Tag Archives: Daiva Markelis

Interview: Daiva Markelis on memoir

Daiva Markelis, a professor at Eastern Illinois University who blogs at The Adventures of Mighty Bear Woman, answered some questions for Narrative about her memoir, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life, reviewed in my last post.

RSG: The first thing I noticed about your book was your easy, seemingly natural voice. Was finding this consistent, personal voice easy or difficult?

DM: I belong to a writing group–the Eastern Illinois University Writer Babes; the babes are great at pointing out clunky, overly formal sentences. I revise a lot, so I think much of the voice comes from rereading with a pen in hand. And I think my parents influenced me to some extent; English was their second language. They liked prose that was direct and fairly uncomplicated; I think they were afraid of modifiers. My father loved Mike Royko, the famed Chicago columnist whose style was concise, funny, and well-crafted.

RSG: You use both past tense and present tense in alternating passages in your memoir. Could you explain how that came about and your thinking regarding using both tenses?

DM: I love the intimacy of the present tense, but to write an entire memoir in the present is like bathing a cat–frustrating and potentially dangerous.  The sections written in the present tense are primarily the dialogues I have with my ailing mother at the end of most of the chapters. I wanted the book to be about Lithuanian-Americans as well as about my mother; changing tenses seemed a natural way do achieve this shift.

RSG: I don’t recall your mentioning early in the book, or even heavily foreshadowing, your period of heavy drinking and then serious depression. I admired your confidence in telling your larger story, and White Field, Black Sheep isn’t a memoir of trauma. But how did you trust your steady unfolding when today there’s such a pervasive “hook the reader with darker material” mentality? Would discussing your troubled years early in the book have skewed the story?

DM: Some of those self-destructive tendencies were in my life earlier in much subtler forms. But since I knew that mine would be the first memoir about growing up Lithuanian-American, I wanted the book to be more about the neighborhood, the customs, the educational experiences than my own personal problems. Of course, as I started shaping the book, I realized that something was missing. Drinking IS a part of my cultural heritage; it was only after I sobered up that I realized that most of my American friends did not drink every day, nor so heavily. I could have written about many of the drunken fathers in the community, but belonging to a relatively small immigrant means that you know many of its members; I took out a section where I wrote about a neighbor’s alcoholic father because there’s a good chance I’m going to run into this neighbor again. It was actually easier to write about my own complex relationship to booze.

RSG: Your portrayal of your parents is loving but feels honest: they have flaws like anyone, as well as the virtues and faults perhaps endemic to reluctant emigres from Lithuania. I was especially struck by the fact that although you write about your mother’s moodiness and ability to deny reality, and your father’s anger and his alcoholism, in portraying your own troubles you don’t blame them. You give the reader the pieces—a genetic tendency, your chaotic household, and Lithuanian culture—and you seem to lean at last toward the latter as an explanation. Was this part of the memoir difficult to write? Did you worry some people might think you were blaming your parents?

DM: I think it’s normal to blame one’s parents. But there should be a statute of limitations (or “statue” of limitations as my mother would say) concerning blame. I love the Mark Twain quote about his father: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” There’s nothing less attractive than people in their forties talking publicly about how their parents are responsible for their failed relationships, lack of friendships, money troubles, etc. One of the benefits of writing about parents in memoir is that the process of understanding them is often accelerated. I’ve seen students with difficult childhoods dig deeply into the past and come up with explanations for puzzling, often neurotic, even deeply destructive behavior. Understanding how the broader society works to foster certain tendencies and habits is vital to this understanding.

I did worry, though, that people would think I’m blaming my parents. An older Lithuanian woman came up to me a few weeks ago in Chicago and said that although she enjoyed my writing about childhood, she thought it was unnecessary to go into such details about parents. “It sounds as if you’re blaming them,” she said. Conversely, the people in my writing group thought I could have gone into more detail about the behavior of my parents.

RSG: You’ve mentioned that your memoir took you ten years to write. Could you sketch its evolution in becoming a publishable book?

DM: I should have been more specific here. I started writing the book ten years ago, but in those ten years I finished my dissertation in an area not related to creative writing, found a job, got married, bought a house. Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her deeply. I decided to take the material I had about growing up in Cicero and add sections about my mother’s life life and the year before her death.

When I finished the book, I sent off query letters to agents. Although I had published both fiction and nonfiction in a number of highly-regarded literary journals, many of the agents didn’t respond;  those who asked to read the first chapter ultimately thought the book was too “regional.” One implied that no one would want to read about Lithuanians. I decided to try university presses. Robert Devens, one of the directors of the University of Chicago Press, took a chance on the book. I love Robert.

