“The ultimate goal is that both the interviewer and the interviewee are a little bit in love with each other.”
Benji Knewman is an eccentric Latvian magazine. Benji Knewman himself doesn’t actually exist. He’s a made-up 42-year-old magazine editor, invented by two Latvian women (Agnese Kleina and Madara Krievina) so they can publish whatever they want and blame it all on him.
Usually the editors’ letter maintains the fiction that Benji is a real person (eg. “Currently Benji Knewman is… mostly on the road. He’s still in search of his perfect day.”) But in this thirteenth issue, Agnese and Madara have dispensed with all that, and come unambiguously as the magazine’s creators.
It’s an interesting move for such an established title. We wrote to Agnese to ask why she has decided to stop pretending Benji is a human, and that question opened up an interesting conversation.
Below, Agnese expands on the inspirations behind the issue; touching on 70s porn magazines, the pandemic, and why an interviewer and an interviewee should always be “a little bit ‘in love’ with each other”.
We notice that whereas previous issues have been signed off by Benji Knewman himself, you’ve dispensed with the fictional character for this issue’s editorial note. Why is that?
2020 was, as it was for the whole world, a disruptive year for me personally. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, in April 2020, I was rushed to a hospital for a thing — not covid — no, but a very serious matter that did leave me rethinking how I want to proceed with my life. Around that time, I began to feel like I wanted to be more personal within the micro universe of Benji Knewman: to put myself in front of it all; to say that there is this women-led bookazine and brand that stands for change — if nothing else, then maybe a change of attitude to one’s body and to the life choices of other people.
You write in your editor’s letter about “the dull ache of the soul, the eternal yearning that lies within human nature, especially if the individual was born in the former Soviet bloc.”
Can you explain why an individual born in the former Soviet bloc would have more of that dull ache of the soul?
This, of course, is a personal feeling of mine. But for some time now I’ve been thinking, “What if?”. What if so many countries, including the one that I was born in – Latvia – had not come under the control of the Soviet Union in 1944?
I was in Berlin recently and ended up in a lovely bookstore. On the second floor there was a sofa area for people to just pick a book and take a moment. As I was leafing through one — a comic book about a young woman remembering how she realised she was queer — I caught myself wishing books like these were available in Riga. My personal belief is that if the Soviet Union hadn’t happened to Latvia, maybe the society would be more open to 2021; to progress and inclusiveness; to the modern-day world. And that’s just one example. Let’s not even go into the low vaccination levels in Eastern Europe and the link between that phenomenon and historically deep ‘the state is not to be trusted’ attitudes in the region.
I love the ‘hair’ feature. Why did you decide to feature 70s porn?
I picked up vintage issues of this particular erotic magazine on a random visit to a secondhand bookshop in Notting Hill, London, a couple of years back. The 70s are my favourite period in the erotica/porn history — the tanned bodies, the hair all over the place — and these issues are from that era. I knew I wanted to talk about them in a future issue of Benji Knewman but there just wasn’t the right person I could pitch it to. Along comes Džemma Sudraba, the whimsical femme-fatal stand-up comedian from Riga. And boom! I just knew that she was the one for a little piece on ‘hair’.
We also really enjoyed the opening interview with Denis Hanov, a professor of intercultural communication science. It’s not necessarily what you might expect from a trendy indie magazine; having an interview with a scientist right up front. Can you tell me what you’re looking for when you try to decide who to interview for the magazine?
Whenever I decide who to interview, I simultaneously think about the person or persons who are going to conduct the interview (sometimes we use two interviewers at the same time). For me, the ultimate goal is that both the interviewer and the interviewee are a little bit ‘in love’ with each other; that they actually want to talk to each other; that they will trust each other; and the conversation will turn out to be an intimate one.
It’s only when there is mutual affection that the reader can really get personal with the story. It happened to you too, with Denis Hanov, right? You don’t know the guy, but you feel him when he’s so honest about his experience of feeling like an outsider in both Riga and St. Petersburg (a city he adores), just because he’s originally Russian speaking person, and queer. In his hometown of Riga he has a ‘weird accent’; and he has a weird accent too when speaking Russian to locals in St. Petersburg.