photo: Joanna Nowicka

Bedside table #76. Anna Cieplak: I reach for books which open a new perspective for me

Prose writer Anna Cieplak, winner of the Conrad Award, the Witold Gombrowicz Literary Award, and the Albrecht Lempp Scholarship for 2022, tells us about the literature she is interested in and what prose is all about, why she has never associated reading with pleasure, about empathy and exoticisation, as well as about searching for books that help us see that we still have something in common.

What are you currently reading?

I have just finished reading The Ghosts of Demmin by Verena Kessler and Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habili. I am in the middle of Sofia Oksanen's Dog Park. I also have started reading various books, not necessarily non-fiction, including Wychylone w przyszłość (“Leaning into the Future”) by Joanna Erbel.

Do you tend to explore established genres and authors, or do you experiment?

At this point in my life, my readings are actually very diverse, but there were times when a certain type of literature interested me more, I knew very clearly what I was after. If I had to choose today, I'd say that I'm interested in literature that allows you to approach and immerse yourself in the life of a community. To show the complexity of experience without indicating that the book discusses ''a particular topic''.

Are you trying to keep up to date with contemporary prose?

In terms of my personal choices, I don't pay much attention to it, and I reach for many older books because I am aware of my considerable reading backlog. However, because I work with students and young people, I have to read contemporary stuff to be prepared for classes. I certainly enjoy reading debuts, because I think they say a lot about what is changing in the perception of reality and language.

Does it limit your time for reading for pleasure?

I don't finish reading books I don't like. I keep track of what's going on and try to keep up to date, but it's certainly not the most important thing for me. Besides, I have never associated reading with pleasure. And although I know that reading is a privilege, I tend not to choose books that I associate with relaxation or a pleasant aesthetic experience. I usually choose books that open up for me some kind of new perspective, optics, emotionality. 

What has made a particular impression on you recently?

Of the current reads that have moved me most deeply in recent times - from the pandemic to the war, as I guess we're all counting it now - I'll mention Andrés Barba's book first....

The Life of Guastavino and Guastavino?

No, I haven't read that one yet, I was referring to A Luminous Republic. I found it enlightening in terms of the construction of symbolism in the prose space, how, while remaining within the boundaries of realism, it builds a world entirely of its own, a private universe. It delighted me in terms of structure, language, and clarity of thought. Shuggie Bain, which I read over the summer holidays, was another discovery - the kind of book I've been looking for for a long time.

What kind of book, then?

You know, I read a lot of books related to the discourse of poverty, exclusion, but what I was missing was prose that told a story in an honest, non-overelaborate manner that allowed you to empathise with the protagonist and didn't exoticise their world. Equally, it is simply brilliant prose. I felt the same way about Nico Walker's book Cherry. When it comes to authors that are important to me, there have been two in recent times whose translated books I have all read.

Which ones?

In the past, when I got hooked on an author, I wanted to read everything they wrote. In secondary school, I got into Milan Kundera in this way. After that, it didn't happen to me for a long time, and I wondered whether it would happen to me again. And so I came across Ananda Devi.... She is a writer from Mauritius, each of her books is in fact quite different, but she has distinctive poetics and a remarkable ability to construct a complex world and female experience. At the same time, she often addresses topics that I would otherwise never choose to reach for. She does something to the language that you just can't get away from, the texts “give off sparks”. Another case is that of Julian Barnes. The first book I reached for without much expectation was The Only Story. Essentially a modest structure, nothing politically involved, but the emotional portraits so clear that I wanted to keep reading. I think I was caught by this apparent simplicity because there was a lot going on under the surface of the text. I now have my English teacher lending me Nigerian books to read for classes. I already mentioned Waiting for an Angel at the beginning of our conversation, but even before that, I was very impressed by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s book Stay with Me, about the 1980s in Nigeria. This novel has actually been translated. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to have been well received in Poland, so I checked to see what the reception of Adébáyọ̀ was...


