19 Feb 2019

I wrote Flights far from home, in an ugly place -- 2018 Man Booker Prize Laureate Olga Tokarczuk

Writing is an unpleasant profession for the family, because one must separate oneself physically and mentally. A child knows its mother is in another world, even when she is sitting in the room -- an interview with Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk

Wysokie Obcasy
Włodzimierz Nowak Wysokie Obcasy, Global
I wrote Flights far from home, in an ugly place -- 2018 Man Booker Prize Laureate Olga Tokarczuk - NewsMavens
Olga Tokarczuk, YouTube

Olga Tokarczuk is the 2018 Man Booker International Prize Laureate and National Book Award Finalist (USA) for her novel Flights, published originally in Poland in 2007, and translated by Jennifer Croft.

The following fragments from Włodzimierz Nowak's interview with Olga Tokarczuk first appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in 2010.

Włodzimierz Nowak: You once admitted that you feel like a 12 year old. So small!

Olga Tokarczuk: I often feel that way -- as if I’ve never grown up. It’s my unlimited curiosity, a kind of disorganization, a spontaneous fascination that I can’t entirely control.

WN: In [your book] "Flights", a little girl runs away from her parents on the Oder River. You were born nearby in the countryside near Sulechów. Was your father a farmer?

No, my parents were teachers working in a regional “folk university.” Today we would say they took part in a beautiful project to bring communal education to rural youth. It guess I had an atypical childhood -- I was always around adults.

I lived in the school, which stood in a large park, far from the rest of the village. It is certainly because of this that I feel very good about being alone. Maybe the internal monologues of my childhood are reflected in my writing. There was a time when I really did run away from my parents to go see the river.

I went there again, not long ago, with my partner Grzegorz. I wanted to show him the place, but someone had bought the school and the park, closed it, and put a huge dog behind the fence. I couldn’t enter. I felt that in some symbolic sense, this was the end of my youth, and I could no longer return to my childhood.

WN: In interviews and books you’ve said that the older a woman becomes the less visible she is.

Polish culture is poorly organized for those who are over fifty. These women disappear from work upon early retirement and stay home to take care of the grandchildren. Quite brutally, they cease to be “attractive,” and fall "off the shelf."

Their partners often take younger wives (I’ve always been interested in what happens to the first wives of famous men). Men don’t have to make an effort, because age threatens their positions to a much lesser degree.

In the Polish parliament and on boards of directors there are decidedly fewer women. There are fewer senior female announcers or commentators on television.

How does it happen that women are cut off, that their experience does not count for as much as men’s? This is a question for the entire culture.

I remember my first experience of this kind of injustice at the beginning of elementary school. When I came to school in the village, I knew how to read and write, so I could manage better than the others. But the teacher favored Waldek -- called on him first when he raised his hand, and praised him when he evidently hadn’t done as well on his assignment as I had. I didn’t understand why. Because I was a girl, and he was a boy? In my private psychology, I call this the “Waldek D. syndrome.”

WN: And do you remember when you became visible?

I was a weirdo and didn’t take to the generally accepted ways of accentuating my femininity. After graduating, I rushed off on my first vacation alone. It was August 1980. At the Kielce train station I went to a barber and shaved my head. People stared at me, but it would be rather hard to say that they were fascinated by my eighteen-year-old femininity.

When I started to become attractive to boys in high school, I think it wasn’t because of my body. I lived in the small town of Kietrz, near Opole, then. I had rather leftist views. I bought blue overalls like the workers in the carpet factory, and I wore them all through high school.

I was pretty talkative, had a pack of friends, and among them, gender was not a question of any importance. But one night, as I remember, one of my pals suddenly left a big bouquet of flowers on the doormat, which my father found in the morning. I felt strange, as if I had suddenly been illuminated from another angle, and something that I previously had not recognized became visible.

I was raised with the awareness that we were people first, and then women or men. I think that femininity and masculinity are too simple as categories.

From the moment a child comes out of the belly and is born, showing the sex organs, they write in the chart “boy” or “girl,” and the process of socialization begins. That is how people are shoved to one side or the other. But it seems to me that there aren’t only two sexes, but rather a wide range of combinations. I can imagine a civilization in which there would be fourteen sexes or sixty or an infinite number -- a special sex for everyone.

WN: And where are you?

Right near the middle. I’m not a terribly womanly woman.

WN: And your body? Do you remember when you started to develop breasts?

You see?! Whatever a woman does, and however important she is to others, sooner or later it always comes back to her body. Ask some prominent politician some time or some well-known male writer, how they’re managing with age, or if they remember how it was when they grew testicles, or how they balance domestic duties with writing.

In the majority of interviews I have to explain that I am a woman, that I have a body. The patriarchy struggles with the female body in culture, religion, and politics. This is its great obsession. Virgin. Whore. Impurity. Nakedness. Covering up the body. The female nude. Breast. Vagina. Vagina dentata...

WN: Enough, enough!

