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Małgorzata Szejnert

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Reporter and writer. Born in 1936 in Warsaw, she debuted in 1972 with a book presenting her views on America as a journalist

She graduated from the Emilia Plater secondary school in Biała Podlaska and from the Faculty of Journalism at the University of Warsaw in 1958. She was head of the reportage section of "Literatura" weekly. In August 1980 she went to the Adolf Warski Shipyard in Szczecin, where she helped edit the strike bulletin that was later transformed into the newspaper of the Solidarity trade union in Western Pomerania.

After December 13, 1981, when martial law was imposed, she joined the boycott of official newspapers. She worked for opposition newspapers and wrote reports at the Institute of Psychoneurology in Warsaw. In 1984, with Tomasz Zalewski, she published a book about the rebellious coastal region, Szczecin: Grudzień, Sierpień, Grudzień. This formed the first volume of the Solidarity Archive. The book, based on the recollections of 15 members of the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee, received a Solidarity Cultural Award. She moved to the United States in the same year, where she worked at "Nowy Dziennik", a Polish language daily newspaper published in New York. In 1986 she returned to Poland. She was among the founders of "Gazeta Wyborcza" daily and ran its reportage section for nearly 15 years.

Together with Roman Załuski, she wrote the screenplay for the film Jeśli się odnajdziemy / If We Find Each Other, directed by Roman Załuski in 1982.

For her book Czarny ogród she received the Cogito Public Media Award and an Upper Silesian Tacitus Award. For Wyspa klucz, the judges of the Gdynia Literary Award presented her with a Separate Prize for work that falls outside any classification. She was a finalist of the Angelus 2008 Central European Literary Award, the Nike 2008 Literary Award, and the Gdynia Literary Award 2008.

Beginnings

She debuted in 1972 with a book about her reporter's view of America. Edward Gierek had liberalised the system to some extent, and it became possible in People's Poland to write that a different world existed outside the communist bloc. Borowiki przy ternpajku, the effect of an extremely intensive two-month stay in the United States, is a collection of texts on Polish-Americans, on the complicated fortunes of Polish emigrants. She drew attention to herself again upon publishing the book Sława i infamia. This is an extended interview with Professor Bohdan Korzeniewski, the theatre director, critic and historian, about actors collaborating with the Nazis during World War II.

The school of small realism

Like Hanna Krall, in the 1970s she wrote reportages about provincial Poland, about the small hopes and big disappointments of the inhabitants.

Today it might seem to many writers that you couldn't draw joy from writing under censorship. Meanwhile, I remember discovering many interesting social topics during my travels across Poland, especially since I was young, full of enthusiasm and curiosity about the world. I worked on several editorial teams, writing news and editing, but felt increasingly drawn to reportage. I started writing for "Polityka", with which I was cooperating at the time, and then I managed to get a job at "Literatura" weekly which had an excellent team of reporters. Despite the system's limitations, it gave us satisfaction when we managed to write something important, close to the truth, encouraging reflection. This was what we called "the school of small realism". You didn't write about the causes of certain things, because that was absolutely forbidden, but you showed the reality of life, how people lived, worked, what healthcare they got, how they travelled to work. These details - dressed in good language and form - made readers draw conclusions. For me this was a very interesting time.
"Małgorzata Szejnert - reporterka spełniona". Interviewer: Teresa Kaczorowska. "Ciechanowskie Zeszyty Literackie", December 2010.

Between her return from America in 1984 and the founding of "Gazeta Wyborcza" in 1989, she wrote two more books: Sława i infamia and Śród żywych duchów. Subsequently she gave up her own writing almost completely and became committed to her job as an editor for "Gazeta Wyborcza". She returned to her own work after retiring. However, these were no longer reportages. Writing such texts requires great mobility, racing against time, meeting various editorial requirements. She wanted to work less hectically and on her own behalf. She also wanted to move away from current domestic topics. She was tired of them. She felt that in all her years working at a newspaper she had learned many things about Poland. She had edited hundreds of stories about Polish reality. And, as she puts it, she intuitively began turning more and more towards history. Maybe this was because, as she says, she knew so little about it. She had studied at the University of Warsaw in the 1950s, learning the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. There were no honest history classes. It was hard to make up for the gap. To her, history is a constant discovery. She starts from the here and now and then goes back in time, in search of people and stories. This was the case with Czarny ogród, the history of the Giesche coal company and thus the history of Germany, Silesia and Poland.

