On the 20th anniversary of the introduction of martial law in Poland, Marzena Sowa recounted her childhood in communist Poland to a group of historians and politicians gathered in Brussels at NATO headquarters. Earlier, she described it in the comic book Marzi, which was published in France and Belgium and translated into English, Spanish, Italian, German, Korean and Chinese.
We wouldn’t know the story of Marzi if Marzena Sowa, who was born in 1979 in Stalowa Wola, hadn’t decided to study French literature in Bordeaux after she completed the third year of her French philology studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Before she became a comic-book scriptwriter, she worked as a translator of documentaries. In France she met her life partner, the draughtsman Sylvain Savoia, who encouraged her to write down her childhood memories and give them the form of a comic book.
The action of Marzi takes place in Poland in the 1980s. A red-haired girl living in a concrete apartment block is the heroine. Each part of the comic book is made up of short stories showing different aspects of everyday life in communist Poland. Some of the tales may seem improbable to foreign readers, for instance the story about a group of neighbours who jointly buy a freezer and use it as storage space for meat bought in the countryside. And the episode involving a great feast organized during a power failure may seem unlikely. However, as emphasized by Marzena Sowa, Marzi is a fully autobiographic story. The author only changed the names of the characters, as she explains in an interview with the magazine Polityka:
We didn’t make a comic book about epic history, we made one about the life of ordinary people. About the everyday realities of communist Poland from a simple man’s perspective. The French knew nothing about this. We filled in a gap.
Sowa and Savoia’s achievement was nominated for best comic book of the year 2008 at the International Comic Book Festival in Angouleme, France. In 2012 the volume A Memoir (released in Poland as Children and Fish Don’t Have a Voice) competed for the Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Award in the Best Album Based on True Events category. Sowa is the first Pole nominated for this award, sometimes called the Oscar of comic books. Marzi also received warm reviews in the U.S., where it was issued by the renowned Vertigo imprint. Mike Carey, the world-famous comic book script writer, author of the series about Felix Castor, described Marzi as,
an innocent observer of world-shaking events (who is) an utterly delightful and compelling narrator. Very seldom a book shows the world of grown-ups from the perspective of a child so perfectly.
Marzi was compared to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003), the famous novel in graphic form, which tells the story of a young girl growing up in the times of the Islamic revolution in Iran. In an interview with Culture.pl, Sowa explains,
I read Persepolis when people began comparing it to Marzi. Satrapi undoubtedly cleared the way for autobiographical comic books. We both work in France and tell stories about the history and culture of the countries we come from. However I write from the perspective of a little girl, whereas for Satrapi childhood is just an element of her story.
For her newest comic, Children and People, Sowa collaborated with French draughtswoman Sandrine Revel. This isn’t an autobiographical tale, but the author of the script once again tells the story from the perspective of a child. The action takes place in Poland in the 1950s.
Together with some friends from France and Belgium we were thinking about what times we would like to live in. For them the choice was obvious – right after the Second World War. They associated this period of building everything from scratch with new energy, a new beginning. I asked myself what was going on in my country in the 1950s. After all that was my parents’ childhood. I remembered my grandmothers’ stories. I started building my tale from there. That period seemed fascinating to me.
Wiktor, a schoolboy, is the hero of Children and People. During a projection of a movie about Stalin he attempts to kiss a female friend. The scream of the surprised girl interrupts the screening. This small incident, in the realities of a totalitarian regime, sets a machine of repression in motion: interrogations, accusations of anti-social activity, attempts to use the child in political intrigues of the grown-ups.
While writing Marzi, Sowa knew how the story was going to unfold because it was based on real events. All of the characters existed or exist in reality. "There were no surprises", says the author. Work on Children and People gave new possibilities.
I could steer the lives of my characters. Sometimes it was them who led me. The effects were surprising also because Sandrine interpreted my words with her drawings.
The comic book is receiving positive reviews in France. It premiered in Poland on the 5th of October 2012 at the International Festival of Comic Books and Games in Łódź.
Sowa writes in a style that readers across the world consider understandable and stirring. After she left Poland, she had distanced herself from Polish history. "I realized that all in all I had a happy childhood. I was worried more by the fact that I’m an only child rather than by living in communism", she says. Today she lives between two cultures. She resides in Brussels. Outside of Poland she is perceived as a Pole. After years of emigration she felt alienated from her home country.
Now, thanks to her contacts with the Polish comic-book circles, she is rebuilding her bond with Poland. Together with Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz she is preparing the comic book Uprising, in which war and the Warsaw Uprising are used as a background for three love stories. The premiere in France and Poland is planned for 2014.
Presently Sowa is also working with Sylvain Savoia on the next parts of Marzi’s adventures. This time the girl will go for summer camp to the Baltic seashore. The writer is also planning to write a story set in contemporary realities. "I would like to tell a tale about Poles emigrating abroad", she tells Culture.pl.
Author: Ewa Bender, October 2012
Sources: Centrala, Booklips, Aleja Komiksu, Egmont