Literature | Poland

“Our trauma has a million faces”

The writer Joanna Bator is one of the most important voices of contemporary Polish literature. Her new novel is about angry women and women and deep psychological wounds. Is that coincidence or a statement?

A side portrait of the writer Joanna Bator. She has long blonde hair. On her head she wears a large wreath of flowers and berries in white, green, orange and purple. She smiles at the camera.



Interview by Dorota Danielewicz

Ms Bator, your current novel “Gorzko, gorzko” tells the story of four women from different generations of a family. How did you come up with your characters? 

The idea for “Gorzko, gorzko” came to me during a walk in a cemetery in Unisław Śląski. Before the Second World War, the place was called Langwaltersdorf and belonged to Germany. The weather was a typical characteristic of my books, that is: sleet and desolation. 

I read the first name “Winifred” on a gravestone. From this came Winifreda, the mother of Berta Koch in “Gorzko, gorzko”. Then there was a story my friend Mateusz told me about a woman called Anna Jungitsch. Allegedly, she killed her father in 1829, turned him into sausage and ate him.

I say “allegedly” because it was probably a newspaper hoax. I was struck by the symbolic power of this story: a young angry woman killing her father and consuming his body. Freud described such a situation, a ritual murder, in the “Urhorde”, where the sons murder and eat their father in order to absorb his strength.

“I wanted to tell an emancipation story in which four protagonists are united by the desire to free themselves from the constraints of their existence”

At the same time, they worship him in a bid to rid themselves of their guilt - which is the beginning of patriarchal culture. Through Anna, who consumes her father, a theme crystallised that had been maturing in me for years: an emancipation story in the form of a saga in which the fates of four protagonists intertwine, united by the desire to free themselves from the constraints of their existence.

Berta, Winifreda’s daughter, starts the story. She repeats Anna’s deed and opens a narrative about female courage, pain and hope.

You found the inspiration for your book again in your home town, near Wałbrzych, the former Waldenburg. 

With my first three novels, I felt it was a curse  to constantly return to a place where I was unhappy as a child. With the new book, I started to feel something exciting, namely that the maternal heritage is changing and expanding. Unisław Śląski, for example, which is a good ten kilometres from Wałbrzych and was where I spent the first 18 years of my life, meant nothing to me.

And all of a sudden it blossomed into one of the most important places on my biographical map because Berta was born there, Winifreda and Hans Koch’s daughter.

What is the significance of Wałbrzych for your writing? 

Wałbrzych is the place in the world and in Poland where I perceive reality in a special and unique way. I am completely open, soaking it up with all my senses, and in the end I am so flooded with stimuli that when I return home I have to spend two days in silence.

I believe that this literary sensibility is related to the very personal process of understanding oneself, one's own past, the script that was fed to me in my childhood. I could write without the most beautiful cities in the world, where I spent half my life, but I couldn't do without Wałbrzych.

During communist times, the German past of the so-called “reclaimed territories” was not spoken about. In what form did you encounter German history in Silesia during your childhood?

I spent the first six years of my life in my paternal grandparents’ house. It was a former German tenement house. After the war, my grandparents had occupied a flat there that still had items from the previous occupants who hadhad to leave. To this day I have a bowl they left there.

“My grandfather was an alcoholic, and my grandmother tried to hide this. They had many traumatic memories”

This object had something magical for me as a little girl because it was deprived of its purpose. In my grandparents' family, punch was not drunk. There is a word for everything that was formerly German: “poniemieckie”, that seeped into my mind very early. “Formerly German”, that is, those were “the others”. Traces of them had remained in the flat.

My grandparents were unhappy people. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and my grandmother tried to hide his illness from the neighbours. They were miserable in the Germans’ flat. They had many traumatic memories themselves, and they did not have a good marriage either.

My emotional foundations are shaped by the blackness and sadness of this house, where I spent six very lonely years of my life surrounded by fascinating former German objects that I related to because I had no peers to play with.

Except for my imaginary friend Helga, a German who had stayed and married a Pole. I hid with her in the cupboard where my grandmother stored a sack of sugar, just incase a war would break out again. I ate that sugarand to this day, I remember how it felt to lick the coarse grains off my finger. 

In “Gorzko, gorzko”, trauma is passed on from generation to generation. Would you say there is a collective trauma of Polish women? 

I think the common trauma is the experience of growing up in a patriarchal culture dangerously contaminated by Catholicism. Our trauma has a million faces, and at the same time, contains similarities, for example in women’s relationship to sexuality and their bodies - with a deeply implanted sense of shame that takes away our voice.

This is also a major theme of women's protests in Poland: My body belongs to me. This is not just about the compulsion to reproduce, but also about setting boundaries for oneself. The demand for a right not to one's own boundaries is new in Polish culture. We all have shameful stories of boundaries that were crossed by people who should never should have crossed them.

Today, people are discussing what happened in theatres, in show business and at universities. What happened is understood to be part of the so-called rape culture, where a man is entitled to use verbal, emotional, economic and physical violence. We are fighting against this—and slowly we are seeing some progress. 

How do you assess the women’s protests in Poland? Do you see scope for change? 

I fear, hopefully without any reason, that this tremendous energy of the streets will be squandered. And I don't know if we will have the strength to make such a strident step again. The Polish opposition is committing a new spectacular suicide every few days instead of gaining strength and exploiting this huge feminine energy.

Protests are there for a political force to emerge from them, otherwise they weaken and disappear. We need exactly what works in a democracy, namely a political party that carries this idea into parliament.

But on the current political stage, women's rights really don’t interest anyone. All that that is good is happening outside parliament, outside organised politics. 

Translated by Antje Ritter-Miller and Jess Smee