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Review: ‘White Field, Black Sheep’

White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life by Daiva Markelis. University of Chicago Press, 208 pages

Daiva Markelis grew up in industrial Cicero, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, the first of two daughters born to a Lithuanian couple. Her parents had immigrated because of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, and they yearned their whole lives to return. They were officially “Displaced Persons,” a category for European refugees who fled communism, although Markelis didn’t understand for many years her parents’ plight.

The title of her memoir, White Field, Black Sheep, is based on a riddle her father told her about black sheep on a white field and “he who knows them leads them.” The white field is a book’s page, the black sheep the letters, the reader the shepherd who herds the flock into meaning. The riddle lends an appropriate title, because Markelis grew up bilingual—her parents spoke only Lithuanian at home. She was immersed as well in Catholic schooling and ritual, Lithuanian culture, American popular culture, and the poetry and fiction of both nations.

She even attended Lithuanian Scout Camp, which she loved. Of course she dreamed of growing up to be Miss Illinois. When Markelis was eighteen the Lithuanian grapevine led to a summer job waiting tables in southwest Michigan at “Tabor Farm: Family Resort,” owned by a man who’d fled the homeland during World War II, where she met Lithuanian poets and intellectuals. A few years later, in Europe, she taught English to Lithuanian children.

There came a day—too soon, my mother would have said—when English surpassed its rival in the struggle for linguistic supremacy. English seemed direct and simple, flexible as a Slinky. The misspellings that my mother derided—cheez for cheese—were just further indications of the general superiority of English over Lithuanian—its simplicity, its boldness, its sense of play. Lithuanian sentences seemed to go on and on, twisting and turning, like a forest path that eventually led you back to the very spot from which you started. Speaking Lithuanian meant being corrected, again and again, by parents or Saturday school teachers or well-meaning neighbors.

Her parents’ uncool, Old World clash with funky, permissive America is funny—for instance they can’t get their heads around the concept of giving their children allowances: “Let me get this straight. We feed you, put the clothes on your backs, and a roof over your heads, and now we have to pay you for this great privilege? It seems to me that you should be paying us!” And their trip out West one summer, in a car “smelling of cigarette smoke and dog hair and stale ham sandwiches,” is hilarious.

I argued for equal radio time, though I knew that getting my way was about as likely as eating at McDonald’s. Still, the idea that I was being deprived of what I saw in sixth grade as my lifeblood—rock and roll—made me determined to argue my case. My father occasionally conceded, allowing me twenty minutes of the Doors, the Stones, and Dylan, then unpredictably putting his foot down on some innocuous soft rock: “If you’re going to San Francisco.”

“But we are going to San Francisco, Dad, so why can’t we play that song?” I protested.

“Wha’ kind of man wears a flower in his hairs?” my father asked.

If my father’s love for country music was my private humiliation, his public use of English mortified me.

“Excuse please. Vee lookin for exit for Joe Semite,” he asked a gas station attendant.

The man looked confused: “Joe Semite?”

“Joe Semite National Park,” my dad answered, with growing irritation.

“Da-aad, it’s Yo-sem-it-ee,” I whispered.

Loosely chronological, White Field, Black Sheep jumps ahead some years two-thirds into the story and takes a darker turn. Markelis, who began drinking heavily when a high school sophomore, as a junior was rushed to the emergency room after downing “a liter of Southern Comfort followed by a jug of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine, topped with a sprinkling of angel dust.”

Her father, who had stopped drinking after wrecking the family car when she was eight, suggests she try his solution, Alcoholics Anonymous. She ignores him, and he stoically accepts her decision. She’s about twenty three when, in 1981, finishing her master’s degree, she suffers a serious depression and enters therapy. She saves herself with more therapy, and ultimately AA. Markelis returns White Field, Black Sheep to her parents, portraying their later lives, hers, and her close relationship with her witty, wise-cracking mother.

I enjoyed this warm portrait of a girl and her Lithuanian parents, their adopted Midwestern city, and America in the 1960s and 1970s; it’s truly an American story—immigration itself is such an American story, perhaps the American story, along with race, based on that other, forced migration. And the author’s troubled phase made her account feel even more universal.

The book is beautifully produced by University of Chicago Press, which printed one of Markelis’s photographs at the start of each section. Illustrations are unusual in contemporary memoirs, but a nice touch in this one, which I understand is the first memoir about growing up Lithuanian in America.

Next: An interview with author Daiva Markelis about writing her memoir.

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