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Ieva Toleikytė (b. 1989 Vilnius) – writer and translator of Danish literature. After completing a degree in Scandinavian studies from 2015-2018 she taught Danish language, Scandinavian literature and literary theory at Vilnius University. Since 2017 she has been volunteering at Angel of Hope childrens' day centre. Her literary debut was a collection of short stories Mustard House in 2009. This poem is from her second book, Slippery Red Palace (2020).

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Dainius Dirgėla, Reading Mushrooms.

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

 

Saulius Vasiliauskas talks to writer and translator Ieva Toleikytė about her work as a translator, her new poetry book, and an (un)finished novel. The two discussed the hierarchies of the literary field and the power of humor.

Upon opening your new book Slippery Red Palace, the reader is first met with a photograph. The picture is taken from a personal archive and shows a girl sitting on the grass and looking straight at the photographer. The plastic bag seen behind her can be read as a symbol. How do you interpret this picture and the feeling it carries? What do you see in it? I ask this question with Roland Barthes in mind, who wrote that photography is a means of a person showing themselves as another—a treacherous separation of consciousness from identity[1]. Paraphrasing the last line of the book’s first poem, I askis that person you?

It’s obvious that I am not that person and yet clear that it is really me. It’s the kind of paradox that I enjoy, and I sought it while writing my poems.

I found that picture by accident, when Deimantė Rybakovienė, the book’s designer, had already finished the initial design of the book. I felt a tingle in my heart; it felt as if I had found a missing piece of the manuscript. I was surprised to see that plastic bag in the grass (the camera was focused on the bag and not the girl), which to me looked like some miracle, and I instantly connected it with the book’s last poem “I want to travel,” where I imagine a plastic bag traveling the world across its oceans and killing the sea fauna that chokes on rubbish. It’s a fact that this thin, seemingly innocent plastic bag still exists somewhere on Earth and that it will cease to exist much later than I will because plastic is very slow to decompose.

The picture itself is somewhat of a mystery to me. Looking at it, I see a child in the outdoors, lost in her thoughts, and while I will never find out what that child was thinking at that moment, I have tried to remember how I was then over the last few years, as if I was trying to get that eight-year-old girl back. Even though her face hadn’t fully formed yet, she had all the essential colors of my character, my essential interests and feelings. That childhood Ieva is interesting and dear to me; in childhood I find a starting point.

It’s also my message to the reader—the book is very personal, but it is presented in a fragmented manner, “uncatchable” in reality, while the poems are like shrapnel. Looking at the photo from the perspective of the book’s third chapter, it adopts a more aggressive, environmental implication.

Your poetry includes a wide range of topics—from intimate, personal, sensual experiences to social and environmental issues. How did you select the poems for your book? Was there anything that didn’t make it, for whatever reason, into the three chapters?

I began arranging the poems when I felt that I had already written the whole book but did not know what it was about. I had a strong feeling that a particular stage in my life, with a clearly outlined beginning, middle, and ending, had come to pass. I only had to see it from a rational and structural perspective. The idea regarding the book’s structure came to me early on; I saw that I could arrange the poems to reflect a story on personal growth, which begins in the mind of the lyrical subject and, through other people, finds its way into broader spaces and contexts. This move seemed logical and somewhat fitting for the chronology of when certain poems were written. The poems that were poorly written were the ones that didn’t make it. It was also my conscious decision to exclude any old poems, save for one—the one about the mole, which, to my surprise, matched the other ideas of this book and found its place within the bigger picture.

You crossed into the Lithuanian literary scene in 2009 (although you had published pieces from even earlier) when you won the traditional First Book contest. At that time, you published your collection of short stories, Mustard House. You are now coming forward with a debut in poetry. There’s a distance of 11 years between the first and second book. I had heard that during this period you had plans for a novel. In your poem “Truth does not hide but penetrates,” you state, “with horror I saw: it’s all over / I will not write the novel, I did not give myself to it.” Why did you decide—if you already did—to not finish the novel or postpone it? How would you describe the experience of writing a novel and what advice would you give to somebody willing to begin theirs?

