TCR Talks with Kaia Gallagher, author of Candles for the Defiant

By Yennie Cheung

Despite Estonia’s declaration of neutrality during World War II, the Soviet Union invaded and illegally occupied the small Baltic country in 1940, leading to mass executions and deportations of Estonians to Siberia. In Candles for the Defiant: Discovering My Family’s Estonian Past, debut author Kaia Gallagher uncovers her family’s history in the region during the war.

At its core a story of love and loyalty, the book focuses on Asta Vares—the mysterious aunt whose wartime death long haunted Gallagher’s family—and Asta’s fiancé, Bruno Kulgma Kull, a law student who joined the Communist Party as an Estonian patriot secretly working to protect his fellow citizens. When Germany occupied the country, he struggled, despite immense proof, to convince Nazi leadership of his true allegiances to his homeland. We caught up with Gallagher to ask about crafting a narrative with incomplete facts, the lasting effects of war, and how she researched her family—and, in fact, a nation’s—history.


The Coachella Review: You start Chapter One with this moment when you’re five years old, and you inadvertently make your grandmother cry when you ask about your Aunt Asta. It reminded me of my family’s history: a lot of immigrants and refugees don’t want to talk about the past when it’s traumatic. You even mentioned that your mother said that she needed to focus on survival. That often stops people from asking questions about the past, let alone writing an entire book on it. So when do you decide to write this book?

Kaia Gallagher: Well, let me just point out that, despite the fact that my family did not want to talk about the past, I always had questions about who I was and where we came from. So before I even started writing the book, I had enormous curiosity about this untold story. My mother and her parents left Estonia just six years before I was born, so they left behind everything of who they were and the friends and relatives that were around them—the life they had. It was a story interrupted. It was not just simply that people didn’t want to talk about the past [or] who they used to be… it was history that was very much alive in my family, even though we didn’t talk about it. I think there was a lot of unresolved grief about my relatives having to lose their Estonian identity. There was this sort of background sadness; it’s like a shadow. I refer to it almost as a ghost—this sort of presence of an identity of who my relatives were that I didn’t really understand.

It wasn’t really until I was in my thirties that I could visit Estonia for the first time, and I think it was at that point when I really resolved to write down some of this history. Initially, it was a matter of interviewing my mother and just saying, These little pieces you’ve told me—they don’t quite fit together. I don’t really understand how you got from one place to the other, and how long you stayed in a displaced persons camp before you met my father. And she was an unreliable narrator. She didn’t want to tell me the story. So it took a long time. And then, of course, it took me a long time to figure out how to write it.

TCR: Especially since she was so unreliable, how did you get her to open up to you? Was it just a matter of time and persistence? Or did you employ certain tactics to get her to speak to you more openly?

KG: I don’t know if there was any one good strategy. I think it was persistence. She kept saying, “Why are you asking me all these questions?” I would bring out the photo albums and say, “Tell me, who are these people?” And she’d say, “I don’t know. Just stop asking me these questions.” So it was a long, arduous process. I think as she got older, for whatever reason, she was more open to telling me, and then maybe she started to trust why I was asking. This was something she could share with me and could help me to understand.

TCR: Did it help her to know that you were writing a book? Did she even know that you were writing a book?

KG: Well, there was a time when she could tell that I was writing down what she was saying. I shared with her what I had written, and… she went, “Oh, this is about me!” And I thought either I didn’t really capture [what she’d said], because I didn’t quite understand it, or she could see herself in a story. She could see someone else looking at her story from the outside, and that was a revelation to her. So she knew I was writing. Unfortunately, by the time I was well into knowing what the story was going to be, she was in poor health, so she never read the full story.

TCR: You mentioned in the book other relatives and people who your mom knew back in Estonia, and you were able to talk to quite a few people. One moment that stands out to me was your visiting your aunt in Stockholm, when she’s holding dirt from Estonia. So the impression I get from reading the book—and this may not be true—is that a lot of the other relatives seemed more open to telling you about their lives in Estonia than your more immediate family was. Is that at all true?

KG: I think so. My uncle was ten years younger than my mother. When they left [Estonia], my mother was [about] twenty-four; my uncle would have been about fourteen. He was a much more optimistic man. [He] went back and was very connected to his Estonian roots. My mother, I think, was more traumatized by what happened and really wanted to create a new life in the United States and did not really identify with the Estonian expat community. I mean, she had friends—she was friendly with people who were Estonians—but she didn’t seek them out. In other words, she didn’t self-identify after she came to the United States. She wanted to be American.

TCR: Did you find that more people you talked to were resistant to telling their story, or do you feel that more were like your uncle?

KG: Well, you read the book. It has lots of footnotes. So I spent a lot of time doing research, reading other stories, finding historical accounts to flesh out the story, and I can’t really say that people did not want to tell me. It’s just that if someone were to say, Tell me what it was like when you were twenty years old in some place, you may or may not remember all the details. So to tell the complete story, I had to take a 360º view, using as many resources I as I could to say, What would it be like to be in that position? I know the chronological details… but really, what was that experience like? So it wasn’t so much that people didn’t want to tell me as that people told me what they remembered.

