Liquid Ink

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


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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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New essay published

The good folks at ReImagining Magazine have published their summer issue. My essay, An American Imposter, finds itself there.

I spent a long time abroad this spring and summer, and got tired of having to “explain” my American identity. It got to the point that I no longer wanted to talk to strangers about where I was from. It became impossible to have conversations about anything besides our loathsome national politics.

The experience inspired this essay. Hope you’ll read and share. 


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I Am Lietuva (not me, personally)

I was recently interviewed by Alexsandra Kudukis of I Am Lietuva. She asked me one question that is, to date, the most difficult one I had to answer in any interview.

The script is available in a newsletter available to subscribers only. To subscribe, please follow this link and go to the upper left-hand corner of the web page where you can add your e-mail address and receive the weekly letter.

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Here’s a teaser:

 

6.) We ask all of our guests at www.iamlietuva.com the same final two questions. What does Lietuvybė, or being Lithuanian mean to you?

Being Lithuanian in America offered me a vantage point from which I eventually grew and evolved to imagine myself a global citizen. What I mean is that the policies of isolationism and the point of view that sees America as exceptional and God’s best friend with a gun didn’t work on me.

When I came to Vilnius at age 19, read the city’s history, realized how complicated the place was, it was liberating, and I started to see the entire world not as a set of teams behind borders but an ever-shifting, ever-changing interplay. Realizing how different Lithuania was from the story I’d been told drove my curiosity through the stratosphere. I started traveling, opening myself up to the stories and ideas of people different from myself. Vilnius was my gateway drug to global consciousness.

 

 


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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

I wonder why I freeze up whenever I’m asked the question, “What books are your favorite?” It happened again the other day when a Lithuanian reporter wanted to know about my literary influences. My mind went blank for a few minutes. Oddly, I’ll often feel a sense of mild panic.

Perhaps it’s that the truth sounds cliché. “I love Dostoevsky.” I love the big books about universal ideas. I often wish I had something more creative or exotic to say than this. Perhaps it’s that, when I read the lists produced by other writers, I find so many titles that are new to me. I feel I don’t have new titles to share, only the ones that people already know.

Of course, that’s not true. It just seems true because my favorite books stay with me, permanent parts of my consciousness, invisible to me, in a way, as they shade the lens of my perception. Still, shouldn’t I be able to just rattle them off immediately, and with pride? And why is it that I remember books I love often hours, sometimes days after I’m asked, “What books do you love?”

The book I love about as much as any other but usually forget, like the child I know can do well enough on their own, is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I first learned about this book in 1999 while teaching reading in Ann Arbor. I was struck by the title: a sentence, one I believed I understood immediately.

This book is perhaps the one that had the strongest influence on me in the years before I started writing The Fugue. For many years, I used it in college English classes, long before I had gathered that “fiction shouldn’t be used” (It should…read about that here!). In fact, The Fugue borrows (or…depending on your take…steals) McCullers’ episodic structure of vignettes that add up to a novel . Anyone who knows the book and reads The Fugue will sense further influence, no small homage to this unbelievable book.

The characters are so deep and interesting, so colorful yet also ordinary, obviously from the same town, one that’s thoroughly Southern but could exist in most parts of America. A deaf mute who works in a jewelry store. A young girl who aspires—her aspiration tragic from the get go—to be a classical musician. A roughneck who wants to organize labor but seems unable to work. An abusive Greek epicure. The owner of a diner, a finite observer with enormous emotional baggage. A black communist. His prophet-like daughter. Another woman obsessed with making her daughter into a Hollywood doll (a daughter eventually maimed by a boy with a gun). An overbearing wife harboring a tumor the size of an infant.

The themes? Poverty. Race. Suicide. Sexuality. Homosexuality (kinda) and asexuality (maybe) and hypersexuality (oddly). Femininity. Opulence. Self-aggrandizement. Masculinity. Codependence. Alcoholism. Western Civilization. Philosophy. Domestic violence. Identity (spiritual, cultural, national…pick a number). Communication. Silence. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter only appears to be a portrait of a community but is, in fact, a deep and ever-searching philosophical novel.

I’m writing this post to remember placing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at the top of my list of favorite and influential books next time I speak to someone about it. Also, if you’ve never read it, here’s one to put on your list for 2016.

