I am happy when my readers blush

Interview by Damian Gajda,

onet.pl, May 2010

translated by Jan Strupczewski 

Is Grazyna Plebanek your pen name?

Yes. Plebanek is my writer's territory in a symbolic sense. It comes from the name of a forest I inherited from my grandmother. It has become so much part of me now that even my friends associate me more with Grazyna Plebanek than with the name I have in my passport. So I will probably officially change it to Plebanek one day. Especially that I chose it myself, rather than received it from the family of my father or husband. The tradition of giving women names of families represented by men is not to my liking

In "Girls from Portofino" you portrayed the life of several girls from Warsaw's Stegny quarter, in "A Girl called Przystupa" you travel with your heroine to Scandinavia and in your last novel - "Illegal Liaisons" we can read about Brussels. This reflects a bit your travels around the world. Is literature, that you create, a mirror which reflects what is currently happening in your life?

It may sometimes be, but it reflects what happens outside - I hold it in front of me, with the reflective surface to the world, I myself cannot be seen from behind it. It is the reality that is interesting; I watch it and sometimes transform its elements in my novels: the mechanisms of how people behave, places I know, like, and which can be seen also by the readers of my books. A relatively low level of narcissism protects me from filling my novels with my own life

Last summer we saw a few novels with erotic elements written by women. Can "Illegal Liaisons" be seen as a novel with an erotic plot? I must admit that some of its fragments make me blush.

I am very happy it makes you blush. Literature has to evoke emotions, that's what it is for. In "Illegal Liaisons" the eroticism is more a consequence of the problem that the novel describes - the switch between behaviour seen as masculine and feminine, the interplay of what used to be given. Any Western movie will teach us that a man must defend his home and bring something to eat, while a woman is to cook it, while rocking the cradle with her leg. Now it is changing, the last few decades have shown that it was an imposed order. Women have fought for and are still fighting for equality, because for hundreds of years they were not treated as equals 

And erotic literature gives them a chance for liberation?

Maybe the eroticism of the novels written by women is a "foot in the door" - who said that only a man can openly talk about the body?

So far you have been focusing on female characters. But the main character of "Illegal Liaisons" is a man. Was it difficult to describe the world from a man's perspective?

At first it felt a bit awkward, and that's why I did solid research and asked my male friends to help me see the word from a male perspective. And then I discovered that the differences between a man and a woman do not boil down to divisions of the kind - "when me and my buddies were in the army" versus "I remember when I was giving birth..." but to the way both think and talk of emotions.

And men rarely talk about their feelings

Men avoid certain emotions, because nobody taught them how to analyse them or how to communicate them. They sweep these unnamed emotions under the carpet, because they hear from childhood that "a man does not cry", "does not weep like a woman" etc. And then there is little they can do about it as adults, they don't want to go to a therapist because this is still seen in some circles as a feminine thing, while men are tough and can cope. The thing is they don't. They suppress emotions which therefore have to find other outlets - alcoholism, aggression, they can be destructive and self-destructive.

Warsaw, your home town, has been an important hero of your previous books. In "Illegal Liaisons" Warsaw is barely mentioned. Do you like coming back to Warsaw? Or do you feel, like the characters in "Illegal Liaisons" that life here is not that interesting?

Warsaw is my city and I instinctively tense when somebody criticises it. Criticism is OK when at the same time you work to change things but if it is just to criticize, it is not cool. I come to Warsaw often, but I am not completely up to date with everything that happens, which was even then the case when I lived here, because I am not the type who constantly hangs out with the same bunch of people you were friends with in high school.

Why the frequent moves?

I am curious of new people, places, ways of thinking and that's why I travel. It gives me energy, a great joy, inspiration. I have stopped comparing long time ago, I no longer say "in Poland things are bad, but in Sweden or Belgium its great" or the other way around. I take from my home culture and the adopted cultures what is good and enjoy it.

The hero of your latest novel is a man after the feminist revolution. He stays home so that his partner can pursue a professional career. Is such model of a family becoming more popular?

Yes, this is changing thanks to the feminist movement, which has been active for more than a hundred years and recently helped by the economy. Because the European society is ageing, we need everybody to work and that means that women who were not welcome in the labour market some time ago, can now come back to it to contribute to the pensions of ageing societies. Furthermore, in countries like Poland, fewer babies are born because there is a lack of good state support for children, few good nurseries, kindergartens, and their staff is often not sufficiently educated and poorly paid. In France, on the other hand, where parents get help at every step of the way, families have 3-4 children

In Poland mothers seldom make that decision ...

In Poland, a responsible mother sees after her first child that she can lose her job for the next pregnancy, or that half her salary will go to pay for a nanny, because nurseries are communist nightmare

Is the affair that Jonathan has an expression of his revolt against the situation in which he finds himself in? Is it a need to manifest his manhood?

It may be an expression of his frustration, but I would not go that far in the analysis. In the end, being in love is being in love, it happens indiscriminately. Both in the past and now, maybe even more so now, because we live in times of a wolfish appetite for life. We want to earn more, spend more, travel. The new emotion is exciting, sometimes it is just another scalp in the collection, sometimes an attempt to hold on to youth or a need for closeness with another person to stop time from passing. I leave this to my readers to analyse, I hope they will find pleasure in reading "Illegal Liaisons", that they will get to like the characters.

You describe life abroad in a very peculiar way. So far Polish writers have focused on the difficulties of the life of an émigré - lack of money, poor accommodation, longing for the home country. But Megi and her husband do not want to come back to Poland, they feel very well in Brussels

You just used a word that is becoming history - émigré. After 1989, émigrés are only those who left before the change of the political system. Those who left afterwards, of their own will, of their own choice, are not émigrés because there is nothing final in their decision. They have simply made a choice - I grew up here, but I will find more interesting work over there, my children will learn languages, I can visit often, so contact with Polish will be maintained.

So it is not typical emigration?

No, it is a prelude to being a global human being, or a cosmopolitan, or a "trans-emigre", as some describe it. To me it is being European.

"Illegal Liaisons" are in shops now. A certain chapter of your life is closed, is it time to write another book?

I always work on some new book, they grow in me, I just prune and water them. I have a few ideas, one with a lot of action, one about something that excites me personally, but I cannot say anything more now, nothing good has come from talking yet, so I simply sit down and write.

photo by Stephan Vanfleteren