Elin Toona: I want to let those awful moments out; let others read them

Author Elin Toona.
Author Elin Toona. Source: ERR

Cultural programme OP+ recently interviewed author Elin Toona, a refugee Estonian living in the Southeastern US state of Florida, who talked about growing up with her grandmother, her grandfather, poet and children's author Ernst Enno, and her life in the West, among other topics.

Elin, in your case it seems to be that you have inherited at least some of your talent as an author from your grandfather.

Most certainly. My grandfather, Ernst Enno — I heard about him all the time, but I didn't know exactly who he was. We would visit his memorial [in Haapsalu] together with my grandmother and she would say, "This is your grandfather." But I didn't understand this until I was grown.

You grew up with your grandmother.

Totally with my grandmother. My grandmother was the one who, for almost my entire life, until I left for the US, was always by my side, and that is why I am under the influence of them both —and under that of my grandfather through my grandmother.

What was the relationship between your grandmother and your grandfather, Ernst Enno, like? Did they care for each other?

I remember we would go walking along the promenade in Haapsalu every time Aunt Alma played piano, because they didn't want the child to interrupt her. And so we would go and sit by grandfather's memorial and rest our legs, and then grandmother would say, "Now, Erni, such and such is going on and now we are going to such and such," and she would tell grandfather about our daily goings-on. I had a feeling that he was listening, but he wouldn't answer. I understood, too, that he had other things to do. But grandmother would share all of her worries with grandfather.

How little were you, when you fled from Estonia?

Seven years old.

Do you remember anything about it?

I begin writing at all because I see everything as a film. I see pictures and I explain those pictures that I remember, and so it has gone.

Your previous book, "Into Exile," touches on precisely that period, when you fled from Estonia. How difficult is it to put these at times appalling memories to paper and then read them again?

To be honest, it isn't difficult. The thing is, when someone has experienced something that is perhaps terrible or scary or something that they remember, then you either hold that inside yourself or let it out. For some reason I decided that I would let it out. There is more room out in the world than there is in my head. And so I write all the time. I want to let those moments out; let others read them. I look in astonishment myself — I don't know if I remember. But that doesn't bother me anymore.

The topic that all of your books have been about always goes back to exile.

My mother signed a contract with England, and there were many others to whom England granted the opportunity to come and work in factories and hospitals and, after five years, English citizenship. Of course everyone was fascinated, because this was Shakespeare country and all that good stuff. My mother signed the contract in 1947, and my grandmother and I remained at the [displaced persons] camp in Germany. And then we followed after her, and to be honest, horrible things happened after that, and nobody was prepared for it, because the English stratified system — you're either high up or low down, or totally at the bottom, and seriously, we — educated, intelligent people — were stuck in the bottommost class, among the most illiterate. This is what oppressed us. Not that we would have been afraid of work, but rather the way we were treated. For example, we couldn't look those that were supposedly above us in the eye. This is what mentally bothered me. The work was nothing, although the work was also very difficult.

But your newest book, "Mihkel, muuseas," is a horse of a different color. This is a humorous and cheerful book.

"Mihkel, muuseas" is a horse of a different color because it is about those who went to London, and they had a better life. But the whole story is very cheerful and totally the opposite of "Into Exile." At least I am alleviating the dark image left by "Into Exile."

What is your life like in Florida? If you say that there are almost no Estonians there.

Yes, I live in a little place called Palm Harbor, and the nearest Estonians live about an hour's drive away. But because it is so hot there, and I don't have anything in common with them, then occasionally I've pulled myself together and gone for Estonian Independence Day. They are nice and good people, but I don't really know them, nor they me.

Haven't you considered really coming home here to Estonia, where there are so many people who love you?

Yes, actually that is in the works for me right now. My son just rented an apartment for himself. This is something I'm considering. I have remained an Estonian, even though I've traveled the entire world. Estonia is somehow still my homeland. I'm only sorry that I couldn't come back here, as my home was taken away from me. But I now have my own bench with my name on it in Haapsalu, so even if I have nowhere else to go, then I can go sit on my own bench.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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