Why the Baltic countries? It’s a question I’ve been asked many times since Vagabond Voices started publishing novels from the region. The truth is, I underwent no Damascene conversion to this literature, rather the reasons for my interest in publishing it are a mix of personal interests, business considerations and an evolving relationship.
When I first visited the London Book Fair in 2010, I gravitated to the Estonian stand. Small languages are something of an obsession of mine, as I spent much of my childhood abroad, surrounded not only by other languages but also by interesting language conflicts. In addition, the independence of certain small cultures from the Soviet Union was a subject close to my heart. I would be deceitful, however, if I didn’t mention that, as a publisher, my interest was also partly influenced by the 100% translation grants offered by all three Baltic countries.
I was most persuaded to commit to this region, though, by my 2014 visits to Tallinn, Vilnius and Riga, where I found that all three Baltic countries are very much defined by languages, their political borders following their linguistic ones more closely than elsewhere in Europe. Language is therefore the prime indicator of Baltic national identity, and literature is held untypically dear. In fact, one of the great joys of working with these countries is their attachment both to their own literatures and to literature in general.
Another attraction to Baltic literature is that, in my experience, because small languages aren’t widely studied and their literatures are therefore less accessible, one can often find hidden masterpieces. Such an example is Antanas Škėma’s White Shroud, which is considered Lithuania’s modernist masterpiece, and which Vagabond have just published this year. We’re about to publish another such gem: I Loved a German by A.H. Tammsaare, who is considered Estonia’s greatest writer and something of a national hero. I never expected when I started in this business that I would publish a man whose statue sits in eternal, erudite thoughtfulness in the centre of a park bearing his name.
The White Shroud and I Loved a German are also topical: the first, a story of a refugee from WWII inhabiting the limbo of displaced persons’ camps, describes the alienation and mental anguish of all refugees. It reminds us Europeans that we were once – like the Syrians of today – forced to leave home in search of other havens, however unwelcoming. The second book, which also concerns tolerance, examines in a more light-hearted key and beautifully discursive prose the doomed relationship between an Estonian of peasant background and the daughter of an expropriated Baltic-German landowner. Vagabond don’t just search for classics, though: my current favourites include contemporary novels, such as Ričardas Gavelis’s Memoirs of a Life Cut Short and Pauls Bankvoskis’s 18.
There’s a logic to concentrating on one particular region. It takes time to find out who the local writers, translators, publishers and funders are and how they work; and particular languages and translations have specific editorial issues, so it is necessary – and time-consuming – to build up knowledge of a country’s and a language’s political and cultural history. A small publisher such as Vagabond should therefore not spread its translation nets too wide: we do publish works from other countries, but we are now heavily invested in Baltic literature and will remain so for some time.
By Allan Cameron
Allan Cameron is the editorial director of Vagabond Voices. He has written two novels, two collections of short stories, a nonfiction work, two collections of poetry and translated twenty-four books.