Antanas Sileika has a complicated relationship with history. The author of the new novel Underground, a love story set among the Lithuanian partisans who fought the Soviet communists in the years immediately following World War II, Sileika has mined his own family’s past for material, but had to overcome his own discomfort with his heritage to do so. “I have this weird view of things,” he says, “this Lithuanian background, which when I was growing up was appallingly boring. You didn’t want to mention it. I didn’t even like the word.” Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Weston as part of what he calls “a pre-multicultural generation,” Sileika was acutely aware of a sense of otherness that attached to everything from his accent to his name. Until university, Sileika went by the name Tony; it was only in his post-adolescence that he began insisting people call him by his birth name. “I have these meek vestiges of uncoolness. But now that I’m older and smarter I realize you get your material wherever it is.”
Underground is the third book in a loose trilogy about the Lithuanian experience that also includes the story collection Buying on Time and the novel Woman in Bronze. The first book in the trilogy is about the suburban immigrant experience, something Sileika is passionate about defending. “To claim the suburbs are banal is a kind of hipsterism that drives me crazy,” he says. The second book is about a Lithuanian expat sculptor in Paris in the 1920s. For the culmination of the trilogy, Sileika felt that there was one more defining aspect of the 20th century he had to address: “I had dealt with the suburbs, I had dealt with art, and now I thought I had to deal with war.”
Sileika was helped in his research by a raft of recently published books about life behind the Iron Curtain. In particular, he credits Norman Davies’ Europe, Tony Judt’s Postwar, and – especially – Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands for exploring a time and a place that had largely remained unexamined. “The Iron Curtain is only now rising,” says Sileika, which made the subject attractive to him. “I thought, what we don’t know about here is the period in the immediate postwar. Nobody I knew, outside of Eastern Europeans had any idea about the partisan war, about the resistance. And it occurred to me that I’ve got something to say. I’ve got access to something to say about that war, and about the impossibility of choice.”
The “impossibility of choice” is a subject that weighs heavy on Sileika. The decision to drape his narrative in the garb of a love story was, in part, an attempt to highlight this impossibility. Much of the dramatic tension in the novel arises from the collision between personal desire and the march of history. “I’m particularly fascinated by people who have a series of bad choices,” Sileika says. The partisans in his novel, faced with the constant threat of capture, death, or betrayal, are confronted with numerous bad choices that only get exacerbated when mixed with affairs of the heart. “How do you express love in an impossible situation?” Sileika asks. “How does love even survive?” These are questions, he is quick to add, that hardly even occur to Canadians living in relative comfort at the start of the 21st century. “We live in a kind of history-free zone,” Seleika says. “We live in a Disney zone, where if you try really hard, you’ll get what you want. Whereas if you lived in Eastern Europe, no one gave a damn what you wanted. When history crushes you, it crushes you, and you’re lucky if you get out.”
Despite his evident investiture in his subject, Sileika was initially reluctant to write about it, because it presented him with unremittingly dark material. “You’re looking into a kind of heart of darkness. I have no idea how people work in places like Holocaust centres or oncology wards. It’s very, very hard.” Indeed, Sileika intended to do extensive research for the book (he also reads Lithuanian), but found he had to cut this short. “I was going to read all the books on the subject; I read about 35, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”
As if that weren’t enough, while he was writing the book, his son shipped off to fight with the Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan. “I wrote this book under extreme further stress because my son was in Afghanistan. So every day that he’s in Afghanistan as a front-line soldier, when I go out into the street in the morning, I look up and down to see if someone’s waiting for me.” The circumstances of Sileika’s personal life found themselves reflected in the material he was writing about. “I was writing about people who are in a kind of hopeless situation, and I felt hopeless myself.”
Given all of this, it is unsurprising that Sileika bristles at the suggestion that historical fiction is somehow an invalid or shopworn mode for writers to adopt, a suggestion that has been floated many times in Canadian critical circles. “It crops up in Russell Smith’s piece last year in Quill & Quire, it comes up from time to time in the Globe, or in the literary press: ‘We are so tired of the typical Canadian historical novel.’ Which gives me pause on all kinds of different levels.”
Sileika, who is the artistic director at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, becomes decidedly animated when confronted with the suggestion that historical fiction is the default setting for Canadian novelists. “The first problem is: who do you mean? Tell me six historical novels that you think are unjustifiably praised. Most people won’t name names, and I think, ‘You cowards.’ And the next problem is: what is it about the past that we should be ignoring? When all our output is about now: all the magazines, all the newspapers are about now. So to say that we shouldn’t be writing historical fiction is a bit hard to maintain.”
What is it that bothers us about historical fiction, Sileika asks. “Is it Elizabeth Hay’s novel about the Depression where the woman rises from the pillow and there’s a halo of dust around her? Is that what bothers people – that romantic thing? Or is it Jane Urquhart’s landscapes? If you read Jane Urquhart carefully, she’s very interesting in what she does with landscape. Most people don’t think about landscape. In fact, we’re stupid about landscape. She’s being smart about landscape. What’s the problem with that?”
“Why do people write historical fiction?” Sileika asks. “Well, why do they write romance or science fiction? Can you imagine suggesting to le Carré that he give up espionage?”
Moreover, Sileika suggests, historical fiction is in many ways harder to write than fiction set in the present, because the writer has to pay constant attention to historical detail and language. “When I think of the language of the past, and of a foreign place, this is also very tricky. Annabel Lyon had all of her characters [in The Golden Mean] saying ‘Fuck this’ and ‘Fuck that,’ which is a type of effect and it’s interesting in that way. My attempt was to strip all present expressions away and try to get to a version of a very direct language. But given that one must struggle more with the language, why should this elicit disdain? It continues to perplex me.”
Still, says Sileika, “I’m keenly aware that I have an anachronistic view of fiction, an old-fashioned view.” That “old-fashioned” view is predicated upon the idea that fiction should be about big subjects: war, love, death. This is another reason why the situation in postwar Lithuania proved so attractive: “It’s so dramatic there. All decisions have major consequences.”
Yet, for all of that, Sileika is also keenly aware of his distance from the events he is describing in the novel, and does not shy away from interrogating the relative comfort that has allowed him to write the story in the first place. “I ask myself this question: if I had relatives who died in the Gulag or lived in horrible conditions and I live here in luxury, what does this mean? How is this possible? Did people have to die for me to enjoy my chicken cutlet down at the St. Lawrence Market? Is history that perverse?”
Ultimately, Silekia likens his experience in Canada to being in exile. “I have a place far away which I can have access to, but I’m not of it.” And this exile, for the author, is something of a double-edged sword. “People of my generation are cast away in paradise. There’s no going back there for me. There is here, which is very important to me. … I’m still figuring these things out. It’s a project under construction.”
Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.
To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:
- The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
- In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
- April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
- There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.
Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.
So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.
UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.