· Interview with Olga Tokarczuk ·

Pop Dreams

A Conversation with Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk is the author of several books of prose, including Prawiek i inne czasy (1996) and Dom dzienny, dom nocny (1998). A number of her books have been translated from Polish to other languages, including French, German, Czech, Danish, Dutch, and Norwegian. Regrettably, her books have not yet appeared in English translation. The excerpt following the interview is Tokarczuk’s first appearance in English. Olga Tokarczuk lives in Nowa Ruda, Poland.

Kim jastremski (2B): I’ve noticed a lot of talk about you not only in academic journals but also in women’s magazines, Twój styl and the like. Who do you think reads your work?

Olga Tokarczuk: It seems to me that it’s a little bit different in the West, but in Poland it’s not so good for a writer to appear in the so-called "low-style" press. Most writers in Poland are very careful not to be seen in such magazines. I guess I’m not afraid to, though, because my books speak for me. Certainly not all readers, male or female, read literary journals, like Odra or Fraza. And maybe they would never have heard of me otherwise, so this gives me a chance to reach a wider audience. And my books are such that… I think of them as "boxes within boxes," that on one level they’re books to read on the train, it’s possible to read them as family sagas, as adventure stories, but a more demanding reader will find something deeper there.

2B:        Do you think that most of your readers are women?

OT. I think so. I don’t want to differentiate too much between women and men here, but it seems to me that women preserve that responsiveness to reading longer. More women than men come to my readings.

2B:        I would say that Prawiek and Dom present the world through women’s eyes. You’ve said somewhere that you draw a lot from women’s gossip.

OT. Well, yes. What women talk about, that’s a kind of gossip: it’s perceived as more feminine, this interest in the person, in what’s going on inside him, his internal life made external. At the same time I think what’s closer to women is the distance with which history is treated. History serves more as a backdrop and not as the most important field of events. I think the world is clearly becoming more feminine. In Poland, especially after these various changes, people are tired of all this talk about history, about politics, about Solidarity. They’d like to experience an ordinary life, the mystery of that life, and that is in my books.

2B:The literary critic Aleksander Fiut has written that one of the features of Polish postmodernism is an "escape from history" and a "retreat from the fatherland." Is this true of your books?

OT. In Dom, my latest book, history does appear, in the theme of Polish-German relations, the Regained Territories. It’s a very new theme. Few people have written about it. I tell the whole story as if looking at a map, that is, speaking from a point of view above it all, only I tell the story from the kitchen, from the home. How it was to have two families in one kitchen, two women cooking and unable to understand one another. How it looked from that side, from the inside. An intimate view. I don’t think this is an "escape from history," just a different perception of history.

2B: Do you consider your work to be "postmodern"?

OT. I do. I don’t consider that word to be so pejorative. Readers are different now, more demanding, with vivid imaginations, and to read a modernist book, as opposed to postmodernist, is often simply boring to them. That’s why my books are made up of sort of MTV videos- short clips. You can start reading anywhere, in any order. I think this is a feature of postmodernism, this video-clip narrative.

2B:        I’ve been wondering how the title of Prawiek i inne czasy could be translated into English without losing that sense of play with the concepts of time and space. "Prawiek" (which can be translated as “the long ago" or "time immemorial") is, in the novel, a place, a small town. And "inne czasy" refers literally to "other times," but also to other events in space, because the novel is arranged in "czasy," units of time, but measured only by the events which occur within them.

OT:        Yes, I really liked the title of Prawiek. It does contain a word play that is unfortunately lost in translation: the French translation has a completely different title, and the Dutch and Danish translations lose that simultaneity of time and place, the sense that "Prawiek" is also a place. Furthermore, the French translator treated the whole story very literally. But this is a story-and this is clear in the Polish-that is told with distance, a little bit biblically. The narrator treats the whole thing slightly ironically: "And then God… and then something else…" And I fear that if this tone is lost in translation, then the book becomes simply a heavy family saga. But I don’t have any influence on any of this. I think in this regard Dom will be easier to translate. The language is simpler.

