Ausma Cimdina (Riga)


4th European Feminist Research conference BODY, GENDER , SUBJECTIVITY: Crossing borders of disciplines and institutions. Sept. 28 –Oct. 1, 2000 Bologna, Italy




Brief historical flash-back


Women have made their voice heard in the Latvian literature for nearly 200 years. The first Latvian woman to see her work printed was Anna Bormane (her “Christian hymns to be sung in the churches and homes of Vidzeme” were published in Riga in 1809). These hymns praised God and the Emperor, the role of the latter being the preserve of men in the particular culture of the day. Thus the first Latvian woman author Anna Bormane (in consonance with E. Showalters’s principles of periodization of British women’s writing[1]) introduced and represented the first — feminine — period in the Latvian women’s writing history, when women copied and imitated men. For more than 60 years she remained the only Latvian woman author, whose writing was published.

The second — feminist — period was probably introduced by a woman called Karolīne Kronvalda (the spouse of an outstanding Latvian Renaissance writer Atis Kronvalds). In 1870 she published a polemical article under the title “To the Honourable Mr. Garrs” in the local Latvian newspaper “Baltijas Vēstnesis” (The Baltic Herald), in which she defended the intellectual abilities of women and their rights to education. The author masterfully responded to a certain Mr. Garrs, who in a previously published article had spoken derisively of women’s activities in social and cultural life. Kronvalda’s article merged the battle of women for freedom and self-esteem with that of the whole Latvian nation for the same causes: “It is not truly a nation of free spirit which feels that the womanly order is merely laughable and contemptible.”[2]

Although this article went under the name of Karolīne Kronvalda, some scholars are of the opinion that the real author “no doubt was Atis Kronvalds himself”.[3] If that is so (no documentary evidence concerning the authorship of the article has been preserved), we can note a certain difference in the manner of how women entered the Latvian literature in comparison with the way it usually took place in Western Europe, where women used to hide under masculine pseudonyms (e. g. George Sanda, sisters Brontes etc.). In any case the above-discussed publication in the “Baltijas Vēstnesis” is to be considered as one of the most important progenitors of the Latvian feminist writing.

It is important to recognize that the modern Latvian literary tradition began to develop only during the later part of the 19th century. During the earlier centuries, most Latvians were peasants or craftsmen without formal education, and those few fortunate enough to obtain schooling were mostly assimilated within the Baltic German socio-cultural circles, identifying themselves as Germans. However, although the development of the Latvian literary tradition began as late as it did (in comparison with the literary developments in neighbouring European countries) once initiated, the upsurge of Latvian writers was powerful and talanted. Most significant with regard to the present discussion of gender construction within the Latvian socio-cultural context is the fact, that this powerful new literary development at the end of 19th century was fostered by several women, the most distinguished among them being Elza Rozenberga (1868—1943), known by here pen-name as Aspazija. The most definite entry of feminine life-space in the realm of Latvian literature came with her writings. The daughter of a well-off landowner, Aspazija obtained good education and became acquainted with classical European literature. The intentions of her mother, however, in arranging for the girl’s education were not directed towards the fostering of the development of a literary genius, but the creation of a “smart housewife”.[4] Fortunately Aspazija already as a highschool student began to develop her literary talents. Her pen-name Aspazija was inspired by Hammerling’s novel “Aspasia”, based upon an ancient drama depicting the romance between a young Miletant woman Aspasia, known for her beauty and talent, and the Greek leader Pericles. Aspazija was subsequently recognized for her talent, and in 1893 she was invited by the Latvian theatre in Riga to work as a dramatist. Soon afterwards Aspazija become involved as a journalist, writing literary criticism, including the essay “Ibsen’s Nora” (1899). In 1897 Aspazija — already a well-known authoress was married to Rainis — editor of a Social-democratic newspaper “Dienas Lapa” and an up-and-coming poet and drama writer. Thus Aspazija came to be known not only as an outstanding literary genius in her own right, but also as the second half — the Muse of Rainis (1865—1929) — unsurpassed Latvian poet and playwright — assisting him greatly in his literary work. The year 1897 — the year of their marriage — is significant for the Latvian culture in yet another way — it is the year when the translation into Latvian of Goethe’s “Faustus” saw light, and this translation was performed by no other than Rainis. The centenary of this event was marked in Latvia in 1997 by an international symposium in the Goethe Institute in Riga, and the name of Aspazija was again mentioned in this connection.[5] One has also to mention the contribution of Aspazija towards popularization of Rainis’s works by pointing out that she translated Rainis’s celebrated play “Joseph and His Brothers” into German. The most extensive information on Aspazija’s life and work is to be found in A. Stahnkes’s monograph “Aspazija. Her Life and Drama” (1984).[6]

