#TranslatedLit The Unexplored Island of Literary Lithuania by Stephan Collishaw

The world of books is dominated by the five giants of publishing. Whether we like it or not, these are the continents that define the literary globe.

stephan collishaw (@scollishaw) | Twitter
(Noir Press Founder Stephan Collishaw)

But sometimes it’s good to go exploring and find something new. Something different. Little islands, overgrown and unknown, where you have to hack back the weeds and undergrowth and forage for wild food.

It can be hard to find these little islands, but they are worth the effort.

Ten years ago, my second home, Lithuania, felt like just such an unexplored literary island.

Even before the tiny Baltic nation was forcibly and brutally incorporated into the Soviet Union, few people could boast of knowing any of its writers or poets.

Despite being one of Europe’s most archaic languages, related to Sanskrit and retaining many of the features of proto Indo-European, its adventures in writing began very late with the advent of linguistic nationalism in the 19th century.

I first stepped foot in Lithuania in 1995 and fell in love with its beautiful capital Vilnius and set my first novel there. I explored every street, every courtyard of that city, but to really to get to the heart of a place, you need to read its poets, its novelists, its writers of short stories.

And even by 2015 there were very few books translated from Lithuanian into English, and no full-length novels written by contemporary writers.

It was to counteract this dearth, that I decided, quixotically, to establish a small press devoted to bringing the voices of contemporary Lithuanian novelists to an English readership. To put on, as it were, little excursions to the unexplored island of literary Lithuania.

Breathing into Marble - Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite — Noir Press Lithuanian  | Lithuanian fiction in translation

Almost as soon as Noir Press published its first novel, Breathing into Marble by Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite (translated from Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute), we were confronted with an editorial quandary; the remit we had set ourselves was to publish prize-winning, living Lithuanian writers; but what exactly did we mean by Lithuanian?

The last twenty years has seen the rise of ethno-nationalism in many Eastern European countries and Lithuania has not been exempt, with Lietuva lietuviams! (Lithuania for Lithuanians) becoming the rallying cry of the hard right.

This exclusionary viewpoint has cast a dark shadow over Lithuanian history during the last hundred years.

Historically, Lithuania has been an ethnically mixed, multi-lingual space. The streets of Vilnius have rung to the sounds of Polish, Yiddish, Russian, Belorussian, Roma and the Karaim language as well as Lithuanian.

The Holocaust virtually wiped out Yiddish which was widely spoken across the country, and the suppression or exclusion of other languages continues.

We decided that we would celebrate Lithuania’s famous cosmopolitan nature and embrace all writers writing from Lithuania or in Lithuanian.

Devilspel — Noir Press Lithuanian | Lithuanian fiction in translation
(Grigory Kanovich, winner of the EBRD Literature Prize 2020 for Devilspel, translated by Yisrael Elliot Cohen.)

This allowed us to publish the novels of the wonderful, and too long neglected in English, Jewish writer Grigory Kanovich who, though born in Lithuania, and whose grandparents and parents spoke Yiddish, wrote his classic novels in Russian.

Over the last year we have published a small number of novels, each of which, we felt, was unique in its own way and an exemplar of contemporary Lithuanian fiction.

(Stephan Collishaw is the author of ‘A Child Called Happiness’ and ‘The Song of the Stork’. He the Founder and Editor at Noir Press.)

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