Nelson, British Columbia author, naturalist and activist K. Linda Kivi grew up in Toronto. Her recent published work has focused on the Columbia Mountains where she has been growing roots for the last two decades. Most Estonian readers know her through the 1995 book If Home is a Place, the experiences of three Estonian refugee women displaced by World War II to Canada. Her latest, the novella Letter from Lubumbashi, published this spring by New Orphic Publishers, could be said to mine the same vein, albeit with major differences.
If Home is a Place is built on the complexities of Estonian mother-daughter relationships and coping with dislocation from the ancestral homeland. Letter from Lubumbashi, on the other hand, is the tale of an African refugee, wrested from his village and his ambitious plans for the future thanks to the aftermath of European colonialist policies. Worst among them were – and are still - the environmental rape and pillage of Africa’s natural resources and the ensuing inter-tribal wars. The focus is on his desire decades after leaving his war-torn homeland for the safety offered by Canada to reconnect with his father.
Kivi chooses to write from a male, Congolese refugee perspective, placing her protagonist in Scarborough, part of Canada’s most multicultural city. When Kivi was raised in Toronto’s Estonian refugee community such groups were mostly small, European, law-abiding and inward-looking. Today’s megapolitan Toronto is home to large and vocal refugee and immigrant communities of whom some think nothing of illegally and noisily shutting down busy highways and major streets to make their point about what ills have befallen their former homeland. Times have indeed changed.
Refugee Joseph, a Congolese stonemason, attempts to reach his father in a familiar, old-fashioned way – writing thought-out lines carefully by hand, placing them in a blue airmail envelope, dropping the sealed letter into a red Canada Post box on a quiet suburban street. No emails, no cell phones, no text messages for him. Remember, the majority of the world’s people are computerless and still rely on regular mail for communication, a fact forgotten in complacent modern North America. Joseph has no idea if his father is still alive, nor whether there will be anyone in the village to recognize the sender. It is truly a case of reaching into the past.
There are similarities with the efforts of Estonians writing to addresses behind the Iron Curtain two generations and more ago. Is anyone alive there? Have they been sent to the GULAG? What to write so that the censors will let the letter through? Unimaginable for today’s press a button and communicate immediately (and often thoughtlessly if not mindlessly) generation.
As the days and weeks pass after Joseph makes the decision to bridge the years, memories begun to return. Memories that pop up unbidden, of events that Joseph’s wife and three children know nothing about. For Joseph, like many men, has chosen not to talk about war, the cruelty, and the pain of the past to his loved ones. Instead, he pours himself into his labours. He works quietly with his strong hands, fitting rocks and stones into dry walls, shaping and selecting the correct piece to finish the puzzle of a permanent structure. But inner turmoil increases as his peaceful family life in an adopted country comes into growing contrast with the ghosts of war. These internal struggles take their toll on his physical and mental health. These universal themes apply to any man raised to keep silence about war, stress, loss, most of all about fear and bravery.
As was the case for far, far too many in the last century, war erases even traces of existence. And afterwards: either Siberia on Stalin’s orders, or fleeing Mobutu’s bloodthirsty forces. Or from the wreckage created by any war.
The novella packs an emotional wallop. It is written simply, with no excess, no bathos. Letter from Lubumbashi is dedicated to the author’s father Arnold Kivi, a man much like Joseph – a craftsman of few words, talented hands, a love and respect for nature and the quiet poetry of simplicity. It is also dedicated to all the men who have regretted war. After reading the last lines of Joseph’s story I am most grateful that thanks to many, many such fathers I was saved from being in that category.
Order info online: www3.telus.net/neworphicpublishers-hekkanen Regular mail: New Orphic Publishers, 706 Mill Street, Nelson, B.C. V1L 4S5 Canada. $16 + $7 for postage and handling.
To all the men who have regretted war