Retiring Humber School for Writers director gets delightfully personal in latest book

The director of the Humber School for Writers and Bloor West Village resident, Antanas Sileika, is retiring in June after a teaching career spanning almost four decades. And what better way to mark such an achievement than the publication of his memoirs?

As anyone familiar with his name will know, this is not Sileika’s first publishing venture. He is also the author of such works as Buying on Time (1997), which was nominated for both the City of Toronto Book Award and the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour; Woman in Bronze (2004), a Globe Best Book of that year; and Underground (2011), which was featured in The Globe and Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2011.

His latest work, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, will be published by ECW Press and released in early May. And, much like the rest of his output, it is sure to amass no small amount of recognition. With his signature droll and accessible style, Sileika traverses the recesses of his vast memory, recounting his life from his beginnings as a lanky second-generation Canadian born to Lithuanian emigres in rural and isolated Weston until the present day as a proud and grateful husband, father of two and grandfather of one (so far).

Each chapter is an anecdote that stands on its own, immediate and self-contained, and yet there is an irresistibility to Sileika’s prose that is both casual and inviting. Whether he is recounting a folk dancing competition on Centre Island, meeting his future wife while working as a parking attendant at St. Michael’s College, staying at a purportedly haunted lodge on the Rideau Canal, or escorting Lithuanian politicos to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s office during Lithuania’s fight for independence in the late 1980s, Sileika imparts the soul and wisdom of a humble sage without being too weighty or comprehensive. Some memoirists like to hog the spotlight, but not Sileika. The words he writes and the stories he tells are far more important.

Shaken of their temporal dust, his stories glisten with a renewed liveliness, and Sileika succeeds in preserving the integrity of their emotions. Some are uproariously funny, while others will instil a solemn hush over your senses. Yet always one keeps turning the pages, hungrily savouring Sileika’s astute observations and wry reflections.

As a teacher, he has influenced a countless number of students, and now he has one last lesson to impart: that any life can be made extraordinary—even a life that began in a place as inoffensive and innocuous as Weston.

To celebrate the end of Sileika’s teaching career, as well as to officially launch the release of The Barefoot Bingo Caller, IFOA and ECW Press will hold a reception at the Lithuanian House (1573 Bloor St. West) on Tuesday, May 2 at 6:00 PM.

Tomas Trussow