Writer, columnist, teacher, specialist in cultural anthropology and gender studies.
She was born on February 2nd, 1968 in Walbrzych. As a scholar of the Tempus programme (jointly financed by Kosciuszko Foundation and Japanese government), she has worked at universities in London (1998-1999), New York (1999-2000) and Tokyo (2001-2002). She currently teaches at the Department of Culture at the Polish-Japanese Institute of Information Technology in Warsaw. She is also known for articles published in National Geographic and Voyage.
She is the winner of the Beata Pawlak Prize, awarded for books on anthropology, for her Japoński Wachlarz (The Japanese Fan, 2004). Her other outstanding works, Piaskowa góra (Sandy Hill, 2009) and Chmurdalia (2010, Cloudalia) earned her nominations for the most prestigious Polish literary award, Nike, which she finally received in 2013 for her recent book Ciemno, prawie noc (Dark, Almost Night).
Given that Bator is a feminist, her first novel, entitled Kobieta (A Woman, 2002), should be considered a manifesto. The message of the book may be hard to determine as it balances on the border between fiction and autobiography. The identity of the heroine is built on her erudition, functioning in manic-depressive cycles and her relationships with men, which allow her identity to be constructed over and over again from the very beginning. Lou Andreas-Salome, psychoanalyst, Rilke’s lover and Nietzsche’s fan, is an important reference for this story. For Bator, she epitomises the image of the present-day, liberated artist.
Japoński wachlarz / Japanese fan on the other hand, can be read in two ways: as an in-depth report on Bator’s stay in Japan or as a loose, sometimes chatty, but at the same time scientifically grounded, description of Japanese culture, with a specific focus on relationships between sexes. Bator is not only a great observer, but also she makes use of participant observation, e.g. not hesitating to take up a job of hostess for this purpose. The combination of a personal and emotional point of view with a scientific attitude makes this book incredibly interesting.
The action of Piaskowa góra / Sand Mountain is set in the author’s home town of Wałbrzych, in a working class neighbourhood. In fact, the whole novel, written with peculiar, seemingly chaotic language, can be regarded as a history of the place, narrated from the perspective of one family and covering about thirty years. Juliusz Kurkiewicz summarised this story:
While making use of standard features of the saga, Bator transforms them aesthetically and ideologically. She narrates the stories of each heroine non-linearly, allowing herself to go in for multiple digressions. She is reluctant to use the conservative conventions of the saga genre : the succession of generations as the inheritance of blood and values defining ones identity and constituting the dignity of an individual.
Chmurdalia is a quite deceitful continuation of Piaskowa góra. Unlike Piaskowa góra, Chmurdalia has nothing in common with a typical saga, and can be regarded as the formal equivalent of the main character’s (Dominika Chmura) emancipation. Kinga Dunin wrote about Dominika Chmura:
She constantly changes her whereabouts, not being specifically tied to any of them. She does not care about material goods, she engages in various relationships, even close ones, but never addictive. She is the only one who is not obsessed with telling her story to others. She is more of an empty room, a medium, through which other people’s stories flow by.
Dominika Chmura did not always behave like this. Somehow surviving a potentially deadly car accident became an impetus for the change. Paradoxically, this harsh experience gave her power, essential for her rejection of her family-imposed lifestyle. Dominika becomes a person living on a permanent rush, travelling non-stop, just to avoid petty-bourgeois stabilisation. For the author, her attitude is definitely positive. She gave expression to it in an interview:
No one is bound to a single place or a single story. There is much more than patriarchal family, and crucified – masochist – Poland. There are niches you can use as a starting point for your own story.
Bator criticises also the aura of extreme seriousness that surrounds questions of national memory and historical identity, ironically introducing a symbol - Napoleon’s chamber pot, which immediately becomes an object of desire for the novel’s characters.
Nike Award / Ciemno, prawie noc
Bator’s works, regardless of its undoubted literary qualities, is to be considered as an anthropological project, which leads to idea of people’s mobility and willingness to understand each other.
In Ciemno prawie noc / Dark almost night, Joanna Bator goes back to Walbrzych again. This time she goes further, leaving the ‘safe‘ narrative of the past and delving into Poland's issues with groups ostracised by society. She explained to Gazeta Wyborcza:
Ciemno prawie noc is a novel born out of a growing sense of helplessness and despair: Words are not only meaningful, they can also make things happen.. They can become flesh, light a fire, make someone die, trample, be eliminated. Gypsies, Jews, women, mutts, cyclists, what's the difference.
