Article published on January 19, 2017.
When small independent publisher Impress discovered The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs, winner of the 2015 Impress Prize and published last year, and when it was a hit with our reviewer Judith Griffith (read Judith’s review here) we sat up and started paying attention.
Who would be next? Would they make the same impact? I was intrigued…and delighted to have the opportunity not only to read the 2016 winning entry by Magdalena Maguire but to ask her some probing questions.
I was interested to read that while you were born in Poland you grew up and still live in Australia – two more different places I couldn’t imagine! Do you have any memories of Poland? How have you gone about getting to know the country of your birth and why is it important to you to explore it in a novel?
You’re right, they are two totally different places – particularly as I spent most of my childhood in the humidity of the Darwin tropics! I think the fact that Poland is so different to Australia is precisely what appeals to me. Growing up, I was very nostalgic about my birthplace, and had vivid memories of visits I’d made to see my Polish family. I remembered the bees my uncle kept in wooden hives in the garden, the factory that breathed black smoke next to my grandmother’s cottage, listening to tapes of Michael Jackson with my cousins and trying to translate the English lyrics for them, and the train station in Wrocław that looked like a castle. This remembered version of Poland took on almost a mythic quality, so it was perhaps inevitable that I’d start writing about it.
Since then, I’ve been back to Poland as an adult. My most recent trip was in summer last year, when I went there to see my family and do research for my novel. On this trip, I was struck by how much Poland has changed: the country seems quite prosperous now. Or, as my mother’s friend put it, ‘We could be in any city in Europe.’ It was a sunny day and we were sitting in a restaurant overlooking the River Odra, drinking beer. She’s an ex-pat Pole, and her comment was tinged with both pride and regret: pride that Poland could now hold its own against other European countries, and regret that the country she left behind no longer exists.
I guess part of my impetus in writing my novel is that I wanted to explore this lost Poland, the country I could’ve grown up in, but didn’t. In particular, I wanted to explore what life could have been like for a young woman living under communism and making art. Nineteen-eighties Poland provides a dramatic and underexplored setting to examine the types of questions I’m interested in. What was it like to live through a turbulent period in history, when your civil liberties were taken away? How was it that artists managed to make such exciting work when, officially, they were stripped of artistic freedom? And what might happen if love and politics came into conflict? Although communist Poland provides the context for exploring these questions, they are, of course, questions that have universal significance.
Is it important to you to present Poland and Polish people favourably in your novel? Is there a sense of redressing a balance?
I think that, rather than seeking to represent Poland and Polish people favourably, I wanted to present them in nuanced terms. I particularly wanted to get beyond the two-dimensional stereotypes that some people continue to hold in relation to communist Poland: the persistent images of grey buildings, queues for food, and – one stereotype that particularly surprised me when I learnt of it – the idea that Poles are uneducated and backwards. This stereotype came as a surprise to me because Polish culture places such a high value on the life of the mind. In Polish, there’s a specific word for this: duchowe. There’s no English equivalent, but essentially duchowe refers to matters that are at once spiritual, intellectual, moral, emotional and religious. The central importance of duchowe in Polish culture means that art and literature and history and politics aren’t just esoteric concerns: in Poland, these things really matter in people’s everyday lives. This is something I wanted to capture in my book; the idea that a person’s inner life – their love of art, in particular – can sustain them through difficult times.
There is a clear art versus family ties conundrum even in the short extract I read – have you experienced this yourself and if so, in what way and how have you addressed it in your own life?
That’s a really interesting question! I hadn’t actually thought of this aspect of the novel in relation to my own life, so you’ve certainly given me food for thought.
I guess that most writers have probably experienced a tension between their work and family life. On a practical level, writing takes up time and, given that most writers have other jobs that they need to do for money, writing is often an activity that you need to squeeze in on top of family life. This tension is something I’m grappling with at the moment, as I have a young baby. This means I’m trying to find ways to squeeze in my writing life around my domestic life, which can be extremely challenging, and I’m trying to learn how to write in short bursts of time when the baby sleeps. However, having a baby has also made me realise how much I need to write, how deeply nourishing it is. Even though things are really busy right now, I feel lucky to be writing fiction because it gives me another world to step into. One minute I’m changing a dirty nappy, and the next I’m at an art exhibition in communist Poland! I don’t think writers who are parents can ever resolve this tension between art and family life. However, I hope that, in the end, this tension will enliven our work, rather than detract from it.
