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Like two pairs of glasses: Eva Stachniak on writing between cultures.


Born after World War II in the Polish city of Wroclaw, Eva Stachniak grew up among ruins and people resettled from "somewhere else." Montreal, where she moved with a doctoral fellowship to attend McGill University, also teemed with immigrants. Due to her fascination with the ways history and culture shape our lives, Stachniak's fiction is informed by her immigrant experience and her academic career teaching literature. She writes in her second language, English. Her first novel, Necessary Lies, recounts the story of her native town through the eyes of a returning emigrant. Two later novels, Garden of Venus and Dissonance, reimagine the lives of significant women in Polish history. Her first book to be published in the United States will be The Winter Palace, the first of two novels inspired by Catherine the Great.

Ania Spyra: All your books--and especially the more recent ones--required extensive research. Do you see this as a way to bridge your training as an academic and researcher with your current life as an author, or do you always see yourself as both?

Eva Stachniak: I no longer see myself as an academic, but research skills have been very useful in my writing. Serious historical fiction has been referred to as "archival fantasy," and I like this term. It does justice to the novelist's task of digging out the right details, of reimagining the past within the constraints and with the guidance of existing sources. I don't try to change what I find, but I interpret the documents and diaries I read for each novel according to my own creative understanding of the times and characters I write about.

AS: Why did you abandon recent events for more specifically historical novels after Necessary Lies?

ES: I don't know if "abandon" is the right word. I've written a few contemporary short stories in the meantime, and I've certainly not given up writing about the present and more recent past. But for now historical themes have claimed my imagination, maybe because even in multicultural North America it often feels as if the lands east of the former Iron Curtain have vanished from our collective consciousness, together with the history that has defined them. It haunts me, this absence of stories from eastern Europe. So I try to retell them in my own way, a way marked by my immigrant's sensitivities.

AS: You cite Montreal as a city that made you re-think Wroclaw. Could you elaborate on their similarities?

ES: Montreal was a city in which I was able to see the relics of the prewar Poland I had only heard or read about. In 1981--like in the stories of I. B. Singer--St. Laurent Street in east Montreal was still filled with small stores where Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish mixed freely. There I could buy salted herrings straight from a barrel and have them wrapped in an old newspaper. It felt as if I were transported into a small prewar town on the Polish borderlands from where so many of my Wroclaw neighbors came.

Perhaps because Montreal was the first city I experienced as an immigrant, it was there that I fully realized how every family I knew in Wroclaw--not unlike most of my Montreal friends--carried with them stories of another land, another house, other long-lost neighbors. As a phantom limb, these past memories required a clarification if anyone asked: "Where are you from?" We were never just "from Wroclaw," even if we were born there; we were also from where our families had come from: the borderlands, other Polish cities or towns. That too was an echo of my Montreal experience.

Montreal is a city of double cultural heritage, English and French, and Wroclaw had its uneasy double in German (Breslau), another intriguing similarity. Of course I am fully aware of the difference between a city founded by two cultures and a city rebuilt on the conquered ruins--but my own explorations of French and English Montreal contributed to making me aware of Wroclaw's importance in my own personal universe.

AS: You mention that your hometown seemed common and uninteresting to you at first, and it was only when you wanted to tell others about it that you realized how complex and fascinating its history was. Did the comparison with Montreal help you see Wroclaw anew? Or is it in the nature of memory to mythologize the past?

ES: Wroclaw seemed common and uninteresting because it was familiar and, to borrow an old saying, a fish is not aware of water until it is yanked out of it. In Wroclaw, everyone I knew lived in post-German houses. Everyone I knew came from elsewhere. All children played in the ruins. It was impossible to imagine a city untouched by war, without heaps of debris, houses flattened by explosions, gutted, burned out. It was also a city with an oddly truncated history; after distant Piast origins came 1945 and the story of Breslau as a Nazi Festung (fortress), the seven hundred years in between either erased or ignored.

