Żanna Słoniowska and Antonia Lloyd-Jones discuss THE HOUSE WITH THE STAINED-GLASS WINDOW

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Żanna Słoniowska is unique among Polish novelists – a Ukrainian who writes in Polish, for her debut novel, The House with the Stained-Glass Window, she won Znak Publishing’s ‘Best Novel’ competition, and also the Conrad Prize for first books. Set in Lviv, The House with the Stained-Glass Window is about four generations of the same family, but in this case there is only one person in each generation, and all four are women. Just like the city, they cannot escape the influence on their lives of historical events in this complicated part of Europe, where borders move and identities are fluid. Nor can they escape their own tangled relationships, with each other, with their origins and ambitions, and with the men in their lives. In this interview Słoniowska tells her translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, how she came to write the book, how important the city of Lviv is to her, and why she writes in a foreign language.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones: You are Ukrainian, but you write in Polish and also speak Russian. What do you think of as your native language? How did you decide to write in Polish? What are the advantages or difficulties for you of writing in a “foreign” language? As your translator I find your Polish unusual, poetic, difficult to translate, refreshingly different – do you feel conscious of writing in ”another” Polish?

Żanna Słoniowska: Thank you for this very important question. I grew up in the Soviet Ukrainian city of Lviv (in Russian Lvov, and in Polish Lwów) surrounded by three languages, but was not very much aware of it, it was natural for me. My family spoke Russian, but my grandmother, who was the person closest to me, taught me Polish. She was Polish, but came from Leningrad, she had never seen Poland in her life, but it was the country of her dreams, the one she loved. At my nursery school and in the street everyone spoke Ukrainian. I started working as a journalist very early on, first for a Russian-language newspaper, then a Polish-language radio channel, and then a Ukrainian-language television channel. I felt at home in each of those three languages, but in a different way. Language is to do with love, friendship and literature, and I have experienced all of these in each one of my languages. Language is also to do with history, and my novel is steeped in the history of my city, which has always consisted of a mixture of different influences and cultures.

Coming back to the question of how I became a Polish writer, I moved to Poland 14 years ago and gradually started to feel strong calling (or need?) to tell the Poles stories about the territory to the East that until 1945 had belonged to Poland for 600 years but seemed unfamiliar to them.

Polish is not a foreign language for me – it is native and foreign at the same time, it is inside and outside me, that’s why I can use it in a bolder way than its native speakers usually do. I also think my Polish is more Eastern, in that I bring in a new rhythm –from Russian poetry and Ukrainian songs, for instance.   

My written Polish stirs strong feelings among Polish readers, and I only realised quite how different it was from their expectations after the book was published. Most of them are charmed by it, and respond positively by saying: “Nobody writes in Polish as you do”, and yet there are some philologists who accuse my language of being “impure”. I was once asked by a Polish scholar: “How could you dare to write in Polish?”

ALJ: The four main characters in the novel are all women, all with strengths and weaknesses, but they are stronger than not. Why did you choose to tell the story from the viewpoint of women? Why is the only central male character, Mikola the art historian, a weaker character than the women in his life, Marianna the opera Singer and her daughter, who narrates the story? Where do these women come from? Are they portraits of real people, or entirely fictional, or a mixture?

ŻS: They are mixtures of real people, relatives of mine and the relatives of my friends – I was trying to create portraits of certain types of people who were the products of my city and of the Soviet era. And I’m pleased when female readers in contemporary Lviv come up to me and say: “This is a portrait of my grandmother / mother”. My aim was to portray certain types of women from the Soviet intelligentsia in Lviv who had very often been abandoned by men and were deprived of all sorts of opportunities and everyday resources, but still preserved their dignity. They were “she-warriors”, ready to fight for freedom at risk of prison or death, and they were also entirely devoted to their work, their art or their children. My mother and grandmother were like that, but so too were the other women whom I met in my early life, so I was eager to depict their lives and try to understand some of the driving forces behind them. For example, in those days it was mostly the women who preserved the oral history – family stories as well as History with a capital H – so everything I knew about the past was from their stories. The men were often absent – they’d been killed in wars, punished by other kinds of political repression, sent to jail or Siberia and so on – it was the same everywhere within the territory that Timothy Snyder calls “The Bloodlands” throughout the twentieth century. If the men were present, they were more passive than the women, depressed and lost, although both men and women had problems with aggression, suppressed emotions and trauma –I wanted to show that too. There is a female psychoanalyst in Vienna who is now writing a Ph.D. on my book.     

