ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 57, No.1 - Spring 2011
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

Book Review

Juknaitė, Vanda. My Voice Betrays Me. Translated and edited by Laima Sruoginis. Eastern European Monographs (Boulder, CO). Distributed by New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 139 pages. ISBN 978-0-88033-606-2.

For a weaver, all the world
is textile. Look – do you see
the threads that bind us –
veins of color, textured
arteries? The weaver sees
us all twisted – arms and legs

“Baltic Laima”
Laima Sruoginis

The poem above was written years before Laima Sruoginis’s translation of Vanda Juknaitė’s rich and vivid memoir/literary nonfiction book, My Voice Betrays Me, yet, this stanza of poetry parallels the intricate beauty and harsh truths of human dignity that her colleague, Vanda Juknaitė, encountered in post-Soviet Lithuania – specifically in taking care of the many displaced and homeless children after 1991, when Lithuania gained in76 dependence and meekly peeked from behind the Iron Curtain to face the overwhelming challenges of twentieth-century democracy and life.

This leads the reader to believe it was no accident that these women encountered one another and embarked upon this project together. Laima, in the above poem, is the weaver, since most Lithuanian myths equate her to the Greek’s Athena, a woman of great wisdom who possesses the ability to see or weave the fates of mortals. The key to understanding the further connection to Juknaitė’s book is to see Juknaitė’s compassion for homeless children in starting a camp for them during and after “Utopia’s collapse,” and to read how artfully Sruoginis weaves these stories together with the rest of Juknaitė’s book – a series of interviews and an essay on how life and art are inextricably linked.*

* The essay was written in 1991 by Juknaitė in response to Vytautas Kubilius’s essay, which argued that “writers should be less involved with politics and should concentrate more on their art.”
One of her responses to this in the essay (though the crux of the essay deals with new-found individual freedom and how to see and value it) was: “when after fifty years we were able to read the memoirs of people deported to Siberia… no one realized that we were witnessing… freedom.”

The book opens with a preface and foreword that accessibly present the specifics of a post-Soviet Lithuania entrenched in the complexities of a dysfunctional socioeconomic infrastructure. This is at the core of Juknaitė’s memoir, for she is among the many Lithuanians who witnessed firsthand that “it took a long time before we [all] realized we’d internalized all the vices of the Soviet system” and “it would take a lot of work to change ourselves.”

So Juknaitė, seeing the interconnectedness as well as the stark “twistedness” of all beings, as the poem also suggests, reached out to young homeless children in her country of dilapidated structure and hope. With several volunteers, she began the above-mentioned camp under the umbrella of a newly created organization, Verus, to care for these children – the collateral damage of a dismantled Soviet childcare system, failed and mafia-influenced business dealings, and a lack of statefunded clinics and shelters.

Juknaitė and her volunteers, completely untrained and unprepared to deal with “wild” street children, found that many of them, if not all, lived daily among the harsh realities of drugs and alcoholism, robbery, prostitution, and disease. Yet, exchanges between volunteers and the children eventually began a series of exercises in hope and trust – and this resulted in a multitude of touching, and often humbling, poetic stories that illustrate how survival and compassion are close compatriots.

One of the most telling, I believe, is a story of the children who participated in an “integrated” session of camp. Juknaitė asked children from “normal” families, as well as blind or visually impaired children, to take part. Juknaitė, who led by example, helped the blind children about the camp throughout the weeks. She noticed that it didn’t take long before the street children immediately adapted and helped the blind children as well.

The children from “normal” families did not help those less fortunate on their own accord. They were eventually approached by volunteers and asked why. All of them responded with anger and accused the camp leaders of never “asking them to.” The street children not only helped the blind children, they vehemently defended them against a nosy reporter who later visited the camp. As Sruoginis’s poem invokes “threads that bind us” Juknaitė states later in the book, in her essay, “Burn All Philosophies,” that “when we all went out and joined hands to form the Baltic Chain… we had all become hostages together.”

Historically, Lithuania has been a nation of people whose perpetual past oppression yielded strong survivors and innocent casualties. In My Voice Betrays Me, the multi-genre format is refreshing, but also reflects this notion of being simultaneously strong and weak, and therefore, in identity crisis – Lithuania’s widely known “mental” state for years. There is a solid, satisfying mix of historical fact; a stimulating section of philosophy (perhaps individualism challenging nationalism); and the poignant stories of the street children in the camp.

The main segment of the book, the memoir, may be jarring for the new reader, since it is powerfully told to us by Juknaitė in oral tradition format. Sruoginis’s translation impeccably preserves this genuine voice, as recollections of one child to the next jump a span of several years, within one or two paragraphs, chronologically. These moving memories come fast, pouring out of the author, and as a result, it’s possible the reader may lose track of which child Juknaitė is telling us about. This, however, is no major distraction. Rather, it denotes the authenticity of the author’s experience and somewhat represents the uncertainty of the street children’s lives – of all Lithuanians’ lives – at this moment in time.

Overall, this book engages the reader to reconnect with her own compassion and tenderness. It distinctly depicts a people struggling to live in a new, ambiguous world, and the outcome, though still unclear, is a beautiful portrait of the capacity of human kindness.

Lina Ramona Vitkauskas