Archives for posts with tag: Olga Tokarczuk

Poczet 1By a happy coincidence, the Polish paper Gazeta Wyborcza  published Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel laureate lecture in full the day I was flying back from Warsaw so I could read it on the way home. Home is of course the key word here. I recommend reading the lecture in full.

Here’s why:Npx28ks0R42BYo%5mgnllw

On journeys between Poland and the U.K I can’t help thinking about the notion of home and belonging.  This year my partner and I fitted in a last minute, crazy weekend in the run up to Christmas to catch up with family and friends, which made everything more poignant. The lights were switched on while we were there, showering the city centre in shimmering gold, and my partner was bemused asking if anyone – anyone at all? – was planning to eat traditional karp at Wigilia (the main celebration on the 24th). (No one actually likes this fish was the answer.)

FlsPRPnrRpOG3HJnHvnwawSo where do I belong?  I was born in Warsaw but have lived practically all my life in the U.K. I’m writing this on the eve of a British election where the media have been championing right wing politicians hell-bent both on severing the U.K from its own continent and destroying the things I most value here: Britain’s openness and diversity, its not for profit NHS health service, its democratic institutions. These are cynical politicians who will happily plunge this country deeper into austerity and ignore climate change as they themselves will be immune anyway. And then there is my first homeland: 80 towns have been declared “LGBTQ-free” zones. (My civil partnership is not recognised, needless to say.) The constitution and judiciary are being demolished and undermined daily. And yet at the Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw we saw The Power of Secrets an exhibition by Karol Radziszewski & friends along with the Queer Archives Institute, interviews with artists & activists & a queer portrait gallery through Polish history.  There is talk of change. There is always hope.

I’m a Polish poet writing in English. I don’t sound Polish. I don’t feel English. But then sometimes I don’t feel Polish either. I’m like lots of ‘between’ people. I was schooled here to be lamentably ignorant of European (including Polish) – let alone world – poetry and culture. I’m also a queer poet though at times the LGBTQ literary community struggles to recognise that, since I write about war as much as love and my stories are not straight-forward coming out tales…My most recent collection The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue (Cinnamon/ Liquorice Fish Press) is a non-linear, cross-genre, lesbian love story interwoven with the stories of other outcasts and refugees, set in a Hispanic context of war. I mention identities because they shape how a person is seen but they are not exhaustive. Poetry is not necessarily ‘about’ one thing or another. Elsewhere I’ve written about being a fish out of water. Whose literary tradition do I belong to?

And then I’m on a plane flying from Warsaw Chopin to Heathrow London and reading Olga Tokarczuk’s speech. I’m not one for grand ceremonies but there is such a humility and such an openness in the way she speaks. And she is talking about literature striving for a ‘tender narrator’, a ‘fourth-person narrator’, which I find so exciting, about the need to:

‘drop the definition of “national literatures,” knowing as we do that the universe of literature is a single thing, like the idea of unus mundus, a  common psychological reality in which our human experience is united. The Author and the Reader perform equivalent roles, the former by  dint of creating, the latter by making a constant interpretation’.

It’s really worth reading her speech in its entirety as it makes better sense than any quotes or soundbites I can give you.nzKi+pecQKyVJOkqL4FF9w

For here is a Polish writer who speaks of ‘tenderness’ in literature:

‘Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly   melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of   immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.’

And suddenly I feel that my small contribution, my own work is a step on the right road at the very least. Olga Tokarczuk has articulated so well the things I’m reaching for. Here is a writer speaking my language, in all senses of the word. Decrying greed and prejudice and violence. Ridiculously, I feel she is speaking to me personally. Not that she’s the only one. Olga Tokarczuk would be the first to acknowledge there are many people behind her/with her. Not just writers or artists. But all the many people – my friends and family in Poland among them – who in countless ways, big or tiny, are making change.  Thousands of feet (or metres) in the air between Warsaw and London I feel I have a place. I’m home.AMpRpMIHQr2JWd31Ew8TWQ

Now that the wonderful, honest, open-hearted, open-minded and talented Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk, has won the Nobel prize, we can rest easy. I needn’t worry that I haven’t and will not now win this prize since it is in such good hands.

Is that the end of my ambition? Maybe not quite.  If I were to be appointed Minister for Language Affairs – unlikely you may think, but you have to be prepared just in case –  I already have a few ideas. Of course poetry (and poetry translation obviously) would occupy a very different place in the world, in education and in the cultural pecking order. Poets would be issued with free coffee vouchers, fêted wherever they went; poetry would receive priority funding on a scale hitherto unknown before – no more back of a pub and pay for your sandwich jobs, red carpet only for us poets. Shallow you say? In my programme world leaders would exchange poems at summits! That’s not all.  I would encourage the use of some words (for instance: dark, silver, blueberry, bear…) but forcibly prohibit others. A fuller list of the (many) desirable words I leave to your imagination. Favourite words you say secretly to yourself, over-use in your speech and writing. But some phrases would be banned. End of story.  I can be ruthlessly uncompromising.

Let me give you an example:

I’m in a supermarket and I get chatting to another shopper and we both start complaining about the (ENORMOUS) amount of plastic packaging wrapped around almost everything in the shop despite people campaigning for this to change.  The supermarket has made promises but not delivered on them yet. Oh well, says my new friend and sighs, that’s just how it is.  Can you hear the ministerial announcement booming through the supermarket loudspeakers? NOOOOOOO!! DON’T SAY THAT!  don’t give up in resignation bellows the voice, pleads the voice, caresses and sings the voice. A choral piece with flashing (low emission) lights, unicorns, scents wafting, music to suit every taste, balloons, poetry (naturally) and dancers who lift the shopper on their shoulders and carry them off to a place so heavenly (for a while, all due health & safety adhered to etc) that this person never ever utters those words that’s just how it is again…

IMG_9635As it was, I did my best to cheer them up and encourage them not to feel resigned, ground down, powerless, discouraged, defeated.  Because that’s what’s getting to us. That sense that whatever we do is irrelevant and won’t make any difference. How much more effectively could I have intervened with full ministerial powers at my disposal!

4e397985-97e9-47f6-8dc8-6e92e7fb87cdIf appointed Oh well… is one of the key phrases I’m going to ban in the English language, currently used in the UK when people just want to give up in the face of the political circus played out on both the very small and the very large scale around them as this country courts disaster.  This disillusionment, this sense of helplessness would be tackled by my ministry.  So I’m just putting it out there. I have been very busy lately – hopefully more about that in other posts or on the link below – but if anyone is thinking of appointing a Minister for Language Affairs, I humbly offer myself as candidate.