Opinion: Waiting for the barbarians, or why fairytales get censored in Lithuania (I)(1)
In her fairy tale book Amber Heart, Neringa Dangvydė addresses "the twilight zone": same-sex marriage, shifting identities, social exclusion taking place in front of our eyes (or carried out by us ourselves). Those things are still awkward to speak of; they are difficult to find the right words for, as well as a fitting place in the discourse.
The story of Dangvydė’s book brings all such emotions to light. First of all, this story is a scandal that reveals the concepts of sex, gender, family, marriage, partnership, children, and education to be slowly shifting. Second, it is an example of how an “enemy of the society” is created, and how particular rhetorical effects are employed in the process. Third, it is a chance to rethink ourselves and the words we use to define our point of view.
The story of Amber Heart speaks of how afraid we are of what is unknown to us, of how we refuse to get acquainted to that which is unknown and choose to destroy it instead; lastly, it reveals that the unknown usually is merely a part of ourselves. Perhaps that is why it is so unsettling.
The making of a scandal
Why and how is this book so unsettling? To find out, let us turn back to the beginning of the scandal, both telling and unoriginal. Last year, Lithuanian poet and literary critic Neringa Dangvydė published a book of six fairy tales for pre-school children (Amber Heart, 2013, Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences), in which she aspired to describe various form of social exclusion. The attempt was criticised as way too optimistic, and the book itself was greeted with barely any reviews.
A wider spread was achieved after an interview with the author published on 3 March 2014, on the front page of the major Lithuanian daily Lietuvos rytas. It also served as a take off for the scandal itself, bearing the title: “Tales of non-traditional love in the schoolbags of children.” In the interview, only two fairy tales were discussed, both of which end with same-sex marriages in unnamed kingdoms.
Looking back, this text set out the main areas of the scandal: the issue (same-sex marriages existing on the same ground as straight marriages), the addressed party (children who will hear of the existence of such couples), the parties involved (the author versus “expert institutions” willing to “protect” the minors from harmful information, namely: Lithuanian Parents’ Forum, Office for Inspection of Journalist Ethics, Ministry of Culture of Lithuania). Also, some aspects of the scandal made it a tough battle from the start:
(a) many of the people discussing the text have not read it, or have only read parts of it;
(b) the scandal is supposedly based on literature, yet centers around social issues exclusively;
(c) the scandal has been shaped by institutions, which are also the key decision makers in regulating the book’s distribution.
Recent events further emphasize that this has become a social debate, not a literary one:
(1) Eight MPs sent a letter to the Lithuanian Minister of Culture asking that the book not be distributed.
(2) The Office for the Inspection of Journalist Ethics concluded that the book may have negative effect on minors; ruling to limit distribution by marking the book “N-14” (unsuitable for children under 14 years old).
(3) The Rector of Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences Algirdas Gaižutis ruled to stop distribution of the book altogether (as of today, the remaining copies have been returned to the publishing house) and fined the Director of the Publishing House of the University for publishing the book in the first place.
(4) Discussion about the book in the media consists of two sides: defenders of the book (activists of human rights, politics, and culture) and a unified opposition (journalists, institutions).
As a matter of fact, media scrutiny severely limiting a book’s distribution is not unheard of in Lithuania. One example is a post-modern Lithuanian novel called “The Witch and the Rain” by Jurga Ivanauskaitė (1993). Due to the book’s “shocking” erotic content, the Municipality of Vilnius established a Commission that in turn limited the book’s distribution to sex shops. Curiously enough, the ruling was largely ignored. The distribution went on, and the book enjoyed several editions and epigones. A story that violated various sexual taboos was accepted into literary discourse much faster than it would have been if the scandal had not taken place.
In Dangvydė’s case, the exact opposite is happening. The book’s distribution has stopped entirely. This goes to show that the scandal has little to do with violating literary conventions. The text has ceased to be regarded as a work of art with a very specific connection to reality. It, on the contrary, is being viewed as plain facts. The social context extinguishes the art; worrisome is not how something is presented, but that something is is presented at all. Why? Little wonder – Amber Heart is written for pre-school children, whose view of the world happens to be “fragile and in the process of formation,” according to the experts of Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences.
The book manages to address multiple issues of education, didactics, formation of values and points of view in one go. However, the privilege of doing so belongs exclusively to parents and institutes of preschool education. Family and the institute of education provide the main facts of the world, and as such, they retain rights to control and limit them. But, how do they proceed with this information? And what do those procedures tell us about our own view of the world?