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Antanas Sileika is a Canadian author of Lithuanian heritage who has published five books of fiction and nonfiction in Canada and had four of them translated in Lithuania and one in China. He has been short-listed for the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Toronto Book Award in Canada as well as Metu Penketukas in Lithuania. He has received starred reviews in Quill and Quire, the Canadian Literary magazine, and as well been chosen twice in the Toronto Globe and Mail for having written one among the year's best books. He was the director of The Humber School for Writers in Toronto before retiring to devote more time to writing. His most recent book is the memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, and his forthcoming espionage novel set in newly independent Kaunas from 1921-1923 is called Provisionally Yours.

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Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla. Man and Nature in Lithuanian Mountains

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

 

 

Antanas Šileika – one of the best-known and most acknowledged prose writers of Lithuanian descent in the world – was born in 1953 in the Toronto suburb of Weston into a Lithuanian émigré family. He studied French and was an English-language teacher in Paris; a member of the editorial board of the magazine Paris Voices; the artistic director of Humber College; the co-editor of the Canadian literary journal Descant; a lectured in creative writing; a literary critic and reviewer; he coordinated the visit of Bronislavas Kuzmickas, the vice chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania, to Toronto during the Sąjūdis period, and, later, after the declaration of independence, that of its chairman Vytautas Landsbergis in his meetings with Canadian politicians... Antanas Šileika’s biography is so multi-layered that even a ‘short’ presentation would take several pages. For that reason, we invited Antanas to speak about stories, memory, humour, the mythical and the real Lithuania, and the symbolic significance of the Christmas season.

When I read your work, the first thing that surprises me is the control, the restraint you exercise over your narrative and your style which is fluent and not overloaded. The story-telling is sometimes so natural, so alive, it is as if it were a story being narrated by someone in front of you and not a text. So, I’d like to begin our conversation by asking you how does an oral story differ from a story in literature? Or to put the question slightly differently: what does it take for an interesting story-teller to be able tell his stories in text form?

Part of a writer’s style is a mystery, especially to himself. To some extent, I am a bird that sings, a frog that croaks, or a dog that barks without reflecting on the origins of its voice. But I’ll try to dig away at some of the literary influences that operated on me.

I am very much a product of my generation because I was heavily influenced by two minimalists in my youth, the first Ernest Hemingway and the second, a kind of stepson of Hemingway, Raymond Carver. Neither one carries much influence today but I came from their school of brevity and clarity.

Although I admire some lyrical writers such as Michael Ondaatje, most lyricism is unappealing to me. I think that as an anglophile in my youth, I admired the stiff upper lip of the British as I imagined them, which means a type of stoicism and restraint. Like most writers, I also want to avoid obvious expressions. Simple literary language is harder than it looks because I am trying to be a minimalist who avoids lyricism and the obvious clichés of everyday speech while creating a world that looks natural and simple without being infantile or reductionist.

One of my editors once encouraged me to have a character say, “I love you too” after another character said he loved her. I couldn’t do it. The answer was too obvious for me. I needed to search for something else.

The main difference between a literary narrator and a real-life narrator is partially revealed in what I said above. In life, “I love you too” must be said in response to “I love you” in order to cement the romantic bond. And when I am sitting at the dinner table, the place where I first learned to tell stories, I will speak using all the tropes and clichés of everyday language animated by facial expressions and gestures.

Literary narrative is much different. In my writing, I must seem natural, but without the gestures and the everyday language of words spoken aloud. Thus my prose must sound simple, free and clear, but it is an artistic imitation of the spoken word rather than the word as truly spoken aloud.

Another element that affects my writing is the desire that it be about something in addition to being about itself. Gustave Flaubert famously said he wanted his Madame Bovary to be about nothing, which is to say, a literary construct whose parts related to one another more than they related to an outside world. My work, on the other hand, is very much grounded in the drama or comedy of the world we inhabit and in particular the Lithuanian world both within Lithuania and in its diaspora.

Another writer who influenced me greatly but who has fallen into obsolescence is Graham Greene. Greene was sceptical of high mindedness and doing good in general. You might say he was a cynic who believed we usually act out of self-interest. As a Catholic, he also believed in sin, both the original kind and the other. He told stories about people who wanted something and tried to get it. I write those types of stories too. I am above all else, a storyteller. That means I want to be interesting to the reader without being obsequious or subject to writing bad prose just to lure the reader to flip to the next page.

