Conversation / 5 May 2021

Every Change in the World Starts with a Reflection

An Interview with the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk is the most critically-acclaimed and commercially successful Polish writer, particularly noted for the hallmark mythical tone of her writing. She is trained as a psychologist. She has published a collection of poems and several novels, as well as other books of shorter prose works. Her book Flights (published in English in 2017, translated by Jennifer Croft) won the Nike Award in 2008, Poland's major literary prize. For her novel Księgi Jakubowe (Jacob's Scriptures, to be published in English in 2019), Tokarczuk received the Nike Award again in 2015. She is the recipient of numerous European awards, including the German-Polish International Bridge Prize in 2015, a recognition extended to persons especially accomplished in the promotion of peace, democratic development and mutual understanding among the people and nations of Europe. In 2017, she became the first recipient of the newly established International Literature Prize of the Kulturhuset culture center in Stockholm for the novel Jacob’s Scriptures.

Justyna Czechowska (JC): At the premiere of Spoor, you as screenwriter, and the film’s director, Agnieszka Holland, were described as prophets. The film, about hunting and its fatal impact, as well as attempts to fight evils committed against nature, appears in cinemas at a moment when mass deforestation is taking place in Poland – made easier by the new directive from the Minister of Environment – and hunters make use of new privileges. Do you believe that art has an effective or at least prophetic power?

Olga Tokarczuk (OT): Yes, funny, but art cannot be prophetic in the metaphysical sense. Artists become prophetic, while usually they manage to see the smallest details of coming changes. The prophecy in Spoor is nothing unusual. Eight years ago, when I was writing Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, upon which the script is based, patriarchal attitudes to nature were clearly visible in attempts to control the protected wilderness in the Białowieża National Forest, and it has long been evident that the hunting lobby is very strong in the Polish parliament, and is moving uncompromisingly to fulfill its ambitions. I visited the Białowieża Forest then, and the atmosphere was already very tense. There was tension between ecologists and people with traditional, patriarchal ways of thinking who treat nature as a reservoir of goods that must be used. I made a connection between various facts and interwove them with the story of an elderly lady who becomes the avenger. It is rather more futurological thinking than prophetic.

JC: Can a film change something, influence its viewers in ways?

OT: Every change in the world starts with some kind of idea, reflection or thought. People who have never had anything to do with ecology, but went to the cinema, suddenly realized what hunting is, what the traces of the film’s title are, what helplessness in the face of traditional rights is, which is still being imposed. The mere fact of approaching such reflections brings change. Spoor adds to growing ecological consciousness – and by ecology, I understand this as the consciousness of the community created on earth by living organisms and their inanimate environment. In Poland, we’ve recently realized the fact that ecology is highly political. I am convinced that changes will be very specific in the near future.

JC: It’s not easy to describe the genre of Spoor – it’s a hybrid at the boundary between a criminal thriller and a fairy tale. It seems, though, that such a qualification would be suitable for all viewers. But some fault the film for having characters who are too black-and-white: Some entirely evil, others entirely good.

OT: I don’t know how to respond to such criticism. In Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, there are bad guys and there are good guys. And in Westerns. And in fairy tales. And in thrillers. In crime stories, there are evil murderers and innocent victims. This is not a documentary about the Polish provinces. It's rather a fairy tale, a parable. Art is a huge space for cognitive and conscious experiments, and it uses different sorts of efforts to describe reality. Tale, fairy tale, metaphor, parable are tools that literature has been using for centuries. This film should be treated thus. I have the impression that, in Poland in recent years, we’ve been politicizing things too much. We live in a world that’s highly ambiguous, contradictory in its own right. These are results of the information revolution taking place before our eyes. People desperately need something real. At literary events, somebody’s always asking me if what I wrote is true. Reportage is the prince of Polish literature. Love for reportage is a request from the readers: Tell us how it is in the world, what the truth is, don’t make anything up. I’m very concerned about this resistance to literary imagination. People lose the ability to understand metaphors, transposition, all other stylistic literary devices used to date. And it’s hard to blame Marquez for the fact that his book is not realistic enough. These are the rights of literature, the rights of film. Spoor was made in the typical cinematic, fairy-tale way, extending beyond reportage, beyond a report from the Polish provinces.

JC: The film’s protagonist is Janina Duszejko, a spiritual older lady, almost a poet, who loves her dogs, is kind to kids and there for friends. It’s difficult not to like her, difficult to accuse her for her revenge. Yet this is what she does, wreaking vengeance in vicious ways.

OT: The whole story is based on the old archetypal idiom of the avenger. The female avenger. Somebody gets hurt, is deprived of what is most valuable for her. That person then tries to correct the injustice using legal means, but it doesn’t work. No one listens to her. In the end, this person grasps for illegal and violent methods of restoring justice. This is an idiom widely present in different literatures, and in our ways of thinking in general. The character from a Western exacts revenge for the murder of his wife, taking on everybody who took part in it. We’re very familiar with such narratives. Here, it’s a bit eccentric because the avenger isn’t an active man but the older, alienated woman who, traditionally in our society, has little influence on reality. Such ladies usually stay at home with their grandchildren. It’s hard to imagine her as an avenger. I’m glad I managed to create such a figure and to see her function, especially among women who embrace her as a certain aspect of their own personality. In my opinion, the right to rebellion, to rage, is very important in any person’s psychological development. If you grow and live without the opportunity to stamp your foot, you die inside. This rebellion doesn’t need to take obvious forms like murder, but that remains a potential. The possibility of rebellion makes us free.