Fat. Thin. Chinese footbinding. Female circumcision... What a great selection of psychoses.

WN: But what about your first love?

I had a boyfriend in high school, and later I had a few relationships. I become attached to people; I care about that. I think that attachment is an underrated category of relationship between a woman and a man, as friends. I am impressed by friendships that last for 40 years, where people are faithful and absolutely loyal.

That first boyfriend led me to Bruno Schulz. We read a lot. I remember when the Polish edition of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle appeared. I experienced a kind of turning point, a revolution in my head. I discovered that it is possible to interpret anything; everything has a deeper meaning. It was as if it awakened a new sense within me.

WN: You were married at 23.

That seemed completely natural to me then. In 1984, Poland was closed. I felt like I was in a cage. After martial law, life became hopeless, decrepit. We were all in a kind of total depression. People clung to each other.

I remember a fairy tale from childhood about a misanthropic gnome. It’s stuck with me like a mantra. Someone was always coming to the gnome wanting something. The gnome got irritated and built a house in the middle of nowhere. But then something dramatic happened, I don’t remember, but I thought then that his life made no sense, if he did not seek out others.

Maturity is the discovery that in spite of the loneliness that most people painfully feel, we are bound to each other. We cannot live on our recognizance alone without a supportive solidarity with others -- partners, family, society, the world.

WN: You’ve said that writing is a very egoistic occupation.

When Zbyszko [Tokarczuk’s son] was little, sometimes I sat down to write, and he wouldn’t give me any peace. One day, he grabbed the sugar bowl and looking me in the eyes, poured the sugar on the carpet at my feet. I shouted at him, then we cleaned it up together, but I could see that I was failing somehow.

Writing is unfortunately an unpleasant profession for the family, because one must separate oneself physically and mentally. A child sees its mother, who is in another world, even when she is sitting right there in the room.

And by the way, when I read a male writer’s memoirs, I envy them their private offices and wives who bring them tea and pay the bills. The writer’s wife is a special category. Unfortunately there are only a few individual examples of female writers whose husbands cook dinner, answer the telephone…

WN: And you?

That is another topic entirely: the husbands of female writers. They are few, or they are in general not seen. Often men don’t do so well, when they feel they are in their wives’ shadows. They would rather manage on their own account.

So our marriage was a partnership. I could travel to London and earn some money, so that a year later I could focus solely on writing my first book, "The Journey of the People of the Book". I wanted everything to be in order with the family. This was 1988.

WN: What did you do?

I turned my antennas toward yachts manufacturing, which brought freaks together from all around the world and was a wonderful school for English.

I also worked in a hotel. Now it is one of the nicest hotels in London. I walked in through the main entrance and brazenly said to someone in livery that I wanted to work there. I quickly moved up the ladder and supervised the other cleaning girls. Instead of a horrible apron with pink English stripes, I got a black business dress. When I left, the manager said, “Olga, you have talent for hotel work. Stay, and you’ll have a career.”

Well, I missed out (laughs). I wrote my first story, “Numbers", there. In London, I saw real bookstores. I couldn’t afford to buy books, so I read them between the bookcases.

WN: Are you a “Runner”?

Maybe so. I couldn’t go on holiday or a vacation in one spot. Grzegorz and I were recently in Asia on a beautiful island—only a few little houses, palms, the sea. Paradise. The third day we woke up, looked at each other, and bam! Everything into the backpack, we caught a ferry and were on the road. Actually we hardly have time to stay in our apartment in Wrocław. Something is always happening, so I miss putting everything away in the drawers, lying on the couch, and thinking, “Shoot! How boring.”

WN: Writing detaches you from life. How can you stand it?

It’s true. It sucks up so much energy -- intellectual, emotional -- that you have to cut off your nice routines, friends. I think that many writers stop writing when they discover this cruel choice: writing or a full, active life. They are in no condition to accept this non-life.

When I wrote "Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead", over a very intensive five months, for several hours every day, I looked out on the street, how people were walking along, sitting in a café for three hours.

I envied them their idleness and at the same time thought, what a waste of time just to live like that.

WN: Are you able to force yourself to write for five months?

I wouldn’t know how to write a novel after work. I had to learn. When I wrote "The Journey of the People of the Book", someone told me that in Krzeszów, the Sisters of St. Elizabeth accepted residents. I stayed in the cloister for only three days, because I’d jumped out of my domestic duties and didn’t know what to do with all the time. Later there was an American stipend, but for three months, I didn’t write a sentence. Everything was too interesting.

I write best far from home in an ugly place. I arrive at night, unpack my bag and in the morning sit down to write. I write until the last day. I pack up and go. I wrote Flights in such a terrible place, in the center of Amsterdam. I knew that if I walked out of the house, I’d be drawn in by the shops, cafés, museums, so I made myself a hermitage. I woke from the trance when I ran out of soap and ate through everything in the pantry.


Translated from Polish by David Goldfarb


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