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The Baltic messenger Interview with Ruta Sepetys

The American author Ruta Sepetys during her visit in Stockholm showing a copy of her first published book. Foto: Anna NymanFrom Susana Oksanen to Katrina Kalda, the literary world can now add one more woman author and descendant of the Baltic people, Ruta Sepetys, to the list of women authors that have taken the mission to write about the Baltic States and their people, their experiences during the 20th century and the period of the Soviet Union. These three women, authors with their roots in the Baltic States, should be considered as pioneers; through historical or contemporary fiction they are taking the lead in the telling of the three States’ 20th century history and by giving the people in the Baltic States voice again.

With her historical fiction Between Shades of Grey about the Lithuanian people during the Soviet Union and the deportations to Siberia, Lithuanian descendant Ruta Sepetys has written a book that has been read over the world, giving light to the Lithuanian history during the Soviet Union.

Her next book, Out of the Easy, to be published in the USA in February 2013, is also an historical fiction. Here, she leaves the history of the Baltic States and returns to her native country, America, to New Orleans in 1950 and to post-war society, where people were, as she describes it, living the American dream, but were suffering, broken and battered from the war at the same time.

Her third historical novel to be published in the USA examines the 2nd World War, in 1945. It’s a story about the refugees trekking through East Prussia, fleeing from the Soviets and getting on a ship, the same ship that the Germans had commandeered to German soldiers and officers fleeing from the Soviet Union. Out of 10 000, nearly 9000 people, the majority being teenagers, drowned when the boat was torpedoed by the Soviets. The Nazis, as the ship sank, covered it up, not wanting people to know that the mission had gone wrong. Still today, few know the event.

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In this book, as in Between Shades of Grey, Ruta Sepetys has travelled to the places where the persons traveled, fled and experienced hard times, doing at the same time an extensive historical research work.

You have written a book about the Lithuanian people and the character Lina during the Soviet Union. Could you please in your own words briefly tell what this book is about?

- The book is about 15 year old Lina who is arrested with her mother and younger brother and deported to Siberia. The book chronicles not only her struggle to survive but also her struggle to retain faith in mankind.

Why did you write this story?

- For me it was a combination of a quest for history and a quest for my own identity. You know, I have this name Ruta Sepetys, and growing up in the States with that name everyone was constantly asking ‘What are you?’ And my answer was ‘I’m Lithuanian’. But what does that mean, ‘I’m Lithuanian?’ I grew up in the 70s’. In the 70s’, when I would say ‘I’m Lithuanian’, people would say ‘Where is that [Lithuania]?’ I could not even show them on a map, because the country Lithuania was just the Soviet Union. There was nothing on the map. So people became sort of suspicious to me: ‘So you’re not American?’ And I said: ‘I am American. I was born here.’ ‘Yes, but Ruta Sepetys is not American.’ I was not Lithuanian and I was not American. I just fell in between. So, it was partially a quest for my own identity.

And then I learned that my father fled from Lithuania when the Soviets came looking for the family and that, when they could not find them, they deported my grandfather and his extended family to Siberia. And this was my own family’s history. I was shocked. I thought ‘How can this have affected so many people and so much of the world not knowing about it?’ I was thinking there are so many heroes we have never had the chance to meet. We have never been able to celebrate their bravery or to console their regrets and in many cases a lot of the people that I did meet had so many regrets. Just as important it is to celebrate these strong individuals, it is comforting these people who made mistakes and never have a chance now to repent and say that they were sorry. I wanted to give voice to that piece of history and also to learn more about my Lithuanian heritage. So when people say ‘What does it mean to be Lithuanian?’ I have more of an answer now to what it really means.

You don’t speak the language. How does it feel to be Lithuanian but not speaking the language?

- It feels a bit like I’m an imposter because this name Ruta Sepetys is very Lithuanian and when people see the name they immediately speak Lithuanian to me, and I don’t speak Lithuanian. First of all, it’s a shame that I don’t and it’s never too late to learn. I certainly can learn. It feels like I’m one step removed and it feels like I’m almost pretending to be Lithuanian. So this book has brought me a little bit closer to feeling Lithuanian.

But doing the research for this book and learning about these people who experienced Siberia, the courage that they showed, in a way made me feel a little step further away, because living in America and with all the freedoms that we take for granted, I don’t know if I could ever truly show the reverence that I need to of what it truly means to be Lithuanian. So I’m taking a step forward and a step back, so to speak.

Can you ever understand the culture in a profound way, if you don't speak or understand the language?

