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Kim Rooney interviews Eva Stachniak

Kim Rooney interviews Eva Stachniak

Posted by on Aug 9, 2011

This interview was first published atwww.hagsharlotsheroines.com in 2006

It is not until I am nearing the end of my hour-long interview with novelist Eva Stachniak that I ask her for the year she was born. I know she is a child of the 1950s, that generation born in the austere aftermath of the Second World War. Yet I have hesitated to enquire specifically lest being ‘fifty-something’ is a fact Eva might wish to bury.

But Eva Stachniak does not want to conceal her age or anything else about her life. Born 1952 in Wroclaw in the south-west of Poland, Eva is deeply aware that personal and collective histories cannot and must not be denied.

After a millennium of conflict during which Wroclaw (or Breslau as the town is known in German) belonged to Poland, Bohemia, Austria, and, from 1741 to Prussia, her home town was eventually ‘returned’ to Poland.

Eva’s generation, raised amid the “sea of ruins” left by a defeated, retreating German army, were encouraged not to think beyond the town’s fanatical Nazi defence of 1945 or its Communist present. This ‘forgetting’ meant that when she left for Canada in her late twenties, she felt it easy to leave Wroclaw, a place seemingly without history.

Eva recalls that when curious Canadians asked where she came from, her first accounts were of her life in a “drab, communist country”. But soon the need came to look beyond the memories of daily deprivations, and understand the country of her youth and the mixed heritage of the town she had left behind. This need to question the silence of the past became the impetus for writing that eventually turned itself into novels:Necessary Lies and Dancing with Kings.

“As a writer,” says Eva, “I like to think of the past as our cradle, not our prison. It should inspire to new vistas, but it should not contain us. It should be the beginning and not the end of our journey.” In leaving Poland, Eva was to discover the beginning of her writing career. “I needed the distance to my culture and my past; I needed the experience of emigration before I could transform my desire to write into reality.

In 1981, after the imposition of the martial law that seemed to have crushed the Solidarity movement in Poland, Canada was very welcoming to Polish immigrants. But I soon realised the Polish experience barely existed in the Canadian consciousness and literature.” Yet writing was a journey that took time. Although she wrote articles on Poland during the early 1990s, her first short story ‘Marble Heroes’ was not published until 1994. Unsurprisingly it is a story of cross-cultural confusion, about a Canadian teacher going to newly transformed Poland for the summer to teach English: “She is caught between her naïve understanding of the Solidarity experience and the rough reality of the fall of communism and ends up bruised and bewildered by her experience.” But the move into fiction had been made and a year later Eva began working on Necessary Lies.

Necessary Lies, as the title suggests, is about the untruths told by both individuals and nations in their creation of identity. It’s the tale of a Polish immigrant’s return toWroclaw, the city of her youth, after 10 years in Canada, to face those she has left behind. This is not so much a morality tale on betrayal and social recasting as an examination of the pain of confronting the nature of truth. “Truth is never an absolute,” says Eva. “It’s a myth of childhood that there is one truth and, for me, the confrontation with that childhood need for oversimplification becomes essential both on a personal and national level.”

The novel took five years to write and won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. Eva admits to being “very meticulous” with her sources. She interviewed Germans in Canada and travelled back to Poland and Germany for insights into the life in pre-war Breslau and the dramatic exodus of women and children from the burning city in the winter of 1945.

There is a strong autobiographical element to the novel: the main character Anna arrives in Canada from Poland in 1981 to study English at McGill University just as Eva did. However Anna’s life takes a very different turn, for she falls in love with a Breslauer, a German Canadian for whom she leaves her Polish husband. Eva does not shy away from admitting: “Writers always make use of personal experience. It is a starting point of fiction. Necessary Lies enabled me to use stories and events from my past and enrich them with the experience of my generation. Especially women like me, who left Poland on the eve of the Solidarity crisis and, years later, needed to reflect on this life-changing decision.”

And so we are back to age and specifically what this means to a writer. Before she began working on Necessary Lies, Eva took a writing workshop taught by Margaret Atwood. Safe in the workshop’s “very encouraging atmosphere”, she confided to the successful award-winning author that she felt she’d perhaps ‘come to writing too late’. The reply was brisk and heartening. “You know more when you are older. You have a wider range.” For Eva this was a much-needed affirmation of the value of experience. “Older writers have seen more, have more memories. They can identify with themselves at different stages in your life. That’s not a bad beginning.”

Eva’s second book, Dancing with Kings, was a move away from personal memory into historical fiction. It was not however a retreat from the immigrant experience. The novel tells the story of La Belle Phanariote, Sophie Glavani, an 18th century Greek immigrant to Poland who transforms herself from courtesan to countess. Aided by her beauty, charm, and ruthless lies, Sophie becomes Countess Potocka, the wife of one of Poland’s richest aristocrats at a time when Poland was losing its own independence and facing tragic choices. Although different in genre, Eva stresses that both novels “are in some ways the same story. They explain where I’m from. They examine the transformation of national myths, the retelling of personal narratives that become necessary once you look at your native culture through the eyes of the other.”

