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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Photo by Akvilina Cicėnaitė

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

Writer and translator Akvilina Cicėnaitė has spent the last decade living in Sydney, Australia, but she maintains a habit of coming back to Lithuania at least once a year, where fans may see her at a book fair or other literary cultural event. I approached her with the intent of doing an interview precisely under such circumstances – at the annual Santara-Šviesa congress in Alanta, which hosted an evening dedicated to the works of Cicėnaitė and Antanas Šileika, a Lithuanian writer who currently resides in Canada. One evening, we travelled from Alanta back to Vilnius, her native city, her former home and the place where she studied (and acquired her bachelor and master’s degrees). Yet we knew that her flight to Australia was scheduled the next morning and agreed to continue the conversation remotely. Perhaps this is why I began the interview from questions related to what Cicėnaitė considers to be her home and why and what traveling means to her.

Home was a relative concept, and if one day I returned to the country of my past, I would have to learn anew how to live, as though for the first time. I would have to learn a new vocabulary.”[1]– This short yet capacious passage from your most recent novel, I think, is like a key to understanding the whole book. Home (as a location) and language (as a culture) are the foundations of the text, yet the meanings of the words themselves are constantly redefined (like in the case of a relationship, which is a “search for a common vocabulary”). Although the answer to this following question can be found in the book, I’d like to begin by asking you: what is a home to you, and what is language?

Indeed, if I were able to put the answer to this question in a few sentences, I wouldn’t have needed to write this book. I believed for a while that it’s possible to divide a life between two homes. I may have even romanticized nomadism, ambiguity, a state of liminality which can be a state of hope, discovery, and unlimited potentiality. I was also familiar with the British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner’s statement that writers should be able to occupy a liminal position, to stand outside of society to see beyond it and critically evaluate it. To a certain extent, I still have a fondness for transitory states, being in-between.

However, the last few years made me rethink the notion of the global citizen. I now see home as a commitment, a choice, as something that should reflect my values. At some point a person must choose which side of the border to stay on, in a literal and metaphorical sense. The concept of two homes may now seem a luxury and illusion in the current world with its raging wars and climate crisis.

In many aspects, the space of language is a home for me. When I write, I feel at home, I would add. But this “language is my home” has become a bit of a cliché amongst writers who divide their life between two countries, and I feel the need to gently probe this phrase. Language is a safe space, but even this space might not protect someone from the feeling of homelessness. With time, the other language(s) can take over more territories in your head, and eventually you start thinking whether this is just another illusion, an ephemeral vision, wishful thinking.

 

After reading the novel, I got the impression that it was written openly and sincerely, that is, without a hyperbole or additional emphasis on the events, while the rhetorical devices don’t get in the way of narrating the story and describing the narrator’s feelings. How much is this an autobiography?

When I was just beginning to write this book, the vision I had in my head was of a more academic, perhaps more essayistic, fragmented text. I came up with a plot a year into the writing, and that’s how it became a road novel, depicting a couple’s road trip from Sydney to Broken Hill. The most challenging part was to blend the structure of a dictionary with the pace of the road trip. It’s autofiction, a genre that combines elements of autobiography and fiction. Therefore, this autobiographical side is important; it drives and shapes the story. However, my goal was to create a story rather than document it. The element of fiction was more important than that of auto.

During the first months of writing A Dictionary of the English Language, I read Annie Ernaux’s book The Years and was fascinated with how she managed to blend the personal and impersonal, private and collective. It got me thinking of the illusory nature of “I” in both fiction and autofiction, of the relative nature of speaking in the first or third person (initially I wrote Dictionary as a third-person narrative). Honesty was important to me, but so was a literary form. When I think about autofiction, I think about a (non)authentic candor, elusiveness, a kind of a game with the reader. These kinds of texts often seem to me both vulnerable and possessing the power to wound – the reader as well as the author. They seem to be born out of love and melancholy, when you can’t control your reality and attempt to control what you can, which is your narrative. But at the same time, for me this kind of writing and maybe literature in general, means freedom – freedom to create a new past, to forge my signature, to discover a new image in the mirror.