Thus woman as a discourse emerged in Latvian literary criticism in the late 19th and early 20th century. This discourse was rooted not only in women’s writing, but also in the so-called realistic trend of male-produced literature. Social reality, social role and the literary types of women (especially morality or immorality of women) were a general concern of the literary debate. Influenced by the school of cultural-historical criticism and Marxist philosophy, leading literary critics were searching for those external factors, which determine a women’s life and create her character and femininity. For example Teodors Zeiferts (the most prominent literary critic and literary historian of his time) in an article “Types of Women in Latvian Writing 1893” described various female characters and grouped them into four different types: hard-working women, enticers, profligate women, faithfull lovers. Actually T. Zeiferts shows forth unusual (for this time) empathy and liberalism in discussing female morality, reducing it — in consonance with the prevailing public opinion — to the sphere of sexual relations. He touches not only on every-day problems, but also on quite philosophical questions by discussing the role of love in person’s — especially woman’s — life. He talks about love as the great force that is at the bases of life and happiness and poses the question: Why do the emotions which are targeted towards happiness ever so often bring us into the opposite direction?


Towards European modernity


Aspazija performed a qualitative leap in the Latvian literature of the 19th century; she also went on working in the 20th century to become together with Rainis the most celebrated pair and the most brilliant twin-star in the whole Latvian culture.

There is, alongside Aspazija, another great personality in the women’s literary history of Latvia in the 20th century. She is Zenta Mauriņa (1897—1978) — author and essay writer who is also a significant link in the German — Latvian dialogue of cultures. Zenta Mauriņa — like Aspazija — was equally proficient in the German language and a number of her works produced in emigration were composed in German, thus attracting the attention of German literary criticism[7]. Z. Mauriņa is also a well known personality in Latvian humanities — the story of her procurement of the doctoral degree (in 1938 in University of Latvia, Riga) is a legend in the Latvian academic history. Mauriņa describes her academic experience in the second part of her autobiographical trilogy  “It is Wonderful to Dare” (1953). Historian of Latvian science and humanities Jānis Stradiņš describes the episode of Z. Mauriņa’s defence of her doctoral dissertation as a great occasion in the history of Latvian feminism, for this provided an outstanding manifestation of the unwillingness of the academia to let a woman to reach the highest strata of the world of learning[8]. The most popular among the German-language publications of Z. Mauriņa is her monograph on Dostoyevsky. It was first published in 1953 and till 1997 has seen five German editions besides being translated in Swedish, Russian, English and Latvian.

Z. Mauriņa has managed to amalgamate the divided, yet intrinsically united life-world of the modern epoch with the literary world, thus generating a unique response of her readers, a response which the traditional, “dry” literary criticism is unable (and unwilling), to obtain.

Her essays on various aspects of literature written before and during World War II may compete with fiction best-sellers. She had the gift of awakening interest and love of literature thus performing a beneficial cultural and educational work. Thus, she was the one who initiated publication of Goethe’s collected works in Latvian and wrote an extensive Introduction — “Goethe and Latvian belles-lettres” — for the first volume (Riga, 1943) [9].

When discussing the phenomenon of Z. Mauriņa — both during her life-time and now — one often meets with the word  woman. She is undoubtedly one of the first theoreticians on the problem of the women’s question in pre-war Latvia especially with regard to cultural and literary sphere. Her essay “The Ideal of Womenhood in the Past and the Present” (1936) is concerned exclusivelly with gender differences and their ramifications in literature and culture.[10] In distinction from Aspazija whose voluptuous temperament in drama and essays called for the emancipation of women — and shook the 20th century society with the image of a scandalous woman, Z. Mauriņa’s thoughts thirty years later may be considered a kind of back-tracking towards a more patriarchal stance; and, yet, — on the other hand — following the lead from a post-modern approach — Z. Mauriņa could be placed within the French feministic paradigm, accentuating as it does the fruitful presence of the otherness in the cultural life.

