Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Flooding damage

I had a clogged sewage pipe. The basement flooded, about five inches of water. All sorts of stuff needs to be discarded: rugs, mattresses, clothes. But there are two things that just ripped my heart to shreds.

This is a photo of the box that contains the only hard copy of the novel I wrote while living in Europe between 1996-1999. About a Lithuanian orphan who ends up influencing the life of an historian from Santa Barbara, it was never published. Yes…like The Fugue, this one was just sitting on the floor somewhere.

My wife fell in love with me while reading this book. I developed friendships while writing it, and I became myself as a writer, found my voice somewhere in the middle of it. It contains some of the worst sentences I’ve ever written, so pathetically, honestly unfortunate that they represent an organic beauty I’ll never know again.

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The text is ruined. Also in the box were critiques of my writing I had collected from classmates at Columbia, some of whom have gone on to become quite accomplished and acclaimed writers.

The other damage is a box of letters. Those letters date back to the late 80’s; many of them are in old air mail envelopes. The box contained post cards from ex-girlfriends, letters from men who had witnessed the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania; it’s just a box of treasures, memories, mementos, documents to make sense of my identity and past. Many of them will be saved, but some of them are just trashed.

My computer and cameras survived. So did my tax papers and all sorts of stuff money can replace.

Move your treasures to higher ground.


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My reading at Waterline (video)

Here’s a video of me reading from The Fugue, as recorded by the good folks at Waterline Writers Reading Series in Batavia, Illinois.

If you’re interested in the writing workshop I’m leading, click here.

Gint Aras at Waterline Writers: March 2017 from Waterline Writers on Vimeo.


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How to deal with a narcissist

I’ve been reading accounts from the American press written by journalists stunned to find Trump is worse beyond their expectations. I obviously don’t share their sentiments. I’m an abuse survivor, grew up with a (much less wealthy) Donald Trump in the house, and have the misfortune of currently working with a Donald Trump heading my place of employment. Over the years, I’ve seen what sort of madhouse network dances about men like our president.

Get used to it, America. We are now an abusive family.

Abusive families have three primary players: the abusers, the enablers and the victims. If it isn’t clear, the abuser (Trump) dishes it out while the enablers (the establishment) make excuses for it, attempt to rationalize it, sometimes to benefit from it, thereby supporting it, while the victims (citizens) take insults and deal with disorienting confusion, even chaos.

It’s more complicated and shaded-gray in reality. All sorts of professional people have broken these roles down further. Obviously, there’s overlap between them.

Most abusers were once victims, and still perceive themselves, like Trump does, as mistreated or unfairly targeted. Some enablers also abuse, but all enablers are victims of the abuse, at least to some degree, if even by virtue of needing to depend on it to play a role, complete some task or access a resource. From my point of view, victims are enablers until they remove themselves from the system, decompress, gather their bearings and accept, with as much clarity as possible, what the abuse was truly like. This requires admitting it. They have to make a conscious decision that the abuse stops with them or it simply won’t.

Most of us are nowhere close to that point yet. This is new and bizarre; we’ve been dropped into the madhouse and can’t tell where to focus our attention. It explains why so many of our journalists and other professionals are staring ahead wide-eyed, mouths agape, making delusional claims like “this might lead to totalitarianism” when a totalitarian is already in control, when reporters are being arrested for doing their jobs and protests outlawed in the wake of idiotic, distracting tweets and abject falsifications of reality.

It’s important for everyone in a position of influence, from every level of our government to the whole of our press, our institutions of education, social services, our courts and our legal professionals to understand something unequivocally. Our president is an abusive madman, a narcissist with no capacity to change, no ounce of empathy, no motivation beyond his own aggrandizement.

Showing him photographs to contradict his delusional claims is pointless. Narcissists cannot be “managed” or “influenced.” In my experience, there are only a few ways to deal with a narcissist, none easy or comfortable.

