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On the Insidious Absence of Stories, and Bridging Ethnic Solitudes: Guest Post by Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak's debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. The Winter Palace, a novel of Catherine the Great will be published in January of 2012 in Canada, U.S., U.K., Holland, and Poland. She lives in Toronto where she is at work on her next novel about Catherine the Great.

I’m Canadian and I’m Polish. I have two internal voices in two languages that have become indelible parts of myself. I’m a North American and a European, for both cultural traditions have shaped me and both demand that I listen to their arguments. To complicate it further, I was born in Eastern or New Europe, as the lands from behind the former Iron Curtain are often called, in what Timothy Snyder, the Princeton historian of 20th century atrocities, calls the bloodlands.

I am also a writer.

Two decades ago I started writing about Polish immigrants to Canada who, like me, arrived here in the aftermath of the Solidarity crisis in search of a home. I wrote in English, not only because I was a graduate student of English at McGill, but also because English allowed me to tell these Polish stories to readers who did not share my ethnic background.

The characters of these early stories are forced to re-examine their heritage. Having left their homeland behind they watch how, away from home, their ethnic sins appear less distinct, their virtues less unique. Whether they admit it or not, they have to face the possibility that we are different in degree rather than in kind. And that this very possibility changes how they evaluate their past, and how it shapes their future.

By the time these stories began appearing in Canadian literary magazines, I was already writing my first novel.

Necessary Lies

Necessary Lies was a return of sorts, a journey back to the city of my birth, which I left in 1981 and which I didn’t find particularly intriguing at the time. But then, in Canada, trying to define where I was from, explain the shifting borders of post-war Europe which turned the German Breslau into the Polish Wrocław, I looked again at my city’s troubled heritage. The hinterland of the III Reich conquered by the Red Army, I realized, was a city of refugees, German and Polish, the former escaping the approaching front, the latter arriving to settle after they had been turned out of their own homes by post-war politics.

Writing in English, in Canada, I couldn’t assume that my readers would know this checkered story. I knew I had to make it understandable without making it simplistic, turn the political into the personal. But as the novel began to take its shape in my mind I realized that writing for a multicultural audience carries with it its own imperatives, the most important of which is the necessity to re-examine the obvious, inherited truths. For little remains obvious if it has to be explained to those unfamiliar with our own national narrative, filtered though different cultural sensibilities, shown in a universal light.

The plot of Necessary Lies was inspired by one of those meaningful coincidences writers love: My next door Canadian neighbour was born in the German Breslau which she fled in 1945 as a child. Our compared memories turned the novel into an exploration of bridges. Bridges between ethnic enemies who find themselves part of the same Canadian mosaic, bridges between immigrants and those they have left behind, bridges between North-American pragmatism and European insistence on the importance of history.

My second novel, Garden of Venus, began when in my local Canadian library I came across a Polish biography of countess Sophie Potocka, an 18th century Greek immigrant to Poland. Born in poverty, sold by her mother to a Polish diplomat in Istanbul, this extraordinary woman managed to cross the boundaries of both ethnicity and class. And yet, on this side of the Iron Curtain, her story has been virtually unknown.

Garden of Venus re-imagines Sophie’s life, a life lived at the time of dramatic historical upheavals, shifting borders, changing ethnic and national loyalties. I tell this story because it hasn’t been told before. And I have long realized how insidious the absence of stories can be, how destructive to the very possibility of building bridges between ethnic solitudes. It’s easier to dismiss those we know little about, or to think them incomprehensible especially if—to many English speaking readers—the former Eastern Europe is often defined only by unspeakable cruelty and suffering of World War II.

The WInter Palace

My forthcoming novel, The Winter Palace, has also began from an omission, although the story of Catherine the Great is hardly a forgotten one. Her biographies appeared in the West with great regularity, and most of them have been written in English. However, there have been no novels about her, and the popular, film versions of her life do not satisfy. To give but one example, in The Young Catherine, starring Zeta-Jones, Stanislaw Poniatowski, Catherine’s lover whom she made king of Poland only to force him to abdicate thirty-two years later, does not even merit a single scene.

And so The Winter Palace re-tells the story of a petty German princess who becomes a formidable Russian Tsarina, but it does it in a voice of a Polish spy. Both women are immigrants to Russia, both have to define themselves in the world of political maneuvering and shifting loyalties, both have to weight the price such transformations extort. And all along The Winter Palace draws on the history of the lands I come from, in hope that, to its readers, the novel will bring shades and hues where simple colours ruled so far.

For, in my years of writing, I’ve learnt that the only way I know to connect my two internal voices, the heritage of two countries and two continents lies in patient filling up of silences I stumble upon. Not to blame or glorify one or the other world, but to probe their unique vantage points, and, in the end, make them a bit more comprehensible to each other.

August 18, 2011
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