Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Translation and Transgression

My writing is often born from images that capture my attention one moment and provoke me to wrestle with them for months or even years. In the case of “Made of Sugar,” it was the image of my grandfather, a pastry chef, seeing his own body as a piece of dough ready for kneading. I snatched this image from a family conversation when my father briefly, awkwardly mentioned the delusions my grandfather suffered shortly before his death. I was a student at the Jagiellonian University of Kraków then and experienced my own mental health struggles as I moved through my coming-of-age years, which coincided with my country’s transition from communism to free-market economy. It was also the time when I started to write, and I could not help noticing the intensity of poetry present in this particular shape of my grandfather’s delusions.

But I did not write this image down until two years later, in 1997, when I first arrived in the United States to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Northern Iowa. A culture shock awaited me there. America viewed from the perspective of the rural Midwest was nothing I expected it to be; the capitalism embodied in the Iowa suburbs and shopping malls was not the paradise Polish people envisioned in those initial post-communist years. I worried about my family in Poland, who continued to struggle with adjusting to the new system and was pessimistic about preserving the family business—the bakery. Partly as a way of dealing with my homesickness and confusion, I started to write a story about the bakery and my grandfather. I decided to write it in Polish and to ground it in as many details of the time and place I was describing as my memory could conjure. I transported myself back to my hometown and my childhood. Somehow, from across the Atlantic my vision was sharper; I felt I could salvage the reality that was gradually receding.

The first draft of my story lay dormant for seven years until one day I decided to return to the theme of my grandfather’s death again. I experimented with writing in English at the time, and I used this new linguistic medium as an opportunity to write the story from scratch, discarding the old draft. This time I set the narrative exclusively on the day of my grandfather’s passing, slowing down the pace and stretching each moment until I arrived at the culminating image of the dough-kneading delusion. Yet I was not satisfied. Three more years passed, and I was eventually surprised to discover that the secret to creating a satisfying draft lay in merging two versions of the story—the Polish and the English one. I returned to writing the story in Polish but filled some scenes with translations from the English version and then kept revising the new whole in my native language. The resulting story was published in 2010 in the Polish magazine Twórczość,and later in my short story collection Nieostre widzenia (2012). The publication in Blackbird is my self-translation of that final Polish version. Oddly, it means that some passages in the story have gone through two layers of translation: from English into Polish and back into English again.

Only a small portion of my writing travels through such convoluted linguistic routes. However, all of my writing is informed by the encounter between the two languages in which I live and think. These days, my writing springs mostly from my American experience, and yet I continue to write in Polish, thus making translation a staple of my process. My choice of Polish to capture the American reality is partly related to my affinity for transcending boundaries. I feel happiest as a writer when I give myself permission to blur the lines between here and there, past and present, my Polish self and my American self, and also between genres. In her Nobel lecture, the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk highlights transgression as “the essential quality of creation” and criticizes genre divisions, which she sees as the result of capitalist “commercialization of literature.” Perhaps there is something about growing up in pre-capitalist times in Poland which makes me wish to dodge the constraints of genre and language and seek simply whatever means work for drawing a story out of the image that first pulled me towards creation.  

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