Emil Tode  

Emil and the Border Country ...
Emil Tode was awarded the Tupilak Prize in Stockholm (June 1996) for the first “gay” novel to be published in Estonia. We talked with him about it.

Published: Die Andere Welt, August 1996 in German. A short version in ERATO Autumn 1996. In this form in English here for the first time.

C.M-S: Since I am not very good at either Estonian or Swedish -  the two languages in which your book has been published -  can you tell me something about it, please?

Emil T.: The novel is written in the form of letters, from and author who lives in Paris to someone called Angelo. The sex of the author is not clear – which is quite easy in the Estonian language. The author of the letters translates French poetry into the language of a small east European country. It seems as though he has poisoned the professor in whose flat he has lived – but this is not certain. The author of the letters explains to Angelo his upbringing – including his childhood in this east European country.

C.M-S: You were awarded the Tupilak (the Nordic Association for gay and lesbian cultural workers) prize for the first Estonian gay novel.  Is it correct that yours is the first Estonian novel which deals openly with homosexuality?

Emil T.: I should say I did not intend to write a “gay novel" but somehow the word has been attached to it. I am not sure that it is good to put such a label on a novel.

C.M-S: Do you think it is wrong to describe the novel in this way?

Emil T.: Not necessarily wrong, but it's not the best way to perceive and read literature. I think in this way we build a ghetto or create a sect for ourselves. One has either to be a member of the sect or not. Those who are outside are super-critical, and those in the sect are like “believers”  who worship at a shrine. Somehow it cuts of others who might read it if they didn't know beforehand it was a ,,gay" novel. Naturally there was discussion of this in Estonia.

C.M-S.: What caused the discussion?

Emil T.: The media didn’t directly discuss the homosexual theme, but the book was quite quickly translated and published abroad. The discussion was about whether such a book should “represent” Estonia abroad. Some people didn't like the idea of a “pinky book" representing Estonia but that wasn’t the opinion of the majority. It won a prize from Baltic Parliamentary Assembly well as the Estonian National Prize for Prose which was awarded for the first time in 1994 – and to my novel.

C.M-S.: Novelists often put their own experiences into a novel. Is that so in your case?

Emil T.: Certainly, but it is not directly autobiographic. That isn’t necessary, because one has to depict circumstances which fit the characters and facts – and in this process things are changed. I didn’t write a novel to relate the story of my life, - which is no more interesting than that of many others.  What makes the story interesting is how I develop the plot. Somehow I have to believe in the characters and have a picture of them.

C.M-S.: You have to imagine the novel in your head?

Emil T.: Exactly. Sometimes I think we all live in our own heads.

C.M-S.: Is this the first novel in the Estonian language with homosexuality as a theme?

Emil T.: Not the very first. There is an earlier novel published by an author living in Stockholm in exile during the Second World War. But mine, is the first to cause such a public discussion on the topic.

C.M-S.: What is your family background?

Emil T.: Absolutely normal. My mother was a book-keeper and father an agronomist. We lived in a small house on the outskirts of Tallinn.

C.M-S.: Did your family accept it easily when you said you were gay?

Emil T.: We have never discussed it. Both my parents are very old, and the seem to accept me. They read my books and the newspapers too, - but we have never discussed the topic - and with certainty will not do so.

C.M-S.: Why not?

Emil T.: They can’t discuss it. - and it would help no-one if I went to them and said: "Mother, Father I am gay!" They know that and accept the fact, because they love their son.

C.M-S.: What’s the situation for ordinary gays & lesbians?

Emil T.: I often think that intellectuals have it easier. There are no anti gay laws, the themes are openly discussed newspapers, but in ordinary families the ideas are very old fashioned .

C.M-S.: You told me you wrote poetry -

Emil T.: Yes. I started when I was student and published my first book of poetry in 1985. Some have been published in as part of a collection in Finnish and French. It’s not easy to get things published in English - there is a massive supply of all literature in English. Border Land is my first novel.

By the by, Border Land (Grenzland) will be published in Germany by Hanser Verlag in München. (March 1997)

C.M-S.: Good, then I shall finally be able to read it. I wish you success with your novel, and thank you for the interview.

C. de la Motte-Sherman
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