By Gabija Grušaitė

11 April 2018 - 08:00

Red fire escape on the side of a white factory wall
'I hated the official curriculum of Lithuanian literature in school. It seemed provincial, dated and did not address the pain and problems of growing up in an alienated urban environment' Photo ©

Olafpictures licensed under CC0 1.0 and adapted from the original

Gabija Grušaitė is a novelist and curator. She talks about contemporary Lithuanian literature and her complicated relationship with the books of the past.

How will the book you're researching, History of Lithuanian Literature, differ from your earlier work?

I was born a few years before the end of the Soviet Union, and grew up in the aftermath of one of the biggest social experiments in human history. In my view, it was a failed experiment. I left for London, and then lived in Malaysia for six years. After my 30th birthday, I decided to revisit the narratives of 20th and 21st century Lithuanian literature, to join the past with the present.

History of Lithuanian Literature is my way of understanding and defining my identity. I still do not know what form I will give the book. It might be a collection of short stories, a diary, or fictional tales told through the eyes of a character. But it is a very intimate experience of understanding my own roots. I think that literature is the most intimate form of memory.

As a young female writer, I am also aware that people look for autobiographical details in my fiction. However, in my two novels, Unfulfilled and Stasys Saltoka, I have separated my personal life from the fictional voices of the characters.

'I think that literature is the most intimate form of memory.'

You're reading all past and contemporary Lithuanian literature. Why are you doing that?

In order to escape the reality of the 1990s in Vilnius, I read a lot of fiction, but hated the official curriculum of Lithuanian literature in school. It seemed provincial, dated and did not address the pain and problems of growing up in an alienated urban environment.

Lithuanian writers like Ričardas Gavelis or Jurga Ivanauskaitė, who I am discovering now, were not part of my school reading list. They questioned post-Soviet Lithuanian narratives of sexuality, identity construction and nationalist nostalgia. In his novel Vilnius Poker, Gavelis refuses to see Lithuanians as a nation of victims. In most of her novels, and especially in The Witch and the Rain, Ivanauskaitė abandons the topic of nationality and looks into broader human experiences, not limited by geography or time.

It would have been refreshing to read these texts as an alternative to more traditional literature written in Lithuania between the world wars. However, my teacher felt that being a true Lithuanian meant having a particular world view – idolising small villages and poverty, and celebrating agricultural labour. I couldn't relate to this, and therefore decided I was a bad Lithuanian.

This remembered pain has brought me to reread the classical Lithuanian authors: Žemaitė (the pen name for Julija Beniuševičiūtė-Žymantienė), Vaižgantas, Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas, Jonas Biliūnas and Jurgis Savickis. This time, I want to find my own connection, rather than being told what to think.

As a teenager, I strongly disliked Žemaitė. I saw her as a naïve writer. Now I realise she was a diverse writer, a feminist and an activist. I believe Žemaitė is one of most misunderstood people in Lithuanian literature, and it is interesting to research how a strong-willed woman became stereotyped as an uneducated figure. 

Are there benefits for writers who work in a language like Lithuanian, that is less widely known than, for example, French or English?

When I was young I read Hemingway's The Sun also Rises and thought 'if only I were born in a different country, I would have so many more opportunities'. But later I came to appreciate the experience of being born in a small, strange and wonderful place.

There have been some perks as a writer. For example, my friends in London or New York still struggle to be published, while it was much easier for me because the Lithuanian market is small, more open to newcomers, and more welcoming.

'I came to appreciate the experience of being born in a small, strange and wonderful place.'

How does past Lithuanian literature inform contemporary Lithuanian literature?

The White Shroud by Antanas Škėma has a pure, raw, and painful existentialism, which has inspired a lot of contemporary Lithuanian writers.

As part of my research to understand how Lithuanians perceive their own literary heritage, I have been asking contemporary writers, translators, artists and architects to make a list of five books that influenced them the most. The White Shroud has been in most of these lists, as well as Balys Sruoga's book The Forest of the Gods, and Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis. Some of the contemporary writers who have named these as influences are the rapper and poet Žygimantas Kudirka, and writers Rimantas Kmita and Tomas Vaiseta.

How has the Lithuanian language shaped Lithuanian literature over the years?

I am still looking for an answer to this. On one hand it is a beautiful, melodic language that allows a poetic and intimate flow of thoughts. On the other hand, there has been a lot of institutional control in the last few decades that attempts to define how we can use our language.

The language is alive only while it changes and adapts to the needs of the native speakers, so I protest against the institutionalised preservation of Lithuanian. My book Stasys Saltoka is written in a language shaped by social media use, online influences and foreign-word adaptations, reflecting the character's inner world. Recently, there have been more texts that innovate with Lithuanian, like Pietinia Kronikas by Rimantas Kmita, and Pušis kuri juokėsi by Kęstutis Šapoka.

Has the Lithuanian literary tradition has changed significantly for your generation of Lithuanian writers?

I believe that Lithuanian literature is experiencing a golden age. There are so many great authors doing experimental things, both in poetry and in fiction. I am a big fan of the poets Žygimanto Kudirkos, Aušros Kaziliūnaitė and Mariaus Buroko. Undinė Radzevičiūtė creates really impressive fiction.

I am excited to read new literature. The censorship years are gone, and a new generation of voices are redefining tradition.

Visit Gabija Grušaitė's website.

The British Council works with The London Book Fair to organise a series of public author events, with this year's Market Focus on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. You can get to know the writers and the cultural programmes here. 

The Market Focus programme focuses on the publishing market of one country, to promote the cultural opportunities that exist there. 

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