Birutė Jonuškaitė (Lithuania)

Photo: Linas Daukša

Birute Jonuškaite (b 1959) is a writer, essayist and publicist born in Poland, in the ethnic region of Lithuanians.  Having graduated as journalist from the University of Vilnius, she remained living in Vilnius and has said she wouldn’t exchange Vilnius for any other city in the world, although she has had opportunities to stay in many places and even live there for some time.

Jonuškaite has published  six novels, several selections of short stories, three collections of essays and two poetry books. She has repeatedly been awarded Lithuanian literary prizes for her work, and twice by the Lithuanina Cultural Ministry for her publicist work. With the decision of the President of Poland she was also awarded  with a Golden Cross for special services in developing Polish/Lithuanian cultural relations (2016). In the same year Jonuškaite also got the cultural and art award of the Lithuanian government. 

The first book translated into Estonian, her novel Maranta,  was elected among the five best books for adults at the Lithuanian Book of the Year Competition. Its author got the 2020 Baltic Literary Award for this novel and its sequel Maestro

In the opinion of critics Maranta can be read as a family story which is based on the background of the Sejny region coloring, traditions and mentality presented through the different lives, world, faith and value judgments of three women – grandmother, mother, and grandchild. The novel can also be interpreted as an exciting colorful detective story, ending unexpectedly for it is not clear if there was a body or not.

The author’s night of the Lithuanian author Birute Jonuškaite takes place on the 11th of May at 6 p.m. in the hall of the Tartu Public Library. Both her novel Maranta and work in general  and her work as the  chair of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union will be discussed. The talk will be led by Tiiu Sandrak and Tiina Kattel in Lithuanian and with consecutive translation into Estonian.

When asked what the game limits are, Birute Jonuškaite answered.

At the Prima Vista festival, I will present my novel Maranta. In it, a character named Maestro, an artist, expounds upon art:
‘Art must stand at the half-way point between reality and unreality. But really, I can’t stand this kind of bullshitting about what art must be or not be. In art, everything is allowed and all manner of nonsense is justified if the final result is good. … Rage, passion, the thickness of colors and lines, vitality, the attempt to bridle or bewitch the chaos of the world, all our demons, the attempt to understand our reality’s horror and beauty, to grasp the line connecting life and death, to mock our own devilry and the absurdity that surrounds us – that is what is important. The canvas is not for hanging our snots, but for the creation of a dense, provocative and very intimate space of our own which reflects what we were thinking as we painted. Forget all the lessons. The hand can learn the craft, but it can’t suppress the thought.‘

One of my characters claims that in art, games have no limits, yet another character disagrees with him. And what do I myself believe? Where does the fictional world of the writer end and where does reality begin? Do writers have the right to create characters in books and social media whose opinions differ from their own? Is it possible to create a believable character if you don’t have hints of that character within yourself? Does the effort to always test the limits necessarily cross those limits as well? In the background of the writer’s game, must there remain some light and hope, at least the smallest straw to save oneself with?

When I raise so many uncomfortable questions in my books, but do not specifically answer them, then too I am probably playing with my readers.

I only know that writing is like a game, like the creation of an alternative, parallel reality; and it helped me endure the hardest years of my life. Yes, it was an escape from reality into another, make-believe reality in which the writer takes on the role of ‘god‘ – you decide how your characters will live, you play with their fates, you dole out suffering or love, you push them to their ruin or offer them the means of salvation. It’s a kind of psychotherapy, and if it helps to play without limits – then you should. But this does not mean that your writing game, or especially the book that you will release into the world, is literature. You have to decide for yourself what from all that playing without limits can be given to the readers. And here, it seems to me, your internal censor has to be involved, the one that says: there are always universal values, such as those of which Aristotle spoke. But a question arises as to the ways in which people create those values. What tools and forms should the writer use? And in the name of what: to blacken life or to quicken it? In every geographic zone, people feel that their salvation requires a kind of harmony and fullness to life, that goodness and wisdom are characteristics of the highest standard for human beings. But… in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecc. 1.18)

The Polish writer Adam Zagajewski has said to me: ‘If you are already a poet or a writer, that means that you have something to say, though you don’t know what it is. If you knew from the beginning what you need to say then you wouldn’t bother with it. That unknown entices us. Many critics and poets can say that poetry or fiction is nothing, that the works don’t convey any knowledge, that there is nothing that the writer has to say. I don’t think this is true. There is something we are trying to say, though we don’t know what it is.‘

And what if writers, like other artists, are just toys in someone else’s hands – in the hands of He who knows ‘what it is‘, and who knows what He wants to say through their mouths?

My personal experience, which I wrote about in Maestro, published in Lithuania, a continuation of Maranta, is witness to the fact that the game is constantly being played, that the limits between it and the reality of life are constantly being erased. The final chapter of Maestro is called, ‘Maranta Diary‘. Here is one fragment from it:

‘I saw it in the antiques market. A greenish-yellow brass button with four horses’ heads all facing the same way connected by a cross – like some kind of swastika. A cute little thing, an old-fashioned, enticingly gleaming, sun cross – but who could I give it to? Someone who loves horses? Tadulis! Of course, Tadulis! Who else?

I buy it without bargaining, and while carrying it home… I suddenly break out in a sweat: Tadulis is nothing more than a character in Maranta!‘

Yet if you were to ask me how and why this character came into being in both my book and my life, I could not tell you in any detail. The time simply comes for my characters, hiding out somewhere in the corners of my mind, to come into the light of day.

‘I had nothing to do with it,‘ I write in the Maranta Diary, ‘I just opened the gates so that they could live freely. I stand somewhere over the rise, around the corner, behind a tree or a door – and watch them, listen to what they say, and write it down.

Sometimes they come at night. They sit down on the edge of the bed and start pulling the sheets off of me. They pull and pull ’til my shoulder is uncovered, then my whole side, I squirm and start to shiver, but I still don’t understand why my back is as cold as if I had fallen in snow, why my thigh has goose bumps, but do they care?‘

So who is the player of the game here? Me or them? I know my limits, or at least have a sense of them, but where are the limits for Him who plays with me?

Translation from Lithuanian by Rimas Uzgiris