Feature Author Interview: Agate Nesaule

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Feature Author Interview: Agate Nesaule
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Agate Nesaule


The Smoking Poet Author Interview ─ Spring 2009



Agate Nesaule is the author of A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile, winner of an American Book Award. She was born in Latvia and grew up in the turmoil of World War II. A professor emerita of English and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, she lives, writes and gardens in Madison.

“From Agate Nesaule, acclaimed by writers across the globe from Doris Lessing to Tim O’Brien, comes a long-awaited novel. In Love with Jerzy Kosinski is a story of courage and persistence, exploring in fiction the themes that gripped readers of Nesaule’s award-winning memoir, A Woman in Amber.

“After fleeing Latvia as a child, Anna Duja escapes Russian confinement in displaced persons camps and eventually arrives in America. Years later, she finds herself in a different kind of captivity on isolated Cloudy Lake, Wisconsin, living with her disarming but manipulative husband, Stanley.

“Inspired by the transformation of Polish-Jewish émigré Jerzy Kosinski from persecuted wartime escapee to celebrity author in America, Anna slips away from Stanley and Cloudy Lake in small steps: learning to drive, making friends, moving to Madison, falling in love, and learning to forgive. Readers will applaud the book’s power, the beauty of its prose, and its strong evocation of a woman gradually finding her way in the wake of trauma.”


The Smoking Poet is pleased and honored to welcome Latvian author, Agate Nesaule, to the pages of our spring 2009 issue. We’ve been fans since the publication of A Woman in Amber (see our reprinted book review on Z’s Reviews) in 1997. Editor-in-chief, Zinta Aistars, is also of a Latvian ethnic background, and so has read Nesaule’s work with particularly great interest and resonance.




Zinta for The Smoking Poet: It’s been a long time since the publication of A Woman in Amber. Tell us about the time between then and now. How did that book lead you to In Love With Jerzy Kosinski? Because there are similarities, common themes, echoes between the two … unresolved issues?


Agate Nesaule:


Yes, it has been a long time since A Woman in Amber.  In part that’s due to experiences common to people my age: illness and death of parents and close friends, greater physical frailty, lessening energy, and diminishing optimism. But that’s only a part of the story. I completed two other novels in the interim before I started In Love with Jerzy Kosinski. One of these is very bad and will never see the light of day. The other one, A Very Long Friendship, is very good, and I hope it will find a publisher interested in serious fiction.

I have always been aware of and fascinated by the complex interplay of memory and memoir, memoir and fiction, truth and lies, and it is really this interplay that led me to In Love. I had experiences, emotions, and dreams which I did not want to include in a memoir; I wanted to play with them and change them; I wanted to find fictional equivalents far removed from any actual events; and I wanted to imagine what was plausible but would never happen. I also wanted to preserve the authenticity of feeling that I was able to bring to A Woman in Amber. In short, I wanted to write a novel.


TSP: For those of our readers who are less familiar with Latvia and its history, can you provide a setting? Because, even though both of your books take place mostly in the United States, their setting is in many respects—Latvia.




Geographically and culturally Latvia belongs to Northern Europe and the West. Politically, as contested ground between the Nazis and the Soviets during World War II and as an occupied country for five decades afterward, it has much in common with the tragic experience of Eastern Europe.

Latvians had been subjugated and exploited by others—Germans, Swedes, Russians, Poles—for centuries, but they maintained their own language, an amazingly rich heritage of folksongs, and their own distinctive culture.

The survival of this culture was severely threatened during World War II and by the half a century of Russian occupation afterward. Latvia lost approximately one-fourth of its population by war, executions, deportation to Siberia, and flight to other countries. In In Love with Jerzy Kosinski I write about that segment of Latvians who fled to other countries, experienced the turmoil of war and the hardship of displaced persons’ camps, and eventually came to the United States in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.


TSP: An ongoing theme in this novel is, of course, the emotional and intellectual love affair, however one-sided, of Anna and Jerzy Kosinski. Kosinski is not a fictional figure. Can you tell our readers something about this Polish-American author and the process of how you decided to weave him into your novel, into the very being of your main character?