JC: Along with this, Janina Duszejko has interests typical for an older lady: She is fond of astrology. What would she tell us about today’s world?

OT: I’m afraid nobody nowadays has the courage to speak about what’s going to happen. Predictions never come true. We live in a world of fear of the future. Astrological thinking is based on thinking in cycles. It’s the same in economics. To my mind, the most interesting are the long cycles, which take a few centuries, revealing certain historical truths that aren’t seen when one is reading the world ad hoc through the media. Astrology is an ancient art invented a few thousand years ago, which miraculously continues. A human projects some order on the planetary setting, then their perception of the world is refracted and returned with totally different knowledge. This is fascinating. I had always been interested in astrology, but only had basic knowledge about it. While writing Drive Your Plough, I had to seek out books that contain astrological knowledge in very special ways. It’s a meditative art, very colorful, rich, deep, stimulating the imagination. Sometimes I regret that contemporary people distance themselves so much from such old, beautiful ways for pondering reality.

JC: Another character in the film is the Kłodzko Valley, a place that’s only been within the Polish border in recent decades. It is a beautiful, diverse space, which remains mostly undiscovered. It’s where you’ve lived for years. Why is it the setting for the action in the book and the film?

OT: I found my home there more than twenty years ago. It’s a little-known region of Poland and, culturally, it’s hardly been absorbed into it. Any traveler there notices its distinctness: Beautiful nature, an abundance of baroque style and a certain melancholy – we still debate where that comes from. I like borderland regions, regions of penetration and blurring. 

A borderland zone is very inspiring. And especially the Kłodzko Valley, with its as-yet-undescribed culture, landscapes, climate. Some things one just needs to imagine, other definitions are blurred or don’t exist at all. One must reinvent them, define them. It makes me think well and work well in such a space, where I feel bad in a set, predefined community, in something described with the pronoun “ours.” Besides, in a province everything’s seen differently, news arrives a bit late, it’s already passed. That allows us to have distance, and what’s happening in the hectic centers doesn’t infect us.

JC: I recently read an interview with the Swedish poet David Väyrynen, who comes from and lives in Norrlandia, a region that occupies a large part of his country, though it’s always been pushed to the margins. No young people would go there, everybody left for bigger cities in the south. David says that, for several years, something starts taking place away from those centers. Finally, they’ve begun using the cultural potential of the provinces. Is the same happening in Poland?

OT: I get the impression that we’re at the verge of a process of appreciation of the provinces, may be even their triumph. People work over the internet, they start leaving cities, which are too dirty, crowded and noisy. In the huge multi-centered world, one returns to their own small piece of it, which can be influenced, known in detail and taken responsibility for. In the end result, quality of life at a distance from the center is much better. I have the sense that this trend already started. I see interest in the provinces as a new habitat to be tamed. Local self-governments are created there, healthy community instincts are awakening in people. The Polish provinces were very fragmentary for a long time, especially in the western regions. A para-society arrived there after the war, and hadn’t managed to create a strong bond. Only now are there attempts to create communities from scratch. It seems to me that one day we’ll all be out of cities.

JC: The festival you created there along with people from the town of Nowa Ruda is one such attempt to build a community.

OT: When I first bought a house in the Kłodzko Valley in the 1990s, I was convinced that I was buying it not just for myself, but also for people. It’s too big for a small family to fill. But I didn’t succeed with that attempt to live in the provinces. Now it’s different. Over the years, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people with potential; it’s enough to encourage them to act. I began to listen to the older people who’d started cultural activities in the region decades ago. I started thinking about my own strengths, what I can give this place. Obviously, literature – I’m good at it, I know many writers, people connected to literature, in Poland and abroad.

So we made the “Góry Literatury” (“Hills of Literature”) festival. Preparing the first edition in 2005, I hadn’t been expecting such energy. It turned out that it wasn’t just the audience getting such joy from meeting the writers, but also the people who organized the event, who were enthusiastic at the opportunity to get this form of social cooperation. The festival takes place in summer, when there are newcomers and tourists, but basically it’s meant for inhabitants of the valley. Our job is to show these people the most known and recognized artists, invite them for discussions about culture and education, discover with them the most interesting places in our landscape. This year, we’re taking a big step across the border to the Czech Republic, opening another cultural route over the mountains, and visiting the Old Mine in the nearby city of Wałbrzych with a comic book, plus many, many other interesting events.

Translated by Iryna Vikyrchak


Justyna Czechowska

is a specialist in literary studies, a cultural manager, a translator from Swedish into Polish, an author of articles, anthologies and interviews. A co-founder of the Foundation for Literary Studies and the Polish Literary Translators’ Association. Among others she translated Swedish Versopolis poets: Athena Farrokhzad, Linn Hansén, Ida Linde and David Vikgren. Czechowska is co-author of the program of the festival “Odnalezione w tłumaczeniu” [Found In Translation].