True Stories from Faraway Places: Paweł Smoleński and Polish Literary Reportage

By Sean Bye

Paweł Smoleński’s “Painting the Occupation” is a great example of what I love about Polish literary reportage. Through the story of Suleiman Shakir, a famous Kurdish painter who was persecuted under Saddam Hussein, Smoleński addresses themes of freedom of expression, political oppression, and the recent history of the Kurds in Iraq. But he does so through Shakir’s unusual personal story, allowing the reader to form a deeper, more human connection with the faraway nation of Kurdistan. This personal perspective and human connection is the main characteristic of Polish reportage as a genre, and is at the heart of what makes it some of the most exciting literature coming out of Poland today.

Ryszard Kapuściński—for many years the only foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency, and a prolific author from the late 1960s until his death in 2007—pioneered this literary style of journalism, inspiring the generations of Polish journalists who followed him, as well as readers abroad. Smoleński and his contemporaries—Mariusz Szczygiel, Jacek Hugo-Bader, Witold Szabłowski, and others—all work in the shadow of Kapuściński and seek to live up to his legacy. The daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza is the main outlet for Polish reportage writers, but full-length reportage books are very popular, with specialist publishers, bookstores, and a Reportage Institute providing support for literary nonfiction in Poland.

For a translator, Polish reportage is often deceptively simple. It’s quick-paced, with a clipped writing style full of short, sometimes incomplete sentences that can be difficult to render in English. It changes tense suddenly, sometimes shifting into the present when the action gets exciting. And since journalists are often not great stylists, it’s not rare to run into sentences that are slightly ambiguous or unclear under close examination.

Smoleński is no exception to that, but what makes his writing exciting is his ear for human stories. In his books, historical events and broader geopolitical circumstances are always addressed through the views and day-to-day lives of the people he meets on his travels. And what people! A Smoleński piece I recently translated for Continents magazine is about a female Iraqi Kurdish guerrilla who survived Saddam’s gas attacks, escaped to Afghanistan, was resettled in the Soviet Union and then in Sweden, and finally made her way back to Kurdistan—all with a husband and children in tow. Like Shakir’s, her story isn’t about facts and dates, but rather giving the reader a completely new perspective that allows us to relate to a distant country.

Smoleński and other Polish reportage writers blur the lines between literature and journalism: being true to subjects’ memories or feelings is often viewed as more important than being true to the facts. For many journalists this raises serious questions about journalistic ethics, and indeed Kapuściński’s biographer has found he had exaggerated or made up some details in his books for the sake of a better story. This style is catching on, though, including in the Anglophone world. Barbara Demick’s award-winning Nothing to Envy, based on interviews with North Korean refugees, and Ari Shavit’s recent bestselling history of Israel, My Promised Land, were both written in English in a style strongly reminiscent of the best Polish reportage writers: focused more on personal stories than dates and figures, and taking an unashamedly subjective point of view.

That makes me optimistic that we’ll see more Polish reportage in translation. Nonfiction is arguably the strongest writing coming out of Poland right now. And while Polish literature is often inward-looking—focusing on Polish identity and history in a way that can seem parochial to Anglophone readers—Polish reportage is outward-looking, drawing on the Polish tradition of travel, exile, and diaspora to explore every corner of the globe. These journalists are all hugely exciting writers, and I hope to see more and more of their work published in English.


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