Autobiograafia kui „tõe” diskursus: Lilli Suburgi „Minu saatusega võitluskäik”. Autobiography as the Discourse of “Truth”: Lilli Suburg’s Minu saatusega võitluskäik


  • Eve Annuk Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum



Lilli Suburg (1841-1923) is an author in Estonian literary and cultural history who is not well researched, though her literary output is sufficiently large and her manuscript heritage many-sided, casting light on the little known aspects of her work and activity. Suburg was active in very different fields: she is known as a writer, journalist, feminist and educator. Her literary work is diverse and prolific; she wrote short stories, children’s stories, journalistic texts as well as philosophical essays. In Suburg’s work the autobiographical element plays a significant role, so that we can say that throughout her whole life she wrote her own autobiography, albeit using different forms. In this article, I example specifically the autobiography written by Lilli Suburg (1841-1923) entitled Minu saatusega võitluskäik (My Fight is my Destiny) (1914), with the aim of introducing the text to the modern reader and analysing its content and peculiarities. As the text was published almost a hundred years ago, it deserves to be read anew and given a fresh interpretation from a modern point of view. The text certainly adds some new aspects to understanding Lilli Suburg’s life and activity; in the article I will analyse how Suburg looks at herself and her life and the reasons why she chose to write an autobiography with a feminist emphasis. The autobiography was published in the magazine Naiste Töö ja Elu (Women’s Work and Life) in 1914 and to date it is the first and only feminist autobiography in Estonia. As Suburg had been a contributor to the magazine since its foundation in 1911, it provided a forum where she was able to share her feminist ideas and worldview with the readers. The magazine’s readers were understanding and supportive of feminist ideas, and the magazine’s focus was on women’s issues and women’s interests, the contributors being the leading women of the time. In her autobiography Suburg gives an overview of her life, justifies the choices in her life and how and why she began to fight for women’s rights. Suburg positioned herself as a fighter and argued that it was the facts of her life that shaped her destiny. Suburg used this opportunity of life writing to reveal “the truth” about her life and activity: by creating a textual space for her point of view and her “truth” she wanted to dispel misunderstanding and to overcome a pejorative attitude that she encountered during her lifetime. This is why the text can be seen as the discourse of “truth”, which should give legitimacy to Suburg’s worldview. The autobiography is structured chronologically and covers Suburg’s life from her birth to her old age. The text is framed by direct addresses to the reader in the first person plural “we” form, through which the author identifies herself with the woman reader, thus lessening the distance between herself and the reader. Suburg emphasises the details in her growth, which shaped her feminist worldview, and by doing so critiques the prevalent gender roles. Suburg presents herself as a lone fighter in the public space at the end of the 19th century; as a public figure she had no female co-fighters. At the same time she confesses that her position as a fighter for women’s rights was something that she could not give up; although her efforts were fruitless she did not find a way she could retreat. This revelation shows the uniqueness of Suburg’s position: as the only woman in the public sphere in the late 19th century Estonia, this fighter and feminist could not rely on anyone, not even on the support of women, because the impact of women in public life was insignificant due to the conservative gender ideology and laws and customs that restricted women’s rights. By acting in the public sphere Suburg took over a man’s position; she assumed the role that belonged to men in her time. This made her position particularly vulnerable, but Suburg’s pride and fighting nature did not allow her to surrender and retreat. The autobiography is feminist because of the author’s position, which emphasizes the idea of finding one’s own way. Although many of the episodes described in this text can be found in other autobiographical writings by Suburg, the autobiography offers novel information about her. In Suburg’s view Minu saatusega võitluskäik is a kind of discourse of “truth”, which means that Suburg saw this autobiography as a discourse of “truth telling”. The biographical facts were arguments with which Suburg justified her choices; they served to emphasize the rightfulness of her past life and ideas. Life experience as the criterion for truth pervades the entire autobiography and forms its ideological and narrative backbone. Given this meaning, the autobiography has significance and a wider resonance, and earns the reader’s trust. The role of the reader is to believe Suburg’s narrative such as it is and follow Suburg’s arguments and empathize with her quest for truth. What remains is Suburg’s conviction that her destiny shaped her and that is why she is who she is.


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