When you visit Lithuania – for the Vilnius Book Fair, the Santara-Šviesa conferences and other events – the first thing that one is struck by is not just your rhetorical skills, but also your exceptional sense of humour. In listening to you one is forced to come to the conclusion that there aren’t that many people working in the field of Lithuanian literature today that have a sense of humour or, to put it more accurately, expressing that in their work (satire, parody and similar genres have almost ceased to exist). Does that show that we are unable or unwilling to laugh? How did you cultivate your own sense of humour – if indeed it can be cultivated? Is there more humour in contemporary Canadian literature?

Since I am primarily influenced by English-speaking writers, I cannot comment on Lithuanian writers’ humour or lack of it. My literary influences are all more or less English language ones, but my source material is Lithuanian, usually in memoirs or histories. Having said that, I have to say Rimanto Kmitos Pietinia Kronikas was quite funny. Kristina Sabaliauskaite is very funny to me in a dark way too.

Part of my humour arises not out of literature but out of my Lithuanian heritage and the contrast between this and the English-speaking world of Canada and the USA. In Buying on Time, I wrote about the basketball leagues of my youth, in which Canadian-born Latvian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and other ethnic-based teams played one another in what I called “The Vanished Nations League”. To us, the immigrant kids, this league and its games seemed normal. But to “regular” Canadians, it was a very funny idea that nations which no longer existed on the map created a basketball league.

Duality, my Lithuanian heritage and my Canadian upbringing, allows me to flip between Canadian and Lithuanian (and Lithuanian postwar émigré culture, a very distinct animal) world views. Each one is funny in its own way when looked at through the eyes of the other.

As to humour as such, the American humourist Garrison Keillor was an important influence on me because his humour lay in the everyday desires of small-town Lutherans to prevail in the world or be fashionable in spite of the obstacles of their religious modesty, provincialism, and sense of decorum. In one of his monologues, Keillor wrote that the only suitable musical instrument for a Lutheran is a tuba because it is important, but always in the background.

So as I was growing up, Lithuanian Folk dancing stood in extreme contrast to the world of the summer of love in San Francisco in 1967. Songs around the fire at the Lithuanian boy scout camp called Romuva existed at the same time as the Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black. The contrast is funny. Think of a boy in a sea scout hat with a sea scout tie singing a Stones song. Think of a boy dressed in Lithuanian folk dance costume singing the Beatles’ I Am the Walrus.

Another important element in my sense of humour came from my father and his generation. They had been raised on farms and had a rough and ready form of humour at the dinner table. They were never trying to fit into polite society, which they found pretentious. What little reading I have done of Zemaite has shown me that my father’s humour came from the same source as hers, namely the Lithuanian countryside and its peasants.

As far humour in Canada, it is very popular here and there is a literary prize devoted to humorous writing. Also, apparently a large number of Hollywood movie and TV writers are Canadians, so maybe we developed a sense of humour by living close to the USA but not within the USA. The outsider often has a sardonic view of the mainstream.

In your book of memoirs The Barefoot Bingo Caller which is difficult to separate from your fiction, in the text ‘The Shack’ there’s a place in which a young female art student (who was to become your wife) is showing her sketches to the narrator, that is to say, to you. There’s the passage in which you write ‘I was shy about looking at nudes with a woman but I knew it was stupid... although I hated that part of my past, it was still a part of me. Maybe if I looked long enough and listened hard enough, that part of me would go away’. After I read this passage I thought about the telling of a story, unburdening oneself, as a form of coming to terms with the past. Do published memoirs change the relationship one has with the past?

The incident you refer to in my memoir refers to a young man who is in the process of creating his adult self. Young adulthood is a time when a person takes a first step toward dealing with the past by rejecting it or accepting it and moving into a new life like a moulting creature. He then looks back at the skin he has shed. But mature understanding of one’s past only comes later. To change the image, the past is clay and memory and memoir are sculptures that have been fired and made permanent by the imagination. Giving form to the past fixes it, perhaps fictionalizes it, perhaps puts a gravestone upon it. It is also a way reconciling oneself to the past, of looking back, in my case not in anger, because I have so little to be angry about, but with wry amusement at the callow youth I was at that time.

In the text ‘Babylon Revisited’ you reminisce about meeting with some like-minded people at the bookshop Shakespeare and Company and reading your manuscripts to each other. You write: ‘Our writing was often a form of revenge’. Did you really think of your writing as a certain of form of revenge or did that happen unconsciously? And against whom or what did you most want revenge?

