Talking to Daiva Markelis

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Daiva Markelis is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writings have appeared in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader and American Literary Review, among others. White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life is her first book.


Zinta for The Smoking Poet: Sveika, Daiva! It’s a pleasure to talk to you, a neighbor of sorts, as we are both of Baltic origin. You were born in Chicago of refugee Lithuanian parents, and I was born in Chicago of refugee Latvian parents—so I felt a great deal of kinship in reading your memoir, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. I was struck with the similarities in how we grew up in our ethnic communities, in spite of being an ocean away from the Baltic States. Can you give our readers a synopsis of what your book is about?

Daiva Markelis:  Sveika, Zinta.  It was great finding your wonderful site. I know quite a few Latvians; I’ve partied and protested with them, though not necessarily at the same time.

My purpose in writing the book was to leave a record of a time and place that no longer exist—the world of Lithuanian immigrants and their children during the 1960s and 70s.  Although my memoir takes place mostly in Cicero, Illinois, many of my experiences were similar to those of others of my age in Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, and Toronto. They’re also similar, as I’m discovering, to the experiences of Latvian-Americans: going to Saturday School when American friends are watching cartoons, celebrating an Independence Day that was not the Fourth of July, dancing folk dances in a costume that made even the skinniest girls look chunky. I write a lot about my parents; their entire generation had been uprooted by the war.  I realized only many years later how different their lives would have been had they remained in Lithuania.


TSP: Having grown up bilingual and bi-cultural, when asked to tell something about yourself, how do you identify yourself? Are you Lithuanian? Lithuanian-American? American-Lithuanian? Or does it depend on who asks you? What does it mean to grow up with more than one culture and language? The good, the bad, the ugly … the challenges and the rewards …

Daiva:  Good question, one I’ve always struggled with. I went to a grade school where most of the students were the children of Lithuanian immigrants. Although most of us had been born in the U.S. and spoke English better than we did Lithuanian, many of us thought of ourselves as Lithuanian. This changed for me when I went to a high school where we Lithuanians were a minority. However, I still maintained a strong Lithuanian identity. Today I’d describe myself as Lithuanian-American. That just seems to fit right.

As for being bilingual and bi-cultural, it’s been almost all good for me. Growing up in a heavily Lithuanian culture has given me a different lens through which to observe American life. This has enriched me as a writer and as a human being. I have a better understanding of European history because of my background, and thus a more comprehensive view of world events. And Lithuanian and Latvian are such rich, beautifully complex languages. Perhaps the only negative was the overwhelming emphasis to marry someone who was Lithuanian. I don’t know how it was for Latvians, but if you were Lithuanian in Cicero in the 1970s, the pressure was enormous to marry Within the Tribe.


TSP: Like you, I too grew up hearing stories about the D.P.s, the displaced persons, as our parents were designated in German refugee camps during World War II. Looking back, I think it was the root of my own sense of growing up feeling somewhere between homeless and having an abundance of homes, certainly two—the United States and Latvia. I’ve never quite known where to root myself; when I am in one place, I sorely miss the other, and different aspects of my personality surface, my sense of self, depending on which shore I am standing on at the moment.

Have you ever been to Lithuania, have any interest in going back, even staying? After all, in my Latvian community, we were raised to think of being here, in the U.S., as living in “trimda” or exile … our true home was on the Baltic Sea, and we were only waiting for the Soviet Union to fall so that we could return. When Latvia won her independence in 1991, there was this odd moment … a moment of truce. So, how many would now actually return? Few did. When I contemplated it, my parents went into a panic at first, of losing me. They panicked that I might actually do what I had been taught to do from day one. Later, they’ve encouraged it, while realizing at this point they themselves are too elderly to change homes again. It was a little crazy-making, you know? A time to question everything, everything. I’d be interested in how you and your family experienced Lithuania’s regained independence. Was there any discussion in your family, in the Chicago-based Lithuanian community about how to respond?

Daiva:  In Lithuanian, the word for exile is “tremtis.”  You put it well, Zinta. We were living in exile, waiting for the moment we could return. When that seemingly miraculous event occurred, some of my friends did return. Many are still there. I don’t think I was seriously tempted, but that was probably because I had just returned from living abroad in Saudi Arabia for six years. My mother had thought about it (my dad had died a few years before), but decided, like your parents, that she was too old for another major uprooting.

I’ve been to Lithuania four times—twice during the Soviet years, and twice after 1991. My most memorable trip was the summer of 2001, when I traveled there with my mother. We spent almost a month in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipeda, as well as some of the beautiful Lithuanian countryside. Last summer I went with my non-Lithuanian husband. He loved it and wants to go back for a longer visit! I’d like to go to Latvia and Estonia as well. My grandmother spent her adolescence in Liepaja and made frequent trips to Riga.


TSP: An unfortunate attribute of our ethnic background that we share is that both Latvia and Lithuania share a high percentage of alcoholism. As you point out in your memoir, it is in our genes and many fall victim to it, either becoming addicted themselves or being close to someone who does. I’ve always thought it was a tragic side effect of nations living hundreds of years under one oppression or another. In your book, you courageously write about your father’s struggle with alcohol, and later your own. Can you tell our readers more about this, what you learned about addiction from both sides, standing in it and beside it? Was it difficult to write about?             

