Tuesday, June 28, 2011

White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life by Daiva Markelis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 216 pages

• Publisher: University Of Chicago Press, 2010

• Price: $22.50

• ISBN-10: 0226505308

• ISBN-13: 978-0226505305

Opening this autobiography of a woman born to immigrant Baltic parents and growing up in the United States was like looking into a mirror. Indeed, the similarities between the life of Daiva Markelis, a Lithuanian-American, and my own, a Latvian-American, are uncanny. I would more often than not feel as if I were reading my diary, or at very least, that of a twin soul.

Markelis was born in Chicago to parents who had fled Soviet-occupied Lithuania, growing up in Cicero. Chicago is home to the largest Lithuanian population outside of Lithuania. She was raised with Lithuanian as her first language:

“At home, my parents talked to my sister and me in Lithuanian. They watched for the intrusion of English words into our speech the way high school biology students look under a microscope for germs.” (Page 17)

Not only language, but Markelis was raised on the premise that this life, here, in the States, was a temporary if unfortunate condition, and that someday, some distant and fantastical day, the family would pack up and go back home.

“ … there was the chance, infinitesimal as it was, that the Russians would leave Lithuania, evicted by the superior force of the United States, whose leaders, realizing that their blind acceptance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been a mistake of the most horrible kind, would go to any length to rectify their error. And then we could go back—we could all go back.”

Substitute Latvia for Lithuania in any of this, and this is my story, too. Speaking English in the hallowed halls of Saturday Latvian School might earn one a swift reprimand (but I earned a swift slap from my American public school kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Johnson, when I could not pronounce the “th” sound in “thumb,” a sound that was non-existent in my Baltic tongue), and the idea of assimilation into our American surroundings was anathema. We were not in any melting pot. Not even in a mixed salad. We were as separate as water and oil, to be skimmed away at any given moment should the gates to home open.

Markelis writes of her childhood and youth in the 1960s and 1970s with an almost raw truthfulness that can’t help but earn the reader’s respect. She pokes fun at herself and her life even while maintaining an inherent dignity. To be the child of immigrants means to be set apart, not only from one’s surroundings, but even within one’s family. The child grows up in a world that will always remain, at least on some level, alien to the parents, and must learn to navigate both, belong to both, step seamlessly from one to the other and back again.

So Markelis can simultaneously show the reader the city streets of Chicago and the inner workings of an immigrant world. She does it effortlessly because she has grown up doing so. Yet there is a price to pay, too, and she speaks of this with the same honesty—her struggles with depression and alcoholism.

Unfortunately, in this we share an ethnic connection, too, in that both of our Baltic countries have a high rate of alcoholism (according to some studies, highest in the world), and I have always thought this was directly related to both nations being repeatedly and cruelly oppressed in countless wars throughout the centuries. It is the burden we carry in our genes, but along with it, the ability to cope, as both Baltic nations also show a remarkable history of endurance and determination to survive.

Markelis grows introspective at times in a personal search for meaning in her ethnic identity, even resisting it, even hating it, and I understand this, too. To be so closely identified with one’s ethnic background, so connected to one’s national history, means that it sometimes chafes and constricts—yet other times enriches in a way that others on the outside may not understand. I wouldn’t trade my ethnicity for anything, and I strongly suspect neither would Markelis. It is much like an extended family. One may on occasion blow off steam and slam doors and say unspeakable things among one’s own, but when push comes to shove, we defend our own against any and all, and love them, our family, to the bitter end.

This same complexity enters Markelis’ relationship with her father, also an alcoholic, and her mother, who is stricken by cancer. She struggles with them as any child does, but her devotion and love come through again and again. She opens a window for us to see into her world, where she wears a Lithuanian folk costume on special occasions and attends Lithuanian school on Saturdays while American friends watch cartoons and wear jeans. She parties like there’s no tomorrow, but tomorrow comes with its lessons. From these lessons, Markelis grows, and in her sustains and somehow resolves all the juxtapositions and paradoxes of her identity, and makes them into her own true identity.

In the end, it is hard for me to review a book that tells a story so closely aligned with mine. Can one truly be objective about a mirror image? I could only shake my head to realize that in thinking oneself so different from one’s surroundings, there were perhaps so many of us growing up in exactly the same way—and coming through just fine. In fact, much better than fine—wealthier for the added perspective on ourselves and the world around us with its endless diversity.

To read an interview with the author, visit Talking to Daiva Markelis in the Summer 2011 Issue of The Smoking Poet.

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