Jerzy Kosinski, an internationally acclaimed writer, was perhaps best known for his 1965 novel, The Painted Bird, an unforgettable account of the devastating effects of prejudice and violence on the innocent. Set somewhere in Eastern Europe during World War II, it is the story of an unnamed Boy, who at age six is accidentally separated from his parents and has to face extreme cruelty and prolonged torture alone. Dark and slight among tall fair-skinned peasants and speaking in the accents of the city, he is suspected of possessing dangerous powers and of being a gypsy, a devil, a Jew. Because the Boy’s real identity is never revealed, he comes to stand for all children who suffered during World War II for being strangers and different.

Blurring the line between fact and fiction, truth and lies, Kosinski strongly implied and at other times claimed outright that the Boy’s experiences were his own as he constructed a glittering public persona for himself. Eventually he was discredited not only because of false claims about his personal experience but also because he was accused of using unacknowledged sources, translators, editors, consultants, and impoverished writers to create his other novels. He committed suicide in 1991.


TSP: The Latvians and the Poles suffered similar fates in World War II. One might ask, why not choose a Latvian hero for your character? Why Kosinski?


Nesaule: I don’t know of a Latvian as charismatic, compelling, complex, and disturbing as Kosinski.


TSP: When Kosinski wrote about his wartime experiences, he was later accused, mostly by the Soviets, of being something of a traitor to his ethnic roots. That he was not historically accurate. Have you ever experienced this as a Latvian-American writer? The Soviet government is no longer in existence, but there is still a kind of cultural divide between Latvians living in Latvia and Latvians … what we used to call “in exile.” That is, living outside of Latvia since WWII. Today, with Latvia an independent country again, one’s place of residence is a choice. But differences in cultural development, sense of national identity, for better or for worse, persist. Have you experienced any of this in response to your work?




I was savagely attacked by some Latvians for having published A Woman in Amber. All of these assaults came from politically conservative, older Latvians living in the United States. On the other hand, the younger generation living here and Latvians living in Latvia have been uniformly warm and generous, as have American readers.

Envy and pleasure in inflicting pain were, of course, evident in all the attacks. But there were also some more specific recurrent patterns: poor reading comprehension; ignorance about contemporary literature and the distinctions between author and character (“Latvian writers in the 1920’s never used the word one of the people you write about does”); ignorance about the distinction between history and memoir (“this didn’t happen to me or in my family; therefore it is not true”); sentimentality (Hallmark card Mother’s Day sentiments are fine, but writing about mothers as complex human beings having to struggle with devastating events is another matter), and a general fear of truth-telling (“what if my kids took it into their heads to write about what really goes on in our family?”). This fear was most vivid in the bitter, emotional, and totally contradictory reactions to what I had written about my obsession with Anne Frank and the Holocaust.  


TSP: And then there is that universal theme, the theme of gender differences, and how women—and it seems to me, that this kind of response to emotional abuse is distinctly feminine—change when they have been abused in some manner. They work exceptionally hard to please their abusers, who, of course, cannot be pleased. War in and of itself is abuse. But from her war experiences, Anna becomes susceptible to abusive partners. Can you explain how war changes one to such a degree that it even affects one’s relationship choices many years later? And not just romantic relationships. We see some of this in Anna’s choice of women friends, too.




Losing home and the sense of safety in the world, seeing your parents deeply humiliated and learning that they are powerless to protect, finding that resistance has to give way compliance and lies in order to survive, knowing that others want you dead and that they will let you starve because you are not worth feeding ─ these are experiences that damage the soul. The timidity and profound loss of self-esteem that result from them do not vanish the day the shooting stops and the treaties are signed. But this is too vast and too complex a subject to generalize. And such damage to the self can and does occur in situations that have nothing to do with war. Reaction to extreme experiences, while having some common patterns, is always individual. Anna Duja’s response to war and exile underlies many of her actions and thoughts in In Love with Jerzy Kosinski.


TSP: You portray a complicated feminism. We see it in your novel as both good and bad, colored in many shades of gray. The feminist can be bitter and angry, a man-basher, or she can be … Anna. Is it fair to call Anna a woman with a feminist heart? At least by end of this story?