 The Swedish edition of her book Between Shades of Grey, edited at B. Wahlströms förlagNo, I think that you can experience the atmosphere, you can appreciate it, but I think the language is the very root of a culture and the Lithuanian language has such deep history. Even though the Soviets took their flag and took the name of their country, people would still speak the language. The language endured and that is something that I think really sustained this very soul of Lithuania. So, I don’t think so, and like I said I’m a step away, I’m on the outside, I’m on the outside looking in, and I so terribly want to be on the inside. But until I speak the language I will forever be on the outside, I think.

Do people in the USA generally know about the Baltic States and what happened in the Baltic States during this time period?

- There is very little to-know-knowledge of what happened in the Baltic States. When people read the book, they are absolutely shocked, including some teachers and professors who e-mail me and say that they read the book. They say ‘I read this book and I cannot believe that there is so much we don’t know about this time period.’ And that could be exclusive to America, because in America we tend to be rather insulated and live in our American bubble. The book is published now in forty countries in twenty-six languages and when I travel, there is a much greater awareness about Baltic history outside of the USA than there is inside.

But still, I would like to say that, here in Sweden, it was not many years ago that we really started to talk about what the Baltic States had gone through, so it’s quite new to our knowledge also…

- I was just in Denmark last week and they said the same thing. They said: ‘These were our neighbors and we had so little knowledge of what was going on.’ But my book is fiction, so I hope that it served as a door and that it can open a door for people to discover the real stories written by real Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, people who do speak the language, people who are related to people who experienced it. Those are the real stories and the important stories, so when teachers ask me: ‘What else is there?’ I’m anxious to give them a reading list so students can actually go to the source material. I would love to have more material translated into English so students in America can study the real stories.

You went quite far in your research work.

- I think it would be fairer to say I went overboard and it was simply because of my ignorance. I don’t have a literary background. I don’t have a background in journalism, so I went to Lithuania with a lot of ambition of finding the true story, but with no expertise on truly how to mine out some of the details.

So, I met with survivors, and that definitely was the most incredible experience, because the people had kept the secret for over more than fifty years, and I was not prepared for the trauma that lived inside of this people. If anyone has held a secret, you know that secrets can be painful and secrets can be destructive. These people were frightened to share their secrets and the trauma would manifest physically as they were telling me. It was painful for me to watch.

I decided to write the book as I was researching it, in order to try to capture the rawness of what I was experiencing from these survivors and they told me; ‘I’ll tell you what happened to me, but you will have to promise not to put my name.’ So, I wrapped fictional characters around their experiences and in many cases, if it was a man that told me the story, I have a female character in the book that is experiencing it, again to protect their anonymity.

I also visited some of the places in Lithuania that I am describing. That was an incredible research experience. I don’t know if I will go that deep again, though. It was a little bit haunting.

Did you go all the way to Siberia?

- No, I didn’t. I visited a former abandoned gulag and did this sort of simulation experience that was less than twenty-four hours. It took me minutes to realize that I would never have survived in Siberia. I just don’t have what it takes to survive. It gave me such profound respect for these people who were separated from their family, from their homeland, having no idea what lay in front of them. And just even being in the abandoned gulag for less than twenty-four hours… I knew that I was coming out. It was just an overnight thing. But yet, still, my behavior changed and was modified so radically in less than twenty-four hours, that it gave me great insight in courage and fortitude that would be required to be in exile. I tell people that read the book: ‘Read the book and ask yourself if you would survive there, and if so: how? What would you take with you? What would you take with you if you had twenty minutes to prepare [as Lina has in the book].’ That’s why I love to write historical fiction, because of the research. You are a little bit of a detective, you dig out the details.

In the book, at the end of a chapter, instead of a cliffhanger, you put a question or a word of wisdom. How come you chose this way of ending the chapters?

- You are the first person that has actually brought that up and I’m so grateful, because I was trying to recreate my experience during the research process within the text, that every time I met with someone I was left with either questions or food for thought, these things, these threads, that I would be chewing on for days and days. I hoped that I would recreate that for the reader to say things like: ‘Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?’

Much to my surprise it’s the younger people, the students, who come to me and they absorb the questions, they are living the questions, saying ‘What is life worth?’, the drama of the living experience. I find the younger people gravitating toward that, more than the adults, and I feel so grateful. The adults approach seems more from a historical perspective or frame of reference.

When you are young, when you read a book when you are thirteen to sixteen, it has an opportunity to have a profound effect on you. Perhaps it will stay with you for the rest of your life. When you read a book when you’re young, there is just a way that you can absorb it. Adult, we perceive things in a different way and we have different filters that have developed, you might filter material differently. That’s why I originally wrote the book for young people.

You also create some strong scenes. I think of when Lina watches herself in the mirror. Watching ourselves in the mirror is such an everyday life thing to do for us. What if we weren’t able to look ourselves in the mirror and see how we look like and how we change from day to day? Her reflection in this situation puts light on what we take for granted in our lives today.