2B:        Flut identifies another typical feature of Polish postmodernism as the treatment of people and places on the periphery. Do you take your subjects from these peripheries?

OT. Particularly in these last two books. I tried in Prawlek and Dom... to create from the periphery an axis of the world, a center of the world. Also, I try to write about what’s closest to me, because then I have more energy with which to write. So, Prawiek is a description of the world of my childhood, the place we used to go in the summers, and my grandparents… a picture of this child’s world. And Dom depicts Nowa Ruda, my present reality. When you live somewhere, when you take root somewhere, you have the most to say about that place. I think the weakness of my first two books, Podroz ludzi Ksiegi and E.E., is precisely that I tried to write about something that didn’t concern me as much. They describe worlds which, while they are close to me somehow, it’s in a more intellectual way. That closeness doesn’t come from the heart. Podroz is the book that I consider least "mine." It’s a novel written by a reader and not a writer. It’s written by someone who’s fascinated with literature and so tried to write in a literary style, not to create anything of her own. On the other hand, it’s very universal in that it tells a myth of searching for some kind of order in the world, searching for meaning. In that way it’s very accessible.

2B:        When you start a new novel, do you already know the form, or the frame in which the story will be told?

OT- No. When I begin to write I have just a general feeling. My style of working is such that, if you asked me at the beginning what a book was going to be about, I would have to say I don’t know. That is, I more or less have an intuition about it. When I started to write Dom I knew that I wanted to write a kind of chronicle, an archive of this place. And I wrote various threads of it at the same time, and they began to weave themselves together, and I started to see the common meaning. But that meaning came about on its own, I didn’t create it. I think I’m a writer who trusts the subconscious, who abides by the subconscious process of creation. I’m a psychologist by training, and it seems to me that the writing process is also a psychic process, to a great extent independent of consciousness. When I begin to get the feeling that I’m in the midst of some theme, then I simply try not to limit it, not to plan, and just to write down what comes into my head. That has been the technical process of all four of my novels. I usually don’t know how they will end, I don’t know what will happen to the characters, but because of that writing is more interesting to me. It’s as if I’m also making my way toward the end, and I want to find out what’s going to happen, too.

2B:        As a psychologist, would you agree with Lacanian theory that the reader is the Other?

OT. No, I don’t really like a lot of what Lacan said. I don’t serve the reader, in the sense that I don’t work for him, or under him. I suspect that one book can be a thousand books for a thousand different readers, that a book is like a projection screen, or a Rorschach test-you have a bunch of blobs, and the writer’s job is to create the blobs, but the biggest effort is required of the reader, the effort of understanding, of interpreting them. And readers are all different, some are very simple, and some are very philosophical. But I only start to worry about the reader when the book is already finished. That’s sometimes frightening because the book is already done and I can’t do anything about it.

2B:        The idea of the reader, then, doesn’t influence the structure your novels take?

OT.        That’s right. And I think I’m a classicist when it comes to language. For me language is only a tool by which to bring about an image. I’m not interested in language games. And in this regard I don’t concentrate on the form. Language serves to depict something. My urge to play with the reader is not in the language, not in the form, not in the plot, but more in the construction of images. I think of my writing as writing in pictures, that is, the translation of images into words, and I want to construct these images so that they will be, as I said, open to interpretation. These images have a certain degree of complexity, because I know that there are different types of people, and I’d like each of them to be able to get something.

2B:        You use very poetic language in your novels…

OT.        It seems to me that poetic language is effective because it is paradoxical. If we think of self-knowledge as the gradual awareness of that which is subconscious, or as the naming of the subconscious, then only such a language is effective. Poetry lives on the edges of the mind, it is taken from there. That’s why good poetry should be a revelation for both the writer and the reader.

I personally think that the difference between poetry and prose is that poetry, for me, is like a chain of atemporal insights. Prose is always embedded in time, in process, and because of this is broader, it flows along a wider riverbed and-if it’s written well it can contain poetry within itself. For that reason I prefer prose, it’s more satisfying to me.

2B: How would you describe your practice, or your understanding of poetry?