On a broader level, writers can also face ethical dilemmas in relation to the question of family versus art. Writers are particularly notorious for mining their own lives for material to use in their work. While the ethics of using real people and events in creative writing have been widely discussed in relation to memoir, in fiction this issue remains underexplored. My fiction tends not to be directly autobiographical and, on the whole, I’ve never directly put a real person in it. However, there’s one significant exception to this. My short story, Polish Cooking for Beginners, involves a fictive storyline, but features my grandmother as the main character. I’ve received positive feedback on this story, with lots of people telling me that they loved the grandmother ‘character’. In fact, people from diverse European backgrounds (such as Italian, Greek, and Czech) have said that they liked the story because she reminded them of their own grandmothers. So I think it’s a positive portrayal of her. Even so, I’m not sure of the extent to which the story is an homage to my grandmother, and the extent to which it’s potentially exploitative. My grandmother hasn’t read the story herself, as she doesn’t speak English and she wasn’t interested in having my mother translate it for her, so I’m not sure how she feels about the whole thing!
Why did you choose to set your novel in the 1980s? Did that choice present any particular challenges?
When I first had the idea for this novel, I knew that it would be set in Poland, and it would explore the key themes I’m interested in: art, politics, love and migration. However, I wasn’t sure which period would provide the best setting for exploring these ideas. During the course of my research, I found that very few English-language novels are set in 1980s Poland. While many deal with Poland in the context of World War II, hardly any examine the aftermath of the war, when communist rule was violently imposed by the Soviets, and when thousands of Poles fled the country for political and economic reasons. This was such a dramatic and significant period in history, so I was surprised it was underexplored in literary fiction.
One of the challenges in writing about this period was finding ways to tell stories that went beyond the stereotypes of the era. While most people know about Solidarność, not many people know about Poland’s avant-garde art scene. In fact, it wasn’t until I started doing research for the novel that I discovered just how exciting and rebellious Poland’s artistic community was. Part of the reason why this isn’t well known is that it’s difficult to find resources about Polish art in the 1980s. In an ideal world, I would have had access to more resources about this period, but I just had to work with what was available.
Another key challenge comes from the fact that the 1980s is a contested period of Polish history. There are different accounts and explanations offered for key events, like the reasons for the declaration of martial law, as well as different readings of the legacy of key figures such as Lech Wałęsa. Of course, all periods in history – Polish or otherwise – are contested, so it’s a little redundant to say this. However, the fact that the 1980s is a recent period in history means that it’s part of many people’s living memories. There’s no doubt that the way I’ve written about these events won’t accord with the way that some people remember them. It’s important to acknowledge that there are diverse experiences and interpretations of the events of the 1980s, and that we need to hear a multiplicity of stories from this period.
You’re already a successful short story writer – how has the process of working on a novel differed from working on short stories? What do you think each form can offer that the other can’t? Do you think you will go on to write more of both?
Writing a novel requires a huge amount of stamina and commitment. With short stories, you can dip in and out of different worlds in a very intense fashion. The short story lends itself to greater risk-taking as you don’t (usually) have to devote years of your life to writing one. This means that, with the short story, so you can explore themes and characters and writing styles that you might not necessarily want to commit to in a novel. Although it can be arduous, I’ve enjoyed the process of writing a novel for the experience of total immersion. When you’re writing a novel, you’re building a world that you can step in and out of every day, sometimes for years. That world becomes an important part of your life.
I’ll definitely continue to write both short stories and novels. I’m currently working on a short story collection that explores themes around identity and belonging in cross-cultural contexts. And when my Polish novel is out in the world and no longer needs me, I’m going to work on a second novel, another piece of historical fiction.
What made you enter the Impress Prize competition and what are your hopes and aspirations for this novel in particular? Has winning changed your approach to or ambition for the novel?
Impress puts out a fantastic range of historical fiction and they’re great at promoting their authors, so it was a bit of a fantasy of mine to get published with Impress. I entered the competition right before having my baby, not because I thought I’d win, but because entering was a concrete goal to meet prior to taking a break from writing. Getting shortlisted was a total shock, and I didn’t think it would go any further than that, so winning the competition feels both bizarre and utterly wonderful.
Now that I know my novel will be published, I really hope it reaches people of Polish heritage around the world. However, even more than that, I hope it’s read by people who aren’t Polish, people who are interested in the themes of the book. Even though the book is set in Poland, the themes it explores – around art and politics and migration – are of broader relevance. Ideally, people from diverse backgrounds will be able to read the book and find something in it that resonates with them, and perhaps, interpret the political themes in ways that shed light on current affairs.
I was really impressed with Magdalena’s entry as well as her answers to my questions and expect to be hearing a lot more about her later in 2017 – watch this space!
Freeman’s Family: The Best New Writing on Family edited by John Freeman