Novelist draws from 'some inner magic'

  • 2000-07-13
  • By Darius James Ross
Jurga Ivanauskaite is a Vilnius-based novelist who is best known for her depictions of life in the Orient, based on five years of living and traveling in Northern India, ancient Ladakh (Tibetan India), Tibet and Nepal. She writes in Lithuanian and is the author of several novels, some of which have been translated into Latvian. Raised in a thoroughly literary family, she spent a good part of her childhood in hospitals: fertile ground for the imagination. The Lithuanian media seem to have a strange fascination with her, manifested by attempting shamelessly to dig into her private life, which she guards carefully. Sarcasm tinges articles about her, but that there are so many of them indicates that she has struck a deep chord somewhere in the Lithuanian psyche. Darius James Ross asked her about her travels, views on life in Lithuania and about the inspiration behind her works.

- Please tell us about your childhood. Did you always know that you would be a traveler and writer?

I was born in Vilnius, my father was Russian, but my parents divorced when I was two and I never saw him again. I was a sickly child and spent a lot of time in hospitals or at home in bed. That's when I started to be interested in the question of death, which penetrates all my novels and stories. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy also is very focused on death and interprets it not as an end to life, but as a symbol of transformation and spiritual rebirth. During my illness I began creating my own reality. I lived in an imaginary world of exotic countries and ancient times; sort of movies that I created in my own mind. When I learned to write, I started to create "novels" - first about rabbits, later about American Indians, then musketeers and finally about Californian hippies, but I had no desire to become a writer. My mother wanted me to be a book illustrator. I studied at the Art Academy (1979-85) where the atmosphere was gloomy; the lectures were mainly on socialist realism, Marxism and atheism. I was not able to express myself as an artist: that's why I started writing short stories. At first I wrote only for myself; later I started to publish stories too fantastical to have problems with censorship. But all that time I had a deep resistance to the false reality in which I was forced to live. I was not a dissident; my escapism in my inner life was my protest, and I was absolutely sure that one day I would get my reward - the spiritual freedom to live in a reality with no boundaries, dogma or taboos. But that reality is independent of political states.

- How long were you in the Orient? What drew you there and what eventually brought you back to Lithuania? What are the most striking contrasts between life there and here?

I spent about five years in the Orient from 1993 until 1998; about two years in India. I was in Tibet (or the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region) for only two months, as I had problems with my Chinese visa: I was blacklisted as a leader of the Lithuania-Tibet support group. In Soviet times religion was the "opium of the people." I found a way to get underground books on the subject from Moscow and Leningrad. My first contact with the Eastern way of thinking opened up new dimensions of inner and outer reality. When Lithuania became independent, H.H. The Dalai Lama visited Vilnius. When I met him, I was convinced that following him was right for me. The first years of [Lithuanian] independence were a period of disappointment for many, because it was hard to understand that reality is absolutely different from ideals and hopes. I was disillusioned with the Catholic Church that seemed so dogmatic, political and lacking in metaphysics - the great mystery that is the essence of every religion. Later I realized that I was disillusioned with the clergy and not in Catholicism itself. Through studying Buddhism I have understood Christianity more deeply. But "East is East and West is West and the twain shall never meet," said Rudyard Kipling. "When you cross the river you don't need the raft any more," said the Buddha. But I can't say I'm disillusioned or even enlightened.

In the Orient I had so many experiences that I came back to Lithuania to understand and absorb them. The Western mind and subconscious have a sharp resistance to Oriental metaphysics.

There are many contrasts between the Himalayas and Lithuania - enough for a whole book. But the big difference is that Tibetans are still "homo religiosus" - they have a very strong connection to the transcendental, which for us is lost, maybe forever.

- Lithuanian and even international linguists proclaim that the Lithuanian language is the closest living language to Sanskrit. Is there any continuity between northern Indian culture and today's Lithuanian culture?

Yes, Sanskrit mantras sound very Lithuanian. It was easy for me to learn hundreds of Buddhist prayers because all the words roused associations with Lithuanian. The Hindi language is totally different from Sanskrit, but when I would say my name to Indians sometimes they would be shocked, because Jurga (pronounced Yurga) sounds like Durga - a black wrathful goddess, the emanation of Kali and consort of Shiva. In my novel "Gone with Dreams," I tried to play with the similarities between Lithuanian and Sanskrit using old Lithuanian folk songs instead of holy mantras and inventing new Lithuanian words for Eastern esoteric words.

