I quickly grasped the formula proposed by Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli – to find some fantastic pearl in a person's biography and to weave a short, playful story around it – and the first seven tales almost wrote themselves, keeping the reference to the pioneers of this trend. The protagonists were Aspazija, Latvia’s first great woman poet; Ulyana, Latvia’s best basketball player; Vaira, the first and only female President; Inga, the brightest writer of the new generation, and others. When the stories were printed and also appeared on the internet, they were enthusiastically received by readers, who commented on social media: “Write more!”. In the comments, I also received a message from our wonderful illustrator Elīna Brasliņa, saying that if I wrote a whole book, she would like to illustrate it.

The rest unfolded somewhat organically – the following year, when the world was slowly being overtaken by pandemic restrictions, I occasionally added a new fairy tale to the Ours folder. The subsequent tales, however, were not so easy to write – the biographical research on the supposedly interesting women turned out to be rather modest. Most often I could only find dry facts, lists of family members and jobs, but few biographies had that golden nugget of truth that would add the tale a dimension of wonder, insight, or paradox it needed. I also thought it was important that the book should have an even representation of the different generations of women: those who had lived during the period of Soviet occupation as well as those who had experienced free Latvia – in a sense, I wanted to write our history through these female characters, showing that at all times women have influenced it in many different aspects – in science, business, art, politics, education, sport, public life, family, and charity. I wanted to outline the range of their activities and the rights they have achieved, but also the prejudices and obstacles that women continue to face today. It is incredible that young, established women of today continue to receive criticism, threats, and derisive comments about their appearance. Let us just remember how much attention was given to the weight and behavior of the Baltic number one tennis racket, Alyona Ostapenko, at the recent Australian Open!

I tried to match the stories as much as possible with the heroines who still live among us – we met, I interviewed them, then offered them a glimpse at my versions of their stories. It’s not easy to write about living legends, or to put a person’s life into a ten-sentence frame. For some, the most popular women, I left the basis of the story condensed and well-known publicly available facts – as in the somewhat curious story of President Vaira, who entered the Latvian Saeima with the allegedly magical Lielvārde belt hidden in her purse and said: “We are magnificent!” I chose to tell the stories of these women, mentioning only their first names, so that the girls who would read them would have the feeling that these heroines were in no way exceptional. They – Sandra, Inga, Inese, Alise or whatever they’re called – may and could also do great things. The heroines of the stories were once ordinary girls like themselves, they sat behind the same kind of school desks, walked the same streets, faced the same reproaches and self-doubt, but they ultimately made their dreams come true. And I thought: I want the reader, whenever she feels down and discouraged, to turn to this pink book, as a reminder that anything is possible!

By the fourtieth tale, I was beginning to hesitate – similar themes, types and professions were becoming too repetitive, some eras were taking precedence over others, and the book still didn’t have any Soviet colour. Even though the Soviet period lasted for 50 years of our existence, none of the heroines wanted to be depicted wearing a young pioneer’s bandanna or have columns of tanks as part of her story. They all chose to be dreamers, fairies, poetic children of nature, and I never wanted to deny them that. Some writers and playwrights rewrote the versions of the stories I proposed in their own way, but I still felt that without young pioneers the story of the book would not be truthful ... So, I left at least the tale of Tatyana, the competitive A+ student and mathematician who loved life under communism so much that, at the time when all the national heroines were fighting for Latvia’s independence, she opposed it. Some complexities found their way to Tatyana’s story – about how “sometimes strong and intelligent women are full of contradictions”, and about democracy, where the right to freely express an opinion is allowed even those with whom we disagree.

I must have overestimated democracy, as well as the openness of our society to different opinions – mentioning Tatyana, even in a negative light, turned out to be the “red line” that one was never supposed to cross. The crowdfunded book Ours, for which the required amount was raised in just three days in January, was published in August that year. And it took about three days for a Twitter shitstorm to break out and for the crowd to demand that the book be taken off the shelves, banned, burned, its pages ripped out, etc.

Many did not like a sentence taken out of context, which was quickly circulated on social media, because it did not put sufficient emphasis on the occupation of Latvia (the occupation had been written about at length in a previous tale by the freedom fighter Sandra). Others did not like the fact that there was such a fairy tale at all They said that no one should read a book about Tanya because an enemy of the people was not one of ours, even if she had Latvian citizenship and represented Latvia as a Member of the European Parliament. She was not, but she was. She is, but she is not.

I received a call from the radio asking for an explanation. I was advised to apologize to the Latvian nation on television. They said it would even suffice to write a little note saying that I was sorry, and so on. “It’s normal to admit a mistake,” said well-known publishers and literary critics. In the next print run, just take out that page, - said rational-minded friends. Just one? Maybe take out the other Communist as well – the Riga-born sculptor Vera Mukhina, whom nobody had noticed? Of course, this could still be easily done. Confess, apologize, and peace will be restored! Because I didn’t really mean that, right? Not me, but you. Not you, but me. We know better than you. We know how you in fact meant it. Rewrite the introduction. Rewrite the chapter. Rewrite the book. No, you know, it’s better not to write at all. But, but... I disagree, I don’t think so... Oh, how stubborn – she just won’t change her mind! Infantile. Stupid. Traitor. A Kremlin mouthpiece. Ignorant of history. Has not lived in the Soviet Union. Just another Jewess. “She is exactly like the chekists,” – concluded the enemies. “Only educated mediocrity is worse than mediocrity,” snarled a highly educated acquaintance.1

The children continued to read the book, and it sold out in the first week. Then came the second printing of the book and the next instalment of hate speech. “What a clever marketing trick,” said marketing experts. “Plagiarism!” – cried journalists. But I still didn’t see my mistake ... It seemed to me that writing only about the good and the correct would belong more in a Soviet dictatorship than in a free, democratic country. I wanted to find ways to talk about the difficult issues. I tend to think that you can write all kinds of books, even mediocre ones, if they have a certain potential for truthfulness. Literature is not a sacred cow. To me, it isn’t. I am from the Zolitūde neighborhood, a sleeping area of Riga with Brutalist style soviet serial project buildings mostly inhabited by Russian speaking people, and like anyone I have my point of view, which some may not like or agree with, but I would betray my readers if I gave it up under pressure from those around me.

“Humanity is not simple, and one just has to come to terms with that”,2: André Gide had once concluded. Upon his return from the Soviet Union, he added “It is a proof of great wisdom, I think, to listen to one's opponents, even to cherish them if need be, while preventing them from doing harm; combat, but not suppress them.”3

What happened helped me personally to understand what the genre of “girl rebels” tales is really for. Gaslighting remains one of the biggest problems in modern feminism – on the spectrum from “you just imagined that you thought so” to “you just imagined that you were beaten”. However, trusting your own opinion is a matter of practice. When, after a day of speaking your mind and receiving a barrage of reproaches in return, it’s hard to fall asleep at night and you’re tossing and turning in bed, questioning yourself – but maybe really? what if I was wrong? maybe I have fundamentally misunderstood something? why did I get involved in the first place? ... This is exactly the time where evening tales about real women and girls come in handy, reminding us that we have gone through this for decades and centuries. Many of us didn't get our “happy ending” – mainly because we didn’t have the support of those around us or a role model to learn from. But these are the stories of those who made it, and however it went, they are in your hands now.

1. All statements are from real comments on social networks and other media
2. André Gide, Nouveaux Prétextes, 1910

3 André Gide, Retour de l'U.R.S.S., 1936

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