You may be surprised to learn that much of classic Polish literature was written outside Poland. And the trend is very much still alive, with several major contemporary Polish authors writing from abroad.
Like Gombrowicz and Miłosz, who wrote some of the best Polish literature of the 20th century, Polish literature seems to thrive when it’s far from its homeland, whether in London, Berlin, New York, or even Iceland or the Isle of Wight. Is Polish literature destined to be written abroad?
Skip ahead to our list of the best Polish Émigré Literature of the 21st century
Emigration out of Poland is no new phenomenon. Big waves of Polish emigration caused by political turmoil in the country had already started in the 18th century and continued throughout the 123 years during which Poland was absent from the map of Europe (1795-1918). In the 19th century, after the fall of the November Uprising of 1831, Polish emigrants flocked to Western Europe, establishing communities in Germany, Switzerland, and England, before eventually settling in large numbers in France, most importantly Paris, which soon became the hub of Polish émigré cultural and literary life. Here's a short story of Polish émigré literature.
Paris - the capital of Polish literature in the 19th century
In the 1830s and 1840s, Paris was the birthplace of some of the greatest works of Polish Romantic literature. Masterpieces like Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz (1834), Zygmunt Krasiński's Nie-boska komedia (The Un-Divine Comedy, 1833) or Juliusz Słowacki's Beniowski (1841), which became key works of Polish national culture, were all written or published in Paris.
In fact, nearly all of the paradigmatic Polish Romantic literature was written outside Poland which, at that time, wasn't even on the map. This is the case with Polish national bard Adam Mickiewicz who left Vilnius and his Belarusian homeland at the age of 25 and never returned to Poland. His arch-Romantic Messianic drama The Forefathers' Eve. Part 3 was written in Dresden (1832) while the sentimental Crimean Sonnets (1826) and the political poem Konrad Wallenrod (1828) were both written and published in Russia. His last great piece, considered the Polish national epic, Pan Tadeusz was written in Paris in 1832-1834. Like Mickiewicz, most of the Polish Romantic poets spent their lives away from the country (in fact, Mickiewicz never set foot in Warsaw).
For more about Mickiewicz as European Poet see: Renovating Adam Mickiewicz: Roman Koropeckyj Reveals the Poet's True Life
42 Years in Exile
The most famous Polish poet of the late Romantic era, Cyprian Kamil Norwid spent over 40 years, most of his life in exile. As a young man Norwid managed to debut in Warsaw in 1841, but emigrated only a year later and essentially never returned to Poland (except for one short stay in 1849). He travelled around Europe before settling in Paris in 1849 (in 1853 he even made it to America, but he returned soon afterwards) - the fate of this pilgrim, a stranger in a foreign country far away from Poland, was very much at the core of his poems. Abroad Norwid developed a highly peculiar and convoluted Polish idiom which has become proverbial for its difficulty. Norwid was also a talented painter and sculptor. He died in Paris, in utter obscurity and poverty in 1883.
See Norwid's graphic works at Polona.pl
Massive emigration from Poland after the November Uprising included also many women writers, like considered 'the Mother of Polish Emigration" Klementyna Hoffmannowa, one of Poland's first writers of children's literature or Maria Czartoryska Wirtemberska, considered the author of Poland's first psychological novel (Malvina, or the Heart's Intuition, translated into English by Ursula Phillips - see more).
The stay in Paris was also a great influence on Poland's early feminist writer Narcyza Żmichowska. Influenced by her brother's left-wing views she continued her education in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale and became one of the first women to attend the meetings of French Academy. It has been said that the stay in Paris caused a change in her views and conduct. She became an 'eccentric' boldly expressing her views and publicly smoking cigars, which was then totally prohibited to women (see more...).
In 1842 she wrote one of her mast famous novels The Heathen (trans. by Ursula Phillips, 2012), the tale of a doomed love affair between Benjamin, a young man from a poor but patriotic rural family, and Aspasia, a femme fatale who is older, beautiful, worldlier, and more sexually liberated.
Being a Polish poet in the 20th century outside of Poland
Polish emigration literature didn't end with the revival of Polish state in 1918. After a short interval of independence between 1918-1939, when Polish cultural life flourished freely within the borders of the new multicultural state, émigré literature was revived with new force as many Polish writers fled the country at the outbreak of WWII or were soon displaced.
This resulted in Polish war-time literature being written in rather exotic locations, like Julian Tuwim's long poem Kwiaty polskie (Polish Flowers), which was written in part in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And Antoni Słonimski’s famous Warsaw poem Alarm was actually written in London.
Some of the writers who emigrated from Poland at the outbreak of WW2 never returned to Poland, like the poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, who died in London in 1945.
