House of Stories
It’s appropriate that the first professor to cross the Atlantic as a part of the faculty-exchange is an Estonian scholar of life stories. Tiina Kirss, an American-born child of Estonian refugees, is a professor of Estonian literature at the University of Tartu.
Nebraska Wesleyan’s English and global studies departments collaborated to create a course around Kirss’s visit: “Literature of Post-Soviet Estonia.” In addition to speaking in this and other Nebraska Wesleyan courses, Kirss delivered a university-wide lecture on the historical and political value of life stories.
Kirss’s perspective on Estonians’ life stories is both idealistic and pragmatic. She professed a “crazy belief that no amount of sadness, no amount of brokenness that I’ve heard has erased from me. And that is the faith that one of the most characteristic aspects of being human is the capacity to tell stories.”
Estonian tradition tells many of those stories through its folk songs. Those stories and songs kept Estonian culture and memory alive through a painful history of occupations, not just by the Soviets and Nazis, but also by Russian Czars, Poles, Swedes and Danes. The songs’ narratives became weapons in its bloodless revolution against the Soviets.
Yet Kirss’s thoughts on the relationship between storytelling and survival are surprisingly tempered. She spoke to give her NWU audience “a sense of how paradoxical this relationship between remembering and surviving is.”
She said, “Remembering doesn’t always mean that you survive. And sometimes, it’s the very reason why you don’t.” Those Estonians who remembered the wrong things too loudly under Soviet rule were often killed or carted away to Siberia, their property claimed by relocated Russians who arrived with very different memories. Soviet policies of deportation, extermination and Russification were all ultimately unsuccessful attempts to kill a culture and its narratives. Estonian culture proved resilient. Rather than disappear, its stories moved.
An American child of Estonia’s diaspora, Kirss was “born into a house of stories,” many of which, she now believes, she was told too soon.
At the age of 4, Kirss heard the story of her mother’s watch—its hands forever frozen at 11:10. “That was when I hit the water,” her mother told her. Kirss’s mother had fled the country on a ship—a ship named Fate—via Tallinn Harbor on September 21, 1944. She and countless others fled as Estonia’s two enemies, Germany and Russia, used its land to destroy one another. Tallinn burned as Russians moved to crush the German army and retake Estonia.
The Estonians on board Fate sang the national anthem as long as they could see the harbor—an overture to the Singing Revolution that would peak 47 years later.
|The Estonians on board Fate sang the national anthem as long as they could see the harbor—an overture to the Singing Revolution that would peak 47 years later.|
Late the next morning—at 11:03, to be precise—Fate was torpedoed. It sank in seven minutes. The Baltic Sea is no place to swim in September. But the lifeboat was overfull with German amputees. At 11:10, Kirss’s mother, and her watch, hit the water. She swam to a cord dangling off the lifeboat, wrapped it around her wrist with its stopped watch, and passed out. She awoke on a German hospital ship.
Kirss remembered being shaken by her mother’s tale. “It was too early to tell a 4 year-old that story,” Kirss told her quiet audience at NWU. As jarring as such a tale was to a young girl, it and others like it sparked her lifelong interest in personal storytelling.
As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Kirss wanted to see the setting of so many of those stories, which meant applying for a Soviet travel visa. Imagine asking permission to visit your homeland from the same people who burned it—the same people who pitched your mother into the frigid Baltic Sea. Soviet permission was granted.
“From the minute I arrived,” Kirss remembered, “I felt like the photographic negatives of the stories I’d heard as a child were put in developing fluid. I walked around a country I’d only heard about, and suddenly, so many of my family’s stories began making sense—not on a level of facts, but on the level of connections.”