My literary revenge is mostly light-hearted, aimed against my older brothers, my teachers, and friends. It is not a motivating force so much as a private joke. For example, I had a very tough high school German teacher. When I wrote Woman in Bronze, I needed to kill a German in a brutal way like the way Rasputin was killed, with his body being pushed through a hole in the ice only to have him come alive and necessitate killing him again. I gave this fictional character the name of my high school German teacher. It was revenge, but fun revenge. Some of my friends suffered various atrocities more serious than my minor pains, and they wrote angry books. But I have seen many angry manuscripts and they don't often work well because the writer has been poisoned and cannot get enough distance from the suffering to depict it in a compelling way to the reader.

In an interview you speak about your own personal Lithuania, the mythologization of Lithuania: 'My Lithuania is a Lithuania of dreams, a disappeared Lithuania, a Lithuania of fantasies.’[1] However, nowadays you’re quite a frequent visitor to Lithuania and so I’d like to ask you if the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’ Lithuania are in conflict for you or would you rather preserve your personal myth of Lithuania.

My Lithuania has evolved over the years. You are right to say my literary Lithuania was often a mythical place more than a real one, and you are right to say that I visit more and more often now and thus my literary Lithuania is changing.

I still occasionally find it useful to see the place through the lens of fairy tale because how else would it be possible to explain some of the surreal and brutal events that occurred over the last century, especially in my novel-after-next’s location in the Dzūkija area around Lynežeris. The place makes me think of the writing of E.T.A. Hoffman because it is so forested and so remote that trolls and devils could walk the land there, sometimes dressed in the uniforms of occupying armies. It is practically otherworldly.

My mythical, fairy tale Lithuania remains, but now it is being overshadowed by historical Lithuania, still a remarkable place from a Canadian perspective because of the dramas of the twentieth century that took place there. My novel-after-next is based on Lithuanian history. It deals with the story of Kostas Kubilinskas, the children’s writer who shot a man in the head to please his KGB masters. His story is strange and unlikely when seen through Canadian eyes. I will take his story into the nineteen fifties in Vilnius, and get closer to the times we live in.

Also historical, my forthcoming novel, called Provisionally Yours, is set in Kaunas in 1921 because I stumbled across a memoir written by a man who was the chief of Lithuanian counterintelligence at that time. What an inspiration that memoir was! Jonas Budrys sounded as cocky and resourceful as James Bond, and he needed to oppose the Poles and seize Klaipeda while watching his back due to corruption in Kaunas. Such drama in such a small place! And yet the place was very provincial at the beginning, so much so that the American ambassador thought it was appalling, so there is room for humour in this espionage story too.

I have been talking about my literary Lithuania, my imaginary Lithuania, which now has another less dramatic, everyday Lithuania alongside it because my son and grandson live in Vilnius. Everyday reality strips away the mythical from ordinary life. I have repaired the plumbing in my son’s apartment, taken my grandson to play in the Bernardinai park, and once, memorably, gone to Mindaugo Maxima five times in one day to buy everything from winter boots for a four year-old to dill for a chicken soup I was making. Sometimes I feel that I don’t fly from Canada to Lithuania – I fly to Maxima.

But even in everyday Lithuania I find compelling stories, not only in Knyga Visiems, one of my favourite used bookstores on Pylimo near Halės Turgus, but in the stories people tell me of the adventures and suffering of their grandparents and parents.

And I find continuity in Lietuva because I have been going to the Santara conference for thirty-eight years, first in Sodus, Michigan in the USA, and now more recently about every second year in Alanta, Lithuania. There I get insight into the intellectual and political climate of Lithuania.

Finally another layer has been my recent participation with Pasaulio Lietuvių Bendruomenės Komisija prie Seimo, where I get insight into constitutional and social matters of present-day Lithuania. There are funny moments even on this committee. Last spring I had to give a talk about cyber security – what a graduate of English literature and a memoir writer can say on this subject is limited – but I did what I had to do.

So the simpler Lietuva of my past has become layered.

I remember that in 2015 during a lecture you gave at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences you talked about the creative process and drew a diagram on a board of the plot of your novel Woman in Bronze, giving the sources you used, the questions that came up and the possible choices before you. Usually – at least in Lithuania – it’s not very common to talk about the kitchen of creativity. It seems that authors are more prone to wishing to remain ‘elusive’ in this regard, and some writers are sceptical about the teaching of creative writing. What’s your take on workshops on writing and creativity, something which you yourself have taught?