Thinking of the unfinished novel, I struggle to even use the word “decided,” because throughout that long period of time I had decided on multiple occasions to do a number of possible things: to abandon it, to postpone it, to rewrite it, to finish it. To destroy it was the sole thing I dared not to do. To tell you the truth, thoughts about the novel still “tickle” me, making me feel slightly excited yet also afraid of the possibility that this tickling will end badly (this reminds me of stories existing in Lithuanian folk tales of children being tickled to death by fairies). As I was writing the novel, I made one mistake—I did not write it whole from start to finish but in bits, always returning to previously written pieces and working on the style and looking for the narrator’s voice. I think I did find that voice, but in my search for it I got stuck in the clay pits of style, and I eventually lost the notion of what the book was about. And, of course, I held myself to insanely high standards. There were fantastic moments when I managed to write something that was original, when the characters began to look alive, very close to me, but I did not capture that sensation of flow, which had become like a drug to me when I first began writing my short stories. That state of flow was my driving force. I desired to feel it again and again, and that’s why writing the novel was such a disappointing experience for me—there was no breaking point, no instance of the floodgates opening. To a person planning to begin a novel, I have no advice. Maybe just to listen to their inner voice.

You translate novels and poems from Danish. How does the active practice of translation influence your outlook on language and your own writing? Do you happen to come into contact with the authors of the works you translate? Do you research their biographies and the place they occupy in Danish literature, or are these matters of secondary importance to you? 

When you translate, you’re forced to slow your pace and observe even the slightest detail. That’s quite unusual for me, as I like to do things quickly and expect instant results. When you’re translating a text, you see it differently from when you’re writing or reading. The sentence opens itself from at least three perspectives: first you see its structure like a skeleton on an X-ray; after digging in a dictionary, you begin to see the hues and layers of every word; finally, you get to observe the general effect of the sentence, its mood and language register. I think that the practice of translation may help in editing your manuscript. It cultivates your sense of language and widens your vocabulary, but in writing my first draft, I find it important to disconnect your rational mind and work intuitively, without questioning every word. A slow and rational examination of the text fits the occasion when you read it again after some time and review it with a fresh outlook.

When I translate, I consult the authors and try to sort out the confusing parts. This often helps in avoiding foolish misunderstandings. The nature of the translation process is very dependent on the particular work. I always research the author and the context of the book at least to a minimal degree, but if the work draws me in and seems artistically valuable, I try to find out more. I’m curious enough to listen to interviews about the book, to find out more about the author’s other works, to read more material, for example, other works of literature cited or rewritten in the book being translated, to better understand its context. I also find it interesting to participate in book fairs and translation workshops and listen to the perspectives of other translators or authors, to see how they view the works of some particular writers. For example, I recently prepared a translation to be published of the works of a poet that belongs to the older generation of Danish writers. Her works have earned a lot of recognition and are widely translated. Translators adore her poetry, but it appears that other Danish writers loathe her and view her works as dated, while they’re annoyed by her bright personality and iconic image. You would never gather such information from encyclopedias, reviews, or radio interviews. This is behind-the-scenes stuff, but it’s important if you wish to know your way around the literary scene.

Can you imagine your own workprose or poetrytranslated and published in Danish? How different, if at all, do you think it would be in terms of sound and form?

I can hardly imagine it, as it seems that presently Denmark is completely uninterested in Lithuania. As far as I know, there is very little of Lithuanian literature being translated to Danish. However, I suppose that my poems, if translated to Danish, would become milder, wetter, softer—Danish has a lot of soft consonants. The poems would not sound as sharp.

You had an interest in ecocriticismI believe you participated in an ecocriticism circle at your university? How invested are you in academic literature now? Does it influence your creative work?

Recently, I haven’t been reading many academic texts, but I am starting to feel a hunger for them—or, more precisely, through a time perspective I now see that the ecocriticism circle and the reading of academic literature had a tremendous influence on me. I began to see the world and its place for humanity in a different light. Maybe the word “circle” is misleading. Basically, when I was teaching at Vilnius University, me and a colleague of mine, my former teacher, began meeting once a week to discuss ecocriticism. We read an anthology of papers on the subject and were interested in technology, posthumanism, the humanoid Sophia and so on. It was very interesting and surprising—all things that I have felt in my heart since I was a child I found in ecocriticism and posthumanism, only specifically defined and refined, laid out in philosophical, historical, cultural, and political contexts. 

I now try to read more of other kinds of literature and to just delve into the topics that naturally catch my attention—trees, animals, mushrooms. There was previously a clear distinction between these fields in my life. University and work versus nature and free time. I did not see the links connecting the most different areas like mycelium branches. Only later on I realized where I had made my mistake—I would begin from serious academic literature and attempt to find in it something that was personally interesting and important to me. I never thought that I could begin the other way around and simply get into the things that always aroused my curiosity, like nature. It seems to me now that by discovering the things that naturally captivate your attention, but through the lens of science, philosophy, or politics, you acquire immense power and become more conscious. You finally find a way to discuss these topics with others. Without that, everything is relegated to the level of emotions and hunches, and maybe that is a very vulnerable position.

