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Akvilina Cicėnaitė (born in 1979 in Vilnius) is a writer, literary translator, the author of eight books and a recipient of several literary awards. She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Victoria University (Wellington, New Zealand), a master’s degree in Literary Theory and a bachelor’s degree in Lithuanian Philology from Vilnius University. She is a member of the Lithuanian Writers Union, Lithuanian Literary Translators Association, and the Lithuanian Section of IBBY. She currently lives in Sydney, Australia.

Her new novel A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 2022.

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: www.grafomanija.lt. After spending ten years in Melbourne, had returned to Lithuania and now lives in Kaunas.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Nerijus Cibulskas

by
Sandra Bernotaitė

 

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Akvilina Cicėnaitė, The English Dictionary (Anglų kalbos žodynas, Alma littera, 2022)

When discussing an autofictional novel, a reviewer can perhaps allow herself to introduce some elements of autoreview in her text. I write primarily in Lithuanian, and I am thinking in “translation mode” because I will translate it into English myself, inserting words and idioms that don’t exist in Lithuanian. My thinking in Lithuanian turns out a bit strange this way, but that’s not too surprising.

Like Akvilina Cicėnaitė, the author of the book I’m reviewing, I spent ten years in Australia, except that five years ago I came back to Lithuania, and she has settled in Australia and hasn’t come back yet. We have known each other for a long time. We meet time after time, basically to chat about life and literature. We are fellow writers.

I remember our conversation in Melbourne long ago, when Akvilina raised the question of whether it would be possible for us migrants to write a novel with Australians as characters. I had my doubts then. The books I had written so far were set in Lithuania and the characters were Lithuanian, even though I was writing while living abroad. I thought that a story with Australian characters would require a longer stay in Australia in order for me to be able to penetrate through closed doors and communication barriers. I expected that the Australian way of life should reach me eventually, but I was not very keen for it, and I avoided it. Now I can say that I never managed to open up to or deeply understand Australian society.

But Akvilina’s story is different. What’s more, her book The English Dictionary is a novel that breaks through barriers and shows both sides, allowing you to feel both here and there. I mean, it’s understandable and identifiable for both those who live in Lithuania and those who have emigrated. I was glad, when I read it, that I do not have to write such a novel, and I will just give it to my friends who want to know something about my past experience in Australia and what it means to belong to two countries at the same time.

In the novel itself, I found the author’s answer to my question of what it takes to make such a work, which is the translation of a bilingual (at least) and multicultural experience, come together:

Translation is swimming upstream, against learned definitions of words, unruly sentences, and the thorns of an alien language that stab your hands and leave your words bleeding […] Even if I learned the whole dictionary by heart, I would still feel lost in translation, picked up by the wave and washed ashore at the margins. There will always be a word with a definition beyond limits, or some analogy of a shore. A word that you must invent yourself. (Lost, 159)

In other words, she needed the right kind of rage against untranslatability – an internal and external struggle against the despair that many things remain incomprehensible, untranslatable, lost. This is the eternal drama of the liminal person, the migrant, the exile.

The question of being “here or there,” of being divided into “us and them” in the Lithuanian public sphere continues to come up and remains topical when dealing with the issues of dual citizenship or the idea of Global Lithuania. By some estimates, more people of Lithuanian origin are living abroad than within the geographical boundaries of our country.

Historically, Lithuanians emigrate in waves. Sometimes these waves are economic, sometimes political, sometimes traumatic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the opening of borders to the world, emigration became an expression of freedom, and some migrants call themselves nomads: they move, they wander. How many Lithuanians are out there in the world? Unfortunately, we cannot rely on hard statistics – the estimates are plucked out of the air – but we can guess that abroad, including those who were born to Lithuanian parents but do not speak Lithuanian, live maybe as many as four million, compared to slightly less than three million Lithuanians living in Lithuania. It’s likely that Lithuanians abroad outnumber those who are in Lithuania.

Some members of the Lithuanian diaspora are artists, and some of them write, both in Lithuanian and in other languages. Lately they are being (re)discovered, read, and seen in Lithuania. Some are returning. Literature that shows and discusses the experience of living abroad is becoming important both as a testimony and as an existential narrative about us all. However, the question is not only why we leave our homeland but also why we stay when we can choose to leave. The oft-repeated word globalization totalizes personal experience. We can now sense that any I can become a we, and we can end up on the same side as them.

Akvilina’s novel is about that and more. Like many good works, it is multi-layered. Nomadism is one layer of it, a civic, so to speak, and therefore a slightly political layer. The other layer is dramatic: it is about the relationship between a man and a woman. Finally, it has a philosophical or metaphysical lining (if we bear in mind the first failure of human translation, the Tower of Babel). The question of communication, of language itself, is expressed in the metaphor of translation. This metaphor is central to the novel and gives it its title, The English Dictionary. It gives purpose to the endeavor itself: “Writing will be my struggle against untranslatability” (315), states the author. She also explains the deepest motive for her choice:

I seek immortality in words – in languages native and foreign to me. I know that the fear of death sounds exactly the same in any language. When I am away from home, I always carry the feeling of longing with the weight of an unborn infant. I feel in my element when I don’t feel in my element. When I speak a foreign language, I feel restricted, imprisoned, standardized. And like a banal, walking cliché of an emigrant.  (Nevermore, 183)

Interestingly, I find that when read in the original (Lithuanian) language, the text of Akvilina’s novel has a tinge of translation. I guess that has happened unconsciously, and this is due to the fact that the author is less in touch with her mother tongue environment. But I must point out that these nuances of similarity to the translation are very slight and, even if they are noticed by Lithuanian readers, perhaps they will seem like an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Linguists would support my point, that our language encodes our past, our distant and near history, our origins and the vicissitudes of our lives, and that the place where we live should, after all, also make an imprint. This particular novel has more pronouns and the repetition of certain forms that are characteristic of the English language, and the rhythm has a strangeness to it. However, it is very Lithuanian that the novel is written as poetic prose because this type of prose is very characteristic of Lithuanian literature. And I will say, without apology, that I like this kind of ecstatic writing very much.

