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Vanda Juknaitė (1949) debuted in 1983. She was not particularly prolific as a fiction writer: one collection of short stories and two novels, and not very long at that. In her fiction, she shows clear signs of an unusual sensitivity to human sadness, pain and misery, and was particularly interested in examining the situation of women at various stages of their lives. However, in the first decade of independence, she took a much more hands-on approach in doing her part for the new state and society, and became a very active worker and organiser of various social projects, first and foremost with street children. This inspired her to write again, but in a different way. Her later books are essays and interviews about social reality and its various tender spots. However, as they are written by a true writer, they also have literary merit.

Biography and book presentation – from Lithuanian Culture Institute page: https://lithuanianculture.lt/

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By Vanda Juknaitė

Translated by Ada Valaitis

 

Tariamas iš tamsos: pokalbiai su vaikais (My Voice Betrays Me). Vilnius: Lithuanian Writers’ Union publishers, 2 editions, 2007, 2012. – 175 pp.

 

The book is essentially a collection of interviews with children of various ages who live difficult lives. They are mentally or physically disabled, delinquent, or parentless. In an interview, the author confessed that it took ten years to find this approach. She had wanted to write about what she saw in her social work, but could not find the way to do it. So she decided to allow the children to speak for themselves. And they are a surprise, both to the author and the reader. They are asked difficult, challenging questions, but they are not shy about answering. And their answers are both unexpectedly deep and wise, but also incredibly hopeful and life-affirming. While the idea could seem to some tastes rather sentimental, the book is a worthy achievement in a decade of a worthy life.

 

Biography and book presentation – from Lithuanian Culture Institute page: https://lithuanianculture.lt/

 

 

Uttered in Darkness: Conversations with Children

 

Loreta

Lithuanian Training Centre for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 7th class

 

V.J.: Your life as a young girl has been very painful. What do you think about it?

Loreta: I think that it’s truly beautiful. The people who are disappointed in life, maybe they haven’t really experienced it, I don’t know. But those kinds of people really do exist, the ones who are disappointed in life.

 

V.J.: There is certainly no lack of those kinds of people.

Loreta: Life is truly more precious to me than anything else, and the most precious thing in life, well, the most important right now, is my mother.

 

V.J.: Why?

Loreta: Because, after all, my mother gave me life, raised me, and she looks after me.

 

V.J.: Do you want to say that she’s a part of your life?

Loreta: Yes, for the moment, she is a part of my life. Though, little by little, I’ve started taking on her role.

 

V.J.: You’re becoming your mother’s caretaker?

Loreta: Yes. Now I’m becoming more like her. That’s why she is so important to me.

 

V.J.: Because she’s slowly becoming your child?

Loreta: This is what she says: I am your old child. She used to tell me that an egg can’t teach a chicken, and now she says the opposite, that an egg can teach a chicken even more than a chicken can teach an egg.

 

V.J.: For example?

Loreta: There were these instances; I would tell her it was going to rain, because I can sense it better than a sighted person. Our neighbors attest to it. I know when it’s going to rain from the smell of the air. One time I told my mother: Go to the store, I feel there’s a storm coming soon. Then she replied: An egg doesn’t teach a chicken, I can just as well see the sky.

 

V.J.: Did the storm come?

Loreta: Yes. Yes. At first there was a sort of fiery smell outside. But the sky wasn’t overcast yet, then it clouded over.

 

V.J.: Where does that smell of fire come from?

Loreta: I don’t know. Maybe the atmosphere prepares for the storm.

 

V.J.: It heats up?

Loreta: Maybe the atmosphere is heated, that’s why this happens. It’s like when an extension cord burns. Rather subtle. You have to smell it carefully, gently. You won’t sense it like, let’s say, you sense the smell of an onion when it’s cooking.

 

V.J.: You’ve never been able to see?

Loreta: I’ve never been able to see, though my mother said that when I was born I was somewhat responsive to light.

 

V.J.: How do you learn about the world?

Loreta: I imagine it through touch. How can I explain it? The world is everything, smell, touch, sounds, what I’m sitting on, everything around me. That’s what the world is to me.

 

V.J.: Is it painful to be blind?

Loreta: No. Absolutely not. Sometimes I’m even happy. At least I’m not mentally handicapped. Of course, this is discouraging for my mother to hear. Once I was hanging out with an extrasensory person, well, a bio-energetic person, and he asked me if I wanted to see. And I said: No, I want to be just the way I am.