TCR: And you did do a lot of research. Can you tell me a bit about the research process for you?

KG: Well, fortunately, if you go to the internet and you plug in a question, a lot of times there are many, many resources that you could find that you would never expect to. There are some academic platforms that I still get notices [from about] PDFs from European researchers who are describing historical events from Eastern Europe. And certainly, since Estonia regained its independence, many Estonian authors and historians have committed to recovering this history. I have a Ph.D. [and] a background in research, so it’s easy for me to plug away at finding as many different resources that could tell me the answer to the questions I was asking.

I think the challenge when you’re trying to pull together a story [is] you would want to know what happened in a specific town on a specific date. In some cases, there were remarkable resources… but other parts of the story were maybe a little harder to access. When I did my [MFA] graduate lecture, I talked about the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. The challenge when there are these gaps is to be able to describe [what really happened] in a way that’s relatable [and] to do it in a way that you’re honest about—that you can say, I’m imagining… or It must have been… or He could have thought…. Because I was writing this in part for an American audience but also for an Estonian audience, I wanted to be as accurate in telling the story as I could and to be honest about where I got this information: Here’s how why I’m telling this story this way, because [of] this reference or this journal article, or this book. That’s what some people said happened eighty years ago now.

TCR: I feel like most people getting their nonfiction MFA degrees focus on memoir and personal essays, but this isn’t your personal story so much as it’s your family’s story from before you were born. You get a lot of this information from your mother, but it’s very much a story about Asta and Bruno. What was working on this book like in an MFA program? What did you learn, what were your influences, or how did it affect your sense of craft?

KG: I mentioned earlier that I had a long career in research and writing technical reports, so I’ll just admit that when I started the MFA program, I had no idea how to tell a good story! Nonfiction was my major, but fiction was my [minor], so I read a lot about people who were straddling that boundary between telling a true story and fictionalizing it. Let’s just put into context here that if you’re writing your own memoir, sometimes it’s challenging to be factual because you may or may not be your most reliable narrator. So the MFA program exposed me to good writing. And as I worked on different chapters, there were people who encouraged me to fictionalize this story. I had been tempted to change it into a fictionalized account, but for all the reasons I mentioned before, I chose not to, and I think I had good guidance from my professors about how to maneuver through writing something that I wanted to write in a way that was relatable—that would read like a novel.

TCR: I mentioned a moment ago that this book focuses a lot on Asta and Bruno, but you get a lot of this information from your mother. You even mentioned that she realized that you were writing about her. Was there a conscious decision to focus more on Asta and Bruno rather than your mom?

KG: Well, the mystery for me was, Who was Asta, this person that was so important in my mother’s life? And when I was able to get access to more information through the Estonian National Archives on Bruno, I realized that, in some ways, Bruno’s story is emblematic of what happened in Estonia. He was a person caught in the middle, as Estonia as a country was, with no way to represent [himself as] the best of being an Estonian patriot. So his story, to me, extends this beyond being a family story to an Estonian story.

TCR: You mentioned in the book that there are people who remember Bruno differently from the way your family does. In your family, the portrayal of him is that of a hero. And then you talked to someone who remembered him as a communist. With your research and everything you’ve discovered about him, there’s so much that corroborates the idea of him being a communist. And yet, all of these accounts say he actually wasn’t. So were you able to talk to any of these people who viewed him as a communist [and] show them he wasn’t? Were there any reactions to their memories being wrong?

KG: The short answer would be no, because when I was writing the book, it was eighty years after the war, so anybody who would have known him was either in very poor health or dying. In other words, there were no witnesses. My mother had suffered a stroke. My uncle became demented. I didn’t really have anybody in my immediate circle that I could talk to. The person you referenced who said, “Oh, yes, he was a communist” heard that through hearsay. But what I tried to do through the extensive—and some would say laborious—reporting from Bruno’s prisons was to document what he did and why he did it. And clearly, he was a communist—he had the red card, he was in the party leadership—but at the same time, he had his own motives, and his intent was always to represent Estonia’s best interests.

TCR: With all of these personal accounts and all this research that you’ve uncovered, are there any holes in the story that you still haven’t been able to fill? Any particular things that you still wish you could ask about?

KG: If I could have read newspaper articles from that time, who knows what more of a broader view I could have found about how people thought about Bruno. I mean, he did give, I think, it was fourteen public lectures. I don’t know what those were about. There was some hint from Asta’s diary that people were speaking badly of him. I can only speculate on how awkward that was for him to be the public face of the Communist Party, knowing that he was very patriotic, that he was very intelligent, that he had studied Estonian law, that he was really trying to pretend to be a communist for what we would say were noble motives. That’s the limit of nonfiction. I could say, “Here are all the facts.” In a fictionalized account, I could have perhaps described more of the pathos of his struggle to be what, deep down, he did not believe in at all and to be a witness to what the Communist Party was doing in Estonia, knowing that there was nothing he could outwardly do about it.

TCR: For me, one of the hardest parts to read was when your family escapes Estonia on a German ship, watching the Soviet planes bomb them and other ships, including a Red Cross hospital ship. Was this something that you knew about growing up?