I was also curious about that tension between desire to experience an intimate story, to connect with the narrator on a very personal level, to understand what is real and what is authentic in autofiction, while at the same time criticizing these kinds of texts as not serious enough, perhaps even too personal. I wanted to explore this desire for intimacy and fear of our own vulnerabilities it might expose.

And finally, when I get questions along the lines of what is autobiographical and what isn’t, I remember what Olga Tokarczuk wrote in her collection of essays and lectures The Tender Narrator. She stated that when we start to wonder how much truth and how much fiction the text contains, we lose the ability to play with those different worlds, to walk the tightrope between what is and what could be, what has not happened, what will not happen.

 

Each chapter of the novel is titled using a word beginning with a letter in alphabetical order (Afterlife, Broken, Childfree). How did you think of structuring the text like that? Did it take you long to select these words-as-titles? In other words, was it hard to rummage through the vocabulary of experience and memory?

I came up with the title first. The title of this novel was a key, a code that allowed me to delve into the topics that I wanted to write about for a long time but never found a suitable approach. I longed to write about the untranslatability of the English language and of a life in a different culture, about how we live differently in different languages. I also wanted to touch upon the multi-faceted nature of migration and migrants’ experiences. A dictionary became a perfect metaphor for an attempt at entering the space of a foreign language and the eventual humble understanding that certain things will remain in the space of untranslatability, between the words. I was trying to find words that could best reflect this space. Perhaps the very idea of this book came to me when I realized that I now have too many untranslatable words and experiences.

Some words were easier to find than others. I came up with some of them straight away. There were words that I didn’t even need to question – these were spacious, multi-layered, eloquent. They had personal significance and at the same time beautifully reflected the main idea of this book, such as jetlag or homesick. One of my favorite English words is eternity, and this word came to me with a poignant Sydney story. I also had to include solastalgia – a newly coined word that means longing for a home when you are home but when that home of yours has irreversibly changed. This word is mostly used to explain the changes brought on by global climate change. I first came upon this word during 2019-2020 Australian summer of massive bushfires. Since then, for me it was a concept that illustrates the many layers of longing, fear, anxiety, and desperation at seeing our ravaged and razed home, seeing the glimpses of irreversible changes.

On a brighter note, I like the connection between the word and the world. Reality, on the other hand, is a word that I never wanted in my dictionary. Unsurprisingly I didn’t even think of it until it was suggested to me.

I was also mindful that this untranslatability is possible even when people speak the same language. In a way I also wanted to talk about the limits of the language, the boundaries between us, the impossibility of an absolute connection.

 

The story of the protagonist’s husband in the novel tells a tragic life tale: he was left by his mother with her parents shortly after he was born, while he himself never knew his biological father, except for his father’s name and country of origin. When the mother returns later with another man, this becomes merely a short episode in the son’s life when he receives his stepfather’s last name. This character pushes his memories out because he found too difficult to “carry the burden of his memories.” Does memory help us endure and move forward by erasing and closing up our experiences?

In this case forgetting is an act of self-preservation. It’s a conscious choice, an act to protect the present. We can inherit memories, and we can refuse memories. Memory is a choice. Memory, in a sense, is also freedom. However, just like the protagonist’s husband chooses to forget and not to carry this impossible weight of memories, the protagonist herself finds it important to tell his story and give it meaning with this act of storytelling, to not let it be forgotten. It’s an attempt to show that those little insignificant stories of nameless people are worth telling and protecting, that talking about them can also be healing.

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.

 

The narrative is dense, full of detail, observation, and lively dialogue. Do you have a habit of writing down your experiences in real life to later use them in your writing?

