Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough is a native of Poland. Her essays were published in journals such as Agni, Ploughshares, The American Scholar, The Threepenny Review, and TriQuarterly. One of her pieces, “Objects of Affection” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2012; four others were listed among Notable Essays for 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015. She divides her time between Boston and Kraków. You can find more information on her book here.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Objects of Affection. It’s really a wonderful book, and I hope it gets all the attention it deserves. Can you tell us how you came to Braddock Avenue Books and what the journey has been like?
Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough: Thank you, Curtis. We had on our shelves quite a few books published by Braddock Avenue, and when I began to look for a publisher, I decided to query the editors, Jeff Condran and Robert Peluso. I knew their focus was fiction but thought that it wouldn’t hurt to try. They were prompt in their response and said to send in the manuscript. As far as I remember I mailed it at the end of September 2016. I expected a long wait for the decision; I knew how things are in the publishing world. Then right before Christmas while I was shopping at a Polish grocery with our older daughter, my cell phone rang. It was Jeff Condran who told me my book would be out in 2018. I couldn’t have received a better Christmas gift. Our daughter and I immediately went to a celebratory lunch at a Polish restaurant across the street. Working with Braddock Avenue Books has been smooth and satisfying. I like the informality of our contacts—so different, I’m told, from the way things often are at the more hierarchical commercial publishing houses. I appreciate the fact that small presses are willing to take risks, and though they want to sell books, they haven’t given in to the obsession with sales figures and the market.
CS: I admired your tone throughout—I thought the voice that came through was both intimate and intelligent. I’m always drawn to the sentence level of work, the control and precision of word choice and rhythms. Can I assume you’re drawn to this as well? If this is the case, where in the process do you address this the most—do you wrestle with it in the first draft or does it come about later when you’re polishing and revising?
EHY: I too like to read books which among their other beauties offer the reader finely crafted sentences. I never wait to revise till I’m finished with the whole draft. Each day I reread what I’ve written, and before I continue, I do some revising. I may add an idea, reshuffle a few sentences, rephrase, change a word here and there. Sometimes when the passage needs more work, I may write myself a note in the margin. I know all along I’ll revise further when the draft is ready, but I want to have a sense that what I’ve written is satisfactory as of now. Although I proceed in this way, my final revision isn’t less time consuming or demanding. I’ll revise essays even after they have already been published. I did exactly that with the essays in Objects of Affection. Paul Valéry once said “A poem is never finished only abandoned.” I feel the same way about the essay.
CS: Many of the essays touch on your experiences of having lived in and been influenced by two different cultures. “Little Bowls of Color” focuses on language—the ones we’re first exposed to and the ones we later learn and their interplay over the years. I’m guessing that while you view this rooting in two languages a blessing, it also gives one a different experience. Can you address this and how it plays out in your life and writing?
EHY: I don’t want to summarize here what most people have already heard about the benefits of bilingualism and biculturalism. Because my MA was in English, I was fluent in the language when I came to America. My fluency was of the bookish variety. Gradually, my English acquired a more colloquial flavor. My daily life was so immersed in English that I began to worry about my native language losing its vigor. To counteract the inevitable process, I made sure that alongside books in English I kept reading in Polish. I didn’t want to lose the connection to the language through which I had first begun to learn the world and which had given me my cognitive framework. But when I first began writing, I didn’t hesitate; it seemed only natural that I write in English, the language of the new world I lived in. That doesn’t mean that doing so I abandoned my mother tongue. Each time I visit Poland, I’m happy to return to my linguistic roots. And when I’m in low spirits, I tend to seek comfort in the familiarity of my mother tongue and reach for a book in Polish.
CS: Let me follow up the language theme with a mention of your work as a translator. I’ve never translated, but I have to think it’s its own unique art form, one that’s probably underappreciated. May I ask what do you find most rewarding about translating? What are its greatest challenges?
EHY: My fascination with translation began when I was in high school, and it got second wind in college where besides majoring in English, we had to take French and German. And if that weren’t enough, a friend gave me private lessons in Italian. I found the process of learning a foreign language exhilarating as if by entering another language I got access to another world.
As long as I lived in Poland, my interest in translation remained theoretical. After I came to the United States I decided to try my hand at translation to assuage the feeling of separation from my mother tongue. I wanted to render in English the works I read and admired in Polish–in other words, to share the object of my love with others. Translators know that they practice an imperfect art because it’s impossible to recreate or reconstruct a text in its totality in another language. We hope that the text will function well and recreate some of the emotional and aesthetic impact of the original, at the same time being aware that–as the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz said–you can only come up with imperfect solutions. Translation is always challenging, but there’s incredible satisfaction in bringing a writer’s world to a non-native reader.