OT. I see poetry as an intuitive description of insights. By insight I mean the realization of fact, of phenomenon, of coincidence, of idea, an immediate feeling, here and now, in its entirety. It is a realization beyond words-this is why poetry is art: its purpose is to find language for that which is beyond language, It is the attempt to name the everyday, common "peak experiences," whatever they might involve.

2B:        What does one get out of reading poetry, psychologically, intellectually, spiritually?

OT- For me poetry is more like gnosis than like a desperate search for salvation. By gnosis I mean simply the broadening of our awareness, even if this is an "Indescribable" awareness. But very rich prose can do this as well as poetry.

2B: Then what is the difference between poetry and prose?

OT. Exactly, there isn’t a difference. The verisimilitude of prose is an accident of history. The basic difference between poetry and prose is their relationships with time, or their engagement of time. On the one hand you have insight, on the other story.

2B: Prawiek will soon be published in English as well-how do you feel about this?

OT.- For a writer from Poland to be translated into English is very ennobling and fascinating to me, because it gives such an author access to a huge market, including the States, Canada, Ireland, maybe New Zealand… I’ll be able to reach so many people. At the same time I always have misgivings (although less now than I used to) about whether what I write is translatable into the experience of someone from another country. When I was in-Holland, it seemed to me that the Dutch who came to my readings asked questions very similar to the ones Poles ask, which might be proof that my work is translatable and somehow universal.

2B:        But in your work things have an existence which English speakers might not notice, because for them objects are always inanimate.

OT.- Yes, that’s very much a part of my work, that things hold memory. Sometimes it even seems to me that this is a major source of my writing: reading objects. I have a lot of various old odds and ends around, and it gives me much more pleasure to be in the company of old things, used things, than with new ones, precisely because they have their own histories to tell. Fortune-tellers work that way; they take some object and say, "Oh, here there was… and here we had…" Of course, I don’t have such talents, but I play at something like that when I write.

2B: Whom do you read yourself?

OT. Do you know Philip Dick? I don’t know how this will sound to an American, but I think he is one of the best American writers. He’s simply amazing: he uses pop culture, pulp fiction, signs and images taken from such a pop imagination, to tell very philosophic and even religious stories, a bit like translating the Bible into a comic book. There are a lot of Dick fan clubs on the Internet.

2B:        The Internet and computers seem to play an important role in your recent writing-in the Szafa collection, and in Dom.

OT. I constantly need intellectual stimulation. The computer is a real blessing in my case, for that fast contact with people. I live in a small village-the library here is fairly well-stocked, but I can’t get Angela Carter’s stories there, for example. But since I have the Internet, it’s just a couple of steps and bing! I’m in! I’ve discovered a lot of things there that have inspired me.

2B:        Is this a fairly new thing in Polish literature, writing about the Internet and computers?

OT.- Yes, probably. But, you know, this fascination of mine with the Internet, and particularly with dreams, this motif in Dom, was something I made up. I didn’t know when I was writing the book that there were websites on the Internet where people describe their dreams. I found them afterwards, and you can imagine my surprise. Dreaming is a very important form of describing reality, as an extension of the knowledge of my own life, of myself, of the world. And the art of recording dreams is one of the highest schools of literature, precisely because a dream is beyond language, so the writer who would only use language itself isn’t able to describe it. In general, dreams are among the most important inspirations in my writing and also in my life.

I recently got a magazine in the mail, Characters. I had written a piece for them, and they were having a contest: "Describe Your Best Dream," and people sent in their dreams. The editor sent them on to me, because he knew that’s an interest of mine. Yesterday I sat in my kitchen and read these dreams-the dreams of such ordinary people, from small towns, handwritten or typed out-and these dreams were so extraordinary! A kind of spontaneous literature, little pearls of literature, created-well, I don’t know how that happens, that’s a great mystery, how dreams are dreamed.

Interview conducted by Kim Jastremski
Kim Jastremski is a freelance translator. A Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she spent last year in Cracow, Poland, on a Fulbright, researching her dissertation on Czeslaw Milosz.