Photo credit: Monika Olek
Q&A translated by Garry Malloy.
Describe your latest book.
transports the reader to 1980s provincial Poland, to a small village in the Polish Jurassic Highland, where Catholic rites blend with pagan rituals and realism merges with magic. The villagers believe in the power of herbs, objects, and Catholic saints, such as St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost items. The color red protects you from spells. But don’t be deceived by the seemingly idyllic atmosphere: this is the Polish People’s Republic of the 1980s, an impoverished socialist country that is politically and economically dependent on the Soviet Union. This is a place where political discussion is conducted in a whisper or using Aesopian language, lest one of your neighbors be a collaborator who will denounce you to the secret police. The authorities have ordered interruptions to the supply of electricity; as a result, the lights are frequently turned off at night. Shop shelves are practically bare and you need a ration card to obtain sugar, meat, flour, and other basic foodstuffs. The winters are ruthless. Children have to line up for more than 10 hours at the department store to get a pair of shoes, and clothes for special occasions are made by local tailors. Children’s toys are homemade. We are shown around this world by a small girl named Wiola.
What was your favorite book as a child?
As a child, I especially enjoyed reading fairy tales from around the world. I think that those stories aroused my interest in different cultures and allowed me to understand them. I also read books by Jack London
and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils
by Selma Lagerlöf.
When did you know you were a writer?
I really began to feel that I was a writer — and that I ought to keep on writing — after my nomination for the Man Booker Prize, when readers from other cultures (Turkey, Japan, and India, to name but a few) began to show an interest in my world and the things I was writing about. That was an awesome experience.
What does your writing workspace look like?
Next to my bedroom I have a small, fairly dark room which overlooks my town on the banks of the Thames Estuary. I love to look out the window, watching little girls playing basketball, women hanging out washing. The room often features withered flowers (unfortunately, I forget to water them when I’m writing), a whole load of books, and a hot air balloon carved out of limewood, which I bought in an antique shop when I lived on the Isle of Wight.
The little room where I do my writing.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I think that throughout the years I have spent writing both poems and prose, I have taught myself to memorize facts and tidbits from everyday life differently than other people. In a way, it’s how I encode it in my language. For example, on June 3 this year, I was in London during the terrorist attack on London Bridge, and I engaged all my senses to take in and retain what was happening.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I don’t recall ever having had such an experience, but I can tell you a little bit about my experience as a reader. I was invited to a literary festival in Kraków; every day I would meet one of the greatest American poets (who shall remain nameless) in the little Internet café in my hotel there. If someone had told me years ago that I’d be using the same computer, breathing in the same keyboard dust, glaring at the same computer screen as my favorite American poet, I would have said they were pulling my leg. But that’s what happened. Every time I went into that Internet café, I wanted to ask him about poetry, have a discussion with him, but I was so flustered by his renown (he was a former United States Poet Laureate), that I only managed to stammer a few pleasantries. Then, late one evening, on the last day of the festival, this poet came into the café, smiled at me as though I were an old friend from the local pub, and announced that he had finally finished all of his literary engagements. Instead of seizing the opportunity to invite him for a drink, I simply mumbled, “Me, too." And then I left.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I have been living in the UK for many years, but because I spend most of my time writing in Polish, I can’t communicate well in English. I read and I translate and I learn every day, but I still have a real problem with spoken English and that really embarrasses me.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Speaking as a former bookseller, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a book that will please everyone. If a woman with similar tastes and of a similar age asked me to recommend something, I’d suggest the superbly written short stories of Henry James
. There’s a story about a woman who dreams of traveling, but who has been prevented from doing so by various social conventions and family commitments.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
Yes, my collection of contemporary Polish literature, which I read avidly, so as not to lose contact with the language which is my creative medium. The collection features a beautiful novella called Calamus
by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewic, one of my favorite Polish writers. It’s the story of an unhappy and painfully lonely doctor’s wife, Marta, who lost her two sons during the German occupation. Aging and terminally ill, she unexpectedly falls in love with a young man who is several decades her junior. The pair meet regularly at a deserted beach. The interaction between youth and maturity, Eros and Thanatos, love and death, plays out against a hot summery backdrop and leads to a dramatic climax. A film adaptation of Calamus
was directed by the renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I’ve done many things in my life: I’ve sold windows, books, I’ve hosted a late-night radio show about poetry, I’ve been a newspaper journalist, I’ve been a server in a fast food joint. I’ve been a secretary, a waitress, a sugar beet- and potato-picker — but, without a doubt, the strangest job I’ve ever had was selling cherries at a market. I describe the experience in detail in Swallowing Mercury
, in the chapter entitled “Sour Cherries”:
I don’t remember how much time passed, how many hard, sticky hours my grandmother and I measured out in pints of sour cherries. I felt more like myself again in the late afternoon, when both buckets were empty. People walked past us. Ice cream cones dripped down onto sandals. Instinctively, I started sucking the aching spot on the inside of my hand. My grandmother packed up our bags and gave me a few banknotes.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
My entire life has been a literary pilgrimage, hasn’t it?