CS: I greatly admired the structure of these pieces—we often have your personal story woven into a larger backdrop—be it one of history or a conceptual framework. You create such a nice balance between your own experiences and a larger story being told—which makes me wonder about how much planning you do before you write. Do you envision a piece from beginning to end before you set pen to paper, seeing all (or many) of its component parts? Or do you just dive in and discover these structures as you go?
EHY: I belong to those who take a plunge and don’t know what they will encounter on the way. For years I’ve kept a journal, and very often I find germs of essay ideas there. But when I begin writing, I almost never have a clear idea where I’ll end up going. I don’t know what I think until I write it. How does the larger story or history enter my essays? Polish reality was so politicized under communism that it was hardly possible to separate yourself and your private life from politics, and to this day I tend to view my experiences through the wider lens. After I arrived in this country I hoped history and politics would release me from their grip. It hasn’t happened, though, and today with everything that’s going on in Europe and here, its grip is growing stronger.
CS: Many of the pieces explore a duality of your experience as a person born and raised in another country but who has now spent a much larger part of her life living in America. You offer a kind of fragmented lens—the viewing of each country as both your home yet also as a place that’s a bit foreign. Yet there are a couple pieces that take us back to your first experiences in Poland and suggest that our first experiences form the cornerstones for all that is to follow. In this sense, do you feel that the immigrant/exile, especially one uprooted after their formative years, ever really leaves their country of birth? What are the benefits of this kind of experience? What are its drawbacks?
EHY: Immigration means that the personal and cultural meanings you relied on have shattered and that you have to create new ones if you want to thrive in the new reality. Our identity is shaped by our birthplace, family, culture and society, by our sense of being connected to others through shared narratives and the memory of those who came before us. In a foreign country this continuity of memory and identity is broken. After I arrived in the US, I had no individual or family history, no past. Over time that changed. I began to feel connected not just to my American family, but also to the people I interacted with–neighbors, colleagues, friends. Since I didn’t share a common past and history with them the way I did with people in Poland and since the years I lived in Poland were the years when the foundations of my identity were laid, the before of my life has had more heft than the after. My ties to my homeland are still strong, though they’re ties to the place of my childhood and youth, to my remembered past and not so much to the country as it is now. The Poland I visit each year isn’t mine the way it used to be up to the year I left even if it’s still a recognizable place. The duality that rules my life has given me a different, perhaps a broader, perspective which I wouldn’t have had if I had never left Poland. The awareness of duality, of other points of view, of other competing narratives has also created distancing–both to my native country and to this one. I’m not rooted anywhere; maybe anchored would be a better word to describe my situation. An anchor can be moved but it still lets you feel–at least for the time being–that you belong. Is it a good thing? I don’t think so, but that’s where I am, neither completely here nor there. It’s as if I were in a duty free area at the airport where fewer rules are in effect. I can relax and uninvolved watch the comings and goings.
CS: Another aspect of your work takes the notion of one belonging to two places at once and goes further into exploring how we can sometimes belong to two time periods. “My War Zone” explores how World War Two, which was before your birth, still had a tremendous impact on your life. Do you think we all carry such histories, ones suggested by our parents’ stances and words, both spoken and not? In what ways do they play out in our lives?
EHY: Today psychologists like to talk about inheriting trauma from our parents and from previous generations. The traumatic events from the past are apparently inscribed in our DNA. I have no background in psychology or psychiatry, so I better stick to what I can experientially confirm. The cultural environment we grow up in shapes us through its narratives. Our parents and grandparents tell us stories, schools show us movies, teachers require that we read certain books. All that is out in the open, but children have seismographic sensitivity. They detect when certain things remain unsaid, and those suggestive silences can communicate a lot. Ultimately, we assimilate both the stated and the unstated and they stay with us throughout our lives. Immigrants, even after they’ve lived a long time in their adopted country, experience a kind of temporal bilocation which has nothing to do with mysticism but a lot with nostalgia and longing.
CS: What’s next?
EHY: I sometimes wish I were a novelist, but I may be too narcissistic for that, so it’ll have to be essays and more essays.
Curtis Smith is the author of three novels, five story collections, and two essay collections. His most recent book is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Bookmarked, part of Ig Publishing’s new series where authors are invited to write about a book that influenced their lives and careers. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son.