I found three reviews. Such a great book went unnoticed. The author sets the story of a specific local community in a broad historical and political context. It shows the entanglement with patriarchy, but also the ambiguity and the attempt to build the strength of the heroine through the negation of a certain order. A very strong book. Zadie Smith was also able to do something of this kind, in a completely different and lighter way. I used to be enthralled by her books, although since Swing Time I have lost interest a little. But when I read White Teeth or NW, I felt that this is what prose is all about. About going beneath the surface and reading anew, the ability to change perspective.

Was there a book that made you want to become a writer?

In high school, my grade in Polish was C, but I read a lot of poetry and contemporary prose. Those were the days before social media and online bookshops, so you had to travel to bigger cities to a bookshop to get such books, because at the local library, the new titles arrived late or not at all. In fact, I owe a lot of my exploration of literature to the old internet, because as a teenager, I used to publish my texts on one of the sites for amateur writers. The benefit was that, in addition to the poetry writing, there were various - more and less substantial - discussions about literature. We used to read Świetlicki, Różycki, Masłowska, Drotkiewicz, Shute, Kuczok, Tokarczuk, Gretkowska - that' s what I remember from my adolescence. I learned an important lesson from the poetry of Julian Przyboś, which I tackled later during a workshop in Cieszyn. Before that, I had a longer phase of reading Czech prose because of where I lived. But Przyboś lived and worked in Cieszyn, so I decided to explore him. Through his poetry, I found out that writing is very much about reducing the text. I started taking notes in the margins for my literary debut, while simultaneously working with young people on their texts. This was happening simultaneously. I was particularly interested in vocabulary and other aspects of young people's contemporary language, what it sounds like, how it recounts important things. In Ma być czysto (“It’s Got to Be Neat”), I wanted to talk about how I hear them.

Give them a voice?

I don't like the phrase because I associate it with attributing someone else's emotions and experiences to myself. I prefer it when people speak for themselves. In the book, however, it is me or the whole 'dead being' in me that speaks, because language is the filter. I wanted to write about young people because I thought it was all very interesting. At the same time, I gave them the space to write their stuff and publish it in a jointly released volume. Until the end of my studies, I was more heavily immersed in the analysis of academic texts than in literature. I wrote my bachelor's thesis on Bauman, I read all his books; I started to explore it and look for different connections and authors who were doing the same thing in literature. Those who recognised the fluidity of the world. In the same way as, for example, the texts of Korczak, whom I studied at the Faculty of Education. I was surprised how easy it is to switch from scientific and medical and pedagogical descriptive language to literary language. When I read his texts, for example his diaries, I had the feeling that, on the level of language, it was something exceptional. It was with great joy that I read Artur Domosławski's book Wygnaniec (“The Exile”).

Tell us, then, about your impressions of reading The Exile.

I think this is one of the most important Polish books that has been published recently. Against the background of Bauman's biography, the transformation of Poland is reflected, and all the pre- and post-war demons emerge, which are read differently when looking at what is happening not only in Ukraine, but also on the Polish-Belarusian border. However, regardless of this context, which brings itself to mind - what Domosławski has done seems to me to be unique because of how he captures the project of Bauman's intellectual life and his desire to understand the world he looked at through the eyes of a migrant, an excluded person. I was talking about Korczak a moment ago - and it turns out that Bauman contributed to the Mały Przegląd! (“Little Review” - a magazine for children and young people founded by Janusz Korczak – translator’s note) I do hope that Domosławski's book will spark a sort of broader debate, which unfortunately did not accompany his book Wykluczeni (“The Excluded”)...

You have experience in working with young people. Tell us how the two spheres of writing and educating intertwine. When you write, drawing on your experiences, do you learn something new - from and about young people?

