Anaconda and IVaiva Grainytė
A shocking message landed in my inbox this fall.
I had almost forgotten that, last year, I had spat some saliva into a tube and sent it to a lab to learn more about my origins, potential health concerns, and potentially inherited diseases. I received the results after a good month – the analyzed chromosomes indicated that the owner had the blood of a variety of ethnicities, and that her first maternal ancestor had originated in Africa, and the abode of her first paternal ancestor’s DNA was extremely rare and characteristic of now almost extinct Siberian tribes. The results of the study also confirmed things that I had already known: that I am prone to having freckles, am dairy-intolerant, and not only a light sleeper, but also someone who tosses and turns in her sleep.
So, I analyzed the results meticulously when I received them; I did not succumb to laziness, but instead sniffed out the profiles of my biological relatives of the twenty-seventh generation, i.e. people with whom I share at least 0.18, or the single smallest segment, of DNA and who accompanied the results and were connected in a network. The said report, which had knocked me off my feet, came from the gene database and claimed that I had a sister.
Straight away, I messaged the new member of the database – my half-sister, according to the saliva platform, who went by the nickname ‘Anaconda’. She replied swiftly and in English. After exchanging our phone numbers, we started communicating on WhatsApp and figuring out how it could have come to pass that neither of us knew of the other. Our detective enthusiasm migrated to Skype – and there I saw a face on the screen: not at all similar, yet not altogether dissimilar, to mine.
The economist, chess enthusiast, and mathematician Jessica, born and raised in the West Bank in the States, chattered away with bits of Spanish mixed in and was surprised that I did not celebrate Halloween in Lithuania, or play any sports, and had never had any nose correction surgery. She rambled on about cars, her strange adventures with guys, surfboards, make-up, and yet she would go on to elaborate passionately about astronomy and astrology, sparkling with irony and rather dark humour. This, and perhaps the only, common feature, besides several other hobbies, connected us, enabling our distant orbits to intersect and allowing us to continue our conversation.
I was heavily influenced by the events and environment of my childhood: a grey apartment block, my parents’ busyness, the collapse of the Iron Curtain – the doors opening to the capitalist world, with all its plentiful riches; congenital diseases; surreal Soviet animation; four clearly distinguishable seasons; sadness that seeped into everyday life; and macabre Lithuanian folk tales. I enjoyed playing by myself, on the balcony of my apartment block, watching ants scurrying over the leaves of a begonia, exploring the subspecies of flies and spiders. Later, as a teenager, the balcony was substituted for older friends – all sorts of freaks who have introduced me to the world of music and literature. Discovering the unexpected America of my biological identity, Jessica, I wondered how I would have turned out if I had grown up in California, surrounded by sea lions, skyscrapers, sequoias, a multicultural environment, Pacific winds, and the etiquette of “I’m fine, how are you?”
Just as I began corresponding with my half-sister, I began to doubt the Grand Canyon of my identity, the monumentality of its authenticity. Would my teeth be whiter because of the higher fluoride content in drinking water? Would I speak louder? Would my face smile more readily? Would those twelve brothers turned into blackbirds by a witch1 catch up with me across the ocean and, grabbing my chromosomes by their tails, intervene at the genetic level, permeating me with melancholy (having been incapable, it seems, of catching those of my sister)? Would Jessica still be so chattery and wild at parties if she had been less exposed to sun and fresh fish, and instead had had more of the compotes (prepared with boiled berries, mainly sour redcurrants, picked in an allotment garden) made by her mother-in-law suffering from insomnia and political instability?
We discuss current events with my sister.
As the world is gripped by the second wave of the virus, the house keys get lost less frequently –mostly they just hang in the lock. Spiders have gotten into the habit of knitting their nets on my
suitcases – just last year this was the most unstable place, the busiest spot in the room. Friends are posting messages of boredom on social media, longing for the hustle and bustle; colleagues in the
culture sector are hoping to see the day when museums or galleries will re-open. Invitations, several at least, to Zoom chats or online events land in my inbox every day. If only I could give up all this virtual activity, I would sail to the distant continent of Offline: this year has allowed me to discover that I feel best (just happier) when I keep my distance and stay out of the centre of attention. And my half-sister Anaconda is going through quite the opposite feelings and experiences resulting from the lockdown restrictions.
Even now, as I write, she is slithering over the letters of this text, hissing with dissatisfaction, disapproving of its final paragraph, and threatening to swallow me up.
We may share a few strands of DNA, but our voices differ.
Vaiva Grainytė is a lituan poet, writer, and playwright. Her book of essays Beijing Diaries (2012) and the poetry collection Gorilla’s Archives (2019) were nominated for the Book of the Year awards and included in the top twelve listings of the most creative books in Lithuania. She is one of the authors of the opera-performance Sun and Sea (Marina),which was awarded the Golden Lion at La Biennale di Venezia (2019).