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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Every book, every story is different: each author, writing style, theme, and vocabulary is unique. There is always the challenge, or the puzzle, of conveying these differences in a way that would sound natural in Dutch. It helps me stay sharp as a translator.

Photo by Laima Vincė
When I think of myself, I think that maybe because I have lived in so many different countries and represent different things for different people that others construct my identity for me. But the happy childhood I had in Vilnius has shaped my inner identity. I am the perfect wandering Jew. I am lucky that life has enriched me in so many ways.

Photo from personal archives. Antanas Sileika novel, Provisionally Yours, was made into a feature film in Lithuania in 2023 (Laikinai jūsų).
In my first memoir, I wrote about how when Lithuania didn't exist on the map, I felt as though I didn't exist. That's partially why I became a writer, in order to exist. So, before Lithuania was independent, you had to make Lithuania exist somehow, or remind the world of Lithuania's existence. But now Lithuania is on the map. It exists. So, what comes next? So, what comes next is how these tales of how its existence illuminate the human condition in this strange place where these where terrible things happened on a small stage.

Ellen Cassedy with Irena Veisaitė. Unknown photographer.
I think what surprised Lithuanian Americans was that somebody who they read as a Jew was open to seeing Lithuanians as human beings and not just perpetrators. My feeling is that if you separate people into these two columns—the bad Lithuanians and the good Jews—what you're really doing is preparing the way for another Holocaust. It's not easy to not do that.

Photo by Andrew Kovalev
Another reason my heart is embedded in Lithuania is this: the mythic has not yet been obliterated by capital. But the entire Baltic region remains an open wound too, with scar tissue, surrounded by astonishing beauty... I suppose all brutalities live right next to beauty.

Photo courtesy of Arrowsmith Press
The poems I wrote as I experienced the war were quickly translated into other languages. Then I received feedback from foreigners who wrote to me that my poems helped them understand what was going on in Ukraine. These are emotional and subjective poems that express a personal experience of war. That helps people understand because they can relate. My poems are a way of checking reality—both for me and for my readers.

Rimas: We work in languages that almost no one else reads. It can be a little different if you're doing French or Spanish, where a lot of people can read the original. But for us, if it doesn't work in translation, that's it – nobody's interested. The authors often aren't known. So, you can't go by reputation, and they can't read the original, see how good it is. All they have is your translation. So it has to work on its own.

Photo by Stephen Petegorsky Photography
Small presses are playing an important role, of course; so many of them are flourishing and doing wonderful things. But for us to reach ‘utopia’, as you say, we will need a more literary culture. I actually think that the situation in Lithuania, in this regard, is much better than in the United States. When I was living there, I recall Adamkus or someone going to the Writers Union to announce his intention of running for a second term. In the U.S., politicians don’t care what the writers think.

Photo from personal archives
Now that I look back, I realize that the closer you lived to Washington DC or to New York where the United Nations are located, the more responsibility you had to advocate for Lithuania's independence. It was a big responsibility for our family to speak up and to take part in protests and marches. We learned to lobby the government while still in high school: "Hello, my name is Daiva Chesonis. May I speak to your legislative aid on foreign affairs." Now what 13-year-old knows how to do that?

Photo from personal archives
When I was little, I wanted community so badly that I went through the Houston phone book to see if I could find any Lithuanian last names. In that entire big city, I found only one Lithuanian surname. I called and left a message in Lithuanian, but they did not call me back. I sometimes wonder if they would have returned my call had I left the message in English—and how I would have explained that to my mother.

Photo by Woody Welch
The name is a survivor. That is how I think of Lithuania as well. Lithuania is a survivor. How the hell is that country still intact? It’s been battered about by these huge empires for hundreds of years, it has been occupied, and its people were brutalized and suppressed and terrorized, and then every time, Lithuania emerges again from the ashes. For me, Lithuania’s story is an amazing story of resilience. Maybe I didn’t find that relative who made me feel that I could say “I could do that because he did that.” But at least I can say, I’m Lithuanian, this country did that. This country survived.

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