Motion Sweeter Far than Rest
Poet, Amatoritsero Ede, in conversation with novelist, Antanas Sileika
Amatoritsero Ede: First, congratulations on your latest novel, Underground (Thomas Allen, 2011). In how far can one say that this work is a probing of your identity and questions of self-knowledge, especially being the last book in what seems to be a trilogy with Lithuania as setting?
Anatanas Sileika: I do not probe my identity so much as use the defect of my fractured identity to give me access to material unavailable to others. By “defect” I mean that I have been lost most of my life. I am a castaway in paradise, living better than most of the rest of the world but regretting the loss of the past. I was raised in a strange mixture of alternating melancholy and delight by parents whose own pasts were sealed behind the iron curtain. They were subject to dark moods during their whole lives for what they had lost, but they delighted in the country they had found. My mother adopted North American ways as fast or faster than the native women. She knew how to use layaway plans to furnish her house, how to use canned cream of mushroom soup to make a casserole, and how to demolish a poor defence lawyer if she ever had to take the stand to describe the chemical processes by which street drugs were analysed by the feds for the police. As a chemist, she had no doubt about scientific facts and no hesitation in upholding the truth of them in the face of smiling bastard lawyers. Life in Canada was harder for my father, an older man who never learned the language properly. But he was confident within limits, maybe even beyond his limits, and made jokes as a way of getting by, even with his atrocious English, learned from other construction workers. As a child I was occasionally wounded by my family’s immigrant status, but my older brothers were excellent, tough sportsmen, who taught me that you fight to win, and you don’t whine at injustice. In short, our immigrant family prevailed, but I have nevertheless felt unmoored my entire life – an anglophile lover of Canadian literature whose focus of attention, whose subject matter, whose obsession is mostly European. If I am better anchored now it is because my son was a soldier in Afghanistan and he had wanted his ashes to lie in a military cemetery in Ottawa if he had died in battle. He did not die in battle, but I am slightly less uneasy in this place now, the once potential burial ground for my son. But I am still broken. I am neither here nor there. The great advantage of this life, this defect, is that I can hold Europe in general and Lithuania in particular at arm’s length – just the right distance for clear focus. What I see in Lithuania is not some sort of particularity; quite the opposite – I see the entire world, the entire universe. I have access to that place by knowing about it very well, but I am not really of that place. Very many dramatic things happened there in the recent past, so I can use Lithuania to reflect on the universe of the twentieth century. I became I fascinated by the twentieth century, the turbulent century that cast me on this Canadian shore. I wanted to explore the human condition in time and geography, not my identity. First, I wanted to explore the growth of the suburbs as I did in Buying on Time. (By the way, I love the suburbs. They are hell to get in and out of, but most people go there for peace and find it. It amazes me that so many people think in clichés of the superiority of gritty urban life when most Canadians live in some kind of suburb. We have not even begun to understand the suburbs yet because we are still sloshing around in a mental fog of Father Knows Best meets Desperate Housewives meet Revolutionary Road.). Second, I wanted to explore the growth of images in art and cinema and the death of religion, which I did in Woman in Bronze. I wonder if we moderns are really pagans, worshipping the golden calf or if we have really found a new way to live. Third, the twentieth century was greatly about war, so I had to address that too, but how? I had great difficulty working my way up to Underground. I started with a Holocaust massacre, and then I tried to write about war straight up, but the first event did not belong to me and the second one was too well known. My Lithuanian background gave me access to an aspect of WW2 that is new here, in the West. I could write about the war after the war, the secret war that took place in the forties and fifties against the occupying Soviets. What a gift to me, as a writer! I use Lithuania to illuminate the human condition in the twentieth century. My parents’ exile conferred a gift on me. My defect of unbelonging has become the instrument I use to explore the human condition.
A.E:. In growing up, you rejected the name, ‘Tony,’ at some point and insisted on ‘Antanas,’ would you say this was a foreshadowing of the importance of self-definition in your work as an adult?
A.S.: I barely knew what I was doing when I did that. Maybe you’re right: It was a kind of preparation for the life I am now living, I believe. As a child, I loved the British Empire and Kipling, Conan Doyle, E R Nesbitt, H G Wells. I also loved the language of the King James Bible, even though we were Catholics and went to church in Lithuanian. I wanted to speak like Churchill. I wanted to “…fight on the beaches, … fight on the landing grounds, ..fight in the fields and in the streets, … fight in the hills; we [I] shall never surrender…” But whose battle would I fight? Kipling’s battle was long over and discredited. Churchill was alive, but an old man, someone who might still, it was true, roll up his sleeves and show his scars and say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian. These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.” The English language and cadences of the King James and Churchill gave me my weapon. But my battle was not here. It was somewhere else. I armed myself with English, or more accurately, was taught to love the language by my excellent teachers, and then I took that language to talk about a place that was far away. And to talk about that place, I had to wear the name of far away too. And I was such a snob once I changed my name! I would not respond any longer to “Tony.” Even now, there is a colleague at work who knew me in my childhood and uses the old name insistently. But the young man he calls after disappeared a long time ago.
A.E.:How do you see yourself – as a Canadian writer, a Lithuanian-Canadian writer, or a Canadian-Lithuanian Writer?
A.S.: I am a Canadian writer. English is my instrument, Lithuania is my tune. But the things I write about here are well known there already, so my audience is here.
A.E.:Paris was part of your journey to writer-hood. Like the main character of Jean Paul Sartre La Nausea, Antoine Ronquentin, who roamed Paris trying to self define against his environment, was Paris for you an effort at self-definition as a writer, against the nausea of Canada?
A.S.: Like my heritage, Paris was an accident that served me well. I went to Paris not for self-definition but for love. I was profoundly attracted to a Canadian woman who decided to go to Paris to study art at the ´Ecole Des Beaux Arts. At first I thought I would only visit her, but I ended up marrying her there and living as a student of French language at the Sorbonne and a teacher of English in Versailles. At the same time, I became involved with a group of expatriate writers publishing a literary magazine out of the second story of Shakespeare and Company. Paris was the dream of the boy who could not play hockey well. Where I grew up, for all the peace of the suburbs, the measure of success lay in sports, so indeed, that measure of me was nauseating because I could never measure up successfully. I was sick with self-loathing in all sports activities. Downtown Toronto was a relief from that, but Paris was better still, all culture and joie de vivre. I learned many things in Paris. Among them: how not to stare at the nude model who sat on the dais in my wife’s art school class; how to use the rules of politeness to smooth human interaction (such as holding a door open for someone twenty metres behind me in the metro); how to eat an artichoke; how to argue a philosophical position; how to make canard ´a l’orange; how to wear a scarf; how to drink wine; how to get by well on very little money, and many, many more things that made me the adult I remain to this day.