Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras


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Readers ask: What’s your religion?

I’ll reveal that this question comes from students. I think it’s worth saying a few things about it on my blog.

Obviously, I write a lot about religion. Religion is a powerful force in the game of human fate, with tentacles in everything from political systems to educational institutions, nations’ customs and individuals’ identities. I’ve studied religions both formally and informally, and I’ve read a lot of the sacred books, including the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita and others.

I’m in the school that says you can’t really study Western Civilization without knowing the Bible, and you’re at a massive disadvantage as a student of literature if you don’t know at least the plots of the major Bible stories, including lessons in ethics like the Book of Job, the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letters. This isn’t just because every book of note will be packed with allusions to the Bible, but also because certain cultural assumptions trace themselves to a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality.

This is an evasive way of saying I’m neither Christian nor Jewish, but that I have deep reverence for the ethics and lessons of those traditions. Granted, I was raised Catholic, which is a lot like saying you used to be a cop or a member of the Latin Kings. Once you’re in, your mind will forever be affected. You can pawn your badge or burn all your black and gold, but the way you see the world remains. I have an easier time remembering the Act of Contrition than all the passwords I use on the internet.

I don’t identify as Catholic. Beyond that, my personal spirituality is a private matter.

Readers of this blog know I belong to a Zen center. I’ve written about mindfulness and trauma on multiple occasions, and I’m quite open about my meditation practice. Zen practice was as effective, if not more effective at treating my PTSD —at least after a certain period of time— as talk therapy. I stayed on because, frankly, it’s a sensible way of looking at the contemporary world, and I’ve also met wonderful people at the center.

What does a Zen Buddhist believe? My advice to anyone who wants an answer to that question is to try meditating. That’s the answer. While Zen has its set of ethics, it does not offer a list of rules that need to be followed. With the exception of meditation, there’s not really a set of beliefs or behaviors that equal Zen. What’s there to believe, and who’s in position to believe it? That’s a Zen question.

Still…this probably doesn’t satisfy the readers’ question. If I’m going to do something besides evade it, I should probably make an offering. What I’m willing to do is to present a list of questions that currently make up what I like to think of as my spiritual journey. I don’t have answers for them:

  • Is time a line, a circle or some other shape?
  • Is consciousness the result of the brain or is the brain the result of consciousness?
  • Will the individual please stand up?
  • What must be done in order to count beyond one?
  • Where is the past?
  • Where is the future?
  • If Jesus truly believed in paradise, would he have raised Lazarus?

 

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Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City 


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Have I ever been this nervous?

(Ok…maybe I was more nervous when I learned my wife was pregnant.)

But yesterday I received the invitation to read from Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make at The Wicker Park and West Town Lit Fest. The reading and celebration will take place at Volumes Bookcafe in anticipation of the release of the new Nelson Algren biography. A list of other readers is being compiled, and I’ll publicize when I have more info.

To say I’m humbled is…

Um…yeah…

Obviously, my novel, The Fuguehas been compared to Nelson Algren’s work. Rick Kogan did it on WGN radio, expanding what a few reviewers have noticed. While I wasn’t channeling Algren while writing The Fugue—I’ve actually not read all of Algren’s books—what I’ve read has had a serious impact on my development as a writer.

City on the Make, a prose poem of less than 110 pages, was a punch-in-the-mouth catalyst in my life and career. I was 19 when I first came across it in a writing class at UIC taught by Mike Barrett. Algren’s bloody-knuckle, gilded paean first showed me Chicago as something besides the city where I happened to be living. I think it’s natural for creative people to wish to “get away” for something like “true inspiration”. Algren taught me to start looking around and understanding where I am, to wake up to it.

What struck me was how the language was tough and gentle all at once. Algren knew the hustler and the square equally well, identified with both, could inhabit both minds, and yet his final impact somehow transcends that polarity, sees the world from an elevated position. The poem begins not with any urban brawn but an ode to the prairie and Lake Michigan:

To the east were the moving waters as far as eye could follow. To the west a sea of grass as far as wind might reach.

