Gint Aras looks the part of gritty Chicago writer. Swathed in black with a flat cap and a flinty stare, his hulking form curled around his coffee cup in the window of Stumptown Coffee in West Loop where he was kind enough to discuss his work with me. Since attending Aras’ workshop on “Harvesting Trauma” at Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference in 2018, I’d become a fan eager to pick his brain on the more challenging aspects of cultural heritage and collective memory.
Terry Galvan: Relief by Execution is your third published book and your first nonfiction one. Tell me how you came to write and publishing Relief by Execution after your career in fiction.
Gint Aras: I’m not sure I consciously considered myself a “fiction writer” when I started writing, categorically rejecting nonfiction, or whatever, out of interest in purity. I mean…I wrote poetry in high school, the kind high school boys write, but I abandoned it because, you know, I’m not very good at it. I like essay writing a lot, however, and always have, even if I have more fun writing fiction.
So, it was a while after my novel, The Fugue (2016, Tortoise Books) came out, when I got a phone call from a guy. He invited me to pitch an idea to Homebound Publications, to their series called Little Bound Books.
I got really excited bout this series. It’s an attempt to save the long essay format, the brainchild of Homebound’s founder, Leslie Browning. What would happen if long essays became short books, right? Would they be attractive to readers, little bound books you can place in the front pocket of your jacket, or in your purse and read on a single plane, bus or train ride?
I pitched them a few ideas, and the one they picked was a meditative essay about my upbringing in a xenophobic environment, and a trip I took to Mauthausen where all these energies converged. I wrote that book in the summer of 2017, in about two months, and it was published as Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen in the fall of 2019.
My first exposure to your work was your novel, The Fugue. Relief felt like an annotated bibliography to The Fugue–providing additional context and explanation to what was going on behind the main action. I was surprised to find that Relief by Execution was not as dark than your novel.
It’s interesting that you say that. This is something I could talk about for a long time.
Both books are about cross-generational wartime trauma. They’re counterarguments to the antiseptic way we have of looking at wars as events that begin and end on assigned dates, from first shot to armistice, or however the history books frame it. In truth, wars last for the lifetime of the people involved—I don’t mean just the soldiers on the battlefield. The effects carry on into the lives of their children, even if they end up in parts of the world far removed from the theaters, as in the case of refugees or displaced persons.
In The Fugue, the main character, Yuri Dilienko, is a sculptor who lives in Cicero, and he inherits energies of his ancestors from two nations, Lithuania and Ukraine, most of whom are refugees. The Fugue is an attempt to show just how long the consequences of war last, and how extreme, disorienting, and annihilating they can be.
I’m a child of refugees myself, of displaced persons, and I grew up in Cicero among scores of refugees, from Lithuania, Ukraine, various parts of the former Yugoslavia, Poland, etc. In The Fugue, I’m mining (or plumbing) this material, but I’m also creating drama, which in this case is dark: someone burns a house down and kills Yuri’s parents, and Yuri goes to prison for it.
I think the contrast you’re feeling is just a function of technique and aesthetic. In my novel, you don’t really know who the murderer is, and as the novel builds, the reader can’t quite tell just how deep the basement of darkness is going to get. You think, this can’t get any more fucked up, but then I crank it up a notch in the next chapter, and it keeps happening until the last sentence.
Relief is memoir, so the drama does not need to be created by me. It just needs to be recalled and shaped into sense. I’m the narrator, and if I’m doing okay enough at the beginning of the memoir to be writing one in the first place, the reader can probably guess that I came out of it ok. Relief by Execution is, after all, about relief.
You discuss Catholicism as a central part of the culture that you come from as a Lithuanian-American raised just outside Chicago. Can you talk about the role Catholicism plays in your work?
I’m interested in any energy that can shape or shift consciousness, both personal and collective. I’m also interested in things with staying power. To that end, Catholicism has been a powerful force for centuries, so it’s fascinating. It offers lessons both fierce and pacific.
