For Books’ Sake Talks To: Grazyna Plebanek

Grazyna Plebanek was born in Warsaw, Poland, and is the author of several best-selling novels. Her latest book, Illegal Liaisons is her first to be translated in to English. By Cariad Martin, For Books's Sake

Illegal Liaisons is also Plebanek's first novel written from a male perspective, told from the point-of-view of stay-at-home father, Jonathan. Plebanek admits that she was intimidated by this task, and spoke to many stay-at-home fathers to prepare.

Some had chosen this role due to their wives promising career prospects, although one had agreed to stay at home with his child only because he was unable to find a job.

"For him it was just temporary situation, he didn't feel good about it, his ego seemed to suffer," she explains.

The importance of a male protagonist stems from the integral theme of gender roles in this novel.

"I could write this story from female perspective, make Jonathan a housewife, but I felt I would miss something important," says Plebanek.

"It seemed to me that a new type of man was born in our society, whether he's a stay-at-home father or a father who works but is involved as a parent much more that his father and grandfather. A new generation of men grew with a new generation of women - stronger, financially independent, multitasking, who conquer the labour market."

I ask whether Plebanek considers the shifting of gender roles to be a universal change, or whether she has noticed subtle differences in the various countries she has lived?

"In Warsaw the views are more polarized, the macho stereotype is being currently replaced by the model of a partner," she replies. "It's worth mentioning that we don't have a tradition of housewives in Poland. Because we were losing and gaining independence, were occupied by Nazis and suffered from communism, women had to be very strong, not only as mothers but as bread-winners as well, as in many cases men were killed or sent to prisons."

She notes that in Stockholm, the feminist movement has generated significant change, and that Swedish laws are one of the most advanced in terms of gender equality. However, she argues that they can be bound by political correctness, and can favour uniformity over diversity.

In Brussels she has experienced the opposite, and praises the fact that difference is celebrated creating a vibrant multiculturalism. In fact, the way that many races, religions and languages coexist in Brussels was one of the major influences of Plebanek's work.

"I'm impressed by the way schools are prepared to teach non-native speakers. They have special, efficient programs to teach newcomers who do not know French or Dutch. And it works. It's impressive and requires tolerance, and an open-mind from teachers and pupils. This is how people learn multiculturalism - from kindergarten," she explains.

One of the most striking things about Plebanek's writing is the prominence of strong female characters, and when I bring it up it is evident this is not by accident.

"I doubt I would find pleasure in creating a female character who would be a victim. Women have been portrayed as such for centuries and I do enjoy the fact that they don't have to be seen like this anymore," she replies.

Plebanek goes on to explain how she grew up in a family of matriarchal figures. She expresses deep admiration for women who manage "to raise children on their own, to end a toxic relationship, to divorce despite social pressure... to be ‘rebellious' - meaning not to be a woman, who will put up with anything just to stay a wife. Women like this inspire me, fascinate in their complexity, in their everyday struggle to survive and stay themselves."

Illegal Liaisons also examines how marriage and monogamy has been affected by shifting gender roles, and Plebanek has spoken previously about her belief that it is absolutely possible to love more than one person. I ask if writing this novel confirmed or challenged anything she had previously felt about marriage and fidelity?

"I certainly marched a long way from the idealization of love, imprinted by our culture with its romantic stereotypes, to understanding that the reality is much more complex," she replies.

"The concept of romantic love is relatively new, even 100 years ago people have married mainly for economic reasons. Fidelity was one of the conditions of this contract, the reason was as practical as the idea of marriage - men, who were bread-winners because women couldn't earn money, or own anything under the law - tried to [minimize] the risk of bringing up kids who were not theirs.

"[It's] so rare nowadays that people stay together for such a long time. Our grandparents did it, because nobody pressed them to be the whole world one for another - a fantastic lover, best friend, life support etc."

In Illegal Liaisons and her previous work, Plebanek has been praised for the "unembarrassed way" in which she writes about sex, and has been outspoken about how she wishes to give dignity back to the body, and avoid language which is either too vulgar or too medical.

Was she worried that this attention to erotic vocabulary may have been lost when the book was translated in to English?

"I trust the translator of Illegal Liaisons, Danusia Stok who had to cope with a difficult task. Erotic vocabulary is different in every language, the cultural backgrounds are different. Sexual taboo in Polish stems from Catholicism, erotic vocabulary seems to be restricted by the belief that the body is dirty and stains the soul. In English the context is a bit different."

When questioned on how she found writing about sex from a male perspective, Plebanek refers to it as "an interesting experiment requiring an awakening of the male part of my own personality. Imagination did the rest."

Plebanek's first English translation comes shortly after receiving the Literary Prize Zlote Sowy in 2011 for her contribution to promoting Poland abroad.

Illegal Liaisons has been described as an insight in to "the first Polish generation that is truly ‘free.' I ask if Plebanek feels that the weight of political and cultural history in this novel will be understood by an international audience?

"I don't expect non-Polish readers to embrace Polish history through my books. But I don't avoid touchy subjects that are now present in Europe... [We are] confronted with stereotypes, certain simplification or misunderstandings of our history and tradition. It's normal - we are ‘others' when we are abroad.

Although as a writer I don't have a mission to teach Polish history, I would be happy to know that my book helped to change some stereotypes," she replies.

"Not only writers promote Poland. Educated, mainly young Poles - the ‘free generation' - are doing a good job, too... They have none of the complexes which weighed down older generations of Poles. They appreciate both their roots as well as the culture of the country they live in.

It's the first free and, in my opinion, one of the happier generations in recent Polish history. They can change bad stereotypes. This is the best and the most natural way of promoting Poland."

Plebanek has mentioned in previous interviews that growing up under communism meant that she was exposed to excellent literature, and when I ask her about this she is delighted to discuss her upcoming publication.

"I just finished a book about literary texts that inspired me as a writer and woman. It'll be published next year. Some titles I mention were important not only for me, but for my generation, people born under communism, working in capitalism," she explains.

She lists many classic writers that feature in the book, including Virginia Woolf, Jane Bowles, Sarah Waters and Kathryn Harrison.

She notes that a handful of female Polish writers also appear, adding "I concentrate on novels, diaries, essays that I found rebellious as a woman, thanks to which I see ‘rebelliousness' as the one of ways to be oneself."

If you would like to get your hands on a copy of Illegal Liaisons, it can be purchased here.

Cariad Martin


photo by Stephan Vanfleteren