In Chekhov's footsteps

Czarny ogród is a story about several families, their lives presented across the stormy 20th century. Adam Pomorski, a member of the jury for the Cogito award, remarked that the prototype for this kind of writing should be sought in Anton Chekhov's Sakhalin Island. He also added that over the past several dozen years, one of the topics that touched Polish readers the most strongly was the loss of the multiethnic Eastern Borderlands. Szejnert also undertakes a narrative about neighbours, but in Upper Silesia. As Pomorski pointed out, it was the first time that Polish literature paid this kind of homage to the region and its inhabitants.

Wyspa klucz, Szejnert's next book, is about a place where many nationalities meet. The writer believes that from the point of view of writing, a borderland is more interesting than the orderly and stable centre. She claims that life in a borderland - geographic, cultural, or moral - requires tough decisions. Such a moment, Szejnert repeats, is a dream topic for a reporter.

The emigrants' tragedy

Wyspa klucz is about Ellis Island, a small island in New York harbour through which many millions of people passed. In 1630 the Dutch from the West India Company bought it from the Lenni Lenape Indians for "a few parcels of various goods". An immigration processing station opened there in 1892. How did a reporter hit upon this topic? In the 1970s she read Letters of Emigrants in America and Brazil. The book made a huge impression on her. In the late 19th century, growing numbers of people went to the New World from the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The tsarist authorities decided the process needed to be stopped. To this aim, they confiscated correspondence the emigrants sent from America to their families. The letters were never delivered and today testify to an unimaginable tragedy.

After martial law was imposed in Poland in 1981, Szejnert left for the United States. She soon faced a dilemma: should she stay or go back? She chose Poland, where the political situation was clearly ripening for change. She visited the United States every so often. From lower Manhattan, she could see Ellis Island, a dark outline. When a museum opened there, she decided to visit it. The experience was all the more heartbreaking in that she still remembered the Letters of Emigrants. After having finished Czarny ogród, she was in pursuit of a new subject. She found a website about Ellis Island, discovering that it was a source of information on who had arrived on the island, when and on what ship. She thought it would be worth finding out if the tsarist officials had separated people forever, or if perhaps some emigrants had been reunited with their loved ones.

Juliusz Kurkiewicz on Wyspa klucz in Gazeta Wyborcza:

Małgorzata Szejnert's book is about the history of a social organism, asking questions about history, politics, morality, the meaning of collective life. At the same time, at its source there lies a primeval surprise at this place as a life's stage populated and abandoned by people, objects, animals. The tenderness with which Szejnert reconstructs each moment of the past in her evenly breathing prose has become her trademark. That reportage is a part of literature, this we have known for a long time. But that it can also be a kind of poetry?
Juliusz Kurkiewicz, "Małgorzata Szejnert: Ellis Island to scena życia", "Gazeta Wyborcza", June 6, 2010.

Our man in Zanzibar

Today people are increasingly fascinated with attempts to present history in a reporter mode, that is, describing not processes but specific people, events and situations. Szejnert admits that the past of the country she is writing about is so compelling that she finds it extremely difficult to break away to return to the present day. But, she cannot let history devour the entire theme of her work.

In 2010, she began writing about Zanzibar, an island after discovering an interesting Polish element in the island's 19th-century history. Henryk Jabłoński, a Romantic poet and friend of Teodor Tomasz Jeż, deserted from the tsarist army during the Crimean War and joined the Zouave regiments. Jabłoński turned out to have many talents and was sent to work in the administration. He did well, so it was decided that he would be sent to Zanzibar to work at the consulate. In Zanzibar, Jabłoński married the daughter of the then honorary consul of France and subsequently assumed this post himself.

Jabłoński was extremely sensitive, both socially and nationally. He felt deeply for the natives in their misfortune. He wrote a poem about the slave market in Zanzibar. He spoke about the slave trade in Africa based on his own experience. Therefore, what he wrote was a form of reportage.