"How fascinating," my Montreal friends exclaimed when I began describing my childhood to them, and this is when I saw my own past with their eyes. Mine was not an easy story to understand, so they asked many questions, thus forcing me to rethink my own memories, to put them into a more universal context, for I couldn't count on our common perceptions or shared cultural references. I had to tell a much fuller and, on some levels, a more basic story--to return to the roots of what I tried to describe. It turned out to be a process very similar to the reshaping of an immigrant's identity, the necessary reassessment of inherited truths, attitudes, perceptions. Some remain, some need to be purged, and some are merely modified.

This process is not perfect and never complete. Necessary Lies was my first novel, and if I were to write it now, I'm sure that the memories of my past would take on a slightly different hue. I'm older, my parents are no longer alive, Wroclaw is far more at ease with its German past ....

AS: You talk of a necessary reassessment of inherited truths and attitudes. Do you think that for a Polish audience your first novel might touch upon issues that are still sensitive or even taboo, and that can only be tackled with an emigrant's distance?

ES: Polish and German cultural stereotypes and taboos are hard to break on both sides, the united Europe notwithstanding, though their severity is generational. I've recently seen Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin, a German film that made me think of Kathe from Necessary Lies. The anonymous author of the diary that inspired the movie--one of the German women repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers after the conquest of Berlin--couldn't endure the social outrage her diary brought about when it was published in 1959. In spite of the postwar denazification, Germans didn't wish to hear of the moral complexity of these postwar weeks and felt betrayed by Anonyma's refusal to make moral judgments along national and ideological lines. As a result, the author forbade all further printings of her book during her lifetime. Now, the republished diary is a best-seller.

When I talk to thirty-year-olds in Poland, I note that many one-time Polish taboos have weakened or vanished. I'm not sure if this is necessarily the result of a conscious reexamination of inherited truths or merely that of a massive shift of perspective. For most young Poles, World War II and Communism seem like ancient history. Future now trumps the past; new opportunities reshape inherited attitudes. Years of recent economic migrations have also left their mark. If history is kind enough to leave Poland alone for this generation to mature without a major national tragedy, then these changes may become more permanent.

AS: You say English allows you necessary distance; does it also provide a comparative lens?

ES: Yes. The two languages, Polish and English, are always with me, like two pairs of glasses, each offering a different focus. One often hears how bilingual writers transform the cliches of one language into fresh and vibrant metaphors in another, but the comparative lens offers far more than these "found" metaphors. English forces me to translate the voices of the Polish past, push them into a different sentence structure, different cultural connotations. English is far less emotional than Polish, far more suspicious of pathos. It favors simpler, earthier words. I find that when I think in English I'm more specific, I notice more details that take over the emotional load of what I want to say. But my Polish is also there, always, softening my writing, bringing the lyrical, poetic notes to it.

AS: But you write all your novels in English first. How involved are you in the process of their translation into Polish?

ES: Very involved. I work closely with the translators to make the Polish rendering of the novel suitable for the Polish reader. I rewrite or cut passages that are clearly redundant. Poles need no reminders of basic facts from their history or of how much can be expressed with Polish diminutives. In the Polish version of Dissonance, I played with the phrases Zygmunt Krasinski used in his letters. In the translation of The Winter Palace I'm authorizing now, I introduce expressions from eighteenth-century Polish diaries.

The Polish version is always a slightly different book.

AS: You work quite closely with editors; how do they shape your novels to make them more readable for an implied reader unaware of eastern European history?

ES: I think of my editors as intelligent, sympathetic readers. If they find the story confusing, I listen. The shifting borders of eighteenth-century Poland confused the British editor of Garden of Venus, so I transferred her questions to one of the characters, the French surgeon who legitimately could have had the same misgivings, and inserted the necessary explanations. My Canadian editor suggested a timeline of Polish history with notes on the historical characters, and I found that this worked very well.