Because I have worked for so long in the study and teaching of creative writing, I am comfortable laying out the various paths that my research took me into the writing of my novels.

Part of me wants to demythologize the writing of novels for two reasons. First, we have the myth of the writer as the wise man, the prophet, the sage. Some writers such as Solzhenitsyn are like that, but not many. My mother was a chemist who combined elements to make compounds. My father late in life had to work as a carpenter in Canada, and he took boards and nails to make houses. In a similar way, I take sources and make novels. I am not a wise man nor a sage. I am someone who takes his materials to build something.

But of course there’s a bit more to it than that. Writing is nevertheless somewhat mysterious because the impulse to do it, the need to shape reality into narrative remains mysterious and elusive as is the desire to read those narratives made by writers.

The second reason is that writing seems to reside under another sort of mythology in the popular mind, namely the myth of talent and inspiration. No one can teach talent, and inspiration is elusive, but anyone who thinks writing cannot be taught because only talented people take it up is living under some sort of mystical fallacy. We teach art, music, and dance. Why should we be unable to teach writing? We cannot teach talent, but we can teach technique. We can be coaches and cheerleaders and indeed, much if not most of the literary writing in America is done by students who have completed creative writing degrees at universities.

My practise of teaching creative writing was really nothing more than editing student work. But there are dozens if not hundreds of books on the subject of creative writing in my local big box store.

You write in English. Do you read the drafts of Lithuanian translations of your work? Do you work with your translators?

I have the good fortune to be almost fluent in speaking and reading Lithuanian, so I work closely with my translators, in particular on the last two books with Vitalijus Šarkovas, although the translator of my next novel will be Kristina Aurylaite. Humour is very hard to translate, so Vitalijus and I would sit down and I’d point to a sentence of text and tell him there was a joke there. He’d say, “What’s funny about that?” and we would have a long discussion. Also, cultural differences are vast, everything from building materials to food, and my references in to American and Canadian popular culture are often well known in Canada, but perhaps not here – items such as Archie Comics; the colour of Canadian margarine as dictated by law; the meaning of an inability to play hockey in a country where all boys were measured by their facility in that sport. I sometimes wonder how my English works are comprehensible at all in Lithuanian, and then I admire translators more and more, those almost invisible middlemen of meaning. If a simple text like mine is so hard to get right, what must it be like to translate Dante?

Of course, I have no idea what I sound like in other languages. I have been translated into Chinese and Italian, but I cannot work over those translations to check for accuracy.

When literary critics search for various ways of weighing a work’s importance and value ‘ordinary’ readers are often content with phrases like ‘it works / doesn’t work me’ / ‘it drew / didn’t draw me in’ and so on. What is more important to you: the response of critics or that of a wider readership?

Every writer I know wants to be read and admired by everyone, the public and critics alike. Bestsellers want to win literary prizes, and winner of prizes wonder why their works do not sell well enough. I am a pragmatist on this issue and am simply happy I am read at all, first in Canada where Lithuanian subject matter is exotic, and secondly in Lithuania, a place where I never imagined my work would be of interest. But most writers want everything. Writers are funny creatures too, egotists, narcissists, divas.

You’ve written a good amount about the life of immigrants in Canada. Are you yourself as a reader interested in literature about immigrants, (im)migration? Starting with classics of the genre (Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle comes to mind first) to the latest work?

The immigrant story is very central to Canadian and American literature because almost everyone except for the indigenous immigrated here in the last few hundred years. The stories are always the same, but always different, and they share this similarity with love stories. The immigrant struggles, is naïve, shy, misunderstood, defensive, ridiculous, cunning and finally a success or a failure. It is a category of stories I have enjoyed, from the Upton Sinclair you mention, to the stories of V. S. Naipaul, Rohinton Mistry, Nino Ricci, and long-time Canadians such as Francis Itani who has written about historic immigration, the immigration of her grandmother. Europe has had these types of stories in the past, although there the story has been about the arrival of the provincial moving to a higher class or to the capital as in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

In the story ‘Literature on the Installment Plan’ you mention that your first novels were turned down and that you used to have thoughts of quitting writing. You also add: ‘...I continued to write novels that went nowhere...’. What mainly deterred you from these thoughts, what encouraged you to go on writing?