I do have writing habits, but sometimes my texts insist on me changing those habits. Usually, I try to finish my first draft as fast as I can and later spend ages editing it. However, when I was writing A Dictionary of the English Language, I sometimes only managed to write half a page per week. It was a very fragmented work and I had to stop trying to rush ahead. The pace of this novel had to be slow and gently swaying, as if reflecting the long road trip across the Australian outback under the scorching sun.

I always make notes even when I’m not working on a book. I don’t have a habit to write down real events, but I jot down thoughts, sentences, metaphors, things I overhear, quotes from books, et cetera. Sometimes certain moments of reality become kind of flashes and for a brief second, I imagine seeing a glimpse of a different kind of reality, the story’s reality, and I momentarily see how I can put it into words. Thus, I always make notes; otherwise, I forget.

When I finish my writing for the day, I like to leave something unsaid. That way I can get up from my desk and go about my day with that feeling of an unfinished sentence, of a perpetual wonder.

 

The novel reflects on life in several Australian cities and tells stories from the country’s urban centers as well as the suburbs and less populated areas (the outback). In your opinion, how is life in the cities different from that in the rural regions?

I can only imagine that it’s a very different lifestyle and priorities, but it would be hard to compare as I’ve always lived in the cities. But I was recently wondering how the places we live in affect our writing, and I guess that regardless of where they live, writers need to retreat to their inner desert to write. Inner outback, if you will.

 

Traveling holds a central role both in your life and writing. The characters of your novel are also in a state of traveling. However, I’d say that in the book, inner, intimate spaces are more significant than external ones. What does traveling and being on the road mean to you?

Travelling for me is being in a liminal space that opens limitless possibilities, where anything can happen, where we are vulnerable, open, unprotected by our social masks and roles. Every trip has a potential to change us. Being on the road gifted me incredible experiences and people. That said, now I want to be at home more than away.

 

The novel also touches upon the topic of speed, for example, when the characters are driving in a Toyota and think about whether “the soul manages to keep up, or … remains traveling at the speed of a horse, a camel, or a donkey.” These considerations reminded me of Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness. Although in the context of your novel speed is associated with means of traveling, it puts less emphasis on the speed of contemporary daily life. How is the pace of life in Sydney different from that in Vilnius? Does your routine offer you any chance to experience the slowness of time?

I usually return to Vilnius once a year, and those few weeks are quite hectic catching up on everything. My Sydney life is quiet, but I do wish for more slow time, where nothing is scheduled, I have no deadlines or expectations, when I can just do nothing and enjoy the art of being bored. This kind of time, the fertile ground for any kind of creative work, is still a luxury both in Sydney and Vilnius.

 

Not living in Lithuania and not actively participating in its literary scene means that you are somewhat farther away from it and the local writing community. But perhaps I’m wrong – you make a point of coming back, participating in book launches, and in 2020 you became a member of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union. Nevertheless, I’ll ask you this: do you consider yourself an active participant in the processes of Lithuanian literature, or do you observe these processes from a distance? Are you at all concerned with belonging to some “tribe” of writers?

It's a tricky question. I left in 2009, right after the publication of my first book. So I never had a chance to feel what it means to be a real writer. Even though I’m now a member of the Lithuanian Writer’s Union, I never felt like I belonged in literary circles. I only have a vague idea of the Lithuanian literary life. Perhaps it would be different had I been living in Europe, but now I’m thousands of kilometers and time zones away. I try to keep up with the latest publications in Lithuanian, but overall, I mostly live in the context of literature published in English.

That said, I like Elena Ferrante’s stance. In her Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, she writes that “I don’t think that the author ever has anything decisive to add to his work: I consider the text a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, and in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers. … Increasingly, the promotional activity of authors tends, instead, to cancel out the works and the need to read them.” I think it’s a very valid point, but at the same time I long for the sense of community and belonging and cherish the connections I made with fellow authors and readers.

Also, living in Sydney, where no one cares if or what I write, is a gift in its own way. It helps me to stay grounded and down to earth, to avoid feeling self-important, to focus on work first and foremost.