The narrative of the novel is fragmented, and each part is titled with an English word that offers a separate leitmotif, but the whole narrative has a simple and elegant structure, and that is a journey: a one-trip story. A married couple, a Canadian and a Lithuanian living in Sydney, travel by car to the Australian outback. The wife drives most of the time. She tells her version of her life story, in the first person, but she talks both about her own as well as her spouse’s journey to here and now, so we learn the background of both people and the history they share as a couple. We don’t know the name of the narrator, but we guess that it’s the same as the author’s name. Are her husband’s surname and biographical bits real? We cannot be sure, because the cover indicates “a novel,” but we have a hunch that a bigger part of the story is not fictional, that it is really autofiction.

In one place in the novel, I was surprised by a sentence in which the author seems to justify why she turned to nonfiction. Later, from her speech at the book launch and from a personal conversation, I realized that this was an important statement for her, and it had to be made within the novel, in media res. The line between fiction and documentary is often blurred without a separate announcement or apology from the author. This is a tool that has been discovered, or shall we say, admitted to by authors, for a very long time. Don’t we all write about ourselves, even if we are in the guise of a character? I would only agree with Oscar Wilde that the mask (speaking as a fictional character) encourages great frankness. Fiction can become more than truth. Autofiction invites us on a slightly different journey: writing in search of an answer to the question of what the truth is in itself a task greater than any other.

Here again I find a link to the metaphor of translation. We are always trying to translate one thing into another: our past experience into words, an image into a text, a lie into a truth, facts into fiction. Writing without a mask is brave. Writing in this way risks not saying everything, saying too much, or saying it the wrong way. It risks leaving something out, risks offending someone, risks writing something that wasn’t there, risks writing something that will come true. I become very careful when I write about myself, and I know that Akvilina has undertaken the courageous mission of writing not only her own story but the story of her marriage.

Another aspect of the author’s courage is her revealing the darker side of herself. After all, this novel is not a success story. It does not show an example of how to live together or how to fix a relationship, nor does the author boast or practice self-admiration. In this couple’s life, it isn’t only the beautiful things that happen – the foolish and unwise things happen, too. Mistakes are made, love is doubted, the decision to stay is made, while the character dreams of a parallel storyline, a path not taken, a life not lived.

One of the most poignant details in this story is the choice not to have children. I know that Australia has more childless couples and that nonstandard families are much more openly talked about. In Lithuania, it is still a taboo subject. Women who cannot have children are pitied, even if they have successful careers, feel loved, and are famous for their work. They are more likely to be called “down on their luck” than “blessed by fate.” Since this review has the characteristics of autoreview, I can confess that I have been “rewarded by fate” by being childless. At one time I chose to have children but couldn’t conceive; now that my marriage is over and I continue to make my own plans, I can say that I choose not to raise children, to have a child-free life. Akvilina is painfully direct on this subject:

How can you be happy if you’re not a mother, who are you at all, other women asked me without words, until they finally gave up and stopped asking. Mother – I wanted to say – can you see me? I only want you to see me. If not a mother, I am. If not a mother, I am infinite. (Childfree, 37)

As I said before, the pronouns I and we are used extensively and interchangeably in this novel (a feature of the English language!), the latter sometimes referring to us as a couple, a husband and a wife, and sometimes to us as emigrants, us as women, and sometimes to us as all of humanity. Paradoxically, I find that it is easier to identify with I, which is a very specific and personal voice. The content of the author’s particular, authentic stories may not be the same as my experience, but I trust their truth. It is harder to trust we. The totalizing we pushes me away through several degrees of separation and I become more than a spectator of the world of the novel – I even feel like a critic. The totalizing we makes the poetic language of the novel, in some places, look like essayistic journalism, and then I understand less why this manuscript is called a novel.

On the other hand, today we are less and less particular about what is called a novel, and less and less concerned about it. What I am more concerned about is whether this novel will be translated into English. Is this novel untranslatable? If so, perhaps that is its great value? Maybe not everything needs to be translated. I have found out that Akvilina’s husband is learning Lithuanian. In an autofictional novel, the narrator’s promise made to her husband may come true:

I will teach you to live in Lithuanian. We will return as a couple and will return for real, to the tips of our fingers, until death us do part, or more likely for some other shitty reasons. We will return to my childhood. I will tell you how lonely it was to grow up in Lithuanian, to experience the collapse of family and country, not to be able to talk about it with anyone. I will teach you the language of loneliness, a language I had to learn in order to start writing. (Virga, 275)

Sandra Bernotaitė is a writer, creative mentor, and doctoral student in philology.
She spent ten years in Melbourne, Australia. She currently lives in Kaunas, Lithuania.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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