A.M. Bakalar is an author whose work explores the complicated experiences and multifaceted identities of Polish immigrants in England. Her first novel, Madame Mephisto, was published in 2012.
Author whose work explores the complicated experiences and multifaceted identities of Polish immigrants in England. Her first novel, Madame Mephisto, was published in 2012.
From Student to Author
A.M. Bakalar (Asia Monika Bakalar) is the nom de plume of Joanna Zgadzaj, born March 3rd, 1975 in Wrocław. She completed a degree in English Literature at the University of Wrocław, reading the works of many authors she admires to this day – George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, and Joyce Carol Oates.
After leaving her native Poland, Bakalar lived in Sicily, Canada, Germany, and France. In 2007, she began work on a doctorate at Birckbeck College, London in the Department of Comparative Literature. Focusing on postcolonial studies and contemporary Nigerian, Zimbabwean, and Polish literature, she later transferred to the University of Southampton. It was while working on her doctoral dissertation that she wrote (and published) her first novel, Madame Mephisto.
Though always passionate about literature, Bakalar harbored no desires to be an author. Rather, she began her manuscript to prove that she was not cut out to write fiction – the resulting novel was unexpected. She recalls,
I didn’t want to write fiction, I wanted to read and then write about, fiction. But the more stories I told my friends, the more they pressured me to start writing, I didn’t think I knew how to do it. I was getting fed up with people telling me to write a novel so I sat down one day to prove that I couldn’t. I had no idea it was going to be so much fun. Three months later I had a first draft. I resigned from my Ph.D and decided to focus on writing fiction.
Now working on her novel, Bakalar lives in London with her partner, a British drum and bass musician.
I was whoever they wanted me to be, a kaleidoscopic image with multiple colour combinations, a creature who was accustomed to the environment, until my own self adapted so that I was not there anymore. [Bakalar, Madame Mephisto]
Madame Mephisto tells the story of Magda, a “hardcore drug-dealing queen,” or perhaps, “a guarding angel.” With the action split between London (the base of Magda’s growing drug business) and Poland (her native country, to which she returns for a funeral), the novel features its protagonist’s direct account of her life.
Crime is a risk analysis and I reward generously for protection. Loyalty, even if bought, is a powerful ally. Now, let’s leave the story about my client for later. I know you would like to hear about them but first things first, I promise I will come back to that. [Bakalar, Madame Mephisto]
Readers are invited to decipher what is believable in Magda’s narrative and to whom her speech is directed. One also questions the degree to which her account reflects the character’s manipulative self-myth making. After all, “can you really trust somebody who is two people, how do you know when to believe a professional liar?”
Published in 2012 by Stork Press – a house dedicated to “giving voice to new writers from Central and Eastern Europe” – Madame Mephisto has been very well received by critics and readers alike. In 2012 it was a reader submission to The Guardian’s First Book Award. Praised not only for its captivating story, Bakalar’s novel has been recognized for its perspective on the immigrant experience and the life of contemporary women. Max Liu, of The Times Literary Supplement, writes,
Madame Mephisto shows how both totalitarianism and theocracy oppress women and infantilize men. Bakalar…captures how isolating London can be for newcomers.
A Perspective on Poles in London
Madame Mephisto is a story not only of its protagonist’s negotiation of two worlds, but also of its author’s. Like Magda, Bakalar is woman defined by two homes – her native Poland, and her adopted England. Her novel, written in English, is a reflection of this multifaceted identity and an investigation of contemporary immigrant experience. Discussing her writing process and decision to work in English, Bakalar underscores the degree to which consideration of such complexities affected her.
I was obsessed, while writing Madame Mephisto, trying to understand the predicament of living in two countries, physically and mentally, and at the same time releasing my protagonist Magda, and myself as a writer, from any obligation towards my home country. Writing in English allows me to have dual identities. I feel more comfortable in my English skin than in my Polish.
Choosing to write in a second language gave me a new identity, the chance mentally to abandon my mother country, freedom to look at my Polishness from a completely different angle.
Madame Mephisto in not the only text in which Bakalar writes on the experience of Poles abroad. She has been published in The Guardian, The International New York times, Wasafiri, BODY, and Litro Magazine, often on the topic of immigration and perception of immigrants in the United Kingdom.
Alena Aniskiewicz 27.06.2014
- Madame Mephisto (Stork Press, 2012)
- Whatever makes you sleep at night (Wasafiri, 2013)
- Writing in a Second Language (Bookoxygen, 2012)
- My Top Ten Nigerian Books (Litro, November 2012)
- Polish People Are Britain’s Invisible Minority (The Guardian, December 2012)
- 10 Polish Books You Should Be Reading (Litro, June 2013)
- An Important Lesson for Polish Migrants in Before You Go (The Guardian, 2013)
- Writing Mothers: Spatial-Textual Formations in Nigerian Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen and Pole Anna Janko’s The Girl with Matches in Women’s Voices and Feminism in Polish Cultural Memory (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
- Britain's Poles are Paying Their Way (The New York Times, 2014)