This interview was conducted by email, in English and Polish, between 24 May and 1 June, 2010.
W. Martin: How did you begin writing The Fool (Głupiec), and what motivated you to tell this particular story?
Ewa Schilling: Well, I was thinking about all these teachers and students who fall in love with each other, women and girls in the schools. And about all their stories, which are unspoken. Especially in Poland, with its politics and priests—all these men who hate lesbian and gay people. And, well, love between a woman and a girl in a school, it’s a scandal basically. But I was also thinking about hope. I mean, love between a woman and a girl is possible and does not have to be unhappy. I’ve heard of similar stories—not identical, of course: I never write about real events in my books. But the emotions are true. And I wanted to give voice to one of these love stories which had no place in Polish literature before I wrote The Fool.
WM: There is a common joke that goes: What does a gay man bring on a second date? And the answer is: What second date? And then continues: What does a lesbian bring on a second date? And the answer: The moving van. I know these are stereotypes, but both The Fool and the stories in your first book, The Mirror (Lustro), being love stories, would seem to support the commonplace that, for lesbians, the love story is the only one that needs to be told. I’m wondering if there are other kinds of lesbian experiences and perspectives that you feel might generate different kinds of stories?
ES: Something besides love? From a lesbian perspective one can call a great deal into question, like all the stereotypes about femininity, all religions . . .
I think there are many territories yet to be discovered. The experience of love is perhaps the foundation, it’s classical, and it’s where I’ve started from, too. But I’ve also written . . . especially in my last several stories, I’ve foregrounded different things. Although not too different—the transgression of boundaries and the potential for understanding are bound up somehow with the experience of being a lesbian.
WM: Your mode of narration in The Fool is quite fragmentary and sometimes disorienting. Could you talk a little about this?
ES: I must start from the title, The Fool. It’s a figure from the Tarot. The Fool is simple-minded, rash, happy. He feels free. Fools don’t like the conventional ways of doing things. In the classic Tarot deck, the Fool is shown standing on the edge of a precipice. And the Fool stands in opposition to science and to authority. The Fool’s story is outside the rules. So it’s very simple: the Fool doesn’t care about rules at all; nor do the women in my book care about Polish (and not just Polish) rules of love. By the same token, I don’t care about rules of grammar.
But also, the narration is fragmentary in order to emphasize the fact that it is just one part of a much larger, complicated whole.
WM: Do you feel that to write from the experience of being lesbian in Poland requires a different kind of language?
ES: It’s a difficult question. The idea that different experiences require a new language . . . Hmm . . . Maybe. But maybe every experience needs its own language? Every story? And every writer has his or her own language anyway . . ..
It’s true, though, that some stylistic conventions don’t seem to be at all suitable. There are certain patriarchic structures that are rooted in the language; for example, even if a group of people includes only one man in it, it still has to be referred to in the masculine. But there are different ways of overcoming these kinds of problems. For instance, when I write a story set half a century ago, I use a different language than for a contemporary text. There are many things that influence the language we choose. I would prefer not to limit my choices.
WM: Are there literary precedents in Polish literature—or in Polish culture more generally—that you look to for inspiration in your writing?
ES: I like Izabela Filipiak’s work. Her perspective is the closest to my own when it comes to women’s issues, and not just in Polish literature, and she’s working on a very high level. But inspiration is a complex thing. I certainly don’t deny the possible subconscious influence of texts that I’m reading, but I prefer to look for inspiration in my own biography, in what’s happening around me.
WM: Can you talk a little about how your books have been received by readers and critics in Poland? How is gay/lesbian/queer literature received generally?
ES: In Poland, the majority of critics treat this kind of literature as a kind of curiosity and tend not to take it seriously. And book reviewers often try to avoid mentioning such features. Those who take it most seriously tend to be women working in the field of gender studies. With my books it has been no different. Readers (mainly women) are much more positive, although the largest publishing houses are rather conservative and I probably won’t have the chance to publish my books in large editions for much longer.
The other thing is that there are very few people in Poland writing anything that might be considered gay/lesbian literature. As an aside, I should say that I’m not entirely fond of dividing literature along these lines, although it is practical in terms of discussing it. But sometimes—and certainly this is the case in Poland—this sort of division leads to situations where a book about lesbians is automatically classified as a book for lesbians, while novels with heterosexual characters are considered to be “for everyone.”
WM: Michał Witkowski’s novel Lovetown, which actually appealed to a lot of people in Poland, not just gays and lesbians, critiques a kind of overdetermined, commercialized gay male culture he associates with Western Europe and North America. What is your perspective on so-called “Western” models of lesbian and/or gay culture, and on literature written by Western lesbian authors?
ES: Hmm. I’m all for the struggle for lesbian and gay rights in whatever form is effective. From the Polish perspective, those achievements are truly considerable despite all the shortcomings that still remain in the West. Here we don’t even have a proper debate in the government about same-sex partnerships; and that allows officials to refuse to issue civil union certificates when lesbians and gays want to get married abroad. In contrast to Witkowski, I’m not attracted by visions of eternal conspiracy and life on the margins. Commercialism and things like that don’t affect only lesbians and gays. Nothing is perfect, including lesbian-gay culture in the West, but how to say it—I’d love to be able to criticize it, but for now it’s hard to criticize something that practically doesn’t exist in Poland.
WM: Are there non-Polish gay/lesbian/queer and/or feminist authors you read? What does their work mean for you?
ES: Very few books like that get published in Poland and unfortunately it’s difficult for me to read them in the original. Of course I know a few items, and they have played their part in my life. I won’t mention titles because what I’ve had access to is more a question of accident than of choice.
It’s good to see how other people think, to observe how they move in those areas, and a few issues have definitely been clarified for me by reading foreign authors. But on the other hand I try as much as possible to be as autonomous as possible and draw my own conclusions, without being unduly influenced by what others do. I’m not especially fond of literary theories, for instance, although I acknowledge the need for them.
WM: What are you working on now?
Currently I’m working on a novel titled Winter (Zima). It’s about a woman whose life has been defined by mental illness and her mother’s suicide—or rather by her struggle to change that. I’m also writing a number of stories that take place in my home town, Olsztyn, which is in a region that became part of Poland after WWII and has a very interesting history—especially with respect to the women in it.
WM: Thank you very much!