When I returned to the United States after many years living abroad, I found myself in Buffalo, not more than 30 miles from Varysburg, New York, where I grew up. A search for a home that took me to Europe, Asia, and South America has come full circle. My parents were refugees fleeing from Latvia after World War ll and they ended up living in Western New York. As a result of their experience, I have internalized the refugee nostalgia for a home that no longer exists, an idealized view of a home we are all searching for, whether it is an unattainable fantasy or the tangible place we construct and painstakingly decorate.
Home in its infinite visions and possibilities has been a defining element of my writing and by extension, so has finding my (or my characters’) place in the world. My first homeland existed only in a dream space. Sleighs floated silently across snowy horse paths, saunas were built on hillsides next to lakes, and wedding celebrations lasted for five days straight. This was the Latvia I grew up with, cobbled together from my parents’ stories and which probably never existed. This place was my starting point.
Growing up on a farm combined with the customs of a Latvian speaking culture gave me a unique view of the world. That combination in the pre-ethnically diverse US gave me the role of an outsider looking in. There was a bright shiny life that as a working class child of immigrants who had an eighth grade education, I didn’t have access to. Yet it is precisely this background that has allowed me to live simultaneously in two different cultures and be open to experiencing many different lifestyles. This has served me well whether I’m writing about immigrant life in the US or life as an expatriate in Spain or looking at how things work in small town America. In my novel, “The Whisper of Silver Birch” I include dainas, the ancient poetic form of Latvian folk songs and in “Summer Scaffolding” I use details from my apartment in Barcelona.
I am a writer with deep roots in that farmhouse in Western New York, but one who has had the opportunity to move with ease in different cultural contexts and languages. I speak Latvian, Spanish, and French (fluently at different points in my life). I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in Colombia, Spain, and Malaysia and have used many of my personal experiences as a starting point for my fiction. These places also came to represent home for me.
Presently, I teach adult refugees and I hope I can provide them with some of the linguistic tools to be able to make their home in the United States much as my parents did. I hope they will be able to tell their stories in a way that gives them acceptance and respect in the community. I have come full circle in the immigrant experience, now working with refugees.