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Books Two countries, one award-winning author: What does being bi-national mean for immigrant literature?

“Going to the book fair, are you?” the cab driver asked me as we drove through the old baroque city of Vilnius, Lithuania, on our way to the convention centre. I admitted I was and then thought I’d probe a bit by asking him if he preferred electronic books to the old-fashioned kind. “A hardback on the coffee table calls to me,” said the cabbie. “An electronic book doesn’t.”

Not just any book, but a hardback. Lithuania is a country that is book crazy, where 64,000 people crowded a convention centre over four days to hear writers speak and to buy their discounted books. When I wanted to look at the books themselves, I had to walk the aisles early because the displays had three or four rows of buyers in front of them by noon. The clerks were more harried than bartenders at a crowded hipster club.

An article in the local intellectual press lamented that the book fair was getting too middlebrow, as if literature were a tourist destination inundated with too many visitors.

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I was there to attend an event where my translated memoirs of growing up in Canada, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, had been nominated for book of the year. They didn’t even know what bingo was in this country, let alone what a caller did and why he should do his work without shoes.

I was born and raised in Canada, but my parents were immigrants who taught me to speak and read in the Lithuanian language, but I don’t write it. And anyway, I fell in love with English writing as a child, from Arthur Conan Doyle to H. G. Wells.

As a teenager, I’d sit in our suburban basement drinking chocolate milk and listening to records with the rolling thunder of Dylan Thomas reading aloud, “Do not go gentle into that good night …” The St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V or portions of the King James Bible still bring me close to tears.

I write in English in Canada, but over the years I have written some books set in Lithuania, the birthplace of my parents. This tiny country lies between the hammer of Germany and the anvil of Soviet Russia, so many dramatic and tragic things happened there. And since we don’t have much knowledge of Eastern Europe in Canada, the place is mildly exotic, but the things that happened there are the familiar dramas of love and war, struggle and despair.

So for years my instrument has been English, but my melody has often been Lithuania. Then they discovered me and started to translate me there. That opened up a world of comparison not only of languages, but of cultures.

One of my Lithuanian translators scratched his head over references to Betty and Veronica in the Archie Comics and wondered why my fifties town of Weston, Ont., felt just like that comic.

Humour is killer to translate. “What’s so funny about that?” my translator once asked, looking up at me innocently as I despaired of his “getting it.” After all, the fact that margarine was coloured at home in Ontario by squeezing a colour dot into the mass and stirring it is funny only if you understand the power of the Canadian butter lobby decades ago.

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On the other hand, when I wrote a novel called Provisionally Yours about Eastern Europe for a Canadian audience, I needed to show that the First World War did not end until 1921, unlike the familiar 1918 of Western belief. And I needed to move fast because most Canadian readers do not like long, explanatory background in historical fiction.

Much to my surprise, I won Lithuanian book of the year for my translated memoirs, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, received flowers and literary swag in the presence of the Minister of Culture and had the book promoted all over national television.

The back and forth of the children of immigrants and the immigrants themselves makes for a hall of mirrors. I write about Lithuania in English and then have that book translated into Lithuanian and have to explain to Lithuanians how I depict that country to Canadians. Here in English Canada, I am in a niche that is not really a niche, because immigrant literature by writers such as David Chariandy, Andrew Borkowski, Kim Thuy and many others makes up such a large part of what is published here.

It’s not just a question of translating foreign experience to Canadians, but of translating back the experience of experiencing that process to another culture, a “home” culture that may or may not be truly home any longer, or perhaps consist of one of two homes.

I write about there for here, and now here has been translated there, and it is bewildering and wonderful.

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