A mirror for women. On the work of Grażyna Plebanek
autor: Bernadetta Darska

If one were to create a ranking of contemporary women's prose, Grazyna Plebanek would certainly find herself at the top. One should note however, that women's prose does not mean a predictable love story with Her, waiting for Prince Charming, and Him - an object of dreams and desire



Plebanek manages to write about women without resorting to cheap romance, without avoiding difficult subjects, with a truthful depiction of realities and sympathy for the virtues and vices of her heroines. Her stories do not always head for a happy end, often the final peace is bought with suffering. The heroines of Plebanek's novels are capable of admitting they've had enough - of the life they lead, of their husbands, their jobs. What is more important, they are also capable of saying they want to do something about it, they are open to change. They are women who are uncomfortable with the traditionally defined roles of mother, wife, mistress or daughter. They are capable of naming the roles themselves and they can fight for staying true to themselves.


Grazyna Plebanek is the author of three novels. The first won a prize in the competition for a diary of a Polish Bridget Jones by the Zysk i S-ka publishing house. That's "Box of Stilettos". The novel was published again by the W.A.B publishing house in the women's prose series "with a broom". Her two following novels - "Girls from Portofino" and "A Girl Called Przystupa" appeared in the same series. One should note, however, that the series "with a broom" differs a lot from other such series. It includes novels that are unruly, that often break the mould of popular women's literature, novels that pose important, intelligent questions, finally novels that one could describe as feminist. The author does not shy away from the gender issue, devotes a lot of space to femininity, also in its physical, sexual aspect.


Plebanek is not afraid to tackle taboos such as unwanted pregnancy, abortion, household violence or sexual molestation. At the same time, she depicts women at a crucial moment of freeing themselves from the shackles of cultural and social expectations, heroines who can say about themselves that they are free and looking forward to the future, drawing strength from their femininity.
One could therefore say that Plebanek constantly writes the history of women. A history built of their voice, their experiences, their problems and their everyday life with its ups and downs. She sometimes refers to women's literary topoi, but the analogies are adapted to modern times. Often treated with humour, they show the artificiality and lack of realism of feminine models rooted in our culture. In "Box of Stilettos" for example, we have a dialogue with the figure of Cinderella, but this Cinderella does not want to become princess. "Girls from Portofino" is a modern version of "Girls from Nowolipki" by Pola Gojawiczynska. A girl friendship from the first half of the 20th century turns out to have a lot in common with one that forms itself just before the fall of communism in Poland. "A Girl Called Przystupa" on the other hand is a daring re-interpretation of the stereotype of a Polish émigré woman - uneducated, poor and making a living by cleaning houses, but full of life wisdom.


MOTHERHOOD - YES OR NO?


Plebanek devotes a lot of space to pregnancy and its consequences. What's important, she does not try to smuggle in the doubtful thesis about the existence of a motherhood instinct. The heroine of her novels usually has to get used to the fact that she is pregnant, make up her mind if she wants to keep the baby, or have an abortion, and finally - after giving birth - she has to learn to love the child that appeared in her life and turned it upside down. It becomes necessary for the woman to make her decisions independently of the suggestions of the family, friends and strangers who all of a sudden become interested in her state. She makes her decision alone and takes responsibility for it.
The heroine of "Box of Stilettos" faces a choice: a career or motherhood. The choice is deceptively simple. There is no point in giving up a splendidly developing career in a quickly growing company for the doubtful joy of motherhood. Especially that the pregnancy is an unexpected outcome of an affair with the handsome future boss. Marta initially decided to have an abortion. She backs out at the last minute when just before she is anesthetised a friend comes to the see her with an unusual present - a spiky, frightened hedgehog. The heroine tries to balance being a mother with attempts to return to work. But it turns out that corporate expectations are higher than what a woman can offer. She decides to quit to see her son more often and watch him grow up.


