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Paulina Pukytė. On A Bench. 2014. Two found slides. From a solo project "Girls And Boys".

by Eglė Kačkutė

 

Migration is an increasingly significant feature of contemporary life and as such, an important subject that shapes literary trends and informs literary imagination and aesthetics. Patterns of migratory flows are defined by a push and pull, causing some countries to experience large influxes of migrant populations, whilst others suffer hemorrhages in human resources. North America and Western Europe are places with the highest pull factors in the world. Accordingly, American, Canadian (both English and French), British, and French literatures enjoy rich literary traditions of travel and post-colonial writing, world literature, writing about different diasporas and immigration. Current literary debates tend to mix and match those critical perspectives defining different categories, with the most general umbrella term encompassing all those categories being “literatures of mobility,” a term defined by Ariana Dagnino as “works of fiction which are affected and shaped by migratory flows” (2015, 145).

In terms of migration, Lithuania is defined by push factors and thus boasts a tradition of literature of emigration rather than immigration and exile. The most notable corpus of exile writing in Lithuanian is associated with the post-1944 Soviet occupation and was produced largely in the US. More recently, the restored Lithuanian state has experienced another dramatic wave of emigration following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and, most importantly, the enlargement of the EU in 2004. These political developments granted Lithuanian citizens an unprecedented freedom to live, study, and work in Western European countries and the rest of the world. This has resulted in a deluge of Lithuanian language travel writing reflecting on the diverse experiences of travelling, studying, working, living, loving, procreating, and dying all over the world.

Research on mobility in Western literatures demonstrates that it is persistently seen as a predominantly masculine phenomenon, which often leaves female-authored writing on the subject out of the discussion. The main reason for this is that women and, by extension, their creative literary outputs, do not sit easily in the context of mobility because women are traditionally associated with home and the homeland and therefore a fixed space (Averis& Hollis-Touré, 2016).  In this light, the latest Lithuanian writing about emigration and mobility stands out first in that it is starkly dominated by female writers: Dalia Staponkutė, Paulina Pukytė, Zita Čepaitė, Aušra Matulevičiūtė, Neringa Abrutytė, Vaiva Rykštaitė, Jolita Herlyn, and Agnė Žagrakalytė, among many others, with one notable exception of the Paris-based male author, Valdas Papievis. Second, it is highly original in terms of interpreting the classical themes of home, origins, and migrant identity, and third, it is exceptionally innovative in its artistic and narrative from. Published in Lithuania, it is marketed for and consumed by a rather cosmopolitan and geographically dispersed Lithuanian readership across the world. Thus, the latest writing about mobility and migration in Lithuanian is an almost exclusively female phenomenon and thus infuses the staple themes of literatures of mobility with an intensely gendered quality.

The crucial difference distinguishing this generation of Lithuanian migrant writers from the previous generation of exile authors is their mobility. These writers inhabit transient, porous, globalized spaces between Lithuania and wherever else they happen to be. Some of them pin themselves down to a particular place of which they are long-term residents, while others resist any localized categorization.

In this article I will examine the work of three contemporary Lithuanian women writers of mobility and migration, Dalia Staponkutė, Paulina Pukytė, and Agnė Žagrakalytė. My choice of the authors is firstly motived by the originality of their work and the fact that they all have a reasonable body of work behind them and are well established in the Lithuanian context as writers and artists working from outside of Lithuania. Staponkutė is an academic, editor, and translator living in Nicosia (Cyprus); Pukytė is a visual artist and curator as well as a translator living in London (UK); and Žagrakalytė lives in Brussels (Belgium) where she relocated with her husband for his position with EU institutions.  It is significant that they should all be based in different European capitals, a detail that points to the centrality of Lithuania’s recent accession to the EU to their life and creative projects alike.

Both Staponkutė and Pukytė started publishing non-fictional essays in the Lithuanian press sharing their experiences abroad with the Lithuanian readership. Those essays constituted their first books. However, they both went on to develop their creative literary projects in interesting ways. Staponkutė published the impressive book The Third Country: My Little Odyssey marketed as a novel, but which actually is a memoir. Pukytė’s most valuable and mature work to date is her experimental book of short fiction, A Loser and a Do-gooder. It is a powerful reflection on the dark side of migration. Žagrakalytė‘s first extremely well received collection of poetry, I am Getting Married, was published before her departure to Brussels and all the subsequent work – two poetry collections and two novels –  was written in Brussels. Her second collection of poetry The Whole Truth about Alisa Meler and her second experimental novel Klara. Bande dessinée engage closely with the themes of migration of a young woman and a mother of young children building her life in an unfamiliar environment. Žagrakalytė’s work on mobility stands out in that it offers an unambiguously positive view of migration.

