by Violeta Kelertas
There have been Lithuanians in Canada and the United States writing in English about their immigrant lives for a long time, starting with the Canadian Antanas Šileika’s (b. 1953) Buying on Time (1997). There may be others even earlier, but at least this is the book that I remember best for its paradoxical humor and authenticity. Not only was the book well-loved because it was hilarious, but also readers were incredibly impressed because it made a splash on the literary stage and was even nominated for a prize by other than Lithuanians. This had never happened before and made it seem that we could be interesting to the locals (hey—we exist!), thus there was hope for the rest of us who were anxious to test the waters. Readers could relate to the DPs’s (displaced persons) experiences of settling in a new country and to our point of view on the vagaries of North American lives; it turned out that they found us if not socially acceptable, at least funny rather than strange and raising hostile feelings. In 1999, also in Canada, Irene Guilford’s (b. 1950) The Embrace, a novel dealing with the female narrator’s uneasy relationship with her identity and with her relatives from Lithuania, followed shortly thereafter. This raised a serious question: was the US melting-pot model of treating immigrants less receptive to them than the Canadian mosaic? It certainly appears that way even today with Canada hospitably welcoming thousands of Syrian refugees, while America stands more or less idly by.
Šileika’s now three books and Guilford’s one have been translated into Lithuanian and are even being taught in college classes. In 2010 the prestigious University of Chicago press, published Daiva Markelis’s (b. 1957) memoir, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. The work raised issues not only of identity for the author, but articulated the difficulties of relating to the expectations of immigrant parents, whom she loves and wants to please, while navigating an environment that the parents see as culturally deficient, one having totally different values than the European one they brought with them to this country. Laced with humor and an easy style, the memoir still shines a light on the less attractive features of DP life, such as the accepted alcohol abuse, which leads to serious problems. The memoir was a first in revealing some of these aspects, and some older generation readers had a problem with what they viewed as washing your dirty laundry in public; others denied this ancient Lithuanian vice out of hand. All the above mentioned authors are not of the youngest generation which may be revealing of how many years it took them to come to terms with their identity, critically evaluating their upbringing and reaching the point of being able to share it with the world. Markelis especially needed courage to speak of painful things in her past, as émigré communities are not known for their tolerance of deviant sheep, to put a new spin on her book’s title.
Fast forward to late 2015, when the next two books appeared. Birute Putrius’s (b. 1946) Lost Birds is a novel of linked stories about DP life in the new world and also illustrates the double allegiance to Lithuania and to America that all the authors, born in DP camps or already on this continent, feel and have to integrate. Without a main protagonist and with her technique, Putrius cuts a larger sociological cross section and includes a greater variety of immigrants than just family members would provide and she treats a longer period of time, from arrival in Chicago in 1950 to Lithuania’s liberation in the 1990s and in between Chicago’s urban and political changes, moving through racial tensions, the 1960s’ hippie days, the Vietnam war and its effects. The recurring characters of each story have their viewpoints, their own story and backstory, allowing readers to enter their minds and follow the fast-paced plot. Lost Birds has the most non-DP characters of any of the books mentioned here and excels at demonstrating compassion and caring for her fellow man, be he black, or disadvantaged or just in pain. The book contains tragic scenes and comic ones too, but Putrius’s pen is always gentle, her motives sincere, her insights deep, increasing our understanding as well as entertaining us.
Lina ramona Vitkauskas (b. 1973) published a chapbook of poetry in honor of the Ukrainian fight for freedom, called White Stockings (2016). Her short introduction where she speaks of her tangled relationship with things Lithuanian is valuable in itself. Vitkauskas writes surrealist poetry which may lose some of its communicative, what critics like to call “accessible”, function for what is essentially political poetry. The premise is based on news items (from The Economist no less) about female snipers/contract killers from “small Baltic states,” wearing all white, hired by the Chechens to kill Russians. Some captured assassins came from the Baltic states and Ukraine. The poet dedicates individual poems to single women. I especially liked part of one to Yulia:
We all scream.
And one for Goda:
Periwinkle to daisy
I trust summer breath
will carry me through
I send you sister signals:
the weight of our arms
have always been our wombs.
The book is beautifully illustrated with images from Stasys Krasauskas’s work and an intriguing, appropriate cover by Chelsea Brown. I hope this chapbook has made it to screaming, bleeding Ukraine, its intended audience.
What critic doesn’t live for new discoveries? Recently I had the fortune to be led to two great writers, new to me. They have in common that unlike the writers discussed so far they have only one Lithuanian parent, did not grow up in what we like to call “exile communities,” both teach creative writing, Lidia Yuknavitch (b. 1963) in Portland, Oregon, and Jocelyn Bartkevicius (b. 1956) in Orlando, Florida, and both have prizes awarded for their work. Yuknavitch has a huge following and has published several novels, a memoir, poetry as well as academic books. I was introduced to her writing through the essay/story “Woven” (https://www.guernicamag.com/features/woven) with Lithuanian thematics which left me absolutely breathless, it is so beautifully, magically written. So far I have also read her heartbreaking memoir, The Chronology of Water, which exposes the author as much as a human being can be exposed, all done in elegant form and thoughtful structure. Yuknavitch is a radical writer, in the tradition of Baudelaire’s Mon coeur mis à nu ("my heart laid bare"—in my quick translation). It is searingly painful to read—how did she survive its living? Like Holocaust memoirs and history books, I can read about physical, sexual, verbal abuse (the Lithuanian father) in spurts with multiple breaks, so I have not yet read her novels, but will in time.
Jocelyn Bartkevicius has published essays and is working on a book. Her writing is (oh, how welcome!) wry, ironic, humorous, full of refreshing insights into Lithuanian life, especially after a visit to Lithuania. I catch myself nodding at her perceptions, at what strikes her as worthy of mention, all done in an engaging style. The essay “Out of the Garden” (1998) (http://www.missourireview.com/archives/?s=Bartkevicius ) won the prestigious Missouri Review prize and another Lithuanian-focused essay also received an award. Needless to say, like Yuknavitch she writes about other than Lithuanian topics, but those have as yet not been awarded prizes which to me speak of a Lithuanian Renaissance going on in the United States where previously Baltic fiction was not particularly popular or easy to place with publishers or agents. As far as I know, only Antanas Šileika is fortunate to have one of the latter. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, I have to say that Lithuanian fiction is still almost impossible to find publishers for, thus leading to new small presses (like Birchwood Press and picapica) being formed. You can find them on google and facebook.
This is a brief survey of the literary scene from my particular window. I have not mentioned authors already well-known in Lithuania, such as Laima Vince, Gint Aras, Egle Juodvalkė and I may have forgotten others, as (poets, forgive me) my focus is prose fiction. Alert: Irene Guilford’s new novel Waiting for Stalin to Die is due out in spring 2017.