CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis

Daiva Markelis, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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Her parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later Daiva Markelis learned that “displaced person” was the designation bestowed upon European refugees like her mom and dad who fled communist Lithuania after the war. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, though, Markelis had only heard the name T.P., since her folks pronounced the D as a T: “In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who had lived in tent-like dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.” So begins this touching and affectionate memoir about growing up as a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants.

Markelis was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in a household where Lithuanian was the first language and where Lithuanian holidays were celebrated in traditional dress. White Field, Black Sheep derives much of its charm from this collision of old world and new: a tough but cultured generation that can’t quite understand the ways of America and a younger one weaned on Barbie dolls and The Brady Bunch, Hostess cupcakes and comic books, The Monkees and Captain Kangaroo. Throughout, Markelis recalls the amusing contortions of language and identity that underscored her childhood. She also humorously recollects the touchstones of her youth, from her First Communion to her first game of Twister. Ultimately, she revisits the troubles that surfaced in the wake of her assimilation into American culture: the constricting expectations of her family and community, her problems with alcoholism and depression, and her sometimes contentious but always loving relationship with her mother.

Deftly recreating the emotional world of adolescence, but overlaying it with the hard-won understanding of adulthood, White Field, Black Sheep is a poignant and moving memoir—a lively tale of this Lithuanian-American life.

Daiva Markelis is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writings have appeared before in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader, and American Literary Review, among others.

Julija Šukys: Talk a little about how the writing this book. I, for one, heard you read a piece of it at a conference several years ago. How long did it take to write? What was your process? Did you write in fits and starts? Do you rewrite? How much input from others do you take in along the way?

Daiva Markelis: Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her loss deeply. I’d been writing essays and stories for years about growing up Lithuanian-American in Cicero, Illinois. I decided to take the material and add sections about my mother’s life and the year before her death.  The process was quite therapeutic.

I wouldn’t say I write in fits and starts, but I do rearrange material quite a bit. Since I’m not very good at straight narrative, I like to organize sections in a mosaic-like way until a broader picture emerges.  I rewrite a lot. I belong to a writing group of several university women who write fiction, memoir, and poetry.  The group was instrumental in giving feedback as to what worked and what didn’t, especially in terms of structure. White Field would have been a very different book without their suggestions.

Your parents, both now deceased, are central to this memoir. How did their passing help or hinder the writing? Many writers wait until loved ones are gone to write about them (for fear of hurting the living, I suppose). Was this a factor in your case?

Good question. My mother was a big supporter of my writing—the book is dedicated to her memory. I suppose I still would have written the book if she had lived longer since she was a very open-minded woman with a good sense of humour. She would have enjoyed the book, I think, and would have been helpful in suggesting additions and revisions. My father was a writer himself; he wrote short stories and essays in Lithuanian, sometimes about quite sensitive topics.  He was a complicated, interesting man who would have understood the importance of writing honestly and bravely, but I don’t know if he would have necessarily liked to read some of the things I wrote about him.

Another central figure in your book is the ‘character’ of Arvid Žygas (who later becomes Father Arvid Žygas, and eventually grows to be an influential figure in the Lithuanian community). Your descriptions of him are funny and poignant: this oddball, mischievous adolescent develops into a warm and caring adult, who remained one of your dearest friends. Recently, we all learned of his sudden death. This happened before I read your book, so as I read, I couldn’t help thinking how you had managed, without realizing, to build him a monument. And, in a way, it’s a more beautiful monument than perhaps you could make now, because it was built out of love and laughter rather than sorrow. Can you talk a bit about the death of your friend and if your book has taken on a new significance for you in light of his passing?

Arvid was a very good friend and an amazing person. The last time I talked to him was in August of 2010. It was a two-hour conversation—you couldn’t have just a chat with Arvid. He told me he was very worried about his health. Doctors had detected a brain tumor and were going to remove it. But even in the midst of this depressing talk, Arvid found a way to be both humorous and thought-provoking. He was afraid that doctors would take out the section of the brain that regulated empathy, and that he would become some kind of a moral monster. He called back a week later to say that he was going to be okay. Then I heard from friends in January that he was very sick and didn’t want people calling or contacting him. During that conversation in August he’d mentioned that he didn’t want to worry people or take up their time. I was greatly saddened and surprised by his death. I’m trying to write about it, but, you’re right, it’s a different experience, much harder and, of course, not really pleasurable. I’m glad I had the chance to write about the Arvid I knew as a girl and young woman without the spectre of his death hanging over me. Continue reading

Life-blood: Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott, The Adderall Diairies: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder (Graywolf Press, 2009).