The first is a war of attrition, the arsenal merciless, consistent insult. The insults do not have to be exotic, vulgar or vindictive; speaking about reality, consistently and in a sustained effort, is enough. You’re not very well liked. Most people abhor you. They disagree with your values. They think you’re uncivilized, deranged, mentally ill and unable to grasp reality. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do it in shifts, like an oiled hockey team crashing the net. He makes a false statement, so you dismiss it, call it a lie and immediately set about ridiculing it in every possible channel, making certain he sees it.

A narcissist will try to exhaust you until you give in, until putting up with whatever the narcissist is doing becomes easier than listening to his assault on reality, or hearing the insults. It’s exhausting, obviously, to tell the narcissist, “No. The tablecloth is white, not yellow,” every time you deal with him. But that is what we must expect. When the president speaks, he is fabricating a delusion in an effort to exhaust our imaginations and mental capacities. He wants to shell-shock us into submission.

Trump will not stop lying. In fact, he’s going to need to lie more as his administration unravels, as people begin abandoning him. He will not respond to reason or rational conversation, and he will continue sending his representatives to meet the press and lie that they intend to tell the truth, one second after they lie.

This seems counterproductive, even masochistic. A narcissist does not lie merely because he can or because it provides him attention (narcissistic supply). A narcissist’s lie gives him power over others’ imagination and feelings. The lies become the parameters of the discussion—we argue over the delusion instead of weighing the reality—and anything the narcissist doesn’t like he’ll claim has been invented by his victims. The technique renders reason useless and obliterates the basic agreements among the educated; you cannot argue with someone who makes up numbers, contradicts himself constantly or tells you your information is fake, what you’ve witnessed is false.

This latter point is most important. An abuser will beat you up or molest you but then accuse you of imagining it. He’ll accuse you of being unfair, of trying to make him look bad when you show everyone your bloody nose. What’s true is what he says; he is the center, the ultimate reference point. Everything, including reality, is subject to his power.

Attacks on a narcissist, in the short term, only increase his bluster. Eventually, however, the embarrassment of enabling him becomes a liability. At that point, exile becomes an option, but it requires a critical mass of enablers to stand up and say they’ve had enough.

The press cannot in good faith come to press conferences and ask Trump’s secretary, “What lies have you for us today? What bullshit of yours should we share?” However, our legislative branch can, and rather quickly, exile Trump to someplace outside the White House. Currently, Congress is Trump’s greatest enabler, far worse than the press, and getting worse as this horror show blusters on.

What will it finally take for our leaders to say they’ve had enough? Well…the usual thing. Massive opposition from an intrepid, inexhaustible, furious (but also clever) populace.

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Books: a threat to fascists

Two American classics, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, are again under assault. People have been calling for bans on these books since they were first printed.

Generally, two reasons explain why someone tries to ban a book. The first is the person’s ignorance of the book’s message. The second is that the person understands the message but fears it. In this case, both reasons might apply.

My purpose isn’t to advertise the name of the woman who called for the books’ ban or to draw attention to the school district temporarily and foolishly banning the books when they know exactly what they’re about. Interested readers can easily find this information. I’m here to counterpunch. An assault on any book, from the Bible to The Anarchist’s Cookbook, is an assault on all books. It contributes to America’s ever-growing anti-intellectualism and adulation of ignorance, which is often conflated as concern over someone’s emotions.

The worried mother claims the n-bombs in Twain and Lee disturb her biracial teenage son. Of course, instead of asking her son to be excused from reading, she wants the books removed completely. Her rationale: “I’m not disputing this is great literature. But there is so much (sic) racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”

Claiming offensive language interferes with whatever the books are saying is, in fact, a dispute of the books’ greatness. She either hasn’t read or misunderstands Lee and Twain. Her concern for a divided nation is transparent; because her boy finds the books offensive, she feels the rest of the school should as well.