 

V.J. Why?

Loreta: Because I don’t understand what it is to see. I don’t know what an image or a scene is, what it really looks like. I want to be exactly the way I am.

 

V.J.: The same way a seeing person would never want to become blind?

Loreta: That’s how I explained it. It’s exactly the same thing. I don’t understand why sighted people can’t imagine the life of a blind person. I can’t start seeing, but they can close their eyes.

 

V.J.: Just closing one’s eyes seems a little simple.

Loreta: Once I gave my mother to smell a flower that hadn’t yet bloomed. She said it didn’t smell like anything, but to me it smelled green. Many seeing people say that water doesn’t have a scent, but I smell it. Even two different things without scents, they smell. Seeing people say those things don’t have a scent. I agree that there is no scent, but they are scentless differently. If they are scentless differently then it means there is some kind of a smell.

 

V.J.: Is it true that hearing substitutes sight for the blind?

Loreta: One time my grandmother took my cup when I was young. I told my mother that grandmother had taken my cup. My mother told me that certainly the cup wasn’t mine. She has to look at everything with her eyes, and I hear everything according to notes. The cup, every single thing, rings, has a note. When you tap a spoon on a cup, it rings. A bell also rings. The cup does the same thing. Ringing things can’t ring without notes. They just can’t. All cups, even if they’re identical, sound unique. You can’t make two identical cups – millimeter by millimeter. I think you really can’t. Even similar horns won’t sound the same in unison. It will sound as though two voices are playing, not just one. A tree, clearly, doesn’t have notes, but it still has sounds. We can guess the type of tree. Over here, there’s heater or something buzzing, it has a note – mi.

 

V.J.: It’s a computer.

Loreta: Mi-re-do. Minor notes always sound in the minds of the blind. We can reach any tonality from the note la. Our minds are not absolutely silent, there’s always a melody.

 

V.J.: Was your sister one of the most precious gifts in your life?

Loreta: She was my best friend. I call her my second mother because she looked after me even more dutifully than my mother. My sister was ten years older than me.

 

V.J.: Was she sighted?

Loreta: She was sighted. She watched over me so intently, she tidied the rooms, though my sister wrote in her diary that this is how she bore the pain in her heart.

 

V.J.: What was that pain in her heart?

Loreta: Maybe she sensed her own death. What do I know? She never told me. For some reason she cried very often.

 

V.J.: Did you try to console her?

Loreta: I wanted to. The main issue was that my mother was becoming harsher with my sister. My sister, in turn, became more closed off.

 

V.J.: Is that when your mother started drinking?

Loreta: After my sister’s death she began drinking heavily. Well, of course, she drank before then also.

 

V.J.: Your sister died, your father died, your mother fell apart, you were left all alone. What did you experience in your heart?

Loreta: Pain. A pain so intense that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be alone; I talked with tape-recorders, with tables. I also sang, ran around, it seems to me I did this because of the pain, and perhaps from loneliness. It was so painful.

 

V.J.: How is it possible for a small child to endure all of this when there’s no one to take her into their arms, to embrace, to comfort?

Loreta: My heart was left so paralyzed. I changed after my sister’s death. I began doing everything on my own. I didn’t let my mother in. I bathed myself. My sister used to brush my hair, make me presentable. I brush my own hair now, unless I’m going to a concert, then someone looks me over. I remember my sister’s hands, and now everything is different. I changed completely, I became more independent.

 

V.J.: Would you say that you became stronger because of the suffering?

Loreta: Not really. I felt so powerless.

 

V.J.: Why do you forgive your mother, and why don’t you admonish her because she didn’t care for you appropriately?

Loreta: I don’t reproach her because I love her so much. And even so, it’s not like she doesn’t look after me at all. She took care of me and supported me, we hung out. It’s not like it’s always only bad. If she acts badly, then perhaps it’s not out of ill will. She told me that my grandmother abused her when she was young, that she drank a lot, that she wouldn’t come home. My grandmother’s children, at five years old, would cook their own macaroni, standing on a chair to reach the stove.

 

V.J.: Nevertheless, how are you able to compose yourself?

Loreta: Sometimes it happens that I can’t control my anger. But then I tell myself, it’s not my place, not my place. I don’t hold back my tears, even if they fell right now, that would be fine. It feels like all of it is a dream. I’ll wake up and everything will be fine. I don’t believe that my loved ones aren’t here. I still haven’t acknowledged it, even though the psychologists tell me I should accept the facts.