After the War
While some of the writers chose to stay abroad and not to return to a country now ruled by the Communists, like Witold Gombrowicz (who decided to stay in Buenos Aires), Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (Rome, later Naples), Jan Lechoń (New York) and Marian Hemar (London), others returned to the People's Republic. The returning writers, like poets Tuwim (1946) and Słonimski (1951) or the reporter Melchior Wańkowicz (1958) were used in Communist propaganda to legitimize the new state.
However, many returned only to leave soon after, like the future Nobel prize winner Czesław Miłosz, who defected in 1951. Throughout Communist Poland there was a steady efflux of writers and intellectuals from the country, which included names like Jerzy Kosiński (1956), Marek Hłasko (1958), Aleksander Wat (1959), Irena Krzywicka (1962), Sławomir Mrożek (1963), and Leopold Tyrmand (1965).
The decision to stay abroad meant that the authors who had been quite popular in the country before the War were now writing abroad in a foreign language understood by a handful of emigrants - and the Communists in general obviously wouldn't allow for their works to be published in Poland. As a result, Polish literature throughout the period of the People’s Republic was written and published in Paris (the Kultura circle of Jerzy Giedroyc), London (with Wiadomości weekly, and poets like Marian Hemar), and New York (Lechoń, later: Janusz Głowacki), but also Buenos Aires (Gombrowicz), Brussels (Marian Pankowski) and Guatemala (Andrzej Bobkowski).
Another big wave of emigration from Poland came around 1968 and was connected with the rising wave of anti-semitism brought on by the Communist regime. Writers such as Henryk Grynberg and Janina Katz left the country. Katz subsequently became one of the most important Danish poets (even though she wrote in Polish) while Grynberg, who settled in the US, has continued to write in Polish about the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was also a major theme of the writing of Ida Fink, a Polish-Israeli writer who left Poland in 1957 but continued to write in Polish. In 2008, Fink was awarded the Israel Prize in Literature. Another Holocaust survivor writing in Polish and Hebrew is Irit Amiel.
Émigré Literature in the 21st Century
While it would seem logical that the Polish emigration and émigré literature would slow down in 1989, when the country gained political freedom, the opposite happened. New Polish emigration, rooted in the search for better economic possibilities, rose after Poland joined the EU and boomed after the EU job restrictions were lifted in May, 2004. In some countries, most importantly Britain, this new Polish emigration has been substantial, leading to Polish becoming in 2013 the second largest language in the Isles and England's most commonly spoken non-native language. See more: www.dailymail.co.uk
UK: Polish Literature written in English
In Britain, where Polish literature production in the 21st century has arguably been the strongest, there seems to be now a new phenomenon emerging. While there are writers that are essentially bilingual, writing and publishing in two languages, there’s also an emerging group of writers who skipped the Polish language and are now publishing in English only. This group would include A.M. Bakalar (the author of the novel Madame Mephisto), poet and slammer Bohdan Piasecki (Birmingham), poet Maria Jastrzebska (Brighton) and Marek Kazmierski (London), the author of the 2013 book Damn the Source, but also an active translator and publisher of Polish literature in UK (See: OFF_Press). Agata Pyzik’s Poor but Sexy which is an academic take on the much debated ‘Eastern/Western Europe’ division, and published by Zero Books in 2014, is the most recent example of books written by Polish emigrants in English.
Read an interview Marek Kazmierski: Tuwim with a Hashtag
Is this switch to English a sign that Polish emigre literature is finally coming to a halt, or only an indication of another transformation? It's probably too early to say.
At a time when Polish authors have been writing in English increasingly often, 'Polish' books are being written by English writers. This is the case with Anya Lipska's debut crime novel Where the Devil Can't Go (2013), which features an entertaining crime plot set in the Polish community in East London, with at least two Polish corpses and a protagonist by the name of Janusz Kiszka.
Polish and 'Polish' literature is also object of academic research, like the project Emigratinglandscapes.org
Most of the mentioned Polish literary production in Great Britain received support from Polish Cultural Institute in London. Find more about Polish books in UK at polishculture.or.uk
The UK may be the biggest seat of new Polish migration but Polish émigré literature is actually written all around the world and this production has been playing an increasingly important role in Polish literature worldwide, including in Poland. While London is certainly the biggest centre for Polish literary activity, other centres include New York (poet Anna Frajlich, writer Joanna Clark), Berlin (Britta Wuttke, Brygida Helbig, Iwona Mickiewicz, Dorota Danielewicz, Magdalena Parys) and Brussels (Plebanek). But Polish literature has also been written in such exotic places as Iceland (Klimko-Dobrzaniecki) and the Isle of Wight (Wioletta Grzegorzewska).