KG: Only vaguely. I think I mentioned that if I asked my mother, “How did you leave?” she would say, “We left on a ship.” And then she would say a week or a month later, “And it was good thing we were on that ship.” And then she would say, “Because if we weren’t on that ship, we could have [died]. There was a bomb… The hospital ship…” And I was like, “What hospital ship?”

You know, it’s a relatively small world. It turned out that one of my neighbors growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, was also an Estonian expatriate. She lived three streets down from where we lived, and she was on the same boat as my mother. She wrote a book where she described being on that ship and watching the hospital ship sink. So I’ve heard accounts from other people, but it was only when I [started] putting together these little puzzle pieces of like, Okay, this is the date. This is where the ship was. This is how many people were on the ship—when I [started] pulling together all of the different factual accounts of that event—[that I] imagined my mother standing on the dock or the big platform of the upper deck, watching this and being horrified that they were almost on the [bombed hospital] boat.

TCR: For me, reading it was like reading a scene out of a movie like “Pearl Harbor” or “Dunkirk.” How did your mother react to movies about World War II?

KG: You know, there used to be a show on PBS, “The World at War,” I think it was called. It was footage from World War II. My dad would always [want] to watch it, and I remember [my mother would] sit there with her arms folded. My dad was watching more as an adventurer, as an American soldier understanding this war. My mother was someone who was living while the war was happening around her, so she struggled. She didn’t talk about it, but I imagine it was really tough for her. Brought back terrible memories, I’m sure.

TCR: Does knowing what you know shape the way you watch movies or documentaries?

KG: You know, a pretty awkward and very difficult part of what’s happening right now in Ukraine is that my brothers and my cousins who are Estonian really struggle with this ongoing war. Part of it is that there are so many dimensions of it that are replays of what my parents experienced. So at the beginning, when there were thousands of Ukrainians who were escaping, and they had had those pictures of the Ukrainians who were crowding the railroad station, trying to get out, it was really difficult for me to watch. My brothers and I have weekly Zoom calls where we talk about what is happening. My brother Michael lives thirty miles from the Russian border. So this ongoing, let’s just say aggression—the bombs that are killing civilians, the devastation in Ukraine—is hard to watch because you would think we’d have learned how to go beyond having that kind of war. You could say the same thing is what’s happening in Gaza. We have wars in other parts of the world, but for us, the fact that it’s the Russians that are attacking Ukraine just has extra resonance.

TCR: There’s a part in your book where you mentioned Estonian diplomats asking the US to condemn the Soviet deportations of Estonians to Siberia, and their response is just an issue of sympathy and a refusal to help. To me, that sounded like, “Thoughts and prayers.” It just seems like there’s so much that we can take from eighty years ago and transfer to now.

KG: Not only that, but it’s alarming if you listen to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s speeches, because he talks about this concept of “Greater Russia.” And his ambition appears to be to recreate the boundaries of Russia as they were during Peter the Great. He talks about Poland and Lithuania as if they should be part of Russia. Whether he would, in fact, go next after Ukraine to attack Poland is an open question, but in his mind, the war he has created is not just a regional conflict between the Ukrainians and the Russians. It’s part of a larger worldview that Putin has about Russia’s place in the world, and that’s very alarming.

TCR: Estonia existing, as a neutral country, between the Soviet Union and Germany was like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. To see that the Soviet Union basically used the war as way of taking over Estonia and other countries… I read that thinking that, when the Germans took over the country, Estonia would think, The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But you also mentioned that Estonia was not okay with what the Nazis were doing to Jewish people, and so much of what the Soviets did to their enemies—like deporting Estonians to Siberia—to me sounded parallel to some of the things that were happening with concentration camps, essentially.

KG: There’s a great book called “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder. He compares Stalin and Hitler to ask the question of who killed more people.

TCR: And what were those numbers? Or what were the conclusions?

KG: The numbers are staggering. I don’t know that there was a final tally. It was just to say that both of them were murderous and killed millions.

TCR: We’re getting into things that are no longer really about your book. But I do see that you have a whiteboard behind you with a lot of notes. Are you writing anything else, whether it’s about Estonia or not?

KG: That’s just my self-publishing whiteboard. I did try to take a traditional route. I sent out one hundred queries to agents and probably to two dozen independent publishers. And what I learned was that the publishing industry is a business, and if they look at books like, say, a memoir about World War II and my mother’s family, it doesn’t appear to be a bestseller. So I ended up learning how to publish the book myself and going through all the steps, creating a copyright, getting the ISBN, and doing the formatting. So this elaborate whiteboard [contains] the steps of publishing that I’ve been taking.

To answer your question, I do have an idea about a book I’d like to write about Colorado and the homesteaders up in the mountain communities, and I’ve pulled together material thinking about that.

Yennie Cheung is the executive editor of The Coachella Review and the co-author of the book DTLA/37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside-Palm Desert, and her writing has been published in such places as The Los Angeles TimesWriters ResistAngels Flight • Literary WestThe Rattling Wall, and The Best Small Fictions.