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M. M. De Voe writes interstitial fiction and has been published in magazines ranging from the St. Petersburg Review to Daily Science Fiction. Her poetry has been in the New Yorker and has won first place in the Lyric as well as the NYC’s PoetTweet contest. She has also won top prizes in flash fiction, literary fiction and horror, and co-wrote a sci-fi musical that was produced by Tisch School of the Arts. Essays about Lithuania have appeared in Lithuanian Heritage, Draugas, and she is one of the inaugural literary professionals to be invited to participate in the Lithuanian Diaspora Writers Forum in Vilnius in 2019. Founder of the literary nonprofit Pen Parentis, she lives in Manhattan, writes what she likes, and does the next thing on a daily basis.
Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/mmdevoe or visit her website mmdevoe.com

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Graphic Novels

Texas, 1975. On Grass. Author archive photo.

 

By M. M. De Voe

 

Oh, to belong.

I see a little girl hugging a Sunshine Family doll that is a flat-chested mom (the doll comes complete with a husband, two children and a house) while the little girl’s friends dance their leggy Barbies with their impossible boobs and stiletto-ready feet closer to the Ken dolls that are packaged separately.

The girl is satisfied with her doll but even so she is jealous of the Barbie and in the end she knows that any girl should not wish to grow up to be a doll of either sort. She wants to grow up to be a kite. Or better still, a rocket. For Halloween that year, the five-year-old tells her mother she wants to dress up as Greenland.

I see a slightly older girl traveling for the first time to Chicago where her grandparents live and marching up the front steps of a stranger’s house where two old women converse in Lithuanian on the porch. “Why are you speaking my family’s language,” the little girl demands in the same tongue. “That’s ours not yours.” The biddies exchange an arch look and their tongues wag again. The girl’s angry grandmother never lets her embarrassment over the actions of this little girl die.

This story will be told at the girl’s wedding. She will later realize that she always believed every family had a secret home language—these are the myths that arise when one lives in a college town known for its plethora of foreign post-docs; she thought that English was language invented to communicate with people outside their immediate gene pool. When she later learns the phrase lingua Franca, she will laugh in delight. When she finally hears about Esperanto, from a Brazilian-born Lithuanian who seriously studied it in college, her eyebrows will rise like twin birds startled from a comfortable wire.

I see a teenager wondering which of the people shouting slogans with sweaty faces might explain to her why the United States’ Flag is being burned on a Heidelberg street while her friends drag her away by the arm, screaming at her to hurry up, everyone is going to know she is Amie just by looking at her.

It is dangerous to be assumed to be an American in many places. It is dreadfully safe to be American in others. She has only ever felt like an actual American when she is outside of the United States. At home, she feels Lithuanian-American, the hyphenated bastardization of two nations—or what is the opposite of bastardization? Adoption? Legal Child by Marriage? She is the product of a mixed marriage between a homeland where she is an outsider and a heritage which excludes her—the term Lithuanian-American seems the accurate term, but the minute she steps foot in an actual Lithuanian-American community, for example Marquette Park in Chicago with its bitter old women on porches drinking homemade hooch from crystal glassware and whispering about the people across Western, she knows she does not belong there at all. In Lithuania itself, they think she might be from Marijampole or White Russia. They wonder at her foreignness. She feels the same. She was born in Texas.

I see a young woman at her own wedding where one of the readings is in Lithuanian and no one on the groom’s side including the groom himself can comprehend a word of it. For decades after, the young woman is cornered at fancy Consulate events she attends solo, partly to practice her first language, partly to impress her American friends. “But don’t your children speak? Not at all?” the wagging tongues hiss. “They do,” she blithely replies. “They simply don’t speak in Lithuanian.” Whether she stays to listen to the lecture on how she ought to have raised her children depends on whether she has had more than two glasses of the reception wine, it also may depend on whether the art is worth seeing for the fourth time around, on the heat in the room, on her clothes, but the crux lies in whether the person lecturing her has managed to grab her upper arm in a claw and fiercely holds her there, pinned. She usually escapes before there is a pause. If she stays for the pause, she usually fills it with words of regret. Then regrets her regret. As a young girl, this woman suffered to learn the language fluently, and for what? The only thing she now uses her fluency for is to listen to other people inform her that she is a failure.

To learn Lithuanian as fluently as she speaks it, this girl had to stay home on Saturday mornings and copy verbatim from old Lithuanian history books. There were no lessons, just copying. There was no Saturday school in Texas. There was only the phrase nepliurpk which her parents applied liberally whenever she spoke English in the home. The phrase is an onomatopoeia that loosely means: do not let runny shit spray from your mouth. Youth was not all bad. There were boyfriends who would learn a Lithuanian word here and there just to be allowed to kiss her. There were boyfriends who would be willing to kiss her just because she spoke Lithuanian. There was a flight to West Germany where she did not speak the native language, and there were two years of being an American in the only Lithuanian Boarding School in the Free World, and having to see flags burn and defend the voting system which made no sense then as is still doesn’t now, and loving each homeland more, the farther you were from it, but also seeing through the propaganda and seeing also the beauty of the methods found in other countries. She was not overseas to have her eyes opened. She was there to learn declensions and Crusade slogans and traditional folk dance routines that looked like windmills when viewed from above, for example from the nosebleed seats of gargantuan sports arenas filled only with Lithuanians. She was there to sing songs of going home to a place none of the singers had seen in decades, if at all, a place that had been defaced in some way, rouged up with big flags and grim silhouettes and the lies of leaders told on a government-run radio station that also played very cheerful band music.

This girl, born in Texas, raised in Germany, feeling Lithuanian and not-Lithuanian, fled to a Catholic women’s college near Washington DC, where she all-but-lost her religion, ran political demonstrations to free Lithuania which were attended by no Lithuanians, and danced. She danced a lot, that girl. Folk dancing, clubbing, school dances, alone in her breezy dorm room to blasting rock music by Lithuanian bands from the 1980s on cassette tapes smuggled out of Lithuania (after she had smuggled the American rock music in).

She moved to New York City, that girl. She landed in Times Square where her father’s cousin, a man she had never before met but who looked at her with her father’s shy and astute gaze, called her family and pointed up to the lights and out to the myriad individuals that thronged the busy street at midnight, and he laughed at the equal struggles of artists and businessmen and the homeless to survive and to keep their identity in this insane-making crush of humanity which was more scene than crowd, and he said to her, this is our place. You and I belong here. And she does.

I do.

Manhattan can easily accept a Texas-born-Germany-raised-Maryland-educated-actress-writer-nonprofit-founder-with-English-speaking-spouse-and-kids who also happens to be deeply Lithuanian. New York City is happy to have one of those.

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