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Virginija Kulvinskaitė (Cibarauskė) is a writer and literary critic. She was born in Vilnius in 1983. She studied Lithuanian language and literature in Vilnius University; in 2017, Cibarauskė earned her doctoral thesis, wherein she analyzed the relationship between an author’s biography and their works.

In 2018, Virginija Cibarauskė published her poetry book Antrininkė (“The Double”), which for that year was included in the list of Top 12 Most Creative Lithuanian Books. In 2019, Cibarauskė made her debut as a prose author with the novel kai aš buvau malalietka. This book, dubbed a “contemporary novel,” imitates the autobiographical genre, but the author asserts that even despite certain biographical coincidences, the protagonist Virga and her experiences are all made up. The book is written in a colloquial-esque tone and contains ample elements of slang. The novel focuses on the 1990s, the narrator’s teenage years.

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Interview by Jurga Tumasonytė

 

She was the first on the literary scene to debut as a bold critic, impervious to the influence of a small community where, because everyone knows everyone, one is no longer able (or no longer wants) to be objective. Virginija Cibarauskė was never afraid of deconstructing the works of geniuses or literary authorities, poking fun at previously unchallenged influences and the prevailing canon of “good literature.” In addition to literary criticism, she also wrote poetry, publishing under the name Virginija Kulvinskaitė. Her poetry e-book Antrininkė (“The Double”) appeared in 2017 and was soon included in the top twelve most creative Lithuanian books for that year. This year, she published her much-anticipated novel when i was a malalietka[1], a story told in colloquial speech about the life of a girl growing up in the 1990s. We talked about what it means to write about such intimate, sometimes painful things and to create a main character that should not be confused with its creator.

Before the appearance of when I was a malalietka, you published some excerpts in the cultural press. Many readers later worshipped the text in their Facebook posts and begged for the next installment. How did the first stories of Malalietka come about? Did the people’s reactions influence the writing process?

The writing process for when i was a malalietka was not systematic. I didn’t have any specific goal or a date planned by which I had to finish the text, or what final form it should take. I wrote it over several years, taking breaks. Everything began with individual fragments. My source of inspiration was usually some actual event, object, childhood memory, sensory experience, or texts I’d read. They’d either lead to a story or not.

I published a few sections of Malalietka in the cultural journal Šiaurės Atėnai and a portion of excerpts on my Facebook page. There were all sorts of reactions – mostly questions whether the events I’d written about had actually happened to me, or whether I was embarrassed to talk about the so-called “intimate” experiences, making my personal life so public. There were also those who identified with the narrator and her experiences.

 

Almost as soon as the book appeared, you attracted considerable media attention – and a few fairly funny questions. For example, you were asked why you were always separating from and then making up with your husband, and whether you really had an abortion. You always replied that the texts should not be confused with you yourself. Tell us: why did you deny your readers the pleasure of imagining that all those intimate little details you describe had actually happened in real life?

I didn’t have a choice – otherwise, I would have had to assume the life story of a stranger, one that I had created myself, becoming my own creation in the process – a stand-in, of sorts. But if readers want to imagine that those things actually happened to the book’s author, i.e., to me, because it brings greater pleasure to them as readers – that’s their right. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

 

Over the last thirty years of Lithuanian independence, there haven’t been all that many literary scandals. Several popular writers were chastised in the early 1990s for novels with allegedly pornographic content. There were more instances of such pornography later, but they didn’t make any significant waves. Just recently, however, certain segments of society began to target one writer and National Prize for Culture and the Arts laureate and the novel he wrote more than ten years ago because of the disrespectful depiction of anti-Soviet partisan fighters. What other subjects do you think might provoke the anger of our society? What would you do if you suddenly found yourself the target of a witch hunt because of, say, the abnormal lifestyle of one of your characters?

It’s actually hard to imagine what drives the so-called society at large, because I myself live within my own bubble – I’m surrounded by people like me. So, whenever I emerge from that bubble, it becomes obvious that the things I find to be immoral and deplorable – sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism, for example, or the dogged adulation of so-called cultural heroes – are actually considered by some as “values“ that need defending, for it otherwise spells the end of our nation, or even our civilization.

Today, it might seem that it’s no longer possible to prosecute an author for an “immoral work.” But, several years ago, a case was brought against an author of a children’s book who freely interpreted magical fairy tales to describe a situation in which a princess falls in love with a simple girl. Every edition of the book was removed from stores and the writer was forced into long litigation. I find it totally absurd, but life can be truly unpredictable at times. I don’t know what I’d do if that happened to me. But perhaps it won’t – my book is meant for adults. And as for opinions or responses that seem foolish to me, I simply don’t react to them, as they’re just opinions.