Staponkutė left ethnically and culturally uniform Lithuania when it was still part of the Soviet Union, to study philosophy in a culturally, linguistically and ethnically diverse St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), which was her first and decisive encounter with a cosmopolitan environment. She relocated to Cyprus in 1989 to marry a Greek Cypriot with whom she started a family. The Third Country: My Little Odyssey maps out her identity journey consisting of negotiations between her Lithuanian origins and emerging Cypriot self, her attachment to the Lithuanian language that is a core part of her identity to be transmitted to her daughters at all cost, her lasting relationships with her family in Lithuania, and her widely international intellectual and personal journeying as a scholar, a writer, and a woman. I suggest that Staponkutė’s creative output belongs in the realm of transcultural literature as theorized by Dagnino, who defines transcultural writers as “early twenty-first-century authors who do not belong in one place or one culture […] and who write between cultures” (14). Staponkutė’s transnational imaginary is most clearly expressed in her linguistic relationship with her daughters described in the essay The Silence of the Mothers. The essay explores the image of a migrant mother, who, from the perspective of her children, seems to be silent either in her native Lithuanian (if she chooses to speak the language of the adoptive country) or in adoptive Greek (if she chooses to transmit her own language to her children as part of her own heritage). The narrative subject of the essay sees only one possible solution to this affliction:

The only possible way out of this confusion lies not in a negation of language, but in shuttle translation. Translation is something that’s not limited to linguistic technique; it absorbs the entire body, and even more than that – it requires a historical approach to the body. (Staponkutė 2009)

As a mother, the narrative subject chooses to teach her children her native Lithuanian and to learn Greek, in order to establish a sustainable bond with them. As a narrative, cultural and public persona, Staponkutė’s narrative subject is situated between the Lithuanian and Cypriot cultural imaginations, making the main concern of her project to create a distinct cultural space within each of these cultures for herself, to create her own Lithuanian space in Cyprus and her own Cypriot space in Lithuania, “to infuse it with life and defend it with the zeal of a romantic anarchist” (Ibid). The identity here is predicated on the coexistence between the two geographical and cultural localities that are only possible via the voice and the unique position of the narrative subject that enables that communication.

Pukytė’s position as a transcultural author is established through the experimental mode of writing. A Loser and a Do-gooder portrays often illegal Lithuanian immigrants in the UK through a series of short dialogues, poems, or blurbs. Her marginal position as both an experimental and a transnational author allows Pukytė to depict the migrant experience outside of a binary system of “us” and “them” that automatically implies a power relationship between the narrator and the object of representation.

Although readers of A Loser and a Do-gooder are seemingly left with no narrative authority, it soon transpires that it is coded in the different manipulations of narrative perspectives and genres. The first five texts are short dialogues set between British law enforcement officers and arrested Lithuanian immigrants who have poor or no command of English. The former interrogate and accuse, the latter make lame excuses in their defense. The invisible and unannounced narrator turns out to be an interpreter who is initially identified with the British officers, thus making the readers see the exposed Lithuanian immigrants through the eyes of the officers. Seen from that perspective they come across as grotesquely funny and pathetic losers and liars. The narrator becomes visible only when halfway through the book she sides with one of the Lithuanian immigrants charged with a serious crime and potentially mistreated by the British police. The author thus inscribes her ethical stance within the narrative.

The texts The Odyssey and From the Iliad written in hexameter, in the lowest stylistic register imaginable, stuffed with the rudest Russian swear words, constitutes a genre manipulation that summons the most powerful literary myth of migration and return to give it a culturally specific contemporary twist. The Lithuanian Odysseus fresh off the plane tries to set a date with his Penelope who has no wish to see him and is readily dismissed as a “fucking bitch.” The latter part of the book is constituted solely of these peoples’ voices rendering their reality. And yet, the classical reference here serves another purpose of pointing to the scope and impact of this last wave of emigration on both Lithuania and the UK, but most importantly on those people’s lives, many of which are wasted as a result.  Scraps of paper with hand-drawn street plans found in the street that conclude the book serve as a powerful metaphor of their unreached destination.

Žagrakalytė’s playful novel Klara offers a very different view of emigration from Lithuania. It tells the story of a young woman, Klara, who comes from a socially deprived background in rural Lithuania and briefly follows her mother to Finland where she lives with her new husband but quickly sets off on her own journey of initiation throughout Europe. She starts at an art school in Antwerp, then moves to Brussels to take a string of accidental jobs, some verging on prostitution, gets embroiled in crime by her Albanian lover, then manages to escape prison and miraculously gets him out of jail too. Their love triumphs and they go on to have children and a three-legged dog, a metaphor for hard-won consummated happiness.

Klara is also an aspiring author and artist, dreaming of producing the next best-selling bande dessinée. The novel enjoys a complex narrative structure which turns it into a meta-narrative conscious of its own production. It is partly narrated in the second person narrative whereby the narrator addresses Klara in what resembles an inner dialogue. The narrative thus becomes the imaginary potential space in which the reality is manipulated into a desired shape and Klara can be read as the author’s narrative embodiment. Her success as a migrant, who escapes hunger, poverty, and violence in Lithuania to construct a happy and fulfilling life for herself through her own determination and some help from the old neighbor, Madame Petcheva, can thus be read as a parallel of the author’s own success as a transnational author and individual.

To conclude, Lithuanian transnational women’s writing on mobility offers a rich and fascinating perspective on the most important social, economic and cultural development in the country. It also opens up Lithuanian literature to unexpected literary experimentation as well as unprecedented identity formations. This Lithuanian literary phenomenon is a powerful testimony of the creative impetus enabled by the freedom of movement within the EU and beyond.

 

Works Cited:

Dagnino, Arianna. Transcultural Writers and Novels in the Age of the Global Mobility. Purdue University Press, 2015.

Kate Averis and Isabel Hollis-Touré (ed.) Exiles, Travellers and Vagabonds: Rethinking Mobility in Francophone Women’s Writing, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016.

Staponkutė, Dalia (2009a). The silence of the mothers. Excerpta Cypriana, 6(3), (http://iwp.uiowa.edu/91st/vol6-num3/the-silence-of-the-mothers, translated by Darius Ross, consulted 3/02/2018).

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