Sandra Bernotaitė is a writer, publicist and writing mentor. She was born in 1975, in Šiauliai. Graduated from Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre with master’s degree in acting in 2003. Made her literary debut in 2009 and is the author of several books, including three novels. Blogs on creative writing: After spending ten years in Melbourne, had returned to Lithuania and now lives in Kaunas.

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a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Renata Palubinskas, Circus of Life, 2005

by Sandra Bernotaitė



Sandra Bernotaite 03Photo by Povilas RėklaitisIt’s been a year since I came back to where I belong, and to my surprise I find myself longing for a country I don’t belong to. I just spent ten years in it. My friends ask me why am I missing it—where does this longing come from? This country didn’t accept you, and you yourself didn’t try to assimilate, right? But assimilation is not the same as belonging. A person can belong to the environment and be different than the others in it. A person can retain the signs of strangeness, retain the distance, and still become very fond of the place, feel the community’s welcome, settle themselves in.



Longing and belonging. Is longing a sign of belonging? For me—yes, it is. I felt the longing after I left Lithuania. I was missing something that I left there. It has happened gradually, not in the first year but later, and with time I felt it growing stronger, and I was missing very particular things. I felt the need for my community only when I had lost it. I have started to contemplate my identity or, to be more precise, identities.



Sense of alienation and sense of belonging might be two sides of one coin. They are two states of mind. It’s constantly swinging. It’s important that I keep on swinging, that the swings never come to a halt. Stopping is the scariest thing because it’s the end. When I go down swinging, when it is darkness and melancholy inside me even when the sun is shining outside the window (like now), it’s important for me to get a hold onto the white sheet of paper where words are born. Words that are familiar to my eye. Words that are not at all original, authentic, or talented. I am saved by words that are worthless and don’t say anything new to the world.



The third space, I may say, emerges when there is a division of spaces in a person’s life, and that person cannot fully belong to any space. It could be a dichotomy of fatherland and the country they chose to settle down in. It could be a binary of native and learned language. I continue developing the list: (un)belonging to any sex, social milieu, profession, religion—could each of these conditions call for an emergence of the third space? It looks like it’s connected to the multiplicity of the identity.



Having multiple identities is exhausting—so I was told by a few people, and I agree. To find a refuge in language, to escape the contradictions and necessity to choose one identity—that is an easy way out for me as a writer. I chose not to give up the comfort, depth, or immediacy between my unconsciousness and consciousness that my native language gives me. “Have you tried switching your writing language into English?” I chose to remain Lithuanian.



It’s easier to suppress the longing for Australia in me than to put up with the loss of Lithuania. Now it’s obvious to me what I’ve got back and how much strength came back to me by returning to my homeland. When someone asks me if I feel disappointed, I find myself perplexed: how can someone be disappointed by their fatherland? It would be similar to being disappointed by their parents. But can you be disappointed by your parents? It’s possible to feel distanced from them or feel their closeness, to be friendly or be angry with them, to mourn in advance the fact that they will grow old and eventually will pass away, but they will never disappear from your life, they will stay as a certainty, a given. They have borne you. To be disappointed by them would mean to be disappointed by your own birth and by your own existence.



I belong to this world. The imagination alone can fly me away to the underworld which, by the way, I once visited in my dreams. It was a feeling of strange horror: the abandoned amusement park in the unknown location, my lost shoes, my walking barefoot, a partial or full solar eclipse, the light from the sky dispersed and unpleasant. You can feel that this world has no exit, the claustrophobic stiffness… It’s a walk through the world of unconsciousness. It’s very possible that the unconsciousness is our paradise and our hell. This is my underworld. To be fully immersed in this realm means to lose your mind, to become insane (I’ve found a similar note in the diaries of Susan Sontag).



Once during a dance workshop, I was asked, “So what are you—actress, dancer, writer?” I smirked and was going to answer that I am nobody. Then some other participant of the workshop was quicker and said on behalf of me, “She is Sandra.” Nevertheless, I often feel that this name doesn’t belong to me. Or that I don’t belong to this name. Why should everything that I am or am not be described by the given name, which belongs as well to so many women?



I could agree with Adam Zagajewski that some people never find their home; they don’t belong to any place, any town or country; they are not migrants. They are homeless. In this case you have to learn to dig into the ground under your feet momentarily, and you have to imagine that this place where you are spending the night is your home and these people you are spending the night with are your family. This feeling of homelessness, when you are living with your luggage open in waiting, and your books are hiding in cardboard boxes which are used for seating guests, because there’s no sofa and there’s no sitting room—it’s your working room. Well, if only this was the price of freedom…



“So, you have tried to establish yourself in Australia and you didn’t succeed. Have you lost your home?” the shrink asks me. I have to explain to her that I haven’t even tried to establish myself in that country, and my home was not a place or a building. My home was the person I have lost because he has lost my trust (yes, it’s complicated). I used to belong to him, and now that I have lost this sense of belonging, I have gained the sense of independence (that was self-irony). Anyway, during my stay in Australia I felt a strong and even growing link to my fatherland, Lithuania. I’ve started to ruminate on my “composite identity,” on being a nomad. Because if you constantly migrate inside the country, moving from the small town to a bigger town and then to a foreign city, and back and forth, you can’t consider yourself a settled person.



A sense of belonging. This phrase sounds strange to us. It’s not common for Lithuanians. The word “belong” in Lithuanian has a direct connection with a word “addiction,” and this is an obsessive, compulsive feeling, something you cannot get rid of. To belong to something or someone who is making you feel exhausted and feel sick and stops you from experiencing freedom—that is unpleasant to say at least. Belonging takes away your independence (freedom), so these two things, it might seem, contradict each other. Nevertheless, Lithuanians who spend some time in an English-speaking environment learn to say, “I feel a sense of belonging to (a place, a person, a thing).” When you find a word for a feeling, when there’s a place for it in your dictionary, you start to realize this positive sense of belonging—and you can find it in yourself.



I am probably not a plant type; I am an animal. I have to move. I feel a sense of belonging to freedom. I sense that I belong to something and it coincides with a sense that I don’t belong to anything. The wish to belong to something, to surrender, to give away the responsibility for myself and my fate, and especially for my failures, is always close, under the surface. One of the paradoxes is this inability to break free from the freedom and the constant doubt about whether it’s necessary. Maybe.


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