LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 52, No 4 - Winter 2006
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Irene Guilford’s novel The Embrace was published by Guernica Editions in 1999 and in Lithuanian translation in 2003 as Prisilietimas, repeated as Glėbys in Vilnius (2003). She edited Alistair MacLeod: Essays on His Works (Guernica, 2001). She is at work on a second novel and various essays. She lives in Toronto, Ontario with her husband.
When I started to write The Embrace, my motivations were many: To capture the experience of my parents’ generation – flight from homeland, displacement and loss of country, a pivotal experience that shaped both their generation and mine, and could not be allowed to vanish. To address the sense of having felt aggrieved at „being Lithuanian,“ at having to attend Saturday school, to maintain language, culture and customs, to help keep another country alive. My book was an attempt to say to Canadian friends, whose lives seemed so carefree and without such concerns, “Look what life is like for us. We are tied to obligation and duty, tied to the past and to another place. We don’t have your lighthearted freedom.“ I wanted to come to grips with a dream handed down by my parents and grandparents, and denied by a Communist reality. I wanted to understand Lithuania’s hold on my life.
Like all writers, I hoped for the preconceived path to Canadian literary success. A review in a mainstream newspaper. Readings. A literary prize. None of that happened. Instead, the book cut its own path through the world.
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Santara-Šviesa is a liberal cultural organization that concerns itself with Lithuanian history, art, literature, aesthetics, and economics. There is a chapter in Chicago, home to the largest gathering of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania. Here, The Embrace found a warm home. They translated it into Lithuanian. Then, a Vilnius publisher issued the book in Lithuania. This led to an invitation to the Vilnius Book Fair, a book launch, radio interviews, invitations to speak at the universities in Vilnius and Kaunas.
To go to Lithuania is no small thing. In fact, it is emotionally overwhelming. It was not my first visit, but I was going alone. The first hurdle is language. Mine, learned from my parents and grandparents, is stuck in 1944. Next come customs and culture. This is a European country, ancient and formal, not casual Canada. I was afraid of my own ignorance, and of making faux pas. My hosts were the most welcoming of people. If they were taken aback or amused by my actions or words, they were far too polite to let it show.
The work was exhausting and exhilarating. The stimulation of shifting back into the language of childhood, and of being met on all sides by history and culture, kept me awake at night. I was far too alive to sleep. And I didn’t want to miss a thing.
One evening, at dusk, I was waiting in the hotel lobby for a woman to deliver a video tape to take back to a friend in Canada. It is still our custom to ask travellers to carry goods between our countries, as if the days of samizdat are not really over, or perhaps, the care and respect that accompanies items transferred by hand still lingers. Our business transacted, the woman made ready to leave. Before going, she said, “why aren’t you out in the streets? It’s Užgavėnės. Go out and join the people.“
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Užgavėnės is the Lithuanian equivalent of Shrovetide, a season of merrymaking before Lent, a carnival owing as much to paganism as to Christianity. At dusk, people don costumes, dressing as evil spirits, demons or traditional characters, then fill the streets in a party mood. A drama is performed outdoors to say goodbye to winter and to welcome spring. Morė, a symbol of the clash between winter and spring, is wheeled about in 45 a cart. A flail in one hand, a broom in the other, she is unable to make up her mind whether to continue flailing last year’s harvest or to start sweeping the yard in spring cleaning. An effigy, she is burned after dark.
In the middle of this crowd, pellets of comprehension began to hit me. This was not a church basement in Toronto, the hermetically sealed environment of exile. These were city streets, teeming with the old, the middle-aged and the young, parents with children perched on their shoulders, laughing teenagers, loving couples. This was not culture interrupted by displacement, loyally maintained in a different place; this was living culture, a continuation of customs, the past merging with the present. This was not obligation and duty, but happiness.
And I thought, How will I explain this to my sister back in Toronto? How could a diaspora community possibly recreate such an event? At best, on a church basement stage, it could only rekindle the memories of those who had once lived it. To the rest of us, it could only be an approximation. Context is impossible to convey. And in the history of displacement and lost homeland, context is everything.
Diaspora and homeland are not equivalent. Diaspora is homeland out of context. My parents grew up in the homeland. I did not. If my family told many stories, if they upheld the teaching of language, culture and customs – and I was lucky they did – there was just as much they could not convey, a knowledge they didn’t know they had, a life context impossible to pass along.
The Embrace gave me something that, for a time, history had denied. It gave me my own connection with Lithuania. Connection no longer mediated through family, but personal; no longer merely personal, but professional; no longer communal, but private; no longer dream, but reality; no longer imposed, but desired. Finally, Lithuania and I met, face to face. It was love at first sight.