Hands-on experience

Szejnert justifies the huge success of non-fiction in recent years by the fact that people need astute descriptions of an increasingly complicated reality. Fiction cannot help with this.

A major case in point is the book by the Belgian writer Misha Defonseca, "Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years". It tells the story of a little girl who survived the Holocaust and wandered across Europe in search of her parents. Starving and exhausted, she was protected by wolves. The story touched readers in many countries because the writer swore it was about her own experiences. Until, that is, someone carefully researched the events she wrote about and concluded that this was pure fiction. Under the weight of the arguments, Misha Defonseca gave in. The book immediately vanished from best-seller lists and this was probably not just because readers felt cheated but the story was no longer interesting once it was taken as fiction.

Asked about the masters of reportage, Szejnert mentions foreign authors, first of all France's Jean Hatzfeld, writer of The Antelope's Strategy about attempts to reconcile the Tutsi and Hutu after the massacres in Rwanda, Britain's Bruce Chatwin, writer of a book about the Aborigines The Songlines, and Italy's Tiziano Terzani. The latter, a correspondent for "Der Spiegel", heard from a Chinese fortune-teller that he was seriously in danger of being killed in a plane crash. Therefore, he decided to travel only by rail, by car, or on foot. As he said, the world began to expand for him, distances assumed their proper proportions and he himself regained his sense of adventure.

Szejnert thinks reporters today face a new challenge. A smart journalist can write a piece about the most exotic corner of the world without leaving his or her air-conditioned office. Meanwhile, a reporter's fundamental duty is to see, touch, experience hands-on. That is what readers expect and reporters owe it to them.

Secrets of technique

She believes the first sentence is extremely important for a text. If it is good, everything else will follow. She mentions a brilliant scene from the film The Hours. Virginia Woolf sits for hours at her desk and suffers torture over a blank piece of paper. She has a vision of her book but lacks the beginning on which everything else depends. Suddenly she shouts to her husband, who is watering the garden, "I believe I may have a first sentence!". This is how Mrs. Dalloway was written. The novel starts with the words: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself".

Normally, when she starts working on a piece, she already has a title. For this writer, rhythm is very important. This is why she has a book's axis and its division into chapters planned in advance. Szejnert's prose is economical, restrained. Each sentence is carefully chiselled and properly set. The writer seems not to place excessive trust in adjectives.

When I was in the third grade at primary school, the Polish-language teacher wrote on the blackboard: "Spring is coming". Then she asked us to expand the sentence so that the coming of spring truly moved everyone. I went home and began adding words. "Spring is coming, fragrant, sunny, blossoming..." I continued for a whole page and was very pleased with myself. My dad came in, he also taught Polish. He took a look and asked, "What's this?". I replied "Ms. Bratkowska told us to write about spring". "Małgosia", he said, " 'Spring is coming' is quite sufficient".

Major Works:

  • Borowiki przy ternpajku. Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, Warsaw 1972
  • Ulica z latarnią / Street with Lamp. Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, Warsaw 1977
  • I niespokojnie tu i tam / And Restlessly Wander Here and There. Pojezierze, Olsztyn 1980
  • Szczecin: Grudzień, Sierpień, Grudzień / Szczecin: December, August, December. With Tomasz Zalewski. Nowa, Warsaw 1984
  • Sława i infamia. Rozmowa z Bohdanem Korzeniewskim / Fame and Infamy. Conversation with Bohdan Korzeniewski. Aneks, London 1988
  • Śród żywych duchów / Among Living Ghosts. Aneks, London 1990
  • Czarny ogród / Black Garden. Znak, Kraków 2007
  • Wyspa klucz / Key Island. Znak, Kraków 2009

Important interviews:

  • "Mam słowa w palcach a nie w głowie" / "I Have Words in My Fingers Not My Mind". Interviewer: Zofia Król. "Dwutygodnik"
  • "Małgorzata Szejnert - reporterka spełniona" / "Małgorzata Szejnert - Fulfilled Reporter". Interviewer: Teresa Kaczorowska. "Ciechanowskie Zeszyty Literackie" 12/2010


Author: Bartosz Marzec, October 2010. Translation by Joanna Dutkiewicz, October 2010.
 

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Culture.pl
2010/10/27
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