What scares you the most as a writer?
As a writer, I share the view (and fear) expressed by Dubravka Ugrešic
, that the virtual age will bring about the end of literature:
Who knows, maybe one day there will no longer be Literature. Instead there will be literary websites. Like those stars, still shining but long dead, the websites will testify to the existence of past writers. There will be quotes, fragments of texts, which prove that there used to be complete texts once. Instead of readers there will be cyber space travelers who will stumble upon the websites by chance and stop for a moment to gaze at them. How will they read them? Like hieroglyphs? As we read the instructions for a dishwasher today? Or like remnants of a strange communication that meant something in the past, and was called Literature.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Sink or Swim: The Life and Writings of Wioletta Greg
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
My favorite sentence is the first stanza of "Water" by Philip Larkin:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Why that sentence? I would like to see some kind of metaphysical crisis, something that would supplant all world religions within a week. Let the people start believing, say, in the power of water. Perhaps then they would stop hating and killing each other because of religious reasons.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
I am particularly proud of the conclusion of my poem "Readers" (English translation by Marek Kazmierski), which conveys my thoughts on humankind: we are a unique species, but we are also weak and cruel. We want to dominate everything. Which is why we ought to change the way we think about the world, the way we treat nature and each other.
Homer said: “Nothing on Earth is weaker
Describe a recurring nightmare.
than humans.” Percentage-wise, our bodies
are mostly water, which could also make
some crazed Odysseus set sail inside us.
I have one nightmare. I dream I have returned to Poland, which has suddenly become a totalitarian state administered by a religious sect, like the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
. The nightmare begins more or less as follows:
I wake up in a strange, empty apartment. An announcer in a light blue suit flashes up on the television: “Bleep, bleep. Get out of bed." The date flickers on the lower right corner of the screen: "Thursday, December 8, 2030. Precipitation 9%, humidity 90, wind speed 3 mph, Celebration Day of the Immaculately Conceived Holy Virgin Mary."
“If you have said your prayers,” says the announcer in a solemn tone, “select 'OK' on your remote control. If you have not said your prayers yet, select ‘Back.' Should you fail to make a selection, access to all channels will be blocked. God bless.”
Do you have any phobias?
Yes, I have a few. Currently, my greatest fear is Brexit. As a migrant living in the UK, I worry about having to go through a whole host of complicated application procedures at some Home Office department, or that I’ll have to leave the UK, a country I have called home for more than a decade.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I do enjoy watching nature documentaries, especially Monkey Kingdom
(directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill) and The Fox and the Child
(directed by Luc Jacquet). I also like to watch Japanese animated films by Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli. One of my favorites is Spirited Away
(directed by Hayao Miyazaki).
I tend not to watch television — I simply can’t do it. Alas, I happily spend time checking Facebook, though.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
My father always used to tell me never to be afraid of taking a risk in life. He was right. Contrary to what we’re often told in the West, it takes more than hard work to be a success. Like Joseph Conrad
’s Lord Jim, sometimes you have drop everything, run to the nearest port, and get on a ship bound for the unknown.
What kind of book would you like to write in the future?
I dream about writing a novella like Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
, or The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro. That’s to say, I’d like to create a story about unique and complicated love.
Share a Top Five book list of your choice.
I love books that enchant readers with their mastery of language, and which change our perspectives on how we see the world and our fellow human beings. Books that transform who we are after reading them. As Richard Flanagan wrote in The Narrow Road to the Deep North
, “A good book...leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.”
Here’s my pick of some great books:
The Hunger Angel
by Herta Müller
by Angela Carter
by Stanislaw Lem
by Cormac McCarthy
The Piano Teacher
by Elfriede Jelinek
÷ ÷ ÷
is a Polish writer. She was born in a small village in 1974 in the Jurassic Highland of Poland. In 2006, she left Poland and moved to the UK. Between 1998–2012, she published six poetry volumes and a novel, Swallowing Mercury
, which spans her childhood and her experience of growing up in Communist Poland. Her short stories and poems have been published in Asymptote
, The Guardian
, Litro Magazine
, Poetry Wales
and The White Review
. Her works have been translated into English, Catalan, French, Spanish, and Welsh.