Shedding light on the Estonian poetry of Kristiina Ehin

Tiffany Liaw/HIGHLANDER
Tiffany Liaw/HIGHLANDER

The Estonian writer Kristiina Ehin is far from ordinary. The holder of the 2007 Coneliu Popescu Prize, Ehin is extremely well-known for her strong use of grotesque yet beautiful imagery. The writer, singer and accordion-player has earned awards and recognition for her renowned works such as “The Drums of Silence” and “1001 Winters: A Collection of Poems.” She visited UCR Wednesday, Oct. 8 to discuss her collection of modern and surreal folktales, “Walker on Water.”

At 3 p.m., INTS 1109 bustled with quiet murmurs when she walked in, although it seemed as if she floated in with her long, floral dress. She stoked up a conversation with some staff members and proceeded to take a seat in the audience after discussing the program, attempting to clarify the order of events. A few guests slowly trickled into the intimate atmosphere and took their seats. Anxiously awaiting the Estonian author, the audience watched as she paced in and out of the room as if she was slightly unsure of when to begin.

After a formal introduction, Ehin warmly thanked the small crowd and apologized for her accent and absent-mindedness, as she had not yet adjusted to the time change. With “Walker on Water” in hand, she began, “I can dedicate this story to everyone who has dedicated everything to their families and those who can carry on with their hobby and not compare to anyone else.” As she continued to do the reading, her ghostly yet beautiful voice glided over the words with such ease that the audience felt relaxed and engaged. Even as she narrated horrific details, such as a woman biting off her husband’s arm thinking it was chocolate, she maintained her calm voice and was not distracted by the chuckles among the audience.

Ehin needed a break from the reading and her husband, Silver Sepp, stepped onstage. He introduced an instrument from his native land of Estonia called a kannel, which consisted of a log and a couple of nails connected by string sticking out from it. Intrigued in a new way, the audience members took pictures and marveled at the foreign instrument. Ehin then joked, “You can’t imagine how dangerous it is to sit in his car,” while the guests all laughed along.

As the crowd hushed, Sepp took the bows of the two string instruments and moved them along the nails to create different tones that sounded like a person blowing air over a bottle and sang along to the eerie sounds. Soon enough, I felt as if I was sitting in the middle of an ancient war movie scene, minus the leaves and weapons flying around me. Sepp sang about Ehin jokingly, and encouraged the crowd to sing along with him while he waved his hands to pump everyone up. He received a round of applause after the end of his song and Ehin resumed the spotlight to read more of her passages. This pattern continued for another round with Sepp’s instrumentals acting as a sort of intermission for Ehin’s readings.

Toward the end of the readings, Ehin proceeded to answer questions from the audience. When asked about her controversially macabre and shocking style of writing, she responded that the critic “did not like me using first-person … but I enjoy having different tones and stories!” Ehin was very proud to admit that despite the criticism she received for “Walker on Water,” she continued to remain true to her fans and produce the best novels that “are very cruel, but honest and mythological, as there is usually no Hollywood ending.” One might say her style is creepy. On the other hand, it truly creates interesting plots that prove to be captivating, regardless of her inattentiveness to the general concepts of writing such as romance or death.

She also explained that even though at first she did not have any interest in pursuing writing, she realized that channeling all her energy into her hatred for writing was a waste of time. With the help of her mother, she decided to give writing another chance and, ever since then, is grateful for the extra push. Ehin was also grateful for her husband’s support and love. She joked that he had stayed by her side even after reading the story of the wife biting off her husband’s arm. “It was a way to test him,” she explained. “Women must be clever and test before she marries!”

Some of Ehin’s impressive endeavors include presenting a poem to President Obama when he visited Estonia and her diary documenting the time she lived alone on an island at a research area. The island was practically uninhabited aside from a few native inhabitants scattered around the area and to her, “It was like a paradise, and one of the most beautiful and difficult times of life.” The stay helped her truly connect with nature and tie those elements into her writing to preserve her native Estonian heritage.

To wrap up the event, Ehin and Sepp sang a surprise duet they named “Very Last Days Without Snow.” The spotlight alternated from Sepp on the clarinet to Ehin on her accordion. Finally, the audience members rose to their feet, while a small crowd gathered near the back of the room where the publishers were selling her works. Overall, everyone seemed satisfied, inspired and properly entertained for the evening. It was definitely a remarkably beautiful piece to end the day with.

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