“. . . only a fool mistakes memory for fact”Stephen Elliott, in the disclaimer to his memoir.

I decided to buy this book after I heard its author speak at the AWP writers’ conference in Washington. He stood up in a t-shirt that showed off his tattooed arms and, with charming and self-deprecating humor, offered some really good insights into the mechanics of writing. If nothing else, this guy had charisma. I wanted to know more, so I ordered The Adderall Diaries. I’m glad I did.

It’s a hard book to summarize: the stitch that holds it all together is an exploration of ambiguous confession.

Elliott starts the book: “My father may have killed a man.” He learns this after reading an unpublished memoir that his father (a failed writer) sends him. He then goes on a hunt to determine the truth of the confession, combing newspapers, checking county death registries, and so on. The search is inconclusive.

This first curious confession reproduces itself, but in slightly different form, when a casual acquaintance of Elliott’s confesses to having killed “eight and a half” people, the last of whom he claims was his lover Nina. Though most of the supposed victims of this would-be serial murder can be accounted for (his confessions are false), Nina is indeed missing. Her husband, not the would-be serial murderer who confessed to her murder, is charged with killing her. Elliott follows the trial of Hans Reiser, and we follow him doing so.

This is where it gets really interesting.

I once heard Michael Chabon (of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) say in an interview that he knew he was on to something good when it made him feel uncomfortable. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I work on my third book, and try to find the courage to tell some truths and find the edge of what I’m comfortable with. Elliott, for one, has gone to the edge of comfort and often goes beyond it.

Now, the murder confession is but a framing device in this book. More than true crime, it resembles a journey through Stephen Elliott’s mind and his past: addiction, overdose, homelessness, petty crime, suicide attempts, masochistic sex, gogo dancing, familial loss and estrangement, and, finally, a coming to writing.

In the end, the book itself constitutes a way out of pain for its author, but is by no means a cure: “I hear doors open but can’t see them. I move forward without a path. I am not sad all the time but I will always be sad sometimes. [. . .] Neat conclusions do nothing for me. I write to make sense, to communicate, to connect” (198).

Given the subject matter (murder, sadomasochism, addiction), a reader might be forgiven for expecting an icky memoir that tells too much, perpetuates voyeurism, and titillates through disturbing imagery. But this is not at all what I found.

Stephen Elliott’s book impressed me on so many levels. The writing, first of all, is superb. It’s simple and clipped and economical, so that when he describes harrowing scenes of suffering (mostly his own), there is no melodrama or self-pity. Where sex is concerned, the tone is frank, the details sparing. He manages to give insight into the dynamics and emotional payoff of S/M where the narrative necessitates, and then he moves on.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I found Elliott’s portrayal of women amazingly complex and affection-filled. This is rare in a book that explores (if peripherally) sexual power relations, and I suspect that it’s successful in its portrayal of women because Elliott has thought more carefully about sexual dynamics than most. In a scene towards the end of the book, the author’s father mockingly suggests that a woman walking by on the street might make a good dominatrix for his son. It’s a moment that we could pass over without comment from the author. Women, after all, are judged and denigrated and sexualized in public like this every day. But Elliott corrects his father, saying that dominant women rarely look dominant. There is more to most of us, he stresses, than meets the eye.

Elliott’s book ends on a quasi-hopeful note, but the message here is that life and writing are a process. In the final pages, he is still snorting Adderall (speed), if less than before, and his S/M continues. Both ostensibly help him write (and live), so it’s hard to distinguish his poison from its antidote.

Maybe that’s the point. Or one of them, anyway.

Ultimately, Elliott’s book is about survival, getting better, getting worse, keeping going, and about lies, truth, and how the two can sometimes be indistinguishable. It’s about writing as a life practice and healing mechanism. Importantly, it also proves that even the most confessional text can be art.

I found this book hard to put down.

You might too.

Try it.

[Photo: hipsxxhearts]