 

V.J.: Do you know anything about happiness?

Loreta: What it is?

 

V.J.: What is it?

Loreta: Happiness… Happiness is diversity.

 

V.J.: Diversity?

Loreta: How do I explain it? It’s sadness, pleasure, fear, and laughter, all in diffusion.

 

V.J.: Different experiences all together?

Loreta: I f there’s too much sadness, then it will become grief. But if there’s a little bit of everything in equal parts, then this is happiness. For me, life itself is full of joy.

 

V.J.: I asked Justas: What is the difference between the world of the sighted and the world of the blind? He said that when a person looks at a flower they might not be able to see how delicate it is. You probably know the most delicate things in this world?

Loreta: In terms of spiritual experiences, it’s music. For me, the whole world is delicate. Clearly, not everything that exists in this world is delicate. Not everything that surrounds me is delicate. I’ve experienced not only tenderness in my life, but also cruelty. There was this one time in my childhood, when I was three and a half years old, but I really do remember it. I was playing with some friends in the yard and I told them I wanted to see a bird, a dove. I couldn’t touch it because it was flying around. I wanted to touch the bird, but it would just fly away.

 

V.J.: How did you know it was flying about?

Loreta: From the flutter of its wings. From its cooing. The kids told me – go ahead and catch it, we’ll give you a little piece of wire. Some boy gave me the wire with a crumb tied to the end. The dove pecked at the crumb and swallowed the wire. They did this especially for me, so that I could catch it. And I touched it. Two small balls, one large, let’s say, one ball then another ball, and the head on top. Then these triangles come out of both sides, like wings. Did I get that right?

 

V.J.: Yes, that’s correct. It looks just like that.

Loreta: I certainly remember how the kids in the yard taught me about cruelty. They tore its wing off and said: Look at it suffering.

 

V.J. The bird?

Loreta: It was very painful to see how the dove suffered, how it twisted its head, trembled. I had thought that we would catch it with a wire, like a kitten. It turns out the bird swallowed it. I tried to pull that little wire out. I saw it crying. The bird was shrieking, beating its wings, trying to fly, but it couldn’t. Then the kids said: Oh, look how you’re torturing the dove.

 

V.J.: So the children tortured the bird to death.

Loreta: They tortured it to death. That moment really stuck with me.

 

V.J.: Why are children so cruel?

Loreta: Maybe they learn it from their parents. Although, no. No, no, no. I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to do that to anyone else because I know how much it hurts. I don’t know why they do those kinds of things. I don’t know. I can’t say.

 

V.J.: Was there ever a case when you felt the desire to reproach God?

Loreta: No. I never felt that desire. Never.

 

V.J.: Does he exist?

Loreta: He exists. I think so. I imagine Him like some sort of dreamed person. No body, just a voice, because people say that God is invisible and you can’t touch Him, so I can only hear Him. That’s all. I don’t always believe in Him. I’m not really like that. Sometimes I imagine God’s voice one way, sometimes, another way. But I do imagine that there is someone next to me. For example, since birth I’ve imagined someone next to me. If I didn’t envision someone, it would be really difficult for me. I wouldn’t be able to live.

 

V.J.: Do you just imagine, or do you also feel?

Loreta: I imagine and I feel. I don’t know how to explain it. I live, as I’ve said, a double life. Real and imagined.

 

V.J.: What is a real and imagined life?

Loreta: The real life is the one I’m sitting in right now. I am really alive, I really study. And the unreal – that is the imagined life. I live in the imagined life just like in my real life. I have a real imaginary friend, though I would also like to have him in my real life. I want all feelings, love, and pain, and anger, I imagine all of this even in my unreal life.

 

V.J.: Why the unreal life?

Loreta: The unreal life comforts me. I imagine friends, and they talk to me not with words, not with voices, but with feelings.

 

V.J.: Do you mean to say that the world of feelings is boundless and infinite for the blind, just like the world of colors and hues is for the seeing?

Loreta: Yes. No. This is only partly true. If I expressed my feelings right now, then no one would understand. I know when I’m at a loss for words and I can’t make them up. Sometimes I talk to myself through feelings, I don’t need words.

 

V.J.: Those imaginary friends in the unreal world, do they talk to you with the language of feelings?

Loreta: They speak my language, the one I exist in. They understand me, they know how to comfort me. They express their warmth and love through feelings, not words. People in the real world can’t understand that.