ALJ: The House with the Stained-Glass Window is firmly set in your native city of Lviv – not just the modern Ukrainian city, but also prewar Polish Lwów and Soviet Lvov. What is your relationship with the city?  Why did you choose to set your novel there?

ŻS: I was very much in love with my city, but it was a difficult love, because living there was not easy, and still isn’t. I was fascinated by its history and its various “layers” – Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian and Soviet. I learned everything I could about the various eras of its history; every pain its inhabitants had suffered was my own pain. I could identify with the various threads of its history, although in real life they exist separately – the guides to the city generally tell completely different stories about the same street, depending on which language they use. But I am a person of the borderlands, so I wanted to find a way for all the threads to meet. For many years I had no idea how to do it. Besides Lviv-Lwów is unique and beautiful from the architectural viewpoint, and I was extremely concerned about its heritage which was slowly being destroyed. While working as a journalist I dreamed of becoming an art historian and of writing about its history and its beauty, as a way of saving it. But I failed to do that. My next idea was to become a scholar and to write a Ph. D. about my home city’s local identity. That came to nothing too. And I’m glad, because then I started writing the novel, and in the process I formed the strong conviction that this way of expressing my love, ideas and observations was the best one.       

ALJ: You skilfully weave several strands together: the personal stories of your heroines, each of whose lives is tossed by historical fate; the story of their relationships with each other; the story of their love affairs; and the story of their city. The result is a very rich tapestry, set on three main time scales. How did you decide on this complex construction? Did you plan it out in advance? Or did it write itself?

ŻS: It was my first novel and, to be honest, I had no idea how to construct it. It was all a major experiment and a major challenge, also considering the fact that I didn’t start writing at the beginning a keep going to the end, but began at different points in time and mixed them up. it was as if the book were writing itself, giving me surprises at almost every step of the way. I think there’s something of the form of oral history about it –  my grandmother used to tell me her story like this, interrupting herself, moving things about, changing topics, adding new details, repeating the same themes, and so on. That’s how our memory works– it’s never smooth and linear. The construction of my novel is rough in a way, but the life stories, fates and historical traumas of our “bloodlands” are like that too.  Besides, I wanted my book to be like the books I enjoy reading, and I prefer complicated constructions. My heroines’ life stories are tangled together (the daughter and the mother have the same lover, but that’s not all), and so are the strands of history in Lviv. As you walk about there you can see and feel it: here, let’s say, is a formerly Polish Roman Catholic church now converted into a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, and directly beneath it there are sewers where a Jewish family called Chiger hid for thirteen months during the Second World War. Imagine me and my contemporary Ukrainian friends going to a nearby café to pass the time and have a chat, but while I’m there I can’t help feeling and being aware of the different parts of the mosaic that make up the particular place I’m in. That’s how life in Lviv seems to me, and that’s how my novel has ended up as well.         

ALJ: This is your debut novel, and it won you Znak Publishing’s Best Novel competition as well as the Conrad Festival’s prize for the best debut of the year. What are you planning to write next? I know you’ve been working on a new novel, and am already very impatient to read it. What can you tell me about your ambitions as a writer? 

ŻS: I feel very honoured by the prizes I have received, but I’m even happier with the translations: so far my book has been translated into five languages (Ukrainian, Russian, English, German and French). It’s a very special feeling to be presenting my novel in English, as the stories in it are extremely personal and hidden from view of the world, while the English language is very important and international.

I’m now writing my second novel. It’s set in Kraków, the main characters are young Ukrainians living there, and it’s about love, bodily existence, and faith, but also about finding one’s way in a new country – Poland.   

 

Q&A, edElise Williams