Here is a list of some of the most interesting new Polish literature written outside the country in the 21st century:
1. Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki, Dom Róży i Krýsuvik (2006) - Iceland
This book is set in Iceland, one of the destinations of the early wave of Polish emigration after 2004, where Klimko-Dobrzaniecki spent 10 years working in different jobs, including as a nursing aide at a care home for the elderly. This last episode is very realistically portrayed in Dom Róży, one of the two novellas which comprise the book. The second, Krýsuvik is a story of an Icelandic fisherman - a simple story of love, death and fate reminiscent of Scandinavian sagas. The two novellas illuminate each other, an effect which is also enhanced by the book's material form, as one could start reading it from either end.
2. Piotr Czerwinski, Przebiegum Zyciae (2009) - Ireland
Przebiegum życiae by Piotr Czerwiński (1972) is a story of two Poles bearing the telling names of Gustaw and Konrad (see: Mickiewicz's Dziady. Part 3) who move to Dublin, Ireland, in search of better job opportunities. Written in a mixture of Polish and English typical of the new migration to the Isles, Przebiegum is an interesting literary experiment aimed at representing a language in a state of a gradual dissolution, as it is slowly forgotten and transformed by its native speakers away from the country. The book actually originated as a linguistic experiment written in pidgin English and modelled on Jamaican patois and New-Guinea tok-pisin. It was then re-worked by Czerwinski towards regular English, before it was eventually translated into a kind of literary version of Ponglish.
3. Grażyna Plebanek, Nielegalne związki (2010) / Illegal Liaisons (2012) - Belgium
Set in Brussels, the bureaucratic and cosmopolitan capital of the EU, Grażyna Plebanek's erotic novel shows a different side of this seemingly boring city. Her story of unstoppable physical obsession amongst a group of Brussels eurocrats teems with eroticism and offers an interesting insight into the first Polish generation that is truly 'free' and comfortable in any place in the world. Still, the protagonists have to struggle to know where the boundaries of that freedom lie.
Plebanek tells the story of Jonathan, who takes the role of stay-at-home dad when his wife Megi moves the family from Poland to Brussels to pursue a career as a lawyer in the European Commission. Much as Jonathan tries, his new life seems to leave him with a void which he soon fills with a romance with the sexy, up-and-coming Swedish journalist Andrea. What follows is a tormenting battle between conscience and desire, which more often than not ends in a draw - Find more here
In Poland, Plebanek's novel was praised for the the unembarrassed way in which it talks about sex (described here in minute and multilinguistic detail).
The book was translated into English as Illegal Liaisons by Danusia Stok (Stork Press, 2012)
4. Katarzyna Jakubiak, Nieostre widzenia (2012) - USA
A book of short stories by an academic teacher and translator based in Millersville, Pennsylvania. In these 12 stories Jakubiak explores the cultural and psychological differences between people living in Polish and American culture.
Jakubiak is an accomplished translator, including of authors like Yusef Komunyakaa.
5. Jan Krasnowolski, Afrykańska elektronika (2013) - England
Yet another book about the life and work of Polish emigrants in England. But these four longer stories mix realism and magic, as well as genres and perspectives. There’s Polish Communist history and Voodoo too, and Krasnowolski’s writing turns into a real horror story at times, with many references to the "lad lit" by such writers as Ellis, Bukowski, or Stephen King as well as the classics of punk rock (see cover).
Jan Krasnowolski (b. 1972) has been living in England since 2006.
6. Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Guguły (2014) - Isle of Wight, Great Britain
In her second book of prose Wioletta Grzegorzewska, a Polish poet living on the Isle of Wight, returns to her childhood spent in the Polish rural landscape of Jura Częstochowska in the 70's and 80's. The book was praised for its reach, sensual descriptions and a realistic image of childhood far from any idealization. In a recent interview, Grzegorzewska said that the landscape of Wight, where she has been living for the last 8 years, with its cliffs and ravines, reminds her of the Polish Jura region. 'It is here that I started writing about my childhood, growing up, and all my dead".
Grzegorzewska's much praised book of poetry Pamięć Smieny (Smina's Memory) was translated into English and published in the UK in 2011.
6. Katarzyna Tubylewicz Rówieśniczki (2014) - Sweden
In Katarzyna Tubylewicz's second book, three middle-aged Polish women and old friends ('Rówieśniczki' means 'of the same age') meet in Stockholm after many years of separation. The lives of three very different women are shown against the backdrop of patriarchal Poland and the liberal, if not devoid of hypocrisy, Sweden, with such contemporary problems as the relations between sexes, racism and intolerance.
Tubylewicz is a Polish writer and translator from Swedish, based in Stockholm, and a former director of Polish Cultural Institute in Stockholm.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński; Source: Polish Cultural Institute in London, 2.07.2014