AS: How do you feel about the exoticized marketing of Garden of Venus: "an alluring, exotic novel set in the early nineteenth century, based on the life and world of one of the most celebrated courtesans"?

ES: Nabokov's Lolita had been marketed as sexually explicit. So was D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers; however, in the end both novels are valued for their literary qualities. Books often search for their proper places in the market and in readers' minds for a long time, as long as they get a chance to be read and noted.

I don't have much influence over marketing decisions. It's the business side of writing, not my favorite, though an important and necessary aspect of the craft; for if books don't sell, they are not read either. The publishers reserve for themselves the right to give a novel a title they like, and to choose the cover--an author can be and often is consulted, but if the publishers feel strongly that a certain marketing approach will appeal to more readers, the author must trust their experience. Publishing is a precarious business, even more so now than a few years ago. I might have preferred to have my novels marketed as serious historical fiction based on the stories from eastern Europe, but would that help to attract attention to my writing?




AS: Your book Dissonance, about the women associated with the poet Zygmunt Krasinski, was published in Poland in 2009, but its English version has been delayed. Why do you think the publisher considered the novel about the Russian empress as more promising than one of a Polish Romantic bard?

ES: Dissonance deals with Polish Romanticism. It is perhaps the most Polish of my novels and thus the most difficult to appreciate outside of the Polish context. It has been very well received in Poland, but my Canadian publisher feels we should wait with the English version until the publication of my two novels on the reign of Catherine the Great. Unlike the characters of Dissonance, she does not need an introduction. She already exists in the consciousness of the West as a powerful ruler, a mysterious woman whose life has been the source of fascination in many countries. During her lifetime, British, French, and German newspapers routinely wrote about her, mixing praise for Catherine's enlightened reign with gasps of disapproval over her increasingly younger lovers or her political conquests. The last few years alone saw two excellent biographies of her, both written and published in England. In the U.S., Robert Massie's version of Catherine's life came out in November 2011. And since there have not been any serious novels about Catherine II in English, this too will make it easier to market my books.

What is more, Catherine the Great is a character I have long found fascinating. A strong woman, an immigrant to Russia, a mythical figure for any Pole, overshadowing Polish history. The story of her reign gives me a chance to rethink Polish-Russian relations, in the same way Necessary Lies made me rethink Polish-German ones.

AS: Could you say more about the rethinking you have done of these relationships between Poland and its powerful imperial neighbors?

ES: In Communist Poland, Russia rarely meant more than the Soviet Union. It was hard to forget the forced eternal friendship with our socialist brother, to go beyond the feelings of hurt, injustice, and humiliation. It didn't help that under Communism we were not allowed to mention any of the Stalinist crimes. The language with which we spoke about our eastern neighbor oscillated between the forced, official admiration of Soviet achievements and private disdain for the barbaric, Asian Russia, the ruthless bully of eastern Europe who participated in the partitions of Poland and who stabbed us in the back during World War II.

It came to me as a surprise that eighteenth-century Russia carried the memory of seventeenth-century Polish attempts to dominate the region and that Russia feared Polish cultural dominance long after Poland ceased to be a political threat. I could detect a link here to another observation: the realization that even though both Germans and Russians had been Poland's enemies for centuries, the Polish hatred of Russians was often paired with disdain, while the equally hated Germans commanded our respect.

AS: You mention that Catherine the Great was an immigrant to Russia. I didn't realize that, just as I didn't know that about Zofia Potocka until I read Garden of Venus. Would you say that migration is an issue central to your writing?

ES: Yes, migration is a central issue--its costs and gains, its frustrations and insights. I'm drawn to characters who have to adjust to another culture, another language, another set of perceptions. I like to weigh the costs of losing the primary unilingual and unicultural awareness of the world. To borrow Milan Kundera's apt phrase, I like to reflect on the resulting persistent lightness of being, the feeling that once we leave our first home, all other homes seem temporary.

September 2011
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Author:Spyra, Ania
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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