Thanks to them, I find out what they find interesting in culture, how their language is changing, what they are reading, and so on. But the very formulation of the topics for the workshops and classes gives me the opportunity to think about certain issues that, incidentally, also affect me. For example, we analysed the phenomenon of overstimulation through the prism of how social media changes our attentiveness, not so much in terms of psychological wellbeing, but in terms of symbolic thinking - as Jacek Dukaj wrote about in Po piśmie (“After Writing”). In a reality full of stimuli that distract us, a new space of expression is created. Oksana Zabuzhko wrote brilliantly about this in the opening essay of Planet Wormwood: where the ability to read deeply disappears, it gets dangerous. I recently prepared a radio play about sleep with young people. Today, sleep is also becoming a scarce commodity - in fact, an excellent book was recently published, namely 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary - but the sheer immersion in the oneiric style, such as in Tokarczuk's Dom dzienny, dom nocny (“House of Day, House of Night”), can be creative and interesting. We live in a capitalism that wants to take away our sleep time not only in favour of work, but also at the level of digital design. We have to click 'next episode' because it's designed to take away from us this extra half hour.

Sleep as escapism?

Oh no, not just that. Sleep, however it may sound, can be active, can be a form of resistance. As long as I dream, and as long as I can sleep, in this dimension, I can decide for myself, I create my own space. The right to sleep and reading it on a literary level might be just the thing.

Literature, just like sleep, can it be a form of resistance?

Literature allows you to enter a symbiotic relationship with the people you are reading about, whilst maintaining a distance - this is important. This is one angle, a more personal one, but to answer this question more reliably, it is necessary to consider what does the causality of words even mean today? Look: we have a report in which scientists say what needs to be done to stop a climate disaster, and nobody does anything about it. Who cares if you can use language to appeal to politicians if it doesn't achieve anything. On the other hand, the fact that we can understand something at all, interpret it, we owe it to books after all... I personally believe that literature can act as an inhibitor to how we change in the face of technology, for reading forces a different pace. I hope I didn't sound like a technophobe.

Is the category of generation important to you?

At the level of literature, there are attempts to look for generational watershed moments, specific experiences that would be of such significance, but it seems to me that we have an awful lot of experiences at the moment that are completely non-generational. I am very curious to see what we will be reading about current events in 10-20 years' time. I think pandemics and war change a lot. When an 18-year-old of today's hears all those "there used to be eleven of us, we lived in a lake..."

...and no one complained....

...they can reply that "in our time" we had a pandemic, a climate crisis, a war, a depression and, on top of that, the highest statistical number of suicide attempts. In the book for young people entitled Nie powiem ci, że wszystko będzie dobrze (“I Won't Tell You Everything Will Be All Right”), the protagonists of Justyna Suchecka's reportage talk about this in an interesting way.

Your book Lata powyżej zera (“Zero-Plus Years”) is described as a generational novel...

I didn't write the book with that in mind. The publisher described it as such, probably for marketing purposes, because I see some kind of 'generational novel' popping up every year. I, at the time, had no idea what one did with a book once it was written, so I agreed to everything. For me, for example, such a description is not at all encouraging to reach for the book, because I have the feeling that it will focus entirely on some detached 'generational' experiences or codes. But will it try to classify them somehow?

Universalise them?

Perhaps rather - to delve deeper, because, after all, it's also not about looking for stories that will be understandable to everyone and written in a null style. To sum up: if I identify with some of the Polish writers of my so-called generation, it is more because of the issues they address than because of their year of birth - the type of commitment, reflection on social change. I feel close to, for example, Dominika Slowik, Weronika Gogola, or Salcia Hałas.

If the category of generations begins to blur, will collective narratives become oriented towards something else? For example, towards class?

On the one hand, there are indeed quite a few books whose authors emphasise class aspects. Didier Eribon's Returning to Reims resonated clearly not only in terms of class but identity issues, as did The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis. I was most impressed in this regard by the aforementioned Shuggie Bain - with its poetics on the one hand, and the narrators' lack of clichés and 'hyper-knowledge' on the other. From middlebrow prose, the subject of class is even raised by Sally Rooney. In Poland, we have a lot of folk heroes and heroines - such as Ula from Kości, które nosisz w kieszeni (“Bones You Carry in Your Pocket”) by Łukasz Barys or Salcia Hałas’ heroines from Potop (“Flood”) and Pieczeń dla amfy (“Roast for Amfa”). Alois from Szczepan Twardoch's Pokora is also, for me, about class. But perhaps this is because when you look through the filter of class, you see it more clearly even where the book is seemingly about something else? In my latest novel Rozpływaj się (“Fade Away”), the theme of family migration is the main narrative force, but the reality of the characters is complicated because of class differences. It is obvious to me because such topics are an everyday reality in which I live. Besides, there are a lot of nuances related to the transformation of aspirations, class advancement, and so on.