My first published novel was the fourth one I wrote and each one took four years. Thus my apprenticeship took sixteen years. Part of the delay had to do with the years I gave up to journalism and trying to promote Lithuania’s quest for independence, the latter an activity that dominated my writing from 1988 until 1991. And in those years before I published a book I did publish stories and I read widely and worked on a Canadian literary journal, and then reviewed books for print, radio, and television, so I was deeply immersed in Canadian literary life. As to publishing a book of fiction, I was determined. On the one hand I was surprised at how long it took to get a book in print, but I did a study of Canadian writers and discovered that the average age of a first time fiction/nonfiction writer in this country was about forty-one, so I was really average in terms of age. As you might imagine, I was intensely desperate about this long apprenticeship at various periods of my life, but I refused to give up. Some writers break out while they are young, but many more publish later. I tell young writers that they are in a marathon, not a sprint. They have to apportion their energy to last over a long period of time.

Since we’re talking with the Christmas season approaching, I’d like to ask you to share some memory connected with this time of year. I’m guessing there’s some story you haven’t yet told.

Now here is a theme I could never write about for a Canadian audience because the significance of Christmas eve, kūčios in other words, is unknown here – for those who might not know, the Lithuanian Christmas eve family dinner is a cross among American Thanksgiving, High Catholic Mass, an eating contest, a drinking contest, and an extravaganza of gift-giving.

The tradition of Lithuanian kūčios has evolved for me in this country, moving through different phases along with the phases of history.

The first phase took place before I was born, as described by my oldest brother. That was in the early fifties when my father and mother were new immigrants living in a partially-completed house with my two older brothers. Kūčios meant kneeling for prayers one evening and then eating some herring before going to bed. This is the picture of the struggling immigrants, far from family, yet clinging to Lithuanian tradition in a modest way.

But that is not the kūčios I remember, as the youngest member of the family about a decade later. For most of my childhood and youth, kūčios was something else altogether, something like a birthday party, a big booze-up with religious overtones. Lithuanian kūčios collided with Canadian Christmas, and Canadian Christmas was like a blend of Charles Dickens and the American Dream. Initially, besides me, there were only my two brothers and parents and my childless aunt and her husband, and we would wait for this couple to arrive at our house after work.

This was in the period of the late fifties and early sixties, the high point of North American postwar prosperity, more than a decade after my parents had come to Canada and taken good jobs that paid well. Our suburban street was filled with houses extravagantly covered with Christmas lights, and indeed we would sometimes drive out in one of the two cars we owned during the Christmas season to look at the Christmas lights of the richer neighbourhoods or at shop window downtown. When I reflect about the two cars, I am amazed. My mother never learned to drive, but we had a second car so my older brothers could give her a drive in case my father was busy. Nobody thought this was extravagant.

My mother would take time off work and slave for days leading up to the event, and she would barely sleep the night before while cooking Lithuanian dishes such as herring with onions and tomato or for my father and Canadian dishes for her sons – fried mushrooms, smoked haddock in cream sauce over boiled potatoes, deep-fried smelts served both crispy or submerged in mild vinegar vinaigrette. I had to peel shrimp for my mother but we mostly tried to avoid her because we three boys were lazy and she was frenzied and looking for us to help her while trying to keep an eye on my father, who would have liked to start drinking well before noon and sometimes did if she didn’t watch him carefully.

When my aunt and her husband arrived, we’d go to the table for a quiet moment of exchanging the traditional Christmas hosts (plotkelės) with one another and then everyone would eat two or three days’ worth of cooking in about twenty minutes. Tradition said we should have twelve dishes, but we often had fourteen or fifteen. Men drank shots of vodka and sipped on cocktails of rye and ginger ale all night. Women drank shots too, but they tended to sip and not take quite as many. Half of us smoked so the room was full of the smells of alcohol, smoke and fish.

And as for noise, our table was always roaring with sound that exceeded what you would expect from our modest numbers. Everyone in our family was a storyteller but not many were listeners, and everyone spoke loudly, usually at the same time. In later years we opened our gifts that evening, but in earlier years we saved them for Christmas day in order to be like the Canadians, who were like the British. Thus Christmas eve was our Lithuanian evening. Christmas Day was our Canadian day.

