Dreaming of Tibet

  • 2002-05-09
Jurga Ivanauskaite is a unique figure in the literature of the Baltic states, so much so that she is often considered - and considers herself - to be an outcast from Lithuania's cultural establishment. She spoke to Howard Jarvis about her novels and artwork, and about the influence of Tibet on her life.

She is probably the most widely read writer in Lithuania. Ivanauskaite's last book, "Sapnu nubloksti" ("Gone with the Dreams"), published in 2000, had a generous print-run of 8,000 copies - not a small figure in Lithuania.

She is also the best-traveled. Since developing a fascination with Tibet, she has visited that distant land several times and written a series of non-fiction books and a novel based on her experiences.

Ivanauskaite is also a talented artist, one of her most recent series of paintings being dozens of mandalas - geometric shapes that represent the cosmos, each with an image of a divine or demonic deity.

What first attracted you to Tibet?

It was some photos of Tibet in "National Geographic," a magazine which was banned in the Soviet Union, but which my family managed to get hold of. Also, it was a proverb very popular among underground and counter-cultural groups: "Tibet is not a country, but a state of mind." That state was inner freedom, independence, esoteric experiences, which in Soviet times were a sort of inner resistance against the regime.

In Vilnius you helped organize pro-Tibet marches, pickets outside the Chinese Embassy, boycotts of Chin-ese goods at supermarkets. Have your efforts succeeded in attracting Lithuanian public attention to Tibet?

The situation is better than it was five years ago, but Lithuanian society is still xenophobic and closed. For many Lithuanians it's still hard to understand that in this modern world their country can never be an isolated solitary island. I think interest in the whole world matters, a sense of universal responsibility. It is a sign of democracy, a Western way of thinking.

Have the Chinese authorities given you any hassle?

I'm too small a subject in that big game. All Chinese hassles, reproaches and claims usually are addressed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Vilnius municipality. Representatives of the Chinese Embassy are asking the Lithuanian authorities to force me and my group to stop our actions. I'm happy that we have good contacts, even with the police.

Which well-known Lithuanian figures are helping?

There's the Tibet support group in the Parliament, but I think its members could be much more strenuous and do some real work instead of just visiting international Tibet conferences. Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas was stunningly active in 2001. He helped make Tibetan flags for our March 10 picket and himself planted a Tibetan standard in a square in (the Vilnius suburb of) Uzupis, where he lives. The mayor did a lot organizing the Dalai Lama's visit to Vilnius, against constant pressure from the Chinese side.

Did you help arrange the Dalai Lama's visit to Lithuania last year?

Yes I was a member of the organization committee.

When did you first meet the Dalai Lama?

First I met him in 1991 in Vilnius. From the first sight it was a very deep feeling of recognition and a great wish to follow that man. It was quite a mysterious experience, but explained in common words it sounds funny. That jolt was the beginning of a new and important period in my life.

Bearing in mind your friction with the Chinese authorities, how did you manage your goal of slipping into Tibet?

I got a Chinese visa in some half-black-market office in Hong Kong. There were some difficulties in the town of Chengdu, which is called "The Gateway to Tibet," but in the end everything went well.

How did you feel about what you found there? Was it how you imagined?

The level of annihilation, demolition and ruin is bigger than is reported. The number of Chinese troops in Lhasa and western Tibet is tremendous, unbelievable even for us with our sad memories of Soviet times. This outer level of Tibetan reality is very sad. But the spiritual life, especially in the more remote regions, is still active and inspiring. Tibetans still have esoteric qualities forever lost on Westerners.

You're Lithuania's most popular contemporary writ-er. Why has so little of your work been translated?

I don't feel myself to be the most popular Lithuanian writer, and please don't say such things aloud because reviewers, critics, my colleagues and the guardians of "genuine Lithuanian literature" will kill you with stones. I have very devoted readers, but as you know, on the official level, such as the Lithuanian Writers' Union, I'm never treated as a serious or auth-oritative figure. That could be one of the reasons why my books are not translated into English or other Western languages.

We have no cultural policy or strategy. There are no investments for translation or the promotion of Lithuanian literature.

Your book "The Witch and the Rain" is being translated into German for the Frankfurt Book Fair. Why was that selected above your more recent books on Tibet?

It was selected by publishers from a special list made by the Ministry of Culture. No one asked me which of my books could be translated. I've heard a few times the opinion that Lithuania must be represented in the West by "Lithuanian" not "Tibetan" books.

But I feel that my Tibetan trilogy is much more Lithuanian than some patriotic, folklore or nationalist stories of some other authors. "Gone with the Dreams," which I prefer out of everything I have written, is described as "difficult or impossible for translation because of some games with the language." But no one is asking about my own opinion. Fair is fair, the bazaar is the bazaar. I'm only a commodity without the right of choice. Sorry, (laughs) I'm not as angry as I sound.

What was your aim for each of the Tibet books?

The book is a process not the aim, it's a journey, not a goal. I had an ambition to introduce Tibetan history, culture and religion to Lithuanians. "Gone with the Dreams" described some of the dangers on the path I introduced.

You're now working as a guide in exotic locations for an exclusive Lithuanian tourism company. Has it been a fulfilling job?

Only a few weeks ago I was in Peru. In October a journey is planned to India and Nepal. Travel for me is a sort of personal religion and I take any opportunity to go to an exotic location not only as a pleasure but also as a spiritual task. I'm very serious about it and the gods and guardian deities of travel are still well-affected to me.

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm dreaming of working on a new book, but it's a luxury in contemporary Lithuania, and all energy is wasted on different jobs just to get money to live. Writing for me is a 24-hour process. It includes every waking moment - also sleeping and dreams. It's impossible to share it with other work. At the end of May I'm planning to make an exhibition of new paintings. There are 10 works united under the title "The Tibetan Book of the Dead."