Waters restlessly, with every motion, slipping out of used colors for new. So that each fresh wind off the lake washed the prairie grasses with used sea-colors: the prairie moved in the light like a secondhand sea. 

Those words, for me, placed Chicago in the natural world. They oriented me, helped me see there wasn’t any difference between a city and the country except for what our minds concocted. From that moment, I was seeing my city—and by extension, all cities—with a different set of eyes.

Unlike New York and Los Angeles, Chicago doesn’t have talent for glamour or glitz. The best we can do is provide ourselves with alleys where we throw our garbage, leave it (mostly) out of sight. But our segregation and corruption and frozen sidewalks and humid Augusts are right there in the open.

My grandfather lamented when the guy who used to renew his drivers license for a bottle of scotch ended up shitcanned. That brand of corruption worked perfectly well. Why ruin it?

It took me years to learn that, outside Chicago, you just needed to kiss your manager’s ass to get ahead. In Chicago it takes finesse to learn who the real player is; the boss is normally a stooge set up to take the fall when shit got real, as it inevitably would. So the stooge is sacked, apologies are made, a new stooge is hired and the hustle’s back on. In Chicago, everything is a front that’s out in the open. You are laundering money just by virtue of working in this city, and it happens whether your know it or not.

Algren knew this well…so so well. He also knew it was unusual, particular, worth a hundred pages. It’s true that the prose is mannered, sometimes awkward. But so is the city.

To get the chance to read from this little huge book, and only a few blocks from Algren’s home in Wicker Park, is going to be…yeah…I’m just elated.

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Readers ask: Why don’t your stories have endings?

This question came a while ago from someone who has read almost every available work of fiction I’ve ever written. While my novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar, saw very few reviews, several reviewers commented that the book had no ending. Reviewers of The Fugue have not made similar comments…not that I remember. But the reader asking the question felt the final paragraph of The Fugue is even less an ending than the final bit in Finding the Moon.

I find this really fascinating. It goes completely contrary to my process and point of view. I don’t feel I can really start writing something until I see how it ends. I’ve said in many interviews that The Fugue started out as a vignette of a man repairing a window. I didn’t know I had a novel until I imagined the very final scene. The horror and displacement convinced me I had a novel.

All this aside, my endings don’t offer resolution. I find resolution to be among the greatest contrivances in literature. I don’t think of narratives or time in linear terms, but if we do think this way, a cliché applies: all roads lead to the same destination, and that destination is a mystery. There’s a difference between writing the last word of a text—always an energizing moment—and resolving the narrative’s problem. A good ending is one that leaves the reader feeling obliterated or provoked. It is not one that leaves the reader with the delusion that now s/he “understands something” or, worse, “understands everything.”

There’s no way to answer this question in detail without discussing the actual endings. As a person fascinated with love and death, I write about not knowing. One of my most important themes, I think, is ignorance, especially the kind of ignorance we can’t perceive. So I don’t try to answer any questions in my fiction. My fiction is a way for me to express my ignorance, and my endings work to that end.

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My son is a capitalist mathematician

My son will be five years old in January. Today he was allowed to watch two cartoons after breakfast. Towards the end of his session, we had this discussion. (Mind you, this conversation sounds much better in Lithuanian, so if you speak the language, try to imagine it.)

Me: “How many more minutes are left in that cartoon?”

Boy: “I don’t know. Maybe five or maybe fifty five.”

Me: “So, it will be over soon?”

Boy: “Yeah, but then can I watch more?”

Me: “How  many more?”

Boy: (Thinks about it) “Three?”

Me: “Oh, no. That’s too much. But I’ll allow one more if you help me water the tomatoes.”

Boy: (Thinks about it) “Well, but if I watch one more, then I will watch three.”

Me: “You’ll have watched three. Yes. Two plus one is three.”

