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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

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.

Photo by Michelle Playoust
I wrote most of this book during the pandemic and finished it during the last Sydney lockdown. With the daily statistics of deaths as a backdrop it was impossible not to ponder on our own mortality, disappearance, the body as a home for memory, the inevitable fact that if I die now – if we die – there will be no one to tell our story. Writers have two important tools – language and memory. I write so I can remember, and I write to not forget.

Photo by Regimantas Tamošaitis
I think that schools and universities as well as other educational institutions need societies like that – not to cultivate some higher level of artistry but to develop a humanitarian environment – where people learn to discuss, be silent, listen, and talk about important things. In other words, where they can get that sense of community that every lover of literature, or any true individualist, secretly thinks about. We write in solitude, but the sense of being in a safe environment for showing and discussing our work is equally important.

Dominykas (29), Greta (29), and Dorotėja (1) in front of the Cologne Cathedral,  Germany, 2022. Photo credits: personal archive.
As we thought about the name for the association, we knew that we want to connect ourselves to Vilnius. The city has had a lovely legend from the Middle Ages about the basilisk of Vilnius – with time, the basilisk became known as a friend of the city’s residents rather than a dangerous beast, and seeing it was known to be a sign of good fortune. Thus, we interpreted the basilisk in our own way as a patron of literature, writers, and translators, while in our view every poet and translator became the basilisk’s ambassador.

Kerry Shawn Keys. Druskininkai, Lithuania, 2021. Photo by Vladas Braziūnas.
I have people visiting me – Martin Heidegger came and we talked about the Black Forest and Celan. Li Po comes sometimes, Hanshan, and we get drunk on moonshine with my friend Sergej Jeriomenko. Omar Khayyam and Chorizo and Ko come a lot because they like currant and apple wine.



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