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.

I read your book with great interest because I too am a product of the Lithuanian post-World-War-II-DP community. Your descriptions of growing up in Cicero were fascinating to me because it was both familiar yet strange; my story, yet not mine at all, since it takes place in a different time and city, and with a completely different familial culture! This is all to say that there were times when I felt too close to the text to gain any real perspective on it.

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Louise DeSalvo’s work, which describes her relationship to the Italian-American community in Hoboken, and her relationship to Italian-American parents. My relationship to her work is so much simpler, because, even if I see parallels between my own life and DeSalvo’s, I don’t feel implicated in her narrative. I kept thinking about her work as I read yours, and wondered how an Italian-American would read your text.

How has the Lithuanian-American community received the book? Is its reaction different than that of readers who aren’t implicated in your text (like the fictional Italian-American reader I imagine)? Have you received any surprising reactions?

I love DeSalvo. Crazy in the Kitchen is one of my favorite memoirs—I highly recommend it to anyone interested in writing autobiography. DeSalvo is more critical of her family and community than I am of mine, I think. Several individuals have told me I’m very brave for having written White Field, but I’m a wimp compared to DeSalvo. I would have been more open, I think, if my relationship to the much smaller and perhaps more centralized Lithuanian community wasn’t so close. I also knew that mine  would probably be the first memoir about growing up Lithuanian-American, so I held back more than if I’d been working in a longer tradition.

For the most part, reception of the book has been very positive. Almost every week I receive fan letters from individuals of Lithuanian descent who thank me for writing about their experience. I really wasn’t expecting that.  I’m asked to do readings—I’ve done over twenty since the book came out last September.  Of course, I don’t often hear from people who don’t like the book. Friends in the Lithuanian community tell me that some people think I’ve exaggerated the drinking Lithuanians do. That seems to bother people more than my suggestions that Lithuanians can be racist and anti-Semitic.

Non-Lithuanians, among them several Italian-Americans, have commented on the mother-daughter relationship more than Lithuanians. They’ve also mentioned that they were somewhat surprised at the importance placed on education within the Lithuanian community; this was something they weren’t aware of.

Speaking of the issues of drinking and culture: unexpectedly (for me), White Field, Black Sheep became a memoir of alcoholism and recovery. Though drinking is certainly part of the Lithuanian-American fabric, frank discussion of addiction, of any kind, are not. So this aspect of your book was very refreshing to me.

You link your struggle with alcoholism not only to a predisposition inherited from your father, but cast it as a cultural trait of the Lithuanian community both in exile and in the Baltic. Talk a little bit about the conclusions you’ve come to about the sort of communal alcohol abuse you describe. I wonder, for example, if drinking together is somehow the flipside of other more positive rituals also see in your book, like communal mourning and even social support offered through affordable medical care within the community?

In retrospect, I should have taken more time building a more subtle bridge to the section on drinking, perhaps hinting at what was to come in earlier chapters.  I was so thrilled to have a publisher that I wanted to meet the first deadline they offered me!

That’s an interesting observation about the flipside of rituals. I’m going to have to think about that, perhaps even write about it in the future. Drinking for me was certainly a communal activity. I know a lot of recovering alcoholics who used to drink alone. That was never my case. And I did most of my drinking with fellow Lithuanians. And you know, for a while it was positive. Great camaraderie, and the best drinking songs in the world!

You touch very briefly on the subject of the Holocaust and the silence that has surrounded the annihilation of the Lithuanian-Jewish community during the Holocaust. You point to the silence, but seem not to be able to penetrate it, complaining that the only time your community spoke of Jews was in the context of heroic Lithuanians (like your grandmother) who saved individuals by hiding them or providing them with false identities.

As you know, a great deal of my work has been on the subjects of the Vilna Ghetto and the Holocaust in Lithuania. In my opinion, this subject remains a raw, open wound, especially among DP-generation Lithuanians. It’s still very difficult to have any sort of discussion about the Holocaust in Lithuania within our community without it turning into a competition of suffering (i.e., macabre comparisons of Siberian exile and gulags vs. German camps). Were you at all reluctant to wade into these waters? Reading the chapter “Alphabet of Silence,” I felt a deep questioning on your part, without any real satisfaction. Am I right about this or is there something else going on?

I admire your work, which is not only fascinating, but, because it’s accessible and not clinically historical, has helped to make possible a safer space for Lithuanian-Jewish relations to be discussed. I was quite reluctant to wade into these waters myself, but felt that the book wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t bring up the Holocaust—it’s a tragic part of our history and not a topic that is going to go away. Several friends have told me that I let Lithuanians off the hook too easily in the book. There’s probably some truth to that.

My favourite chapter in the book is “Black Marija,” where you describe meandering through your childhood neighbourhood on the way to see your mother, who is dying of cancer. It’s a short chapter, and what I like so much about it is the hybridity you describe and the simultaneous presentness and pastness of the urban landscape. The traces of Chicago’s Lithuanian past now share their space with current Latino residents. We feel the echoes of stands where African-American vendors once sold tires, and of the stockyards made famous in Sinclair’s The Jungle.

I like the way this chapter is all about change in a radical way. Everything is transitory: names, addresses, faith, and life itself. It’s very melancholy, but also very concrete. You wear Chicago like an old t-shirt, and love it like a family member who drives you a bit crazy. To me, it feels like a turning point in the narrative. Talk a bit about this chapter, and how it came about.

I’m glad you like the chapter, Julija. It’s one of my favorites as well, yet no one else has specifically mentioned it. It was one of the last chapters I wrote, yet the section about driving through the old neighborhoods is quite old; I used to meander a lot—on foot, by car, and on the elevated—fascinated by all that Chicago has to offer. I miss that kind of urban exploration. There are advantages to living in Charleston, Illinois, where I currently reside, but there’s nothing much to be discovered in the cornfields surrounding the town.

Daiva Markelis can be reached at dmmarkelis@eiu.edu.

One thought on “CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis

  1. Your posts are always fascinating and extensively researched Julia, I enjoy them a great deal. Thank you so much for interviewing this author and for sharing her interesting life story. I would like to read her book very much!

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