Daiva: I’ve gotten a lot of flack from Lithuanians about suggesting that they’re big drinkers. More people were upset with that chapter than with the section where I imply that Lithuanians can be anti-Semitic. It seems as if I’ve touched a sore spot. But I don’t blame Lithuanians for their drinking. I agree with you, Zinta, that hundreds of years of oppression influenced how much the Balts drank. The tsarist overlords certainly did not discourage alcohol—a drunken serf was a manageable one. And under the Soviet regime, when meat and bread were scare, vodka was always available. I remember visiting Lithuania the first time and seeing little booths on the street where people could by alcohol. There were people lined up at ten in the morning. Reflecting on this in the book helped me to see how drinking is always a cultural phenomenon in addition to a personal and familial one. Quitting drinking is also a cultural phenomenon. If I had grown up in Lithuania, I don’t know if I would have sobered up.  I have a half sister who lives in Siberia who continues to drink heavily. 

Writing about drinking was difficult in terms of the awful memories it brought up about my behavior in my twenties and thirties. But it also made me see how far I’ve come since I stopped drinking. And I’ve realized how much I’m my father’s daughter in many ways. Though he’s been dead for over twenty years, I felt close to him during the writing of the book—I felt I finally understood him.


TSP: Several times in your memoir you refer to your “flawless” fluency in Lithuanian, then at other times you write about a difficulty to express yourself in the language. Why the two variations?

Daiva: Good catch, Zinta. Overall, I found Lithuanian to be a merciless but beautiful anguage. I struggled with it in Lithuanian Saturday School, at Lithuanian scout camps, and at home. But I loved reading Lithuanian poetry and was often asked to be a reader at community events. I would practice these poems with my mother. She’d correct my pronunciation until everything sounded perfect. I think that’s the only time I felt totally “fluent.” I read fairly widely in Lithuanian today, but find writing much more difficult.

TSP: I was intrigued (and could identify with) your introspection (see page 150) of what you like and dislike about being Lithuanian, realizing that you had some choice in what to adopt from your ethnic inheritance and what you might perhaps leave behind. Probably most people don’t sort through their ethnic background the same way as those who grow up in another country from their roots, at least I would guess so. You had been asked what you like most about your Lithuanian culture. What would your answer be today, now that you’ve had time to consider it?

Daiva: I think Lithuanians— Balts in general—are very resilient people. They’ve pretty much had to be, given their political history.  I admire that resilience. (Some would call it stubbornness.) I love Lithuanian history, especially the pagan stuff. Can’t get enough of the pagan stuff, the way it comes through in folk songs and an abiding respect for the natural world.  I love the language—all those wonderful diminutives and expressions, including curse words.

At book signing event, Daiva at right

TSP:  Writing a memoir can be a very introspective process. I’ve often thought it can be hardest to be honest with ourselves, to not varnish our memories, to avoid making ourselves the hero of the story, to not rationalize our behavior overmuch, to find that fine line of telling the truth as you saw it and not make enemies of family and friends in your account—it’s all very tricky. Talk to us about what this process was like for you. How did you process these memories, check for accuracy, decide what to leave in and what to leave out …

Daiva: It is very tricky.  If my parents had been alive during the writing, it would probably have been a different book, but not vastly different. I think my mother would have liked and approved of it. My father, who was a writer himself, would have understood my reasons for writing it.  As I wrote, I kept thinking about my purpose—to set down what happened in this very interesting Lithuanian community and my complex, sometimes troubled family. I’m lucky to have a good memory for images and dialogue (in contrast to my memory for numbers—I’ve been known to forget my phone number.)  And I kept a diary as a child and teenager.  I stay as close to the truth as I can when I write, but I also don’t want to bore the reader, so, for example, if I’m not sure how someone said something in a particular instance, I might embellish it to be just a little more funny or poignant. Completely straightforward, factual biography is almost never interesting. I never make up facts, though—everything I write about in the book happened when and where it did.  Of course, people’s memories of the same events can be very different.  “That never happened,” one person might say of a specific incident, even as another person clings firmly to what he or she perceives as the historical truth of that same incident.

Some Lithuanians have called me brave for writing this book, though some non-Lithuanian readers say they get the sense I’ve left out information, have held myself back a little. I think the latter group is probably correct, but I knew when I was writing my book that it would be the first Lithuanian-American memoir published, and while I wanted to be as honest as possible, I didn’t want to be so explicit about my life that Lithuanian readers would be turned off. 

Daiva with husband Marty Gabriel

TSP:  It’s also said that writing is therapy, a catharsis, a way to heal and understand. Was this true for you? Cleaning mental house?

Daiva: I find writing therapeutic. In fact, some studies show that writing about painful experiences is more beneficial to the immune system than writing about happy ones! But I also really enjoy writing. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t write even if it were therapeutic. I’d just go see a therapist.

TSP: Memoirs have been very popular of late, even as some have been attacked for falsifying reality. Why do you think memoirs are so appealing to today’s reader?

Daiva: People often feel disconnected in today’s society. Everything’s done electronically. Families are much smaller than in the past. Reading memoirs give people a sense of connection, a feeling of understanding a fellow human being. Memoirs can also provide interesting and useful information about other cultures and ways of life, including knowledge that can help people cope with difficult life situations.

TSP: Are you doing any book tours? Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?

Daiva: I’ll be reading at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on July 5th, at the Baltic Studies Summer Institute.  I have a so-called blog, but I’m the world’s most inconsistent blogger. The address for that is The University of Chicago Press, the publisher of the book, has a website from which my memoir can be ordered: The book is also available on Amazon. Their website is  Just click on Books and then type in White Field, Black Sheep.

TSP: Thank you so much for talking to us, Daiva. We will be watching for your next book …

Daiva:  Thanks, Zinta. I’ve enjoyed responding to your excellent questions. Sudiev!



To read a book review of White Field, Black Sheep, visit Zinta Reviews.


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