Marta's twin sister Kasia is her opposite. She is a typical heroic mother. With a sense of defeat she returns to her home town, gives birth to more and more children, succumbs to her husband, and together they adopt the patriarchal model of a family. She keeps sniping at her sister who moved to Warsaw. She sees happiness in giving birth to children, raising them and taking care of the house. But from time to time she also shows a different face - a face of a disappointed, frustrated woman who is jealous of Marta's better life.


In "Girls from Portofino", pregnancy, usually unplanned, is connected to the first adult decision that an adolescent girl/woman has to make. Agnieszka, even though she loves her boyfriend, does not want to start a life together, she wants to continue her education. She takes the decision about the abortion herself and her stepmother supports her, staying with her during the procedure. Beata receives similar support. She decides to end the pregnancy on an impulse, she suspects the boyfriend that left her is now with her friend. She hears an important confession before the abortion - her mother tells her that before she gave birth to her, she also had an abortion.


Abortion in Plebanek's last novel "A girl called Przystupa" is shown as a female experience condemned to secrecy. It is not only not to be spoken about, and hidden but also to be conducted unofficially, bashfully. The relief that women feel after the procedure is not particularly important.
Motherhood becomes a female stigma. When the pregnancy is unwanted, the woman has to deal with it alone. When the baby is keenly awaited, she has to shoulder the burden of care and upbringing.
Plebanek shows that none of these cases is as clear cut as it would seem. There is the man, who also has to take responsibility for raising the child; there are women's stories that need to be told (one can see that clearly in "Girls from Portofino", where women in a hospital share stories of childbirth and abortions); finally there is female exhaustion, apprehension towards the new situation, the need to learn the ways of the little human being and the urge to say that the new situation is a lot to handle. Plebanek does not tell us about the miracle of motherhood. She has the courage to talk also about its dark sides, like being treated like an object during childbirth (the case of Mania in "Girls from Portofino") or during a visit of the mother and child to a doctor (the vaccination of the heroine's son in "Box of Stilettos")

 

FEMALE FRIENDSHIP

Both "Girls from Portofino" and "Box of Stilettos" are a superb picture of female friendship. What is interesting and worth stressing, women can create a space where they feel good and safe. When together, they can be themselves, they do not need to play any roles, they can talk about their problems. This is very important because others expect a woman to constantly change masks. She is to perfectly fulfil the role of a mother, wife or mistress. Weakness is failure. A woman must always be able to cope. Plebanek shows readers a true picture of women - full of colour and ambiguity. Her heroines can fight for themselves and they draw the strength for their private wars from the friendship with other women.


In "Girls from Portofino" we witness the development of a group of girls from a condominium of blocks of flats -- girlish friendship, the world of adults that tries to separate them, the fight for their own territory and children's vows that they will always be able to rely on each other. The author succeeds in showing us that what is important, happens above the divisions. It does not matter that the children, because of their parents, belong to completely different worlds - neither politics, nor money nor being part of the elite is capable of splitting them up. Later, even love will not be able to destroy their friendship. The man who is able to make the heroines clash (the case of Beata and Agnieszka) turns out to be an insignificant episode and the women know how to rebuild what broke down. The important thing is the friends understand the value of what binds them together. That is why they take good care of their friendship, they are there for each other in difficult times, they trust that even after years pass, nothing will change between them.

In "A Box of Stilettos" Plebanek creates a more stereotypical image of friendship. Here women's meetings often turn into gossiping sessions. But - what is interesting - it is during these seemingly carefree meetings that the convention is broken and we learn about important things: the next pregnancy, problems at work, a husband's and probably also a female friend's infidelity. The proverbial "tea, coffee and cakes" take on a confessional character thanks to the secrets disclosed in an almost "by the way" fashion.

Przystupa is, in fact, a lonely person. It is true that her employers disregard the hierarchy of the servant-mistress relationship, but this does not lead to partnership or equality. Przystupa becomes hired help, and the woman who allows her to learn the secrets of her life does not really give up the power that hiring and paying wages gives her. The heroine of Plebanek's novel is someone who is to help reach a goal (e.g. the planned departure of Star, which never happens). She silently accompanies those, for whom she works. She develops to start deciding about her own life, choose her own path, and not allow others to influence her choices. The period of listening to the confessions of women for whom she works or simply discovering their secrets, turns out to be a stage in a process of growing up and discovering herself.