The personalities and works of these two Latvian women writers — Aspazija and Z. Mauriņa — both drawing on the roots of Western European culture — bespeak of the presence of woman’s discourse in the Latvian pre-soviet literature and in the Latvian literature in exile. At the end of World War II Z. Mauriņa went into exile, first to Sweden, later — to Germany, where she is burried (in Badkrozingen, South Germany), thus becoming a kind of symbol for all those Latvian women writers who had to become refugees because of the soviet occupation of Latvia. To those women, who persevered in their literary activities thus enriching and broadening the socio-topographical background of Latvian culture.[11]

These brief sketches of two Latvian authoresses are hardly sufficient to do justice to the wide variety and individuality of Latvian women writers. In developing the theme of the women writers in the pre-soviet Latvian literature one should not fail to mention Ivande Kaija (1876—1941) and her novel “The Original Sin” (1913) which has been characterized in the latest edition of “History of Latvian Literature” (1999) as “the beginning of the feminist prose”[12]. “The Original Sin” was written as a polemical piece — in opposition to the socio-critical novel “Woman” (1910) by Latvian prose writer Andrejs Upīts. “The Original Sin” starts as a convincing psychological study of a love story, which issues in marriage and family drama where a woman’s life is crushed. It had been written “in the name of ethical idealism”[13]; in contrast to Upīts’ position the author took the stance on the side of the woman not of conventional morality. This novel produced a similar response to that of Aspazija’s works; it reverberated in much wider than just literary circles raising the emancipation issue. I. Kaija had studied philosophy and arts in Bern, Leipzig and Paris, yet her novel was not just a localization of some modern Western-European theories — it was largely based on her own personal  experiences.

It has to be noted that out of the three above-mentioned women authors of the pre-soviet period only Aspazija was included in the official “History of Latvian Literature” (I—VI, 1956—1963). The works of Z. Mauriņa and I. Kaija were not allowed publicity during the occupation period and the literary heritage of these authors was practically ousted from the cultural scene.


(Post)soviet and/or (post)modern body of Latvian literature


In analyzing how to previous socio-cultural context serves as the ground for contemporary interest of woman life-space and feminist literary theory in Latvia, we must keep in mind, that the Soviet occupation (the ideology and normative aesthetics of Socialist Realism) cut short the development of this discourse for many years.

Following the historicity principle of dividing Latvian literature into periods (considering critical socio-historical events as turning points in the development of literature) we can say that the turn of 80s and 90s of the 20th century marked the beginning of a new period in our literature. This period is justly characterized as one of transition and change in all spheres of life, including literature. What has happened and is still happening with our literature during these last 10 years? Has literature seen any important changes at all? Maybe we overselves have changed and have learnt to look at literature in a novel way and to notice in it things that had not been seen and noticed previously, including woman as a discourse in the soviet Latvian literature?

It is noteworthy that the new period in Latvian literature has presented itself as a phenomenon of residue, of remains — as (post)soviet, (post)colonial, (post)modern, etc. These terms of post(times) hardly give grounds for optimism. But this has also been the time of post-modern apocalypse or awareness of Latvian literature, including Latvian women’s writing. Characteristic feature of the Latvian literature of the turn of millennium is the postmodernist contradiction between realists and anti-realists. The realists are primarily represented by members of the older generation, who tend to emphasize historical truth, the reality of life, especially the experience of one’s life course as an essential value in literature. In contrast the anti-realists turn to the postmodern reflection of textuality, reducing the life-story and commonplace reality to a minimum. Women writers are present in both groups, although their number among realists is larger, especially if one includes here those women who are not  in the profession, so to say.

