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Vilnius Review is featuring a debut column. Every year we will present some young poets and prose writers who haven’t yet published books but who have been noted for their involvement in the literary scene, including periodicals, literary readings, and youth contests. For many of these authors, the magazine offers a first step into the foreign space because we will be publishing the first English translations of their work. Equally, this is an opportunity for the foreign reader, interested in the literatures of Lithuania and other small countries, to discover the names of these budding young writers and their opinions on writing as well as appreciate the lively pulse of literature in development.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Nomeda Saukienė, From the Lake Side, 2015, canvas, oil, 120x200 cm. From the MO Museum collection.

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas 

 

Photo by Linas Daugėla

IEVA MARIJA SOKOLOVAITĖ

I was a dog in a past life. Still not sure who I am in this one. I grew up at the seaside in Palanga. I studied biology at Vilnius University, and currently I’m pursuing a degree in ecological studies in Copenhagen. I mostly write short fiction. Some of my works have been published in cultural periodicals, presented at readings, and won honorable mentions at competitions and festivals. I write because I’m afraid – of oblivion, of missed sensations, and of those parts of myself I haven’t discovered.

 

Plants Feel No Shame

It hadn’t rained for five weeks. The grass in the garden crumbled under your feet, the sunflower stems had turned into dry vertebrae staunchly supporting the tired brown flower heads, and the pea and bean thickets at the edge of the garden were so dry they rustled louder than crumpled paper with each gust of wind. The vegetables ceased to be ashamed of their pain. The blue sky hurt them, yet they stood in the cerulean radiance naked and helpless, slowly becoming wrinkled and turning into monuments to their own fragility.

The old woman avoided looking at the sky. She wasn’t a plant. She had known this for seventy and then some years, but now she was forced to realize it again, and it seemed easier than it actually was. Each morning she would cross the yard with a slight drag in the leg she had surgery on and lift the well cover to peer down inside. She would see the bare walls, the cracks within them, and the echoing emptiness that felt so inappropriate the old woman couldn’t bear it for long before closing the well and returning home. She cleaned her toes by rubbing garden sand into the cracks of her numb skin. She cooked food with the water her neighbor would bring her every two days from the city, from the store, measured out in neat liters in strictly shaped plastic containers. She kept the leftover water from doing the dishes and showered with it. She collected the water from showering and did the laundry with it. As she peeled vegetables for dinner and sat listening to anything that was on the radio, from intellectual discussions on literature to the most vulgar crime news, anything so she wouldn’t hear the fruit-turned-paper shrubs rustling outside, the senior licked her fried lips with spit that seemed to thicken with each passing day. She was no plant, and she couldn’t destroy that shame within her like the sunflowers, peas, currants, and hollyhocks could. Perhaps out of shame she was always silent. In silence she would wake up each morning from the creaking floor in the hallway, which meant that her old man was already up and looking for his galoshes. In silence she would rip away yesterday’s page from the wall calendar and look through the window searching for his lanky male figure, dry like the stalks it lurched among. At midday, in silence, she would greet him at the edge of the garden and bring him home for lunch.

She was strong enough to not even glance at the dozens of buckets, watering cans, and barrels lined up near the greenhouse, brimming with rainwater from five weeks ago. The water that the garden they toiled to preserve needed so desperately – the absence of which made the stems of tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants shriveled and yellow, which left cracks in the leaves of gooseberries and grapes, and contorted the cabbages into toothless, withering smiles.

She didn’t say a word anymore trying to persuade her husband, who guarded that souring water like a sickly, feverish Cerberus, vanquished in old age by his own feeble mind, once a shining example of unstoppable power, now just a dog who couldn’t tell his master apart from the intruder, whose gunky eyes couldn’t see what they were guarding and whose three heads could barely process their thoughts into a single action. He forbade taking even a spoonful of that water. Let’s save it, let’s be patient, it can get worse, he kept saying, much worse, the drought may not end anytime soon, let’s hold onto it a little longer, it’s all the water we have. The old woman was silent. She even stopped asking herself how many heads remained on her man’s shoulders, and how many had been cut off and wouldn’t ever grow back again. Wars and disputes were in the past. Anything resembling humility – even deeper, in the tips of their chromosomes, the blood of their ancestors. The only thing left was shame. Plants don’t feel shame and don’t know what regret feels like. But the old woman did. As did the floorboards she walked on each day, as did the old, worn-out bowls in her kitchen, which she used daily to wash herself and cook food, as did the light in her bedroom, swelling with the buzzing of flies. This shame of helplessness in the face of decisions made in the past, such an ingrained pity for all the missed opportunities that could have helped this moment become not what it is now, it seemed, was known even to the grasshoppers, who timidly crawled on the walls at night yet somehow weren’t bold enough to chirp.