Kūčios was far from over. Drinking, eating, shouting, smoking all went on for hours until it was time to go to midnight mass at the Lithuanian parish. When we arrived at church, my parents and aunt and uncle went up to get seats and listen to the choir before mass, but the young people hung around the front door to talk to one another. Young people hoped that there was as little room upstairs in the pews as possible so we wouldn’t have to sit with our parents and could stand around the back doors of the church in the vestibule. Like Catholic gangsters who were too tough to sit at mass, but too Catholic to skip it. If we did stand in the back, we could practically see the haze of alcohol over the parishioners and laugh quietly at the odd drunk who fell asleep during mass. And if we were at the back our parents watched carefully to make sure we showed up at the communion rail and were not just gabbing with friends in the church basement below.

Then it was quick goodbyes to friends and home before about two AM when my mother would take out the ham and start serving shots to my uncle, who liked to stay up late. My father, on the other hand, went to bed and liked to get up early. Therefore my mother got almost no sleep at all.

The next morning was Canadian Christmas when we would open our gifts one at a time so each person could admire them. Then there was a little free time as my mother prepared a turkey to be eaten early in the afternoon. As an enthusiast of all things British, I made the impossible heavy plum pudding which I covered with brandy and lit up so I brought it burning to the table although everyone was so full that hardly anybody ate it. And how did we manage in those days to consume the Kūčios dishes, the middle of the night ham, and the turkey? Maybe it was all fuel for the fires burning in youthful boys.

My aunt and her husband were gone by then, but my father managed a few more shots before collapsing into bed by the middle of the afternoon. He would barely get up any more that day unless it was to go to the bathroom or have another drink.

My exhausted mother might take a nap too, but she would be up by early evening in order to enjoy a little quiet time with her sons. But her sons were egotistical youths who wanted to go out with their friends, so we would sulk until she finally relented and let us go, and left her all alone with an empty house except for a snoring sleeping husband who would be hung over badly the next day.

Two decades later, kūčios changed again when I married Snaige and entered into her big Lithuanian family, the Valiunas family, whose idea of kūčios was considerably different from the Sileika idea. By then one of my brothers had married and had children and Snaige’s parents invited extended family and we had children of our own there too so there must have been well over twenty of us in my in-laws’ house.

The Valiunases did things differently. They had a re-enactment of the Christmas story for the children. There were readings from the bible, costumes, and no food that was not traditional Lithuanian food. Snaige’s family was not a drinking family. There was a little wine. My brother Joe dressed up as Santa Claus to give gifts to the children.

The first time the Sileika family had kucios with the Valiunas family, the Sileikas felt like barbarians. Worse. We were like the partiers and dancers around the golden calf when the various Valiunas Moses came down from the mountain with their ten commandments of good behaviour. The Sileikas were sinners and the Valiunases were saints. We Sileikas were dumbfounded, we were frightened by the place we found ourselves, among quiet people who spoke one at a time while everyone else listened.

But not for long. All it took was one year, and we blended everything together. Just as Christmas for us had been a blend of Lithuanian kūčios and Dickensian Christmas, so kūčios itself became a blend of Valiunas and Sileika traditions – we had liquor and bible readings, Santa and religious costumes, Lithuanian food and exotic food from oysters to bouillabaisse to sushi.

I am writing here of the kūčios of the past. In Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”, he writes of Christmases of the past as merry times that cannot be replicated, of Christmases that will never return because times have changed so profoundly.

Our parents’ generation, those who were born and lived part of their lives in Lithuania, has now died and as for our children, many of them live abroad. No one smokes any longer and no one drinks very much because midnight mass is at ten instead of midnight, and even so that is too late for some who want to go to bed early and go to mass the next day.

No one has patience for long readings from the bible, so the prayers are quite short. The number of dishes has fallen because people want to watch their weight. We practise Yankee swap, the method of giving and receiving just one gift each. We invite friends to help fill the place of the those who are gone, sometimes Jews who are our friends and look with kindness upon the traditions that still remain – the sharing of hosts and the pieces of straw under the tablecloth.

But I wanted above all here to write about the kūčios of the past, very much influenced by our parents who brought their refugees’ pain and Lithuanian traditions with them and adapted them as their children became more and more Canadian. They are gone now and those moments are gone, but I recall with fondness the smell of cigarette smoke and the way it stung my eyes, the smell of vodka and rye and ginger ale and the loud and boisterous stories that we all told even if no one was listening on those long gone kūčios of the past.

 

1. See https://lietuvosdiena.lrytas.lt/aktualijos/2009/04/21/news/kanados-lietuvis-rasytojas-a-sileika-lietuva-man---lyg-fantazija--5811882/

 

 

Preamble and questions translated by Romas Kinka

 

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