EMIGRATION

"A Girl Called Przystupa" is a novel which, in large part, takes place outside Poland. One could even say that leaving the family village by the heroine for the city is tantamount to emigration. But it is mainly travelling. It is a chance for a new life for Przystupa. After all we read the important sentence: "Finally she understood she had to leave". Being on the road becomes a necessity. Plebanek depicts in an excellent way the transitory character of what seems stable, the impermanence of events, the inability to take root and finally the role of chance that affects the fate of the heroine. Plebanek's portrait of the émigré-traveller Przystupa is convincing, unlike the descriptions served to readers in "Pani na domkach" (Lady of the houses) by Joanna Pawluskiewicz or "Szczescie za progiem" (Happiness beyond the threshold) by Manula Kalicka. Determination, stoic calm, inner strength and a sense of own value is what characterises Przystupa and help her survive difficult moments. The myth of a better life, which for the women that employ her turned out to be an illusion, for her is something real. Her life indeed does undergo a great transformation. We watch as the ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan, as a confused girl turns into a woman, whom knows what she wants, as a shy scared person becomes someone who is not afraid of fighting for herself. The story of Przystupa is a story of how the ordinary can turn into the extraordinary.

We have an opportunity to travel with the heroine through various homes, which is, one has to say, an instructive journey. First she works in the city for Star. She sees an unhappy family, one based on lies. The husband tries to promote his wife, the wife tries to convince the media she is one of a kind and in the process both forget about their relationship. In Sweden Przystupa works for Mrs Hyra - a vulgar woman, who celebrates being Polish and religious to the point of being a caricature. Then Przystupa takes care of the house and children of Mrs Weak and she cleans the house of the Doctor, who decides to have her coming out despite her old age and find happiness in lesbian love. The house of gossip- and appearances-loving Gun is the next stop for the heroine. Plebanek is not afraid of showing the dark side of the émigré success. The women Przystupa works for can be seen as those who "made it". The truth, however, is very different. Promoted by her husband and created by plastic surgeons Star feels neglected in her relationship. The vulgar Hyra thinks only about what is appropriate, is keen to note when other slip up. The national values she constantly evokes are only a way to hide her feeling of failure. Mrs. Weak is afraid to be alone, so she tolerates - up to a point - her husband, who torments her physically and psychologically. Gun seems nosy, happy to see others trip up, a classic false friend and gossip, but in fact she is living through the drama of being abandoned in her relationship and unsuccessfully trying to have a second child. Przystupa appears in their lives at a crucial moment. She is a "good spirit" on the one hand, but on the other she triggers a chain of events that lead to important changes in their lives. She is silent, accompanies them, she is constantly on the road and her presence uncovers what has been earlier successfully hidden.

The heroine of "A Box of Stilettos" is also in to some extent an émigré, only an internal one. When after an unsuccessful attempt to go back to work she decides to stay at home with her son, her choice is hard to understand for her co-workers. The world of a small child proves to be a long way away from the world of big projects and financial transactions. Even though the heroine did not go anywhere, her life begins to follow a completely different path than the lives of her friends.
Emigration depicted in "Girls from Portofino" also has an unusual dimension. One of the heroines decides to go abroad to work in a brothel. The author manages to describe it in such a way that we do not judge her, we can even understand and sympathise with her. It is one more example showing that the world of Plebanek's novels is never black-and-white.

BASEMENT VANTAGE POINT

In the work of Grazyna Plebanek one could certainly find traces of the fissures of existence and the metaphysics of cleaning cloths written about by Jolanta Brach-Czaina. The author keenly watches the areas of femininity that are not talked about, she appreciates the importance of the everyday experience and the ordinary, often embarrassing experience. For example in "Box of Stilettos" the author shows motherhood without idealism. Instead of a mother who is happy, constantly active, and growing lazy by just taking care of the baby, we see a woman who is fed up with getting up at night, whose breasts hurt and who dreams about dreaming. She has no time for herself, phone calls in the morning steal from her precious moments of peace and quiet before her baby son wakes up. What's more, her sister and mother in law, without being asked, keep instructing the young mother what else she should do and how far she is from being the perfect mother and wife. The heroine however, has the courage to stand up for herself against the family and acquaintances who want to run her life -- she tells her mother in law that even though she is expecting a baby, there will be no wedding. Later she spontaneously gets married, thus avoiding a great family celebration. Finally she does not prepare the traditional Polish Easter breakfast, because she wants to rest. She fights for her right to her own everyday life.