Ironically, both these books provoke discussion about the nature of equality and unity. Curiously, the woman uses the same critique employed by people who fear what ideas these books might provoke.

These books should be difficult for any boy, biracial or otherwise. Great books slap us silly, shake us up and kick us. If the woman could “get past” the offensive word, one that should offend us in 2016, and battle through what violence children witness in the narratives (Huck’s dad is an abusive drunk, for example, and Scout haphazardly stops a lynch mob from murdering Tom Robinson), she could stumble into seeing that both Twain and Lee littered their books with n-bombs, in 1884 and 1960, respectively, while essentially arguing that black lives matter.

In short, these books agree that the biracial boy should be offended not only by words but by his society. Another lesson is that Twain and Lee are also provoking his Caucasian peers to see the consequences of racism.

That’s among the many reasons these books are part of our canon, and also why people have feared Twain and Lee’s critiques for as long as the books have existed.

*     *     *

Literature has always been a threat to those fascists who want to bait us into hating each other. They know it’s a remedy to growing inequality and division. I’ve met very few people who consumed it in large quantities but came away hateful, afraid of their fellow man.

Having consumed it in large quantities myself, I’ve learned it radical in 1884 to claim black people were human beings deserving of equal rights, just as it was radical to make the claim in 1960, and it obviously remains radical today. If not, it should offend no one to hear the phrase black lives matter. People should hear it and think, “Yeah, no shit.”

Despite my life in letters, I know far more Americans who see no use for literature. So many  believe individual words are more offensive than the act of banning them. These people are everywhere; I’ve found them in HR offices and among the administrators in schools. Our president-elect has no use for literature, just as most of his supporters seem to care little for it. Forget about great books—sketch comedy offends them.

People fear books because they want their flawed ideas and hatred either justified or hidden while they get to control the narrative. That has been the only reason books have ever been hated and burned, the only reason their makers are demonized as unpatriotic and brought out to face firing squads.

Of course, my critics will point out that this woman has the best intentions. She’s a leftist who wants a safe space for her kid, and she’s trying to protect him from racism. That misses the point. Her impulse might be to protect her boy, and she’s right to find the word offensive. But right beside this affront is an impulse to make everyone do as she likes.

It’s exactly the impulse of someone who has either read too few books or failed to gain their most important lessons.

 

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Photo, book burning, from Wikipedia.

“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. –Harper Lee


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Readers ask: Should a writer travel?

Most questions about writing are loaded, and they require reading between very many lines. They usually are versions of these two questions:

1.) Will such and such make me a better writer?

2.) Will such and such help me get published?

We should note that those questions are not about the same thing. If getting published required someone to improve their writing, a lot of currently published bestsellers would have never made it past the acquisition editor’s desk.

The only thing a writer should do is read and write. You really can’t do one without the other, not if you want to compose engaging texts. That’s the short answer.

The long answer is more interesting. Will travel make someone a better writer? Travel, when done outside all-inclusive resorts, builds empathy. It offers alternative points of view. Travel enough and you’ll learn that everybody considers themselves the center point. I’ve heard people from at least six other countries tell me they come from the greatest country in the world. (Russia, Canada, Australia, Germany, The UK, New Zealand)

Travel also disarms the traveler. It can, when done with the right purpose, displace mythologies. Travel raises questions that have no answers. It also displaces common explanations. Why was Rome built where it stands? Well…there’s the Tiber. Yes, but Rome stands elsewhere, not just on the banks of the Tiber. Fifth grade geography class has its limitations.

All of those things make someone a better thinker and citizen but not necessarily a better writer. We can work on our observations skills in our bedrooms. Their application on trips really does reveal things that are otherwise invisible.

Of course, some of the best writers never really went anywhere. One thing they all did, however, was read, and they read whatever they could get their hands on. Travel is fun and engaging, a much more rewarding way to pass the time than, say, watching NFL games. It’s not as expensive as people think, certainly not when compared to its benefits. One thing I always have in my bag when I’m traveling is a book. It’s usually written by someone very different from me.