For the book Ciemno prawie noc she received the Nike Award in 2013.
In 2014 she published a collection of short reportages about the life of an European woman in Japan, entitled Rekin w parku Yoyogi / A Shark from Yoyogi Park. Once again the author attempts to understand an 'exotic' culture covered by a series of stereotypes about geishas, kimonos and sushi. Bator's approach is most of all one of an anthropologist, who never ceases to be surprised, and never ceases to try to understand.
I graduated as a cultural anthropologist. Stereotypes are interesting to us as a study subject, and we try to be very self-conscious not to use them ourselves. People say that anthropology is a constant state of surprise. That's how I feel in Japan. Every time, everyday I found something that surprised me, delighted me and which I wanted to take a closer look at and understand. Everyday I found some shark. It was enough just to look through the window or go to a small shop around the corner - said the author in an interview for Onet (18.03.2014).
'Disappeared without a trace'
Bator's following book, Wyspa łza / Island tear (2015), created together with photographer Adam Golec, was born out of the author's interest in a young American, Sandra Valentine, who disappeared on Sri Lanka in 1989. The book was written 'by accident', while the author worked on her following novel - Rok królika / Year of the Rabbit. As Bator recalled, after she wrote Ciemno prawie noc, the phrase 'disappeared without a trace' didn't seem to leave her mind. It became the beginning of this new story.
I used to put the words 'disappeared without a trace' into the search engine, and I read many sad, incredible stories, but the one which drew my attention was about Sandra Valentine. A succesful girl from Manhattan, a pretty blonde, has not been found until now. She disappeared on the island in 1989. Her story was the catalyst for my following novel, Year of the Rabbit. When I went deep into the subject and started writing, everything seemed to fall into place. Anna Karr, the protagonist of Year of the Rabbit, appeared, and I already knew where and why she would vanish. But Sandra Valentine still didn't leave my mind - said Bator in a conversation with Juliusz Kurkiewicz and Damian Piwowarczyk ("Gazeta Wyborcza", 5.01.2015).
The long anticipated Year of the Rabbit was published in 2016. The main protagonist is a writer of popular romance books, who decides to leave her former identity behind and escape to a hotel in Ząbkowice Śląskie - a city which in German is called Frankenstein. The place hides a dark secret.
Published in 2017, the novel Purezento, ‘gift’ in Japanese, is Bator's first novel set in the Land of the Cherry Blossom. The ink-black cover with golden veins is a representation of the art of kintsugi, the repair of ceramics by combining broken elements with resin and powdered gold. It is the reconstruction that is the axis of the unnamed narrator’s story, whose boyfriend dies in dramatic circumstances and earlier cheats on her. Following the advice of the old lady Myōko, whom she Polish at a school for foreigners, she goes on a trip to Japan to find spiritual renewal.
- Kobieta, Twój Styl, Warsaw 2002.
- Japoński wachlarz, Twój Styl, Warsaw 2004.
- Piaskowa Góra, W.A.B., Warsaw 2009.
- Chmurdalia, W.A.B., Warsaw 2010.
- Las samobójców, Bluszcz, Warsaw 2010.
- Japoński wachlarz. Powroty, W.A.B., Warsaw 2011.
- Ciemno, prawie noc, W.A.B., Warsaw 2012
- Rekin z parku Yoyogi, Warszawa: W.A.B., 2014
- Wyspa łza, Kraków: Znak, 2015
- Rok królika, Kraków: Znak, 2016.
- Purezento, Kraków: Znak, 2017.
- Feminism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis. Philosophical dylemas of sceond wave feminists. Wyd. słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2001
- Le Mont-de-Sable 9Piaskowa Góra0, transl. Caroline Raszka-Dewez, Lausanne: Les Editions Noir sur Blanc, 2014
- Sandberg 9Piaskowa Góra0, trans. Esther Kinsky, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2011, 2014
- Piaskowa Góra, trans. Ilay Halpern, Keter Books, 2012
- Homokhegy (Piaskowa Góra), trans. Péter Hermann, Budapest: Magvető, 2011
- Homokfelhő (Chmurdalia), trans. Herman Péter, Budapest: Magvető, 2014
- Piesoczna planina (Piaskowa Góra), trans. Aneta Todewska, Skopije: Makedonska Riecz, 2013
Author: Paweł Kozioł, July 2011, translated by W.O. 23.01.2014, update: NMR, December 2016.