One can get an idea about the intensity of the latest Latvian literary activities and women’s role therein from the following statistics. The membership of the Latvian Writers Union at the end of 1999 was 284; 104 of the members were women (one has to have published at least one book to qualify for membership).  According to the data of the Latvian Institute of Bibliography, 85 new Latvian original prose books have been published in 1999. At the same time an accute shortage is in evidence concerning periodical editions publishing original prose works: there is only one literary monthly “Karogs” (The Flag) and one weekly literary newspaper “Literatūra un Māksla Latvijā” (Literature and Arts in Latvia). I want to note (without overestimating or underestimating of this fact) that Editors-in-Chief of both these publications are women: poetess and drama writer Māra Zālīte and prose writer and literary critic Aija Lāce. On top of that — Editor-in-Chief of the main daily Latvian newspaper “Diena” (The Day), which also pays great attention to literature and arts has been — from the day of its foundation in 1990 — a woman journalist Sarmīte Ēlerte.

The process of democratization and subsequent changes in society have contributed to a great variety of woman’s self-expression in the form of life stories, in both orally transcribed and in the narrative form of fiction. These life stories tell of the experiences, which could not be publicly expressed during soviet regime. This new layer of historical experience in contemporary Latvian literature is based on individual thinking, speaking, narrating, reading, listening to what was not desirable, or even forbidden until now.

One form that these life stories have taken is monumental prose works characterized by a wide-ranging historical panorama and a tale of personal tragedy. The first of these works in post-soviet Latvian literature was a documentary novel “Ekshumācija” (Exhumation), published in 1989, written by Anita Liepa (born in 1928). This is a story of her family. The title Exhumation is deeply symbolic — the novel tells about a search for the burrial places of two brothers who had disappeared without trace during World War II, so as to bury them anew in Latvia. One of the brothers, Ādolfs, had served in the Latvian army and had been deported to Siberia after the Soviet troops entered Latvia. The eldest brother, Aleksandrs, had faithfully served in the army of Tsarist Russia, and had been nominated for knighthood. The fates of both brothers had been equally tragic. Both, as representatives of the old regime, were arrested and killed. They were not even allowed a soldier’s death — Aleksandrs was executed, but Ādolfs died from cold and famine in soviet a death camp in Siberia.

“Exhumation” is written by a woman as representative of the  weaker sex  and as a passive part of human history. “Exhumation” was written during the soviet times, when professional historians did not venture to touch upon these subjects. The novel consists of the family chronicle, and also of a description of the experience of the author in geathering documents, writing, editing, bearing the influence of censorship, etc. Prose writing of this kind is novel according to its contents, but traditional (too traditional) in form.

Among the most original and striking postmodern female writers one must mention Gundega Repše (born 1960) — a talented prose writer, literary critic and inspirator of witty interviews with contemporary Latvian writers and artists — she recently compiled a book under the title “A Vision at the End of Millennium” (1999). Repše’s characteristic texts are a free-thinking self-manifestation dealing with contemporary feminist concerns. She has a reputation of a modern intellectual writer (some pieces of her prose are translated into English, French, German, Swedish and other European languages and published abroad), though in her latest work she asserts that intellectualism, more often then not, is claimed by pseudointellectuals. She writes with a great deal of irony: “.. quidding myself by the parameters of good taste, I should write with intellectual dullness allying myself with the intellectual nihilism .. however, in the very depths of my heart, I feel the entire art to have become stuck in a horrible super-seriousness.”[14]

G. Repše, being postmodern and intertextual in her manner of writing, follows the impulses of contemporary life as they appear at the end of the 20th century. Her collection of essays “Seven Stories about Love” is a work both thematically and structurally united by the motif of love not only on the intertextual plane, but also in the realm of the fleshy and the  bodily. Here we find reflections on the so-called eternal questions in contemporary Latvian literature presented in the most authentic manner. The book is centered on the course of a woman’s life. Through each of the seven versions there roams the unaccepted ghost of romantic love. G. Repše’s stories do not stem from delight but from reason, which says: I know too much to love, I know too much to hate. Some postmodern male critics have written ironically that readers of Repše’s works can learn something new not only about textuality, but also about love.