 

You graduated with your bachelor and master’s degrees in Vilnius. How did you decide to do your PhD at Victoria University of Wellington and change your field of interest from literary to religious studies? How does it feel to be a doctoral student?

I always wanted to do PhD in literature, but after graduating with my master’s, I began working in advertising, and it took me a few years to go back to the university. I turned to religious studies partly because at the time I was curious about why people choose to believe and what they believe in, why there are so many new religious movements and alternative spiritualities emerging, how the old forms of the sacred are being replaced by new ones. Also, partly because I was going to study abroad, my English was mediocre and wasn’t sure if I would be able to write about literature in English. Hence a kind of a compromise – my PhD topic was The Concept of the Sacred in Post-Soviet Literature, so I didn’t venture too far from literary studies.

My doctoral studies gave me so much, both in a professional and personal sense. It was also my first experience of living overseas, a time of discovery beyond merely in the academic sense. Obviously, there were the usual frustrations related to doctoral studies, but these were easily forgotten – what’s left in my memory now is that joy of escaping the real world, reading obscure books, and focusing on something that I found fascinating.

 

Your work contains books for children and young adults. How is writing for children different from writing for adults?

When I write for children, I always have my readers in mind – what are they interested in? What do I want them to take away from my story? Children’s books are short. Every word is important and so is honesty. Ideally, there could also be an additional layer of meaning for adult readers.

When writing for children, I discover another voice of mine that’s gentle, perhaps a bit funny. When writing for young adults, I strive to leave the reader with some hope and light, even when talking about difficult topics. With adult books, I think of what I’d want to read, what feels essential, what bothers me, what should not be forgotten, what would be interesting for my ideal reader, what the questions are that I don’t have answers for.

 

You’re a writer as well as a translator, and you’ve translated several books for children and adults. A friend of mine recently told me he’d never dare try translating because he couldn’t deal with unavoidable failure, when some nuance in the text must be waived to comply with the differences between two separate languages or linguistic systems. What is most important to you in the process of translating a book? Are there things that should be saved at all costs and others that can be forgone?

I once heard a comparison that translators need to be chameleon-like, to fully merge with the writer’s text. Translators need to set their own voices aside and find a way to recreate the writer’s voice in their language, to capture all the colors and shades of the text, its changes of pace, tone, flow, and intensity as well as its silences. Some of these colors and shades will inevitably be lost in translation, and this untranslatability is more visible in some texts than others.

I try to choose books that I can learn something from, be it experimenting with language, structure, or thematic layers. It’s important for me to remain faithful to the text. I need to re-invent the text whilst at the same time staying close to it. My goal is to find the best way to convey the inner music of the text in Lithuanian, to retain its soul and rhythm. I work with my translations just like I work with my own books, which is, I edit a lot. And then once I think I’m done, I edit one last time.

 

In one of your previous interviews, you said that literature is an effort to tear the silence, to change thinking, to spark new ideas, and to inspire people to change the world surrounding them. Surely we must keep in mind the debilitating informational noise around us, the need for silence and tranquility, the demand for which seems at an all-time high, and the looming catastrophes (e.g., ecological or military ones). So don’t you think that the need for the kind of literature you spoke about and its readership will only become less prominent? Do you have any prognoses on what will become of literature in, say, 20 or 30 years?

What’s the point of writing stories in the face of a disappearing world, you may ask. But storytelling sometimes can be the only meaningful act, a quiet resistance to emptiness, meaninglessness, violence, and death. Literature is one of the ways to bear witness to humanity. We’ll keep telling stories to keep each other alive. The end of literature will only come with the end of humanity. Until then, there will always be stories, and amongst those stories, the so-called elite literature – literature that passes the test of time, crosses the borders of countries and cultures, offers beauty, discovery, meaning, and maybe even a glimpse of eternity.

 

1. Translated by Medeinė Tribinevičius.

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