The current must-reads in Baltic contemporary literature


With national literatures written in three languages so different that readers cannot apprehend texts without full literary translations, the cultural and literary exchange among the three Baltic countries Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia has long been a bit challenging. In 2018 however, the cooperation reached a turning point when the cooperation of the three countries’ writers’ unions was established and carried out by support of the Nordic Culture Point. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia also formed a joint market-focus representation at London Book Fair 2018. Each country is proud for its unique literary texts – here are some must-reads of contemporary literature from the Baltic states compiled by Latvian prose writer Inga Žolude!


Latvian writer Nora Ikstena’s novel Mother’s Milk (Mātes piens, 2015) is a story about a mother and daughter relationship and fate inflicted by the Soviet regime back in 1960s to 1980s. Therefore the English translation title Soviet Milk (published in 2018 by Peirene Press) emphasizes the Soviet context and the tragically evil manipulation with a human being in the person of a woman who is a mother and whose life, poisoned by the regime, leads to her decision not to breastfeed her daughter in order not to hand down a life, which no human being deserves. Still they both live, but is it Life? The novel has been published also in Estonian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Russian, Georgian, Macedonian, and is about to come out in Swedish, German, Croatian, Ukrainian, Arabic, and Japanese languages.

Another brilliant historical novel Wicker Monk (Klūgu mūks, 2014) is written by outstanding Latvian writer, poet, and playwright Inga Ābele. The novel tells about a Latgalian (region in the territory of Latvia bordering with Russia, historically inhabited by Latgalian tribe) catholic priest and his life challenges and conflicts within a broader and more global context. Being a historical person, he played essential role in the formation of Latgalian social, cultural, and spiritual self-awareness and identity in 19th-20th century, in the time of Russian Empire. The author masterfully as nobody else intertwines the lives and fates of a wide range of characters, including historically precise story about another Latgalian historical person – a pilot and his wish to fly over the borders. The novel has been translated and published into Swedish in 2018, as well as Lithuanian.


Tiit Aleksejev became a writer after being educated as a historian and worked as a diplomat. His recently completed trilogy of novels on the First Crusade have won praise from critics and love from readers in twelve languages so far. In 2010 the first part of the novel The Pilgrimage (Palveränd, 2008) was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature, and since then it has been published in Finnish, French, Italian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Latvian and other languages.


Maarja Kangro, a writer, poet, and translator from German and Italian wrote her first novel The Glass Child (Klaaslaps, 2016) on her personal experience after a row of previously unsuccessful attempts at conception, having pregnancy where the embryo was diagnosed with acrania and anencephaly or the lack of a part of the skull, which makes the child-to-be unable to live. This novel, talented writing in itself, became an example of daring and courageous act to speak of one’s experience on the subject more often than not avoided. In the short time since its publishing in the original, it has already been published in German and in Latvian.


Lithuanian writer Kristina Sabaliauskaitė holds a PhD in art history and is the author of historical tetralogy Silva Rerum (2008, 2011, 2014, 2016), the four novels of which focus on Lithuanian Norvaiša family in 17th-18th centuries, when existed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The novels are based on colossal historical research and talent to tell a story of the past in a wider historical context, but most importantly – of the people. The books have been translated in Polish and Latvian where they have become bestsellers.

Lithuanian writer Undinė Radzevičiūtė has gained readers’ appraisal and won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2015 for her novel Fishes and Dragons (Žuvys ir drakonai, 2015). It is a rare, not to say unique, example of Baltic region author’s writing interest in Chinese culture – the task which Undinė Radzevičiūtė performs in a splendidly credible manner, being herself an art historian, and telling a story of a Jesuit painter in China of 18th century. The novel has been published also in German, Italian, Estonian, and Hungarian, and is about to come out also in Spanish, Latvian, and Bulgarian.

Inga Žolude
Latvian writer and expert in the Expert Group for Support for Artist Residencies

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