hear the harp of Väinämöinen...

Kate Laity photo

K. A. Laity is the author of Pelzmantel and Unikirja, a collection of short stories based on the Kalevala, Kanteletar and other Finnish myths and legends. She also teaches medieval literature and she founded the kantele group on Yahoo. During the 2011-2012 academic year, she’ll be at the National University of Ireland, Galway on a Fulbright grant.

Louhi's Daughter: An Interview With Kate Laity

by Lani K. Thompson

Lani: You started Yahoo's kantele group back in 2002 and, the last time I looked, it had over 200 members. How does today's group match up to the hopes and expectations you had when you first thought about forming it? >/p>

Kate: I really had no expectation except to be able to run across other kantele enthusiasts when they might come across it. There’s not a ton of sites out there for kantele players, especially in English.

Lani: What do you think is the most valuable function of the kantele forum?

Kate: I think the best part is that people in widely disparate locations get to share their love of the instrument — people share tunes, techniques, and skills. It’s wonderful.

Lani: In what ways could the forum improve?

Kate: More people!

Lani: What's your own experience with kanteles? Are you a player, performer, composer?

Kate: I started out with a ten string from Gerry Henkel. I got to make a five string at the Maine Kantele Institute a few years back, where I got a big boost in playing as well. I have played off and on with the group Louhi’s Daughters with my friends Minna Popkin and Kasha Breau. I’m thinking of busking here in Galway with my kantele.

Lani: What would you like to add to your knowledge or exerience of kanteles?

Kate: I want to be a better player, but I’m not really that worried about it.

Lani: Do you have a kantele "dream"?

Kate: Oh, yeah: I’d love to have a concert kantele and I would really like an electric fifteen string.

Lani: Your second book, Unikirja, is a collection of short stories based on the Kalevala and Kanteletar. What inspired you to retell these stories and in what ways do your re-tellings differ from the "originals"?

Kate: One of the biggest differences is that I’ve given them a womanly slant. A lot of stories re-imagine how the tales would look from a woman’s point of view, especially when it comes to Louhi the witch of the north.

Lani: Does the kantele have a place in your book and, if so, what is it?

Kate: I have a story that explores the magic of the instrument, and you can read an excerpt elsewhere on this page:

Lani: Unikirja won you a 2006 Finlandia Foundation grant. What project did you undertake with the grant?

Kate: I was excited to learn about the ancient rock paintings that you can find in places like Saima Lake, so I got a grant to go there and experience them first hand. One of the photos I took ended up as the cover image for Unikirja.

Lani: I understand you're going to be in Galway on a Fulbright Scholar Program for the 2011-12 academic year. What do you hope to accomplish while you're there?

Kate: In the spring I will be teaching a course on writers in the digital age. The project began with my film course, Writers in Motion, that looked at the romanticised view of writers that we get from Hollywood. But I wanted to take a look at what life really is like for writers now. Everything is in flux and publishing is in chaos. I hope to call on some of my fellow writers to talk about their experiences with ebooks and the changing markets.

Lani: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about that I've neglected to ask you?

Kate: I think I’ve said a lot already! Thanks, Lani!

Kate Laity's book cover

The following is an excerpt from Kate Laity’s story Kantele, which can be found in her book, Unirkirja.

"It’s called a kantele, Anni. A kind of lap harp from Finland. You play it by plucking the strings." Kirsti demonstrated with a clumsy scale.

Anni clapped her hands together, then tried it herself, laughing with delight at the sound it made. She immediately began to try the strings in different orders, making her own little melodies. Kirsti and Mike exchanged a smile. "The very first one was made from a giant pike’s bone," Kirsti said to the dutifully bent head of her daughter, "by Väïnämöinen, the great sage of the Kalevala stories."

"Sage is a spice," Anni said without taking her eyes off the strings.

"A different kind of sage," Mike said laughing. "As a rule. What amazing craftsmanship," he enthused, running a finger along the soundboard.

Kirsti smiled. From her husband that was a compliment indeed. Never mind measure twice, he measured at least three times and in different weather conditions to account for swelling. "You know, Elina said the same thing."

"For once, we agree."

Anni did not tire of the kantele after dinner, returning to its lively tunes as soon as she had washed her hands. Instead of a bedtime story, she generously offered to play a tune of her own composition for her parents, which she proudly accomplished after several false starts and muttered expressions of "wait, wait, I’ve got it now." Kirsti drew the line at actually sleeping with the instrument in her bed, so Anni had to content herself with seeing it sitting on the bureau as she fell asleep, a warm smile still on her lips.

"So, do we have the next Sibelius?" Mike whispered as they pattered down the stairs.

"I can’t believe how she took to it. I guess that woman Marja was right, it really is simple enough to play. Even so, I’ve never seen her so dedicated, not even to her drawings." Evidence of the latter devotion still festooned the refrigerator and every spare space on the wall of Mike’s workroom. They had been sure there was a budding Rembrandt in training, if not a Vernon Ward. Anni was awfully fond of ducks for some reason and had drawn flocks of the creatures over the last several weeks. She and Mike had kidded each other that the eyes did indeed follow you around the room, which was a bit unsettling while planing or sanding in the workshop.

"It really worked like magic," Mike said.

Kirsti wondered at the repetition of that word. Such an odd word to hear so many times in one day. Must be the effect of the kantele, she thought. Maybe there was a little bit of the enchantment from the old myths alive in its strings after all.

The next morning she was not as surprised to find Anni carrying the small harp to the breakfast table, although she was convinced to stop playing long enough to have some pulla with her juice. Once her dishes were put away in the dishwasher and her hands scrupulously washed—her father told her dirty hands would make the strings rust and break—Anni took the kantele in hand and ran outside to plant herself under the apple tree to play.

"Maybe we have the next Mozart," Mike said wrapping his arms around Kirsti’s shoulders and kissing her cheek. "I’m off to be this year’s cabinetry sensation. What’s the schedule for you?"

Kirsti sighed. "I think it’s laundry time."

When the load of towels was ready to dry the sun was brightly shining, so Kirsti took the basket outside to hang on the line. The pleasant days had lasted much further into September than anyone had predicted—weather professionals included—and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of this last leisurely Indian summer. Besides, she would be able to hear Anni’s playing, which was sure to be lovely.

Kirst was puzzled at first to not see her daughter anywhere, but then she heard low voices by the garden. Must be Patti or Selma from next door, but when she came around the hedges there was only Anni. She was sitting on the arbor bench, her head turned as if she were speaking to someone next to her. "Anni?" Kirsti called out.

"Hello, mommie! Look what I learned to play." Anni bent her head down and with studied concentration slowly plucked out a little tune that was instantly familiar. Kirsti knew it was on the CD of Kalevala runos Elina had admired at another tori, but she couldn’t recall which song it was. Her moment of confusion evaporated with sudden pride. Anni could play a tune by ear! It was certainly more than she could do herself. Elina sang like a lark, but Kirsti couldn’t carry a tune with monogrammed luggage, as her father always said. Anni looked up with an infectious grin as Kirsti walked over to sit beside her. "Did you like it, mommie?"

"It was wonderful. Can you play it again?"

"Yes, of course. Listen!" And at once she set to playing again and Kirsti marveled at the quick study. It really was quite like—there, the word wanted to rise up once more. Kirsti frowned and thought about having heard two voices when she came out with the laundry. She must have been mistaken, that’s all there was to it. The tinkling tones of the strings soon soothed her spirit once more and she grinned delightedly as her daughter played in the late summer sun. It made the chore of laundry go much more quickly.