Obviously, I also grew up in it, so I know what it is. This stuff has been examined, but it’s so often reduced to caricature, or a cheap backdrop that remains exotic or weird or mysterious…other, in a way. It also gets made fun of, deservedly, and scathingly criticized, quite deservedly.
But when you’re inside it, it’s something completely different. I wanted to tell a story in a sincere way. These are human beings, and they have convictions that from the outside may seem bizarre, but ultimately the whole thing is an attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible.
One important character in The Fugue is a priest. Really, he’s just a guy. He’s gone bald and likes cognac. He’s always got some smoked fish lying around the table in the rectory. He’s also learned, articulate, patient and at times far more confused about how his Catholic parishioners are behaving or understanding Catholicism than he’s confused about…you know…the meaning of the blessed Trinity, or whatever.
The Jesuits I grew up with were educated men. They had degrees in law and chemistry. Some of them were scholars. They understood the nature and the value of inquiry, why reading great books was valuable. They taught the Bible essentially as a book—yes, a very important book, but they didn’t expect you to believe that you could date the Earth by reading the Old Testament.
I’d have conversations with the Jesuits at age nine about whether or not Jesus went up to heaven with his entire body. All of them categorically said, “No, of course not. That’s a story.” They explained it in ways that made a lot of sense to me. If you can understand that Hansel and Gretel did not actually go into the forest, and they did not actually leave crumbs of bread on the ground, but you can still understand why there’s value in that story, then you should also be able to understand that whoever wrote the New Testament sent Jesus up into the sky with the clouds opening up and everything else for a purpose. The lesson of forgiveness, and that death isn’t as horrifying as you make it out be, is the point, not that you’ll one day also get to fly in the clouds like Jesus.
If you dig into the old books, you really have to be perverted to conclude that their writers imagined God as a ruling despot with a binary system of the saved and damned, or two clear groups: good people and bad people. In a way, in my childhood, Catholicism worked as a counter-argument to the ideas responsible for things like segregation in Chicago, for the forces that left all the descendants of slaves on the east side of Cicero Avenue, and all the descendants of war refugees on the west side.
In Relief, there’s a scene that depicts a Jesuit priest asking us boys to explain what we think racism is, and he uses the Sermon on the Mount as the primary lesson.
I love that scene!
For Catholic boys the Sermon on the Mount is a really big deal. It’s where the heart of Christ’s teachings is presented. There’s this fundamental question: does harm begin when you take an action, or when you conceptualize something that can become an action
For Christ, at the Sermon on the Mount, it begins at conception. It begins when it enters your mind. So when you see your neighbor’s wife and you’re lusting after her, you’ve already committed the act just by imagining it.
That’s central to the plot of The Fugue.
To both books. Just by virtue of thinking something, you’ve already sinned. Thoughts have consequences. Those consequences will create conditions in which you have to live. It behooves you to have a keen understanding of why certain thoughts and certain feelings arise at certain times—to ask, are those feelings natural, or have I learned to feel this way? Have I inherited energies from people who have not been mindful of what they’ve been throwing around? And if the answer is “Well, it’s not natural, I’ve learned it,” then you can change it.
Easier said than done.
You can’t do it unless you see what you’re thinking, you know? Think about the concept of Grace. The teaching says it’s always available. It’s available for the filthiest war criminal and for the pious little hunchback who rings the tower bell.
I was going to ask about what other philosophical foundations are a part of your work.
I mean, I’ve read a lot of philosophy. I really like it. I used to use the book Sophie’s World to teach freshman comp. The study of philosophy is the study of how consciousness is formed. The only way to do that is find a way to step outside for a second and ask, why am I thinking this?