 

V.J.: Is solitude the most difficult experience for a person?

Loreta: I think … I think that’s true. Solitude is when people close in on themselves, like my sister did. But when I imagine that unreal world, it’s like my friends are telling me: Loreta, you have to live. Obviously, I’m talking to myself because those friends don’t actually exist. I answer my own questions and that’s how I get along. Even when I’m closed off in a room, I’m not alone.

 

V.J.: I had a thought that perhaps the inner voices of the sighted are diminished by the appearance of so many signs, colors, scenes. There are simply too many of them.

Loreta: I don’t know what it’s really like. It seems to me that people who are able to see also dream, but they don’t talk to themselves. When they dream about something, they try to envision it, they plan, they learn, but they don’t have real connection with themselves. That’s what I think.

 

V.J.: In order to have a connection with yourself, you have to know yourself?

Loreta: I know myself. My life is most precious to me because of this. Everything in life is precious to me. Even pain. Even enormous pain is precious to me. I value even the smallest pebble. My feelings tell me that I have to stay alive. I mean, I want to live. It’s just this strong desire.

 

V.J.: Thank you, Loreta.

Loreta: I tried to explain to you what it’s like to be a blind person. Many people think that if someone is blind, then they don’t see anything, don’t understand anything, and don’t know anything. There was this one time on the trolleybus and all the seats were taken. An older woman said: Let the invalid sit down. I felt offended. I thought, who is this invalid she’s talking about. I was still young. So then I said: Well I am not without legs, not without hands. All the people started laughing. They said that an invalid is a person who has a disability. Then I replied that I am able to do everything, I can walk, I can talk.

 

V.J.: We all, on some level, have some sort of disability.

Loreta: That’s what I used to say when I was young.

 

V.J.: Do you meet those kinds of people often?

Loreta: Not that often. Most people understand.

 

V.J.: Why do you think so many people don’t value life?

Loreta: Maybe they want more than life, there really is nothing beyond life. There is nothing more.

 

 

 

Arūnas

Veličionys Specialised Foster Home, Verus summer camp

 

V.J.: I see that things aren’t going well for you here? What’s wrong?

Arūnas: I’m upset.

 

V.J.: Why?

Arūnas: Oh, because of the dog.

 

V.J.: What about the dog?

Arūnas: Well, because it’s snapping. He already bit Aušra and Gytis.

 

V.J.: Do you think it’s normal that a dog snaps at people?

Arūnas: Sure it’s normal. What kind of dog doesn’t bite? When I brought him here, he was really angry. He gets really stupid. He just starts snapping.

 

V.J.: Has he bitten you too?

Arūnas: Yes he has, because he’s not my dog.

 

V.J.: Then whose?

Arūnas: He’s my mother’s. He’s been traumatized. She didn’t feed him, beat him, wouldn’t let him outside. His early puppy life was very stupid.

 

V.J.: Very similar to yours?

Arūnas: Well, similar. I only met my mother when I was twelve years old.

 

V.J.: How?

Arūnas: She was gluing wallpaper at the boarding school. My teacher, Gimbutienė, told me she was my mother. When I came back from Čiobiškis, I stayed with mother, and I saw how she behaved with the dog, and I really gave it to her.

 

V.J.: Why were you sent to Čiobiškis?

Arūnas: For what? For everything, because I didn’t obey the teacher. I had gotten in a fight with the teacher.

 

V.J.: I know that things aren’t easy for you; but this kind of a dog, one who bites people, can’t stay here.

Arūnas: If the dog can’t stay here, I won’t stay; I’ll leave. That dog is terribly damaged. You want him to be normal?

 

V.J.: But he’s a danger to the people around him.

Arūnas: All dogs are dangerous.

 

V.J.: Do you understand that the rules don’t allow that kind of a dog to stay here?

Arūnas: He would be a normal dog if no one had abused him.

 

V.J.: Can you admit that there are certain rules that we have to follow?

Arūnas: But this dog won’t be any different. He doesn’t even know who he attacks.

 

V.J.: Why are you so firmly defending the dog?

Arūnas: Our lives are the same, that’s all. It’s strange, if someone kicked you around like that, then you’d have to find a way to survive too. We’re both like footballs. I want to kill that mother! (He cries.)

 

 

 

From “The Vilnius Review”, 2008, Spring/Summer edition (No 23)

 

 

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