(WARNING: the included link leads to graphic photos of children depicted in states of tragedy.)
I was deeply moved by these photographs, by Michal Novotný, of Odessa street kids. It is not simply that these photos are completely annihilating. They also take me back to the time my novel was published, early 2009, and criticisms I received for depicting a false reality in Vilnius, where a good chunk of the book is set.
One of the characters in my novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar, is a junkie, and he becomes a junkie when only a child. He joins a community of junkies, and eventually contracts HIV from sharing needles with fellow child-addicts.
A lot of people were pissed at me for this. They claimed I was misrepresenting Lithuania, exaggerating the problem of drugs; others claimed that I should be been doing better for the country by “focussing on the positive”.
This criticism did not sit well with me. I had based this junkie character, named Kovas, on a young man I knew. I had lived with his family, am still close to his sister, and had spent intimate hours in Vilnius with him. In a way, he shaped my view of the city, especially in the mid-90’s, by bringing me close to the youth. It affected me horribly to learn that he had become a junkie, later to learn that he had overdosed in the woods outside the capital; that he had—the theory went—gone out there to OD on purpose.
These photographs, while from Odessa, are taken in 2006, at exactly the same time that Finding the Moon in Sugar takes place. While my book is a work of fiction, these photos are clearly not. I’m sure that someone’s going to say, given my usage of these photos to draw attention to the very real problem of child-addicts in Eastern Europe, that Odessa and Vilnius are very different. You can believe that if you want to. I’ll make this suggestion: herion doesn’t discriminate, and it doesn’t check your passport. The reasons kids in Odessa are out shooting heroin are identical to the reasons kids in Vilnius are doing it.
Why do children end up joining drug communities? They often percieve that they don’t matter to the environment they know.
It should not matter to us how many such kids can be found in major cities of the former Soviet Union. Pointing out they exist is not an exaggeration. It should upset us that these kids exist in the first place. But they won’t go away if we pretend they aren’t there.