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Photo from Wikipedia

 

 


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Readers ask: Does The Fugue make allusions to Lolita?

Well, someone finally noticed this, so I feel I should respond. “Hey, Gint,” a reader asks, “What’s with the age gaps between the lovers in your books? Is Lita Avila an allusion to Dolores Haze?”

The reader has noticed that both Finding the Moon in Sugar and The Fugue depict lovers with a notable age difference. Perhaps naturally, they’re wondering if I have some kind of fetish.

Audra and Andy from Finding the Moon are probably more than a decade apart. Andy, born in 1986, claims he was never able to figure out Audra’s true age and puts her birth date somewhere between 1977 and 1972. Of course, Audra’s vain and a liar, so her email address, audra1974@zuikis.lt might be set up to make her seem younger than she truly is. Dazed and confused, the stoner boy Andy never notes the year in her address as evidence for anything. If Audra is truly born in 1974, it means she and Andy are twelve years apart.

Yuri and Lita of The Fugue have a wider gap. Lita’s just a teen when they meet, and they are almost two decades apart. Neither character seems to think much of this, and (minor spoiler) Lita’s family are all either dead or gone by the time her initial crush on him evolves to something more mature.

When I wrote and self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar, I thought The Fugue was a dead project that no one would ever read. I was definitely conscious of the repeated age gap—that makes it a motif, right?—but didn’t worry too much about it. Once I knew The Fugue would be published, I figured the only way someone would catch it would be by reading both books, which would be wonderful if they did. To me, Lita and Yuri’s relationship is a rich construction that reveals so much about both characters and also the nature of trauma. I had no intension of tampering.

Now…did I have Nabokov in mind when I chose the name Lita (the character’s full name is Angelita Avila)?

Nabokov’s Dolores (Lolita) Haze is Humbert Humbert’s victim. Humbert is not merely her abuser and rapist but also her legal guardian. And while Hum suffered the tragic loss of a child-lover while a kid himself—an experience that leaves him searching for a surrogate or an incarnate…an avatar, if we will—he admits that he deserves to be tried and sentenced, even if he does beg readers for leniency and forgiveness.

Yuri is not victimizing Lita. For much of the time after first leaving prison and returning to Cicero, he is hardly able to interact with anyone, so shell-shocked that he imagines buildings that aren’t there, and he can’t  know how to thank Lita for her gift of a broken bicycle. He later sculpts her portrait not out of a desire to possess or control her but as a way to release his affection, which is probably discomforting, though not necessarily because of Lita’s age: Yuri has lost almost everyone he has ever loved, and now a stranger has given him a gift.

It’s true that Lita’s portrait is crossed with his memories of other women—Lita’s is not the only portrait he has sculpted. And Lita, young and self-conscious, never imagines he has sculpted her portrait. When she guesses it represents some other woman, she’s partially right.

Honestly, when I thought of the name Lita, I was also thinking of names for other characters. So my concern with the name Lita had less to do with Nabokov and more to do with its similarity to Alina, Yuri’s interest from his teen years. I wanted names that seemed shades of one another…variations, if you will. (In an early draft, Alina’s name was Lina.)

I was reading a lot of Nabokov at the time, so it probably did things to my mind. But I didn’t see Yuri and Lita’s relationship as taboo or profane, and I didn’t think of Lita as Lolita’s literary variation, at least not consciously.

I should probably say that I had several crushes on older girls while still a 13 and 14 year old at summer camp. One of those girls turned out to be a lifelong friend. I’m sure the intensity of such feelings and experiences evokes itself in my writing all on its own, without me needing to do very much.

Still, in future novels, what lovers I surmise will all be around the same age. I feel like I’m done exploring these age gaps and that my fiction has expressed what I wanted, even if I can’t say what that is.

 

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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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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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