As an emerging literary translator, I have recently found myself facing some key questions: Which Lithuanian book would I first like to translate into English? And why would I choose to translate that particular book?
The answers arose when I considered that Lithuania – the country from which I hail – is only just beginning to explore the teaching of creative writing. Supporting and being attentive to the needs of writers who, like me, are also emerging, therefore seemed vital. So I looked beyond the headlines, to where I could put my fingers on the new literary pulse; and there I found an abundance of talent.
The writing I discovered is heartwarming, intoxicating and incredibly inventive. Known widely as the ‘liminal’ generation, these authors experienced Soviet childhoods, which they lived out in monotonous suburbs, dreaming of summer pioneer camps and queuing for hours for bananas and chewing gum. Their adolescence saw the dramatic collapse of the country they were born in and the dissolution of the values they were taught to hold dear; the influx of wild capitalism that followed meant they then lived through a kind of a gold rush.
Put together, these experiences have generated a strange, unpredictable, yet somehow magical energy that shaped many a fearless adventurer. But it produced a new breed of writer too – one who holds memories and experiences of two worlds.
While at home government campaigns were being designed to address anxieties around their nation’s recent history and its apparently shattered sense of identity, this generation set off to see the world. Finding themselves in London, Brussels, New York or Venice, these creative young minds began to develop new visions and to carve out spaces in which they could reflect on their transitional experiences. You can read this in their work: writers embracing both their Soviet childhoods and the post-Soviet madness – producing stories about their grandparents, for example, or about their search for the cultural heroes they were once deprived of.
The astonishing novel Alphavilnius by Valentinas Klimašauskas provides a good example of this new writing in its picture of a fragmented postmodern psyche caught up in the clash of ideologies and sociopolitical power struggles. Jonas Žakaitis, in his short-story collection 90s, takes a different tack, offering glimpses of lives suspended between dreams and reality, while Gerda Jord’s Gertrude: Graphic Diary of Generation Y shares an intimate account of the author’s teenage years. But while these works seem to aim for some kind of reconciliation with history, others are taking giant strides into the global literary discussion, tackling such issues as anxiety about impending armed conflict (Orpheus: Journey Ahead and Back by Tomas Vaiseta); language, fact and fiction in a post-truth society (Polygon by Valentinas Klimašauskas); or climate change and the current parenting crisis (Air by Marijus Gailius).
These are just a few of the names in the vibrant contemporary Lithuanian literary landscape. I have certainly lost my heart to the short stories of Jonas Žakaitis – you can read an extract in this magazine, and I hope to make them all available to the English-speaking audience in the near future. But there are many more brilliant Lithuanian authors of the liminal generation whose work is yet to be translated. I hope they too will find English-language publishers, so you can fall for them just as I have.
By Erika Lastovskytė
Erika Lastovskytė is a translator, publicist and rights professional based in Oxford. She is a creator, developer and manager of various cultural programmes and has worked on projects such as the Baltic Women Writers’ Tour in 2017. Erika is the winner of the prestigious Emerging Translator Mentorships Programme organised by Writers’ Centre Norwich.