- That was a comment from a survivor that I met with, who had told me that for a period of five years, she never saw herself. But she saw herself in the faces of other people. If she might see someone that she hadn’t seen for a while, their reaction was her mirror. They would look at her and their reaction said: ‘Look at you. What must I look like?’ They were mirroring off of each other’s reactions and perceptions of one another. That struck me so profoundly and that’s why I put it in the book, saying that this was the last time that she would be looking into a mirror for nearly a decade. To look ourselves into the mirror is part of our lessons. We think about it especially with young people, how often they’re looking in the mirror. To have that completely taken away, taken out of the equation entirely… I don’t think we can…

There is another strong image. It’s when the baby dies and it’s thrown out of the toilet hole in the train. This made me think of the saying ‘to throw the baby out with the bath water.’ Did you use this saying by modifying it a bit to be able to use it in this horrible situation instead, and to tell something else?

- Not exactly. ‘To throw the baby out with the bath water’ is to do something very impulsively. To be impulsive. I wanted people to be able to absorb the magnitude of what was happening, and that this unborn child was on a list. How can an unborn child be an enemy? This was so senseless.

Then, the loss of life and the perception of life amongst everybody in the train car, how it affected people, even the small boy Jonas, when he comes back and they say ‘The baby’s dead’ and he says ‘Our baby?’, meaning he is taking ownership of this child, and what it meant to people in the car.

So no, I never actually thought about ‘to throw the baby out with the bath water.’ To me it was something of great importance, when people told me this story and how it truly became their child, and that they lost their child, how that sucked moral. The baby losing its life, they said, many other people just gave up hope. It was a hopeless situation.

It was really debated whether this should be in the book or not, even by my publisher. Many publishers rejected the book just because of that scene alone. They said: ‘We read the book and it’s so dark and so traumatic, but that scene… We just cannot publish the book.’ I said: ‘It’s real. It really happened.’ With my publisher, the question then was: ‘Do we need it?’ This was my first novel. I had the tendency to want to put everything in; ‘This is shocking, so I’m going to include it.’ But many times I think we can achieve that feeling without telling too much, so my editor really helped me to balance the hope and the horror. I’m grateful for that and I’m grateful that I had to keep the scene.

This is also a story about not telling. Lina cannot write. She draws, but she has to hide it and she tries to send small pieces of wood that she has carved on, and they always have to find a way to tell without using words.

- This is something essential, an essential message of the story and of this Baltic piece of history. They found a way to speak, even though their voice had been extinguished. The Soviets took their flag, they took their country off the map, but they couldn’t take their spirit. They expressed themselves through art and music and poetry and dance. It’s incredible to me how, even though they were in exile and so limited, that there are certain things that you cannot take away from someone.

That’s why the French titled the book as they did, ‘What you can’t take from us.’ It’s a question of identity. How much can be taken away from you before you actually lose your identity? The Lithuanian, the Latvian, the Estonian people, the Baltic people, found ways, not only to express themselves, but to communicate with other people and to share these experiences via art or through song lyrics and finally, fifty years later, in 1989 in their independence movement The Baltic way, millions of people stood holding hands, from Lithuania, up into Latvia, all the way up into Estonia. This was not a violent protest. They used silence. Not violence. That was something essential. It’s a smaller country, but the lesson that we can learn from this is really powerful. I know that when I go to schools in America, the students ask: ‘So when did the violent protests begin? It was like in Egypt, right?’ And I say, no, it wasn’t. Sometimes the most powerful soldiers don’t need to use a gun.

Lina’s mother uses a very strong expression, talking about identity: ‘Never forget who you are.’

- I wanted the mother character to represent the soul of the Baltics. The women I’ve met with, Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian women, these women are so strong in a beautiful, loving way. So, I wanted the mother character to represent not only that, but to be the representation of a higher self. The way that she responds and that she acts in this book is something that we can all aspire to. She is the one that is conveying the true message. The teenager, Lina, is struggling through, and trying to navigate through the emotions not only for exile, but for other lessons,because even though these teenagers were in exile they were still teenagers and she was navigating through that. So, we have the mother character bringing this message, saying we know what we are, and we can’t ever forget, we have done nothing wrong. This was inspired by the Baltic women, no doubt.

You have some characters that don’t change. You have this mother, she doesn’t really change. She is the mother from beginning to end. Then you have bald man, the tall man… It creates a big gap, a black hole; even though things change around these characters and everything is constantly getting worse and worse, they don’t change, they remain the same. This shows the growing distance between the humans that these characters are and the non-human situation they are living in.

- Again, you are the first to bring up some of these perceptions that when you are writing it, you hope that someone might understand. Hearing that you did, it just makes my day.


Anna Nyman





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