Boy: (Nodding, cocksure) “Good. That means you let me watch three. So I can watch three more.”

Me: “But then you’ll have watched more than three.”

Boy: (Brow furrowed) “When you’re allowed three, you should always get three, anytime you want. That’s what ‘you’re allowed’ means, dad.”

Me: “But then how many tomatoes will you have to water?”

Boy: (Waves his hand.) “Dad, it’ll rain. We don’t have to worry about it.”

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Photo: My son looking out the window of Gediminas Castle, Vilnius, spring 2016


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Readers ask: How’s it feel to kill a character?

I’ve been holding off answering some of the questions I’ve received about The Fugue because the book is really hard to talk about without giving up spoilers. Even skilled interviewers like Amy Danzer of New City (click for interview) and Rick Kogan of WGN (click for interview) had to find clever ways of talking about the book to keep from revealing too much.

At this point, I’ve gathered enough questions that I can start blogging on a more regular basis. I’ve found some to be really the provocative.

So, here’s the first:

How’s it feel to kill a character?

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun sometimes. To blow off steam, sometimes I’ll just write torture scenes in my notebook, most so over-the-top that they become nonsense. “Blood and brains were everywhere. Everywhere. She’d find bits of spongy brain in her pencil case months later.”

Of course, sometimes the death of a character is a really intense moment. Death is a central theme in my books, especially in connection to religion and love. I’ve written death scenes that have left me crying afterwards. There’s one particular bit in The Fugue that I feared writing. It has to do with a hanging. When I did finally complete it, I went for a long walk through Morningside Heights Park at around 2:00 AM.

I think it’s important to explain what assumptions I bring to my writing. I don’t feel very strongly influenced by the Hollywood narrative in which the good guy survives. I assume I’m treating representations of real people, and so death is a certainty for every character I’ve ever written. Sometimes that death happens within the plot, and some deaths are more gruesome than others. In The Fugue, some people burn alive; another one goes to sleep and never wakes up; a third is killed in a bus shelter; one guy gets kicked in the head by a horse.

I’ve never written a character just to kill them off. Unlike a writer like Flannery O’Connor, I don’t feel that death is a punishment or an instrument of God. To me, it’s part of life, like the rain or the sunset. Readers should notice, however, that unlike Tolstoy in Master and Man, I’ve written very few in-the-moment death scenes. There are two important ones in Finding the Moon in Sugar. In The Fugue, a character named Lars is near death, feverish and delusional in one scene, but he comes out of it. A lot of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and are either discovered or noted by other characters.

Of all the scenes I’ve ever read, I feel that Nabokov must have had more fun than anyone else writing Humbert Humbert’s murder of Clare Quilty. It’s a romp, at once sublime and profane, and even includes a poetry reading. I think the reader enjoys, at least partially, watching Quilty go. I’d be shocked if readers found characters in my books they wanted to see destroyed.

However, I’m working on one now that people will probably want to see tortured. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with him yet. But his fate won’t be easy.

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Open letter to Lithuanian-Americans who tend to vote Republican

Dear fellow Lithuanians:

Today I’m asking you to think about one of our mutual interests: the continued independence of Lithuania and the rest of the Baltic States.

No, I’m not a Republican and never have been. So if you’re Lithuanian-American and have heard of me, I get that you’re probably not a fan of my writing or public comments. If this is your first visit to my website, know I’m not posting today to get you to like me or buy my books.

Instead, I’m asking you to think about something I know you take seriously: the sovereignty of  Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I’d like you to weigh what party loyalty you might feel against the possibility of that sovereignty’s breach.

I was among those Lithuanian-Americans who protested wildly for the United States to recognize the Lithuanian declaration of independence in 1990. Many of you were there in places like Daley Plaza in Chicago or before the Church of the Annunciation in Brooklyn.

I’m also aware that many of you, particularly those born prior to 1985, are old enough to have some idea of what Soviet occupation meant following WWII. Many of you know this meaning intimately.