Although contemporary Latvian literature and especially prose writing abounds in works of creative female writers, the fundamentals of modern feminist criticism and theory have only recently been presented to the Latvian audience. On the other hand, the specific problem of woman as a writer has been presented within the literary realm, albeit with no response from the literary criticism. Here I am referring to Regīna Ezera’s novel “Betrayal” (Nodevība) , published in 1984 and some other modern Latvian prose writings. Already in the preface of the book R. Ezera declares, that “Betrayal”  “will be a work of prose concerned with the specific  problems of women writers.”[15]  And the course of the narrative reaches climax when a representative from the official press shouts out: “What — can it truly be that a woman writer has any specific concerns which are different from those of a male?” The text goes on with the following narrator’s response: “I answered with one word only: — hmm — but apparently I did this with such a disrespectfull intonation, that my interlocutor’s well-kept and intelligent face turned red, bespeaking of deep perplexity.”[16]

This heralding of the women’s discourse in Ezera’s novel was actualized overubundantly . But soon a certain very prominent academic literary scholar in analyzing her novel, referred to the female writer Regīna Ezera — by using the grammatical declinations of the male gender. Unfortunately it is impossible to translate his words directly from Latvian into English, since English does not carry these grammatical demarcations. However, broadly translated, the critic views Ezera’s novel as a realization of the author’s (male declination — “his”, not “her”) self-image, as a realization of the author’s (male declination — “his”, not “her”) self-discovery.[17] The critic displays no sign of perplexity, since he has not even noticed — or takes on the posture of not having noticed — the focal, the basic problem of “Betrayal”. This example of completely blind reading and total lack of adequate reaction to Ezera’s challenge was no exception — during the following ten years after publication of Ezera’s novel no one tried to question the standpoint of this male gendered academic criticism.

R. Ezera’s novel plunges us into the problem of literary authority with regard to women writers position — a fairly settled problem in Western European culture; she stresses the idea that women authors even today have to follow the literary rules laid down by men, if they want to be taken seriously as co-equals. R. Ezera reminds that women have to practise a kind of self-censure so as to become acceptable to “the crowns of Creation”, who will not fail to find in women’s works “non-existent mistakes alongside such discoveries as the on that no Leo Tolstoys are to be found among female sex while they themselves are co-sexual with Tolstoy; and not feeling in the least awkward about the fact that neither of them could be measured as Tolstoys”.[18] R. Ezera’s discoveries stem from her own life experience as a soviet authoress and are not the result of theoretical studies; and yet — her views manifest an astonishing similarity to the whole agenda discussed by such feministically orientated literary theoreticians as J.Kristeva, H.Cixous, L.Irigaray and others. “Betrayal” is part of a tetrology of novels under to common title “Sailing with My Own Wind”, which recalls the title of Virginia Woolf’s novel “A Room of One’s Own”  and professor’s E. Showalter’s work “A Literature of Their Own”.

R. Ezera’s novel “Betrayal” is a unique work in the whole perspective of present-day feministics because it touches upon problems of restrictions that a women has to undergo in the sphere of language and expression, problems of authority of women authors in literature and other issues of great importance. There are a number of archetypes and artificial constructions in our cultural mythology that are unapplicable — in principle — to women, e. g. — the “services” of Muses. R. Ezera deals with this question in a brilliant manner by advising her younger colleague: “rely more on yourself and not on the Muse”, for during has fairly long life-time she herself has met “the Muse” (masculine) only once. And when the younger colleague is amazed at the gender change of the Muse, R. Ezera retorts: “Don’t wonder, it was really He, for after all — I am a woman and I need a member of the opposite sex to inspire me (..) yet, I am afraid, he was himself saddened in giving me a friendly advice: “Do not write” — a tear appearing in his eye”.[19]

“Betrayal” is written in epistolary form, and the novel’s two main heroines are a young writer Irena and experienced Writer (capitalized). Both women appear in two roles in their autobiographies — that of a woman and that of an authoress: “it is as if I become divided into two beings — a woman and a woman writer.[20] R. Ezera specifies, that men are not involved in such conflict — “I” as a man does not develop in contrast to “I” as a writer, doctor, pilot, engineer, etc. But for women the novel’s title Betrayal presents the gist of the problem — what should be betrayed — the disposition to procreate or the disposition to be a talented writer? What must I betray — the family or the humanity? One’s talent is one’s responsibility, but one’s motherhood… R. Ezera presents this problem as a question of choice and responsibility, a question not to be easily resolved, and perhaps — as a question that can never be resolved finally. In some respects Ezera’s position is saved by her ability to self-reflect with irony and humor, but there lurks behind this lightness the woman-artists’s burdening awareness that her life is always a betrayal — if she had been granted a talent of writing.