 

Did any feminist points of view influence the writing of your novel? Perhaps you deliberately avoided certain things or tried to emphasize them?

I don’t even know if my “views“ can be described as feminist, because there are many types of feminism or branches of it, and there are considerable disputes between them. For me, feminism is first and foremost about fighting for equal rights, as well as the right to choose your own lifestyle, even if it’s not “ideologically“ correct. I was probably more influenced by existentialism than feminism, principally of the literary kind: the novels and stories of Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir. The idea of freedom is very important to me – the freedom to choose, to make mistakes, to make decisions and thereby live an authentic life, as much as that is even possible. Perhaps that’s what some readers of Malalietka found to be abnormal: the narrator behaves as she sees fit, not caring about the opinions of others, seeking to test every “truth“ herself.

 

In your opinion, how might this novel be of interest to readers in other countries? Can it be properly translated?

Part of the novel takes place in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, during what was called the period of “wild capitalism,” which might be fairly exotic to those who had never experienced it. On the other hand, the book also explores universal questions: issues related to maturity, the individual and society, and the search for identity.

There are no untranslatable books, although every translation adds new meaning to the original, even as it also diminishes, or perhaps simply transforms it.

 

I remember how you read your own translation of a poem by Sylvia Plath at one literary gathering. Her name also appeared in other texts of yours. What draws you to this writer?

I don‘t think that Sylvia Plath’s work or life story are somehow exceptionally significant to me as a writer, but I was very much engrossed with her at one time. Both in her poetry and her prose, Plath never avoided subjects such as anger, aggression, self-destruction, or sexuality. She’s very autobiographical, but the references to her personal experiences are not direct – she always leaves at least a few different ways to read the same text. I think that, despite her global renown, her work continues to be inadequately valued, as if it were all about personal traumas and the pouring out of intimate problems, or the so-called therapeutic writing. But that often happens with works by women: critics are rarely able to perceive depth in women’s texts – what’s in the background, the universal existential or so-called metaphysical experiences. They read the texts directly, focusing too much on the author’s history, physicality, etc.

 

What other world literary authors are important to you? And what does your own reading process look like – do you make any literature lists, or do you read more chaotically?

It’s hard to say, as different authors have been interesting and relevant at different times in my life. But overall, I’m more intrigued by contemporary and present-day literature than by canonical texts. Because my main work is concerned with literary criticism, the bulk of my reading consists of new releases from publishers – Lithuanian authors, translated literature. I’d actually like to read less. Books – whether good or bad – overload your head, leaving little room for your own thoughts. At the same time, though, reading is also stimulating, encouraging you to challenge your own thoughts and discover something new.

 

In the recent years, our literature scene has seen the emergence of new poets with considerable readership who are often invited to appear on television and at various events. But it’s somehow hard to shake the feeling that, in most cases, those poets are liked for therapeutic reasons. Perhaps their fans think: “See, they were in a complete slump, yet they were able to climb out of it.” How much does a writer’s personality influence you?

I see nothing wrong if a writer is charismatic and able to capitalize on their life story to attract more readers. But for me, when we talk about writers and not about the so-called influencers, public figures, etc., the most important thing is the text. Sure, interesting, colorful, polemical personalities and unique life stories are interesting extras that can make a text relevant in a certain way, but if the text is weak, no personal appeal or biographical detail can save it.

 

How would Virginija Cibarauskė the literary critic define the character of Virginija Kulvinskaitė the writer?

Prone to provoke, perhaps?

 

Does following other writers and interacting with them on Facebook also change the view of their work? How (if at all) does the perception of texts posted on there change?

Again, it’s hard for me to answer that question, because there are different kinds of readers and followers. An academic or literary critic will read in one way, while a person who’s primarily interested in personalities, experiences, and life stories rather than texts will read in another way. In any case, the relationship is complementary: a writer on Facebook or Instagram can shape their image as an author and, to a degree, the interpretation strategies of their work.

 

What do you do and what interests you when you’re not a writer or a literary critic?

I’m interested in people, life, myself.

 

1. The Russian term малоле́тка (malalyetka), appropriated in Lithuanian, is used colloquially, and even pejoratively, to refer to a minor. It may be used to describe an individual that is under the statutory age for sexual intercourse or drug use or to emphasize an individual’s lack of maturity.

 

Interviewed by Jurga Tumasonytė

 

 

 

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