I practice Zen. The basic meditation practice of Zen is to sit and observe what is going on in your mind and your consciousness right now. If you sit long enough, you can separate feelings from thoughts, and then you can separate the thinker from a part of yourself that’s able to watch the thinker in action. If you can cultivate your ability to perceive that, to be that mindful observer, you can start postulating larger questions about why you think what you think. You can also get intimate with your ignorance and notice just how vast it is. It becomes okay.
None of us had any problem embracing our ignorance when we were three or four. We walked into the yard and said “Dad what is this?” And he said “That’s a rock.” I’m a dad now, and I know I can’t explain “rock” to myself or my kids. But it’s ok, because a three-year-old is perfectly comfortable being ignorant. They’re not self-conscious about it. It’s just endless question after question.
It’s a great way to be. Acknowledge that you’re not going to figure everything out, but you can still talk about it, and just get on with it. Especially if you’re an artist. If you’re an artist and you think you have answers, you’re confused.
What’s a better way to educate people, after these experiences?
Education should be the antithesis to genocide. If you disagree with me, you’re an asshole.
Some people say, you know, without genocide you wouldn’t have had the birth of the United States. I’ve heard that argument many times from the people I write about in Relief. You know…refugees, upset with fascism when it targets them, but shrugging it away, or celebrating it when it offers benefits or helps defeat perceived enemies. When it helps calm fears.
Most of what we fear is what we’re unable to understand. It’s that simple. The educational model I would like to use is something that absolutely no one would agree with: putting you face-to-face with the thing you fear the most. Not the way it happens in Orwell, where they strap your face to a cage of rats, but more along the lines of the way it happens in the Bhagavad Gita, where you’re faced with a choice that requires abandoning the hope of achieving an ideal outcome. It’s to face the idea that maybe the identity you think you have isn’t the one that’s true.
Of course, that’s dangerous stuff. The thing that makes someone more furious than anything else is suggesting that maybe the identity that they built for themselves isn’t true. It’s contrived. Or it’s much more fluid and flexible than they ever imagined. It’s not a golden fixed point in the sky, but a narrative that can collapse with one question.
So many of the identities we’ve built are so unbelievably fluid that they essentially exist in our heads. Like where does the neighborhood end and begin? You can freak out about a question like that for years and years. The neighborhood fundamentalists will say, No it begins on Ashland, and I have books to prove it! I know people who shift the names of their neighborhoods around simply to gain empty, useless prestige. “I don’t live in Hermosa, I live in West Logan.” Why does it matter? It matters ultimately because of self-consciousness and fear of judgement.
Relief By Execution is presenting a question that everyone needs to consider. If you’re so quick to call someone evil, have you taken a minute to see how much of that is swung around in your own head? What you use to make judgments doesn’t necessarily mean you are or are not racist or a bigot or antisemitic, but shades of these narratives float around in our culture like dust in shafts of sunlight. We leave a lot of it uninvestigated. I don’t know that there’s anyone in our culture that’s free of it entirely.
There’s a reason we have the government that we do. As much as those of us who are on the humanitarian side of the argument like to separate ourselves from it, we are participating in it. And we’re doing it in ways that are not very mindful. Because fury is fun.
People like being angry. Fury releases dopamine. And what accompanies fury is similar to what accompanies the feeling of being a victim. If I feel like a victim, and I’m angry at the people who have harmed me or harmed the people I love, then I have authority over the narrative. I’m right and they’re wrong.
But being right isn’t all that satisfying, not by comparison to being proud of what you do. And I don’t mean satisfaction based on some customer service model. I’m talking about the satisfaction of realizing that you’re participating in a culture and a society that is allowing the people who have yet to be born say “Wow, those people really loved us.” We’re nowhere close to that. Our children are going to ask, “What was wrong with you?”
We’ll only have one answer for them. We were unable to face our fears in healthy ways. We couldn’t manage our sadness. Socrates taught that if you’re sad, it’s because you’re acting in a way that you know is harmful to you and everyone else. That’s among the oldest ideas in Western Civ.