Again the research was painstaking although Eva admits it was often frustrating because of the gaps and silences of historical documents, reticent on the daily experience of women’s lives. The novel recreates the times of Sophie’s triumphs, but also the reality of the last weeks of her life when she lies dying of cancer in a Berlin palace. This by itself provided challenges. “I have to see things clearly before I can make the reader see them too, so I had to learn a lot about early 19th century medicine. About the daily life of doctors, nurses, about the experience of a terminal illness at that time.”

In Dancing with Kings, Eva is not only retelling Sophie’s story but Poland’s too, for the countess’s colourful life becomes far more meaningful when examined in the context of the times. During Sophie’s life, Poland loses its last bid for independence, is seduced by Napoleon’s promises of resurrection (which he betrays), and is left clinging to its identity under foreign partitions. Sophie and other characters in the novel have to face these transformations, redefine the meaning of betrayal and sacrifice whilst questioning their own understanding of national identity. “History is not innocuous. It makes demands; it shapes our understanding of the world. This is why it has to be revisited, re-examined from many points of view.”

There are strong themes of exile and alienation, personal and cultural in both novels. These are universal believes Eva: “We are all, in one way or the other, in the constant process of leaving; our childhoods, youths, our old ideals, convictions, truths. Yet to not lose our identity we have to keep integrating the past and the present, forge links between what we leave behind and what we embrace.” Moreover, “women” she continues, “experience additional alienation in the public sphere where identity is still seen as male and economic.

Through Eva’s characterisation of an 18th century Polish countess, we can see parallels for many women’s lives today”: Sophie can’t do much by opposing the world directly. She is born poor, she is a foreigner in Poland, and she has no family connections. She has to surmount the barriers of nationality and class and she does it by manipulating the men she charms. She shapes her life the only way possible to her, through subversion, though the price she has to pay for her success is steep. She cannot afford love, she cannot afford weakness.”

From love, we talk of fate. It is a strong driving force in Dancing with Kings and In Necessary Lies. In the latter, fate throws together lovers Anna and William in Montreal. William, it is revealed, was born in the city of Breslau before it became Wroclaw, Anna’s birthplace. It’s a plot twist based on a real coincidence where Eva discovered that a Canadian neighbour was a Breslauer who left the burning town with her mother in 1945. “We discovered that we were born a few kilometres apart, that I went to the school where Jutta’s mother once was a pupil, that we walked the same streets, went to the same parks, played the same games. It was a real inspiration for the writing, the essence of our Canadian experience.”

Eva believes fate shapes writing too. “I think once we begin to focus …we notice things we would otherwise have missed. I often say that if it doesn’t want to be written, things will go wrong, while unforeseen coincidences will push the writing in fruitful and unexpected directions.” However, she doesn’t rely on fate to carry her writing along, believing in the rewards of research and persistence. “There’s always a way,” her mother would tell her when times were difficult in communist Poland, “just use your head”.

The writing is welcome to Eva after the long periods of research. “It’s not a chore. That’s a blessing. I’m very lucky. I especially enjoy the daydreaming before the writing begins, when characters appear and I can begin to hear their voices.”

She is also constantly attuned to the voices of other writers and enthuses about the Israeli writer Amos Oz and his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness: “He’s very wise and compassionate in his understanding of the other.” Of writers constantly reread, there are Saul Bellow, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Alice Munro.

Eva is currently a communications professor at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. Although she says, “teaching is not a bad training for a writer; it takes a lot of time and means I have two full-time jobs.” Yet in between teaching and novel writing, she is still writing short stories. “I’m aiming to get a collection published. I like the discipline of the short story format and you can write for impact”. Her short stories are always contemporary not historical. “You get an idea for a short story when something happens to you or around you. I live near Little Poland in Toronto and I’m frequently fascinated by the clips of dialogue I overhear or by the characters I encounter, straight from my own Polish past. I squirrel them away for they all have a kernel of a story in them, these cross-cultural encounters on Toronto streets.”

Eva is near to finishing her third novel, also historical fiction, based on the Great Polish political Emigration in the 19th century. However, she is already thinking about a fourth, which will be set in 18th century Canada, also with Polish themes. “I don’t get attached to my books although, of course, I wish them to be read. I find it easy to say goodbye once they are finished, though I’m always interested in what my readers say about them. It is an indication of how much of my own vision I have managed to communicate to them and what I’m still failing to express. Or what I still need to write about to preserve what is universal and meaningful in my Polish past and what can enrich my reader’s understanding of the world.” It’s a final comment and further affirmation of her belief, that the ‘past is a cradle not a prison’.

Source: Kim Rooney 

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Eva on Off The Top, Whistle Radio

Posted by on Mar 22, 2011

Off the Top is 15 minutes of lively listening to the spontaneous, the unexpected, the extraneous and even the resurrected. Expect some interviews, some personal views, some bird’s eye views always served with a poem or two with your host, Charlene.

This aired December 04 and 18, 2012 but is no longer available online.

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