A full moon came on the sixth week. The old couple felt a disgusting ache in their bones.

The woman awoke at night from the sound of a roar. At night, while no one was looking, the sea quaked with its whole body, immeasurable to the naked eye, gathering itself from the bays and the beaches, lifting her skirt like a lady and ambling the continent with legs of seagrass and mud, finally unraveling at the windows of the nameless farmstead. The woman spent some time lying motionless, basking in the respite of an impossible dream. The water kept washing against the house’s windows, as if the sea had decided to stay in these backwaters for good, to allow itself to be tamed and grow old here.

Suddenly, a bolt of lightning shot through the sky, and at that moment the old woman was pierced by a realization that stretched to the utmost fibers of her body.

She jumped out of bed. The curtains fluttered like in an old black-and-white movie, the fruit trees danced, the windows rattled from the violent force of the torrent. The sea stretched out its spine, reposed for so many ages, and split into a hail of thousands of dashes raining down vertically, flooding roads, farms, and pastures, pummeling the shriveled plant stalks with her boundless love. The woman tried shouting, but the sound would not escape her throat. Reaching out to wake her husband, she found the bed empty. Still in her nightgown and barefoot, the old woman ran out into the garden. There, soaked by the rain, under the moonlight, scampering across the garden with her white legs and disheveled gray strands of hair, she looked very beautiful and somewhat young. She stopped to catch her breath just before reaching the greenhouse.

He was there. His body had turned into a ten-armed, ten-legged silhouette moving faster than the eye could see, racing without letup between the garden and the water tanks. The old woman could only make out his thin arms, swelling with power, heaving full buckets of that very same water he protected like a dog, his bony feet, slipping in the mushy ground, dashing among the plant beds, and the gallons of water poured on the tomatoes, paprikas, and eggplants already drenched by the rain. His torso flickered across the garden – that man was carried by something other than muscles and joints, something else. The rain – the rain he had awaited this long, the rain he remained faithful to, the rain he believed in, believed in without reason, without any hesitation, without concern for his sanity. The rain that drenched him in the clarity of knowing that he didn’t have to wait anymore – that the buckets would be filled up again, and again, without end – that he didn’t need to save anything, not even water. Not even his youth, not even the desire to survive at all costs, which still endured deep in his bone marrow. The water rushed down his soaking nightshirt, along the wrinkles of his face, between his eyes, dripping from his nostrils – like a lamentation, like a prayer, like tears that the body, wilted from old age and apathy, was too dry to expel. The moonlight bounced off his white skin, shining in his fanatical gaze, trapped between his ribs poking out from the wet garment.

Without uttering a word, the old woman rushed to pick up a bucket. Skidding across the grass and splashing the edges of her nightgown with murky water, she emptied the whole bucket on already soaked peas. Then she ran back and grabbed another one. She felt no pain. No fatigue. Shame didn’t exist anymore. She was probably crying, but in the rain, nobody could tell.

My husband, my human, my rain, my soaking ground, my peas and my marigolds, my leaves and my roots – I am a plant, because I have no shame, I am a seedling, because I survive, I am a grass, because without shame I submit to old age and drought, I dream of the sea and it finds me. My anxiety, my decay – I am a plant because I hold out until the rain comes, when my body becomes weightless, timeless. My sky, my cosmos – consume me, scorch me, drain me of water, torture me with disappointment, soak me in rain – and look as I laugh. My full moon, my never-ending rain dance – take me.

The ground had turned into sludge. Rain drops fell on the roof of the greenhouse, streaming down behind wet collars, touching the flesh with hundreds of cold fingers. Two steaming bodies laid pressed to the glass.

 

 

 

 

Linas DaugelaPersonal archive photo

TITAS LAUCIUS

My name is Titas Laucius, and I’m a film director and screenwriter. I spend most of my time doing that. I devote about a third of my time to my favorite hobbies, which are not going to theater shows, not going to exhibits, and not having anything to say. Also, sometimes I write and play the trombone in a band that doesn’t really need a trombone player – but they don’t know it yet.

 

Dear turmeric,

I don’t expect you to reply. We can get that out of the way. I googled you three years ago – 10,300,000 search results. Ten million three hundred thousand! Do you know how many results the Backstreet Boys get? Six. Six million. A band active for twenty-five years! Made up of real people! One of them might be dead, but still – they made songs! And what did you do? The only good thing is that you didn’t write any articles about yourself – that’s true. But the guys wrote a few. Got in trouble later.