I know not all of you vote along party lines. However, chatter on social media is compelling me to share my point of view. Perhaps some of you will conflate my post as a plea to approach an election based on a single issue. The independence of Lithuania and the Baltic States isn’t really that.

As we all know, the world is interconnected; we have, all of us, always been interdependent, but that is only more readily apparent now in a globalized economy where  commerce and communication are instant. The survival of NATO and the EU affects every global citizen, at least economically and politically. The possibility of an occupation of a country in northeast Europe should concern us morally, intellectually and even spiritually.

I find it paradoxical, at minimum, for those who were either blasted across the planet while fleeing Soviet aggression, or found themselves (like me) born to the displaced, to now enter a ballot box and vote for a candidate who looks at an alliance like NATO as a sacrificial pawn in a geopolitical board game.

It is also curious, for those who migrated during the 3rd wave, to find oneself living between countries, with friends and family in Lithuania, now to face the prospect of electing a candidate flippant to the possibility of a Baltic invasion, of leaving loved ones open to the increased possibility of foreign occupation.

You might find yourself voting for a set of personal reasons, perhaps to return jobs to mining or steel towns, or to punish the politically correct. If you’re that person, fathom waking up one morning to learn little green men are supporting a “separatist uprising” someplace in eastern Latvia. It soon grows and spreads past Daugavpils and into Lithuania, where “liberators” come to rid Zarasai of “fascists”. This is theoretical but hardly hyperbolic. A similar scenario has been taking place in Ukraine.

Our friends and family in Lithuania—indeed, in the rest of the EU and in the rest of the world—do not have a vote. But if they were faced with the choice, to the vast majority it requires not a nanosecond of thought.

Yes, there are plenty of things for Americans to be angry about. We haven’t been all that nice to each other, and it’s a fact that both the government and our bosses at work haven’t listened to the concerns of the middle class. Your gripe is legitimate. But what are you willing to risk in order to voice it? What alliances are you willing to tear down? No one has proposed anything we can prop up to replace the structures currently keeping the world from chaos.

The battle for Baltic independence cost lives. When I was a child, my elders believed it was something I’d never see in my lifetime. After so much progress, here we are, playing with fire as the world holds its breath.

And people who fled Stalinism—or the children and grandchildren of those who survived it—enter the ballot box prepared to vote for a demagogue on record as saying he may not honor American promises to protect the country which remains a cornerstone of our identity.

It begs so many questions, among them this one: if American promises have a price tag, what will the demagogue’s promises cost, and who will pay the price?

Please think about that.

Gint

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Photo: the Vilnius Television Tower, site of Soviet crackdown against Lithuanian independence on January 13, 1991.


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Wicker Park Fest, Day 2

So…today Chicago faces isolated thunderstorms and another +90 degree day. Yesterday a crowd of a few hundred stood before the main stage at Wicker Park Fest and sang Que Sera Sera along with a band, this while battleship-gray thunderheads approached. The sky opened. Lightning struck. Adults and children danced. It was beautiful.

Also, some came around Volumes Book Cafe to cool down, grab a drink, then purchase and have their copies of The Fugue signed. I spoke to readers from as far away as Germany and Puerto Rico (and Madison, Wisconsin…and Laredo, Texas…and Aurora, Illinois…and a town in Maine whose name I will never remember).

I’ll be at Volumes again today (er…at an indoor table). Come check out Chicago’s newest bookstore between points of festival frolic. 1474 N Milwaukee Avenue. There’s a chance I might sell out before 4:00, as we have a limited amount of copies left.

 

Come grab one of these copies before they’re gone

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What are people saying about The Fugue?

“Magisterial…like Dostoevsky…” (Chicago Tribune)

“A welcome addition to the bookshelf of Chicago authors…” (WGN Radio)

“A masterpiece of literary fiction…” (Centered on Books)

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