I was born on March 15, 1935, in Priekule, Latvia, to Rev. Juris and Milda Barbins, the fourth of six children. I greatly admired my mother, a graduate of Latvia University's English Institute for her quiet wisdom and love for us. My father, a Baptist minister, served several country churches in Kurzeme, often taking us all along in our horse-drawn droshka. It was on those trips and other excursion where, early in life, I learned to love my native, pastoral landscape and the stories of the Bible, for at a very early age I too was a little shepherdess and many times had to look out for the wolfs that frightened my lambs.
Our family's days on the farm, with its sunshine and dark clouds, ended on Sunday morning, October 8, 1944, when the German and Russian armies were at our borders. We had two hours time to escape, which we did in our horse-drawn wagon. Suddenly we were six homeless refugees. (My youngest brother had died, and my oldest brother was in the Latvian army.)
Until the end of the war, we traveled through bombed-out Germany. When the war was over, we found ourselves in the American Zone, in Esslingen, in a Displaced Persons' (DP) camp, where we lived until we emigrated to the United States, in August 1949. After living a year in Charlotte, N. C., we re-located in Cleveland, Ohio, where my father formed a church and helped to establish the Latvian Community.
After graduating from Shaw High School, I attended Western Reserve University for a year and then went on to Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. By then, having sufficiently mastered the English language, I decided to major in English and study literature. That opened exciting worlds of the spirit and, inevitably lead to writing and my first award. At Bethel I met my husband, Arthur Alan Stahnke. We were married September 6, 1958. With that I left the Latvian community, eager to go on with my life as an American.
By the time my husband received his PhD and obtained a tenured position as professor of political science at the newly opened Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (1963), we had two children and a house. Feeling restless, I enrolled at the university and completed my BA in 1969, before our fourth child was born. When he went off to school, so did I and enrolled in the SIU-E English department's graduate school and gained my MA in 1977 in English and comparative literature. I wrote my thesis about a Latvian female poet and playwright Aspazija (pseudo. Elza Rozenberg, 1865-1943) whose romantic tragedy Sidraba šķidrauts (The Silver Veil), 1905, I had translated as participant in the SIU-Carbondale Translation Project.
Excited about the play and its author, I decided it was time to return to my roots, and I flew back to Latvia, which then was locked behind the Iron Curtain. That was a profound turning point in my life, as I embraced my true identity from which I had tried to escape. My purpose in life (outside the family, which I would never abandon) was clear: I had to continue translating and bring the Communist-oppressed fantastic writer in the English-speaking world and I had to write my country's story. It would answer the frequently asked question, where you from? And so, as life changed, my parents aged and died, and we the siblings also aged and our children grew up and left home, I was busy translating and simultaneously writing poems, stories, articles (published in ethnic press) and working on How Long is Exile? When my husband received a Fulbright stipend to study in East Berlin, I accompanied him part of the time and revisited the places our family had lived during the war and after. All that gave me rich source material for the novel. Now when my country is free, I make regular trips home to visit my Siberia-surviving brother as well as the intellectual community that has rehabilitated the once politically incorrect national writers, including Aspazija.
My latest trip back was in March 2015, when Aspazija's 150th birthday anniversary was celebrated with great pomp, including an international conference where I was invited to speak (April 15–18). The event gave me great joy as it coincided with my birthday and came as a reward for all the translating and writing I had done on her behalf. Together, we had put Aspazija back among important 19th/20th century European writers. My book Aspazija's Prose, which came out in Latvia, at the end of March, had its presentation at my surprise birthday party at the immortal writer's house in Jurmala. The event, with flowers, music, and poetry was a crowning experience. It is indeed a gift of heaven to see my country free again and see many dreams come true. The last trip marked the end of another stage in my life. Now I look forward to the publication of my two-book novel How Long is Exile?