OK… I type my first name in… and last name. Nine thousand results. The first link says that I won an honorable third place in the young clarinet soloist competition. The problem is that I was the only contestant. And I came in third. It’s a prize place after all, as my clarinet teacher told me. The guy passed away recently, leaving behind thirty and then some of his pupils, none of whom became professional musicians. Actually, one of them works at a winery near me. He rolls brie into paper and smiles to the clients when he’s in a good mood. The second result is about to a guy who has my exact name and sells mobile homes. They currently go for a good price – 2,000 euros for a two-room trailer with an attached ecological mini-garden. I had used you, dear turmeric, let’s get that out of the way. I always blended in. I had some extra weight – not as much for anyone to make fun of me at school, but girls were pretty much out of the equation. I pierced my ear, but then the trend wasn’t around anymore. They didn’t even make fun of the piercing. What’s a guy to do to get some attention around here?

The first time I celebrated my birthday without a cake was three years ago. I decided to give up sweets. Of course, my parents took the hint and got me six bags of turmeric as a gift. Is there an etiquette around gifting spices? Is it allowed or not? My parents once gave me fireworks for my birthday. Twenty-four years – twenty-four firecrackers. Symbolic. Beautiful, even. They told me turmeric should be mixed with water and drunk every morning while you think about the gender of the baby you’re expecting. That’s advice for pregnant women. But fat guys should follow it too. They don’t have to think about anything, though. I did this for two weeks straight. My fingers were yellow, my towels were yellow, my urine was yellow… As for the taste – no offense, but it’s pretty bad! But still, I could do it. Not eating after six – now that I couldn’t do.

I started regularly going to the nightclub near my home in the evenings. Not because I enjoyed electronic music in particular, but the low bass brought a sense of fullness to my stomach. Two of my friends met their future wives at a nightclub. One of them said he instantly knew it was her. I asked him, but how? How can you tell? “I don’t know,” he said. “She’s the one who came up and talked to me. None of the other women did.” That didn’t happen to me. Truth be told, I was not a big talker to begin with. Each time before ordering pizza, I made sure to cough a lot to unstick any sputum from my voice box. So the lady knew for sure that I asked for a margarita, not a Vesuvius.

But one day someone came up to me too. I don’t know – I thought my wife would be a little taller. She says, “You’ve a stain here.” I touch my face – turmeric. Horrible! I want to say something, but the sputum in my throat… and another new song comes on. After seeing that I’m not gonna say anything, my wife goes back to the DJ, and I’m already a widower. Strobes and lights everywhere. Gone without a trace. While the widower is on his way through the five stages of grief. Is this all because of turmeric? I found her near the coat check and decided to hand her the coat like a gentleman would. No reaction.

I weighed myself the next morning – I had gained two kilograms. What the hell is that? I gave up the turmeric affair and switched back to my old regimen. My mood got better, and my nails slowly returned to their original color. I decided to take the neighbors’ dog for a walk. I did this occasionally – I would get in through their balcony, I’d take the dog, and we’d walk. Serene, romantic.

Outside, a woman grabbed me by the arm. I kept forgetting to bring a poop bag for the dog, but this girl was younger. Not the kind who’d care about the shit in the school stadium. “You stained my coat.” That was my wife. With her Labrador retriever beside her, she looked even smaller than at the nightclub. A yellow turmeric stain proudly lounged on her right sleeve like my sixty-year-old uncle tanning on a beach. The neighbors’ dog started barking. I realized I didn’t know the dog’s name. I told her that we could go back to my place, and I’d clean the stain for her. No luck. Who would accompany an overweight guy back to his apartment to get their coat cleaned? Then, I offered her to go to my neighbors’, since I still had to return the dog. Dear turmeric, thank you!

We got in through the balcony and put the kettle on. We couldn’t find any sugar in the kitchen. It was fine. Not much of an issue for us to go digging through somebody else’s shelves. I filled the bathtub with boiling water and rolled up my sleeves. Meanwhile, she decided to make tortillas. Nothing fancy – just mozzarella, avocado, and some other vegetables she found in the fridge. The stain didn’t come off. I tried telling her this, but she hated excuses. She said that we’d stay here for as long as it took to get that stain out. So I had to soak the coat. After leaving it in the tub, I went back to the kitchen to help my wife with dinner, but she wasn’t there. I found her on the sofa, wearing the neighbor lady’s house pants and watching TV.

From that year on, my parents would get me stain removal products for my birthday. None of which could get that stain out. At some point my folks got really tired of climbing up through the balcony, so they basically stopped visiting. The retriever died not long ago. He was lying next to the wife, both watching the news, and one of them passed away. The wife says that his immune system had gotten worse. I was left alone with her. And with that turmeric stain on that damn coat. It must’ve been ages since she could fit in that thing.