I noticed that with each of the characters in The Fugue had their own art form to work through their trauma with, almost like art therapy.
Frankly, if you want to understand yourself, pick up a notebook or a computer screen and just start rambling, and see what comes out. Put it away, wait a week and then look at it. Look at it with sober eyes and rationalize it and think about what’s the difference between the person reading it now and the person who wrote it last week. You probably will learn things about yourself that cost much less than therapy, and are much more revealing.
Yeah, art can be therapy, but it’s way beyond therapy. What’s the oldest art? The oldest art is probably somebody sitting around a fire hammering two stones together to create a rhythm. Why are they doing it? They aren’t doing it because they’re bored. They’re interested in the relationship between what your mind and body can do to something outside of you, and have an effect. That’s art.
And it’s clearly a relationship. Writing doesn’t exist if you don’t have a reader. The art exists in the reader’s mind. Here’s what it’s like to hurt, here’s what it likes to be confused, here’s what it’s like to be in love. Here’s what it’s like to be violated and also to violate.
The assumption is the reader has had experiences like those and is interested in that experience. That’s what happens when you sit in a circle and talk about what it was like to grow up with alcoholic parents, or what it’s like to be addicted. It’s a group that gets together to share energies. Well, we’ve been doing that for millennia.
Yeah, that’s the oldest thing ever right?
I’m just guessing. An anthropologist might be able to give you a better answer. But for lack of a better term, it’s therapy. But to call it therapy is to severely diminish what it is. We would be a lot healthier if we had better art. We would be healthier if the educational system and the curators, like the people in charge of making television, looked at themselves as people have something to express and also people have a responsibility to shape their culture.
Tell me more about that social responsibility of artists.
Artists are not saviors, they’re not seers, and they’re not prophets. They’re confused people who have the courage to put their confusion on display to attempt to create connection and sincerity. It’s easy for people say that artists are superior, but I don’t agree with that at all.
You share a responsibility that has a very clear consequence to ask yourself, what am I trying to do? Part of it should be to locate people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences within a great historical context. And not just the 200 years of this country. For example—modern psychotherapy and drugs, like Adderall and Prozac. Those things are spoken about in an historical context that is microscopic compared to what those things are attempting to do. Our perspective of them changes if we place them in the context of the greater history of humankind.
Hundreds of years ago, villages along the Baltic coast came up with novel ways to deal with anger. There’s this weird tradition of cutting down a rotted tree. You get the biggest possible horses you can find, drag the stump into the middle of the village, and then everyone grabs a broomstick or a staff or something and starts screaming and beating the hell of it. And you do that every now and then just to get that shit out.
Okay, so what is that then? That’s anger management! The dance that the people do before they play rugby, that’s not some sentimental nod to culture, they’re getting ready to kick ass. There’s a thing that’s in the soil, in the essence of what it means to be human that you’re tapping into when you do that.
So what does art mean then? It’s energy that can’t be left alone. That’s what you do when you talk to your therapist, you release the energy that can’t be left alone.
The canvas can’t stop you. Whether or not you show somebody what you’ve splattered on there doesn’t matter, but the canvas can’t stop you. The piece of metal can’t stop you, the stone can’t stop you. A piece of wood that you’re carving can’t stop you. The only thing that can stop you in that moment from letting that energy out is your own demise. So if you look at art over the course of the millennia, to use the word therapy is to short-change it. It’s the ultimate process by which we understand ourselves.
Relief By Execution is available for purchase at most bookstores and Homebound Publications. If you’d like to support Gint Aras’ favorite local bookstore, you can order any and all of his books from The Book Table in Oak Park.
Chicago’s complex social landscape inspires Terry Galvan’s stories, from the realistic to the fantastic to the downright horrifying. A former anthropologist and Fulbright grantee, Terry enjoys lurking in dive bars nursing their Catholic guilt with whiskey. Follow Terry @TerryGalvanChi and https://terrygalvan.com