Yes, Anna does have a feminist heart. It is there, though submerged, at the beginning of the story when she retreats “to a room of her own,” and even when she complies with Stanley’s sexual demands but has the honesty and independence to be ashamed.  One theme in the novel is the difference between public and private lives (Jerzy Kosinski’s and Andrej’s as well). Like many women, Anna acts on feminist principles in her public life (supporting feminist causes, teaching women writers, lending money to her women students), but she does not bring feminism into her relationships with men.  Her struggle to unite her public and private sides and to live an authentic life is one of the themes of the novel.

I would also say that her friendships with women, imperfect though they may be, show her feminist heart. She values women and she knows she would not have survived without the help and love of women.


TSP: Both of your books seem to say that the wounds inflicted by war last a lifetime. One might learn to cope with these wounds, to live with them, and still, they remain with you, changing you forever. Do you believe in healing? Is it possible?




Absolutely. Healing is possible, and not only from war but from other extreme experiences as well. I am struck by how often I encounter two types of older Latvians: the radiant, positive, loving, and joyful vs. the gray, embittered, and hostile. They have all had had their lives disrupted, lost their homes and their country, and experienced terror and humiliation, but the reactions are diametrically different. To a less immediately obvious extent, these two types can be observed among Americans as well.

So healing is always a blessing but also a bit of a mystery. I know that having the intention to heal is crucial, whether through prayer, therapy, meditation, reading, or really listening to others who have suffered or are suffering. Making a conscious effort to move beyond revenge to forgiveness. Not staying in the story of wrongs but trying to be aware of the present moment. And not competing about who has suffered the most, which I write quite a lot about in In Love with Jerzy Kosinski.


TSP: I was struck by a similarity in the opening scenes of both of your books. In A Woman in Amber, the opening scene is a loving bedroom scene, midlife lovers in an afterglow of tender acceptance. The opening scene of In Love with Jerzy Kosinski brings us into the bedroom again, only this time the lovemaking is superficial, a fakery, with the woman pretending pleasure for the benefit of her man, yet closing herself off from him. Protecting herself. Talk to us about these opening scenes.




Hmm. I haven’t given this similarity much thought. It seemed a natural and simple way to begin, to position two characters next to each other and to suggest some of the issues that will be important in the narrative. Then too, writing is a bit like dreaming (I often make notes in bed), so perhaps that accounts for it. Of course, there may be something more significant; I just don’t see yet.


TSP: It takes a long time, for this woman who has not yet fully begun to appreciate her own strength, to break free from abusive relationships—her husband, her lover, her women friends, even other immigrant Latvians. And yes, finally, even from Jerzy Kosinski. What is it you wish Anna to convey to other women reading this book?




That Anna’s story will resonate with other women, that on some level it will validate their experience, regardless of whether that consists of the fear of being alone, having an emotionally unavailable parent or controlling husband, or falling in love with a much younger man.  Also, that Anna’s story will give women who are in secure and privileged situations a sense of how other women live. Most of all I hope the story gives women courage to take risks and to change their lives.

Maureen Corrigan has observed in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, one of my favorite books about the power of literature, that women’s “extreme adventure stories” are not so much about scaling mountains or shooting the rapids as about courage and persistence and endurance in facing common female experiences--such as leaving an abusive relationship—and the interior changes that accompany these events.  

Hundreds of readers have written to me that A Woman in Amber gave them courage, helped validate their experience, and gave them greater understanding of war and its aftermath. Although we live in a non-literary era, I still believe that books are powerful. I hope that In Love with Jerzy Kosinski will give women as well as men courage, compassion, and tenderness.


TSP: Finally, what comes next? Are there any new works in progress? Ideas simmering?




I’m working on some short pieces right now, some fiction, some not (“A Classical Education in Indiana,” “Elvis, what Really Happened?,” and “The War with Squirrels in My Garden”). I am also reading, thinking, and taking notes for a longer project, a story about my father and my own spiritual journey, which I hope to concentrate on exclusively after In Love with Jerzy Kosinski and A Very Long Friendship are out in the world and living their own lives.

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