Dear turmeric, over all this time your Google search results have increased by two hundred thousand. Almost all of the queries ask the same thing. I don’t think I envy you for the attention or anything like that. It would be strange to envy a plant. That’s like envying a penguin for the attention it gets at the zoo. Or being a toothbrush sold at a pharmacy and envying the power bar that everyone’s buying because it’s stocked near the register. Still, I would like to ask one and only thing. Dear turmeric, how can I get rid of you?

 

 

 

 

Questionnaire

 

What prompted you start writing and publish your work for the first time?

Ieva Marija: I wrote my first work when I was 10 – it was a story about the adventures of a colt named Bėriukas. It was complete with my own illustrations. It’s funny now, but back then I was ambitious enough to turn it into a whole book, so I published it myself at home. My dad designed the text on the computer and printed it, and my mother handstitched each copy. I sold a couple to my classmates in primary school. Later I even made it into the local paper, where I gave an interview and had my picture taken – and was very embarrassed of the ski pants I wore that day.
Speaking of what prompted me to begin writing, that specific story was obviously inspired by Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron – one of my favorite childhood animated films and still the only movie that has made me cry. It made me see the emotional impact that a well-narrated story can have. At some point, I realized I have a story to tell, too, and I knew that it’d be an amazing thing if I told it right.

Titas: I didn’t have any money back then, and I didn’t want to return to my old job as a waiter at a pizzeria, so I wrote a few pages and sent them to Šiaurės atėnai. They seemed to like it more than the pizzeria customers did.

 

How much influence do you draw from the Lithuanian literary tradition?

Ieva Marija: I’m not sure what the Lithuanian literary tradition really is. It’s easier to establish in poetry, because Lithuanians are more likely to be poets than other types of writers. So if we associate the tradition with poetic imagery, lyricism, and a connection to nature, then I think plenty of this can be found in my own work. What I gathered from my occasional talks with foreign writers is the existence of an interesting semantic trait – Lithuanian works almost always dive into the depths of meaning, embracing depression, aggression, addiction, traumatic experience, and death. I suppose all of my texts, or at the very least their emotional background, contain this Lithuanian darkness.
Lithuanian writers inevitably influence my work because I read them during my final school years, which was also the period when I began treating writing more seriously and doing it more often, establishing my style and my opinion about the creative process. These are the authors we learn about at school, so we’re bound to be influenced by them.

Titas: I don’t think about it when I write.

 

Do you find it important to belong to a community of writers?

Ieva Marija: I wouldn’t say it’s vital to me. It’s a pleasure to talk to other writers because they are like-minded people. This pleasure may sometimes turn into new opportunities to get published or find out more about what’s going on in the literary scene. But even if I were the only writer left in the world or if I were somehow irrevocably shunned by the writing community, I’d still keep writing.

Titas: There’s more pleasure to it than importance.

 

In your opinion, what place does literature hold in today’s culture, which is dominated by imagery and visual media?

Ieva Marija: That’s a good question and one I’ve recently been thinking much about because it has a lot to do with a piece I’m currently working on.
I think literature and the writing arts will never be vanquished by visual or other forms of media, because literature is a loser’s art. At least for me personally, if I were able to express my thoughts and sensations through images, sound, sculpture, or another form, if I could do so without using words, I’d be doing only that. Words are mere intermediaries, an unavoidable lie, a representation of a representation, a linguistic trap. Perhaps that is the very essence of a good painting, film, musical composition, sculpture, or dance – that these arts manage without the flawed instance of the intermediary. They hit you right away. Yet I’m a loser who can’t find an accurate and effective non-verbal form of expression, so when I wish to express fear, anger, shame, or indifference, I use the words for these things and trick myself into thinking that I, too, am doing art. Literature will always occupy its place alongside visual art, unless being wildly talented becomes the new norm.

Titas: Literature is like punk rock in today’s culture – not many people want to listen to it, but once you do, you can’t stop.

 

Name one favorite, currently active foreign author.

Ieva Marija: Many years ago, I was captivated by the beauty of the writings of Alessandro Baricco. These aren’t even writings – they’re music pieces, and to this day I can’t forget the way they sound.

Titas: Nick Cave.

 

Do you see yourself with a career in literature in the future? Would it be enough to sustain you financially?

Ieva Marija: Generally, I don’t like to ascribe myself to a particular profession. I want it all, so I try to combine academic and artistic pursuits, writing papers alongside writing fiction. This is how I find very interesting interdisciplinary fields, where I feel most comfortable. That’s how I see having a career in literature – it will most likely be interwoven with other fields, which will only make it more interesting.

Titas: This would be my wildest dream, but unfortunately, I don’t believe it will come true.

 

 

 

 

 

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