As a writer, or an artist, do you find it important to be a part of a community or a group? I reflect upon an epigraph to the second chapter of your book:

“It’s an October night when I approach a group of poets sipping their drinks.
‘Who’s this little girl with such a big smile?’
‘I’m not a girl, I’m a wolf!’
Everybody breaks into laughter.”

Well, this episode seemed symbolic to me perhaps more due to its, shall we call it, soft sexism? I am thirty years old, I have two degrees, I myself have taught at a university for three years, but older men often speak to me as if I was a child. This is especially awkward because I myself would never consider doing that. At the very least, it’s just bad manners. In other words, sometimes it’s infuriating, and sometimes funny. The grotesque hits you when you realize that people’s image of you is cardinally different from how you feel inside. I employed a snappy tone in retelling that story. It’s what the second chapter required—a set of thorns, or horns, if you will—but in truth I was very happy to have come up with such a witty answer in that particular moment, knowing how in the past such situations would leave me paralyzed. All I did was smile “like a girl.”

I think that I belong by definition to a group of people who write literature. Who else could I “belong” to? I am not interested in any literary cliques. To tell you the truth, I am sometimes sincerely annoyed with Lithuanian writers for their habit of mingling with each other and forming groups. It is very limiting. It’s like you can only speak to your friends; it’s your problem if you haven’t got any. In Lithuania people (me included) are not used to talking to strangers. They’re afraid to strike up a conversation, it’s easier for them to remain silent. But to behave like this is really boring and… impolite. Maybe that’s why I’m so triggered by this question—I guess I believe that an intense and ardent discussion and an honest interest in each other’s ideas, the wish to understand and know each other are important for culture to thrive.

According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the literary field is a contest for the right to define: people compete over the power to say that they are writers and the authority to define who gets to be a writer[2]. In other words, the literary field is a place where people fight over the right to define, so there are no objective criteria for describing the concepts of “writer” and “writer-esque.” However, I think that society still operates under a romanticized notion of what creators are like, and the aura of the mythical genius is sometimes established by the writers themselves, for example, in their defense against “ignorant” critics. How do you interpret these phenomena of the literary field? Are you interested in the attitudes, habits, and public ideas of writers? Do they influence how you perceive their writing?

I fully agree that the literary field is always marked by a power struggle. Sometimes those struggles and games and hierarchies can be felt very clearly. I was stressed by it in the past—I’m allergic to hierarchical relationships, and I hate arrogance and self-centeredness. I think that the Lithuanian literary field does not have many people whose attitude and behavior is not at all dictated and limited by the place they occupy within the hierarchy. So, meeting an exception is very refreshing. I find interest in the attitudes and ideas of other authors, which can help better understand their work— the authors are either serious about themselves, or playful, or adopt some other stance. Sometimes the author’s personality on social media becomes a work of art in itself, as in the case of Kęstutis Navakas. I’m generally always interested in how people think and how they relate to society. It would only better to “consume” less of that through the internet.

In one of your interviews from 2013, you spoke of self-centeredness and dramatism. Then you said: “I need to learn humor. I need to learn to laugh at myself, because self-centeredness makes your relation to the world superficial[3]. Is there more humor in your life now?

Definitely! When I did that interview, I was horribly self-centered, but in the negative sense—I chastised myself for even the slightest mistake and was afraid of what others might think of me. After some time, I managed to love my mistakes and embarrassments. I am now less focused on myself and more on the things and people I am passionate about. Maybe it’s better for the common cause?

Humor is such a wonderful thing. It brings you back to the “here and now.” It’s refreshing and liberating. Nobody is born with a good sense of humor, but they develop it as they live their lives. I think humor is directly connected with intellect and the ability to play; humor requires quick wits. I am not a good joker in language, and I haven’t written anything funny. Actually, I do sometimes write something with a smirk, some easy absurdity, but I later realize that others didn’t get that I wasn’t being totally serious. I like to joke with my friends. Especially using my body. I enjoy dancing stupidly and making funny noises. I take note of funny things. For example, my cats are like a troupe of circus performers. There’s never a dull day with those guys.

 

 

1. Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: pastabos apie fotografiją, translated from French by Agnė Narušytė, Kaunas, Kitos knygos, 2012, p. 21.

2. “One of the central stakes in literary (etc.) rivalries is the monopoly of literary legitimacy, that is, among other things, the monopoly of the power to say with authority who is authorized to call himself writer (etc.) or even to say who is a writer and who has the authority to say who is a writer; or, if you prefer, the monopoly of the power of consecration of producers and products.”—Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, transl. by Susan Emanuel, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995, p. 225.

3. http://apzvalga.eu/i-toleikyte-telkti-demesi-i-pati-procesa-noreti-rasyti-o-ne-parasyti.html

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

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