On the other hand, I get the impression that we sometimes look at social divisions and class differences through the prism of some current trend, an issue that obscures the rest. Perhaps this will always be the case in public debate, which has become more news-driven and polarised? We have passed the stage of the history of the people's Poland, the transformation returns from time to time, and now it seems that attempts to read the history of Eastern Europe and the class differences associated with the new map of Europe will emerge. Actually, all these literary attempts are interesting. You can see that they evoke emotions. Look what kind of discussion Magdalena Okraska's Nie ma i nie będzie (“There Isn’t and There Won’t Be”) provoked.

The issue of exclusion itself is very complex. That being said, two books from last year that impressed me come to mind: Gra w rasy (“Game of Races”) by Przemyslaw Wielgosz, which combines issues of race and class, and Ewa Winnicka's reportage on Greenpoint, in which we see what it is like to organise our daily causality under the very difficult conditions of economic migration in 'Little Poland'.

I guess I'm interested not only in the question of class, but also in seeing what new collective stories and those binding people together emerge. In 2009, Igor Stokfiszewski wrote in Zwrot polityczny (“Political Turn”) about the end of collective narratives, and perhaps collective narratives are actually experiencing a moment of new interpretation and thus class issues allow us to look at them more closely? In Czuły Narrator (“The Tender Narrator”), Olga Tokarczuk writes that we live in an increasingly first-person narrative era and therefore drone-like narration can somehow help to see the bigger picture. At least that is how I read it. I keep wondering whether there could be a form of description of community that is not based on the search for the outsider, but on the project of a shared future. I'm looking for books that help me to see that we still have something in common and it's about more than individualism or reducing ourselves to a question of one of possible identities.

Which authors would you say attempt to do this?

There are a few. Sometimes, it is difficult to demonstrate this explicitly, but as you read, you get the sense that there is some attempt between the lines to build links between experiences of class, race, gender, personal experiences that ignore neither social issues nor the individuality of the characters. I certainly felt this when reading Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Everisto or previously, when reading books by Elena Ferrante. Jolanta Brach-Czaina has also been one such author for several years, particularly in Szczeliny istnienia (“The Cracks in Existence”), which talks about everyday life that should not escape our eyes. I think authors who are able to have a closer look at the everyday and have the patience to capture the dramatic nature of everyday life do not succumb so easily to ideological crossovers. Brach-Czaina can do this, although she is a philosopher and not a representative of literary fiction. I also find this in Lidia Ostalowska, a reporter who was in the field after the transformation, did not retreat to a safe position, and described reality. Bolało jeszcze bardziej (“It Hurt Even More”) largely tells the story of what we are only now working through as post-transformation trauma. Also important for me was Tomasz Rakowski's book Łowcy, zbieracze, praktycy niemocy (”Hunters, Gatherers, and Practitioners of Powerlessness”), which talks about exclusion from a different perspective. I also sensed a new kind of perspective on issues linking migration and personal experience in Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive

What are your reading and perhaps writing plans for the near future?

I will definitely go for Who They Was, as I am very curious to read this book. I'm going to spend some more time with this Nigerian prose, as my teacher has promised to lend me more books. But in general, as a reader, I usually rely on randomness or my own intuition when choosing what I read. The last group of books are those for research purposes, because I am actually working on something new. Among other things, I am reading books related to the smelting industry from the 1970s. I mainly sit in the archives and talk to people, but in the process, I come across all sorts of surprising texts.

Smelting industry? Would you reveal more?

Maybe next time, it's too early for that for now.

Interviewer: Mikołaj Rajkowski

Translated by Justyna Lowe