The girl friends from "Girls from Portofino" also experience difficult times. Back in their childhood they are afraid to go to the earth mound behind the school because it is allegedly a place frequented by a sexual pervert. They learn about rejection when they are falsely accused of theft. Hanka has to fight a private battle for the right to a different life. Her mother believes that a girl's value is measured by the number of boys wooing her and that the age of twenty marks a dangerous time of getting close to spinsterhood. She is also a supporter of peculiarly understood marriage vows: it does not matter that her husband beats her - if she vowed to be with him at the altar, a divorce is out of the question. Better to have a husband that beats you than not have a husband at all. Hanka has the courage to oppose such a model of a relationship. Plebanek also tackles the problem of heartlessness of women towards their own sex. A good example is the attitude of the nurse towards Mania when the girl is giving birth - indifferent, without a trace of empathy, as if she were an object.
Plebanek does not shy away from describing physiology and sexuality (the above mentioned abortions, first menstruations witnessed by boys at school, a conscious decision where and with whom she would lose her virginity or having sex without getting married).

"A Girl Called Przystupa" is a novel which puts special emphasis on the "ground floor" vantage point of the narration (or literally the basement, because that is where the heroine lives in the house of Star). Even the author herself talks about the "garbage can vantage point" in one of her interviews. Przystupa, as a servant, cleaning lady, nanny, sees more and more clearly. Cleaning literally she also uncovers dirt in a metaphoric sense, which, as it turns out, is often hidden from the critical public eye. Problems with alcohol, homosexual inclinations, household violence, cheating on a spouse, sexual indifference, prostitution, gossiping and slander - it cannot be immediately seen, it is not discussed although sometimes everybody knows about it. Przystupa not only cleans and recycles some of the dirt -- she also has to run from some it. Sometimes she polishes a dirty surface so hard that she uncovers its long hidden shine. This is because she does not judge, she tries to understand and allow everybody to live with the consequences of their own choices. Przystupa seems to sense that the bitter, malicious, aggressive women she meets on her path, are, in fact, unhappy. In the last novel of Plebanek we will also find important fragments on marginalising the female experience. We can read about sexual harassment and turning the victim into the guilty party, about rape, masturbation, about the waning emotions and desire in a marriage, about buying oneself peace with one's body, about the first menstruation as a celebration of femininity, about abortions on the black market, about problems with getting pregnant. Przystupa seems to be a confidant who listens, speaks rarely but is able to help and show the right way. By gathering and recoding the narratives of others she grows to create her own narrative. The act of liberation is sealed during her passionate night with the Lonely One. Przystupa leaves in the morning with a new strength and a conviction that she will not waste her life.

AND THIS IS THE STORY OF WOMEN...

The work of Plebanek is a unique, because intelligent, credible, friendly and feminist depiction of women. Thanks to her, Polish popular literature has something to be proud of. Especially that the author's last novel "A Girl Called Przystupa" is, in fact, a border-line text. There is a lot of references to the novel of the road, to the picaresque, crime story, but also to a good social novel or a good family yarn. Plebanek is not afraid of creating strong images of women. Grochola, seen as a star of women's prose, could learn a lot from the author of "Box of Stilettos". And thanks to Grazyna Plebanek we can say that the Harlequin type of novel for women is finally heading into oblivion. It is being replaced by literature for women who seek a story told in an intelligent way. A story, which a woman can look at like at a mirror and say: this story could be about me.


Translated by Jan Strupczewski



photo by Stephan Vanfleteren