 

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Discussing bigotry

In 1996 I worked in Linz, Austria as an English teaching assistant. The main job was at the BORG (Bundes-Oberstufenrealgymnasium), a high school for advanced, mostly college-bound students. On one of my first days at work–I was twenty-three years old and without any idea of what to expect–a certain Herr Professor put me up in front of his English class, about sixteen pupils. He introduced me as the new teaching assistant, then moved to the side and left me up at the board. In a matter-of-fact tone, he belted out instructions, “Our class has been reading about the civil rights era in the United States. I’d like for you to explain to us why America is so racist.”

The experience taught me about problems in any discussion or accusation of bigotry, especially across groups that have very different sensitivities. Is America racist? Well…yes, quite. But the Herr Professor’s question was also bigoted, loaded with idiotic assumptions, including the belief that it’s somehow fair to ask a single representative of a community or group to first speak in its name, then explain something notable about its sociology. The pupils and instructor seemed ready to draw very serious conclusions from my answers, and the class turned into the interrogation of a twenty-three year old, almost a test. Would you marry a black girl? Do you have any friends who are black? Would you work for a black boss? Do you believe black people are as smart as white people? The Herr Professor, much to my shock, did nothing to reposition or edit the self-incriminating questions.

This is exactly the sort of self-incrimination coming from those who have rushed to the defense of Petras Lescinskas, the unfortunate Lithuanian basketball fan found guilty of a racially aggravated offense at the Olympics. Among the defenses is this misguided juxtaposition of hand gestures separated by over 70 years of history. In Facebook discussions, and in the comments under articles covering the arrest, you’ll find all sorts of banter. A faction claims that Lescinskas didn’t mean to be racially offensive and, therefore, wasn’t. He was just a passionate fan, and the British cops perceived him as racist. He should have freedom of speech. The apologists also claim that the hand gesture means all sorts of things.

Well, yes. It does and has, most likely dating back to the dawn of civilization. The raised arm on this man is honoring Shiva, and these elementary school pupils are posing for a stock photo. Lescinskas, however, had something very different in mind from Rowan Atkinson or even the Olympic statue (that predates WWII). Few people see a Lithuanian saluting with the arm and imagine him imitating the  statue, paying tribute to Shiva or asking for Herr Professor’s attention.

Lithuanians have earned a reputation for tribalism, small-mindedness, drink and boisterous non-sense, especially at sporting events, concerts and festivals. The behavior of Lescinskas and his entourage, bigotry and all, makes far more news than Lithuanian efforts toward sustainability, for example, which many countries could learn from. But Lithuania could do well to start taking cues from European neighbors like the United Kingdom when it comes to points of view on race and ethnicity.

The bigotry expressed by this basketball fan and his apologists does not exist in a sub-culture. Conversations about race with Lithuanians–even those who have lived abroad for decades, or others who are quite well educated–are often tedious. I’ve met plenty of Lithuanians who look at race and ethnicity as absolutes, not social constructs; they’d think me insane, for example, if I suggested that a Nigerian could become a Lithuanian or vice versa. But ask for a definition of “Lithuanian”. Four nationalists will give you four definitions, each one vehemently dismissing the others. You realize how delusional and isolating it is to believe ethnicity is the sun at the center of an identity system.

Consider the photograph posted below, Lithuanians in blackface. At one point the performance had been available on YouTube but has since been taken down for copyright infringements. It is from a television show called Chorų Karai (Choir Wars), one of these live competitions. The show aired in primetime, the summer of 2006, on national Lithuanian television. It showed Lithuanians in blackface–some dressed as maids, others in odd adaptations of traditional African garb–all of them dancing about while, at the piano, a man in blackface (not pictured) led a version of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack”. I told my friends, all of them college-educated, that this was rather offensive. They told me I was taking it too seriously; I was being American. Americans see racism everywhere. When I pointed out the history of the minstrel show, they all waved it off. These people don’t know anything about that. They’re just trying to have a good time with a song. They’re not trying to insult anyone. It’s a performance. They’re just acting like blacks.

Second City’s ETC, the training ground for the comic troupe, has a rule about writing comedy and satire. You’re not allowed to make fun of or represent a group unless you are a member of that group. I don’t necessarily agree with it but understand the reason for it. It helps to keep the proper sensitivities and perspectives in place.