Interview by Marta Mizuro

Zwierciadlo magazine, April 2010

Translated by Jan Strupczewski 

The plot of your new novel is in Brussels. Is it because you live there?

I have been living in Brussels nearly five years, the same as previously in Stockholm. Brussels, the warm centre of Europe, was a natural choice after Scandinavia. Here I took part in a photographic exhibition, depicting more than a dozen artists working in Belgium, who are not Belgian. Our photographs, taken by the excellent Belgian photographer Stefan Vanfleteren are in the centre of Brussels, on Gare de L'Ouest and will hang there for the next 10 years. Brussels is a multi-cultural city, which is very inspiring for me. I know people from around the world living here, Europeans, Congolese, Jamaicans. In theatres plays are in one language, but subtitles to what the actors are saying are displayed in three. I heard even mass is multilingual.

But in the same Brussels, so open to different cultures, your characters, Poles, despite their foreign-sounding names, experience what you called "velvet racism". Did you experience that too?

Yes, it is probably something that happens to everyone who lives abroad. You have to deal with stereotypes and tackle them "head on" - keep your cool when your hear that Poles collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War, and when you hear that there was an uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, but that there was no Warsaw Uprising. It is very difficult sometimes, your blood pressure jumps, but we have to remember that we learnt different things during history lessons at school and the only thing we can do is to make a good example of oneself. Voluntary travelers like us are sometimes ambassadors and sappers at the same time - we have to have diplomatic manners and be careful not to step on a mine. It is easy to be angry at "others" when you sit safely among your own, it is more difficult to patiently explain to non-Poles that not all Poles steal cars, that some of us have higher education. Wise people are wise both in Poland and here - they want to know more about each other, they have good will. Stupid people are everywhere - intolerant, not interested in others, aggressive. It is not a question of nationality, but a state of mind. That is why I solemnly believe in education.

Does a woman writer exploring "illegal liaisons" in the capital of the European Union have anything to do with Jonathan, also a writer?

My main character and I are both at a stage when we want to explore the other part of our personality - Jonathan his feminine side, I - my masculine side. For a person conscious oneself it is an important moment when having seen oneself in a certain role (feminine or masculine), he or she begins to discover what more there is to him or her over and above the behaviour dictated by social patterns from a given culture.
Life to some extent forces Jonathan to explore his feminine side, because when his wife gets a job in Brussels he has to take care of the kids, which he has not done before. He discovers a new connection with them and not an artificial one either - it is a strong connection, built at all times of day and night, when the child has an adult it can rely on at its side. With great pleasure I gave him the experiences of some of my men-fathers friends, who are different than their fathers or grandfathers. Who discover that being with children is not feminine, but amazing, that building your connection with a child is one of the most valuable things in life.
Jonathan is a bit of a prototype, an effect of social changes happening in front of our eyes. He is a full-time parent, his wife has a very demanding job... so the reverse of what it used to be in previous generations. This role-reversal can be seen more and more often in the modern world. But thanks to that Jonathan grows into fatherhood

Eventually Jonathan finds a job as a teacher of creative writing. Together with his students, he analyses the phenomenon of love, and at the same time he teaches them how they are supposed to put some order into their emotions, so that they can write about them. The imagination of the master himself cannot embrace what is happening to
him - namely love.

You remember the famous metaphor of the library from the "Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco? When you are inside, you do not know what shape it is. You have to get out to see it from the outside. Jonathan is in the eye of the storm called love. He knows nothing, his emotions go crazy, his mood changes from one minute to another - because everything depends on her, the one that he loves. And on the other one, the mother of his children, whom he also loves, but differently. Both feelings complement each other. Anais Nin calls it a multiplication of experience, someone else could maybe call it sin. But it is love. Only illegal. In our culture we agreed that a free man falls in love, a man already spoken for - cheats. I am stirring the hornet's nest here, casting doubt on the common belief in what is white and what is black.
What helps Jonathan is writing - not his own, but one of his students. Geert, who is dealing with difficult memories from his childhood, in the end finds a way to tackle them. It is then that something changes in Jonathan too. From that moment onwards he accepts what happens to him, all the good and bad experiences. Only in this way can he cope with it, be himself.

He is being himself, while the women - Andrea and Megi - deal the cards, even though one of them is active and the other apparently passive. Both play for stakes that a man has not idea about...

They themselves are at stake in the game they play. They fight stereotypes - one does not fit the role of a typical lover, the other discards the worn out role of a wife. Because they are different women than those who when they are young are trying to trap a husband and then spend the rest of their lives trying to keep him. We live in the 21st century, this is not the world from Jane Austin's novels, which condemned women, mainly because of economic reasons to be with a man. Megi and Andrea are modern, wise women who can easily cope financially and in every other respect without a partner. They have friends (Megi is friends with her mother), jobs, social networks - a rich life, not focused on a man. Here love is not an economic necessity (get married to survive), but a luxury ... hence something fragile. My heroines test this female costume of the 21st century, they try to find themselves in it. But in this respect they too are "inside the library" - they do not see clearly the changing reality. Fortunately, they have instinct.

I would add that apart from all that their senses are alert and the erotic scenes are quite explicit. Maybe in tolerant Brussels such depiction of love is a norm, but in Polish women's literature not really. Do you think it is going to cause a scandal?

This is homework that remains to be done in Polish literature, which I do not categorise into "women's" and other, only into popular and more ambitious. In my writing the body gains its own voice, its language. I give it back its dignity, which our culture deprived it of. The body is not a "squalid vessel", but our guide in this world. It deserves unconditional respect. The body brings us exultation, joy called love. It is sometimes sick and then we need to listen to it and take care of it. It is sometimes abused. The body in my book is happy. And very much alive. Will it cause a scandal? Maybe among those who do not understand this, because they live in separation from their bodies

photo by Stephan Vanfleteren