- What inspires you to write? Is it a totally unconscious act? Czeslaw Milosz says that in his case there is no explanation, that there is a little daemonion who stands on his shoulder and whispers poetry into his ear.

Yes, it is unconscious, spontaneous, even some kind of inner magic. I started writing my last novel waiting for a train in India - trains there are always late. I was just sitting and scribbling. But suddenly this daemonion perched on my shoulder and whispered his fantasies during the long journey and in the end possessed me totally. Even in my dreams I saw sentences and whole pages of the novel. At the start of my Buddhist experiences, I made a public promise not to write any more novels. I thought that writing, which requires the consciousness to be burning with thoughts and feelings, contradicts meditation when the mind needs to be quiet. I told The Dalai Lama this, but he only laughed and said that a real Buddhist is able to unite all opposites. Once I had a very strange poetic experience. During a few nights in one remote Himalayan village I spontaneously wrote about 100 poems. I published them in "The Lost Promised Land" as the verses of the 19th century Tibetan female yogi Pema Dechen, and no one suspected that the poetry was mine. When people ask me about my future literary projects, I honestly say that I know nothing,only my daemonion knowsÉ

- What are your general thoughts on the status of women and women artists in today's Lithuania, especially as opposed to women in Asia?

The first time I crawled out of Lithuania was to go to the International Feminist Book Fair in Amsterdam in 1989. For a few years after this event, I was very inspired by feminist ideas, but my travels to the East changed a lot of things. In Tibetan society I was obliged to remember that women are a second sex. It is especially important in communication with holy men. A woman must always take a lower seat than a man, be very humble and has no right to step on his shadow. This was the price I paid for sacred knowledge. For many Tibetans my declarations that I am a writer, journalist and quite well-known person in Lithuania sounded like a joke. In Tantra Yoga, woman is a symbol of the highest cosmic wisdom, and to insult her is a sin, especially for a lama. But in everyday life it is different. Tibetan women even have a special prayer for being reincarnated as a man. I never learned it. In Lithuania the word "feminism" is very negative. Not many women really understand it. For some, especially males, feminism seems like another source of instability in a young and unstable country, others think that it is alien to traditional values. The status of women varies in Lithuanian society. But even among the elite, women are still treated as a second sex. When I published my first book of short stories, one critic said "Yes, she is gifted, but she is a woman and I don't see any future for her as a writer." My three books on Tibetan culture and religion were interpreted as the exotic enterprise of an eccentric woman, but I'm sure that the same texts written by a man would be taken seriously. Even the erotic scenes in my novels are always harshly criticized, but for male writers such passages are not a deadly sin.

- Why do you think the Lithuanian press and media are so fascinated by you? You seem to have a bizarre relationship with them. They like to pick you apart and yet they are fascinated by you. Carl Jung believed in the shadow complex, that when we criticize or make fun of someone, we are really pointing the finger back at ourselves, back at our own shadow.

This fascination is a big surprise for me, and I do what I can to avoid it. Most of the popular figures in the Lithuanian press are politicians, models and criminals: I don't know why I'm on the same list. I'm shy, and I like solitude: a Himalayan meditation cave is much more comfortable for me than a party. In the press you will discover the opposite image: an eccentric, a femme fatale or a witch. Maybe your thought about the shadow is correct, as I am trying to investigate my own shadow or, as Buddhists say, my inner demons. Only when you investigate your dark side will you be able to overcome pride, jealousy, anger. I talk openly about this, but then some people shout: "Oh, she is jealous, angry and evil, but we are without fault!" Also, I'm against a trivial understanding of religion and metaphysics. My critics and I have a deep misunderstanding about the nature of reality; we seem to speak different languages. Some claim my books lack a feeling of "reality" and say my books are too autobiographical. There is, in Lithuania, a strange belief that "reality" is only work, politics, basketball, and family life. The level on which I live and create is not that "reality." But both metaphysics and physics, especially contemporary quantum theory, agree that no one is able to describe or know reality in its truest sense.

People say that I'm a controversial figure, moving from Christianity to Buddhism, from politics during Sajudis time toward an anchorite's life. Some claim my life and writings are full of opposites. But this world is created out of opposites and only opposites are making progress. Everything changes; everything is impermanent and even illusory. If my face and body are changing every year, how can my spirit and mind be the same all my life? I'm trying to be free in the inner spiritual sense and these attempts are not easy, sometimes even painful. I think many people are longing for the same freedom, but don't dare try.