In her latest works R. Ezera express her concerns by considering certain gender declinations and sexhood of the Latvian language, for example — in her miniature under the title “August”, published in the book “Celestial Rain” (1985). In particular — the names of the months of the year in Latvian are written in the masculine gender, and by a kind of autonomous personification of each month, R. Ezera expresses her insights regarding the masculinity of the present time, and her feelings of being alienated from it. Here the word-play centers around the parallel between the Latvian first name — Augusts, written with a capital “A” and the name of the summer month — august, written in the lower case. I quote R. Ezera’s text: “August has never belonged to me, therefore, lightly and chastely I give myself to august. .. I am within time, because I am within august, but I am beyond time, because I do not belong to it” 21

 This feeling of non-belonging or alienation from the present time can be interpreted as an alienation from the masculine. Ezera speaks with irony of her inability to hold on to either of her three successive husbands, hence — of her feeling of non-belonging in the family structure. On top of that she lives at present a rural community and has distanced herself from the contemporary political and social life. Consequently — non-belonging to the current male-dominated realm of politics and contemporary history.

One’s experience, including the experience of language and literature, is differentiated by gender — this theme which Regīna Ezera places in the forefront of “Betrayal” (in 1984) has become one of the distinguishing marks of the postmodern developments of Latvian women’s writing. Regīna Ezera and Gundega Repše are two of the most productive and conspicuous prose writers in contemporary Latvia. They powerfully struggle to assert women’s unique voice in contemporary Latvian literature. They refuse to submit to the verdict of the author’s death , they struggle not to die within the text — and they succeed in this struggle.



[1] Schowalter E. Towards a Feminist Poetics // Feminisms. A Reader.- Edited and Introduced by M.Humm, 1992, p.382

[2] Karolīne K. Cienīgam Garram // Baltijas Vēstnesis, 1870, Nr.48, 9.lpp


3 Kronvalda Rakstu izlase.- Rīga, 1937, 251.lpp.

[4] Sebre S. Inversions of the “Feminine” and “Masculine” in Latvian Literature //

Feminism and Latvian Literature.- Rīga, 1998, p.53

[5] Rainis und Goethe.Zum hundertjahrigen Jubilaum der “Faust”-Ubersetzung.- Rīga, 1999

[6] Stahnke A.  Aspasija:Her Life and Drama.- Lanham, MD, 1984  

[7] Maurina Z. Der Mensch- das ewige Thema des Dichters.- Maximilian Dietrich Verlag, 1972

[8] Stradiņš J. Zenta Mauriņa un Latvijas Universitāte // Zentai Mauriņai- 100. Eiropa, Latvija: kultūru dialogs.- Rīga, 1998, 51.lpp.

[9] Mauriņa Z. Gēte un Latviešu rakstniecība // Gētes raksti, I.- Rīga, 1943, 5.-35.lpp.

[10] Maurina Z. Pārdomas un ieceres.- Rīga, 1937

[11] Visel C. Zentas Maurinas Werk in Deutschland // Zentai Mauriņai- 100. Eiropa, Latvija:kultūru dialogs, Rīga, 1998,  283. – 292. lpp.

[12] Berelis G. Latviešu literatūras vēsture.- Rīga, 1999, 39.lpp.

[13] Johansons A. Latviešu literatūra: No Viduslaikiem līdz 1940.gadam.- Stokholma,1953, 177.lpp.

[14] Saruna par klusēšanu. Anitas Rožkalnes saruna ar Gundegu Repši // Literatūra un Māksla, 1994, 27.maijs,6. lpp.

[15] Ezera R. Nodevība.- Rīga, 1984, 22.lpp.

[16] Ezera R. Nodevība, turpat.

[17] Tabūns B.Varonis un laiks // Karogs.- 1984, Nr.1, 36.lpp.

[18] Ezera R. Nodevība, 147.-148.lpp.

[19] Ezera R. Nodevība, 122.lpp.

[20] Ezera R. Nodevība, 15.lpp.            

21   Ezera R.  Zvaigžņu lietus.- Rīga, 1994, 36.-37.lpp.