Interview: Kasia Jaronczyk

Kasia Jaronczyk immigrated to Canada from Poland in her teens. She had already begun writing poetry in Polish, but being a writer in a second language seemed an impossibility, so she only began writing seriously in English after an illness ended a lengthy detour through the sciences.

Although she does not understand herself primarily as an immigrant writer, Kasia’s work often explores connections between Poland and Canada. She co-edited an anthology of Polish-Canadian short stories, Polish(ed): Poland Rooted In Canadian Fiction (Guernica Press, 2017), that included both pieces by writers of Polish ancestry and pieces about Poland by non-Polish writers. Her debut short story collection Lemons (Mansfield Press, 2017) also responds strongly to her Polish roots, with a first section of stories from the perspective of a young girl in Communist Poland and a second section from the perspective of those who have returned to post-Communist Poland later in life.

Kasia now lives in Guelph, Ontario, where I had a chance to speak with her over pints at the eBar.

JLH: I don’t normally start an interview by getting right into a book’s influences, but you’ve structured Lemons as a series of loosely interlinked family stories in two parts – “Girls” and “Women”, which seems like a strong allusion to Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Can you talk a bit about Munro’s influence on you and the book?


KJ: I don’t think she had much influence at all. I’ve read her stories, but I wasn’t thinking of them while I was writing. I thought of Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories, which is written from the viewpoint of a girl. I first read them a year or two ago, and when I wrote my stories the question for me was, how do you write a story from the viewpoint of a child and make it interesting for an adult reader? Carrie Snyder does that very well.


JLH: The stories are mostly interlinked, but they’re told from a variety of perspectives and narrative positions, times and places. How deliberately are you working with or against the Canadian tradition of interlinking small town short stories here?


KJ: I would say there are two distinct places. The Girls stories, which are loosely autobiographical, are connected together and occur at makeshift playgrounds or at a summer camp. The Women stories take place in homes and hospitals.


JLH: Except for maybe the final one in Girls?


KJ: They’re all from Basia’s perspective except of that final story, but they all describe the experience of growing up in Communist Poland, not having much supervision, not knowing exactly what is wrong and what is right in terms of how adults treat children, because of how this culture allows corporal punishment and that sort of thing. So Basia has to navigate the world based on instinct, not knowledge. No one is there to protect her, basically, and anybody can have bad intentions, even the father or the grandfather. She grows up on construction sites, because playgrounds are non-functional. She goes to summer camps, which are rural and not very safe either. All of the stories are connected in that way, in that sense of place.

The Women stories all take place in post-Communist Poland, inspired by my parents’ experiences when they visited Poland in recent years. I’ve never been back since I emigrated in 1992, and I wish I had that experience, so I could write about it. I’ve planned to go back, but something always happens.

So, even though all the stories aren’t linked together, the two groups of stories create their own separate worlds. They aren’t as tightly linked as Munro’s stories, or some Canadian short stories, but I wasn’t responding to those things really. My project is semi-autobiographical, and it’s based on memories, and an average human life is episodic. Big events happen sporadically in between long patches of uninteresting every day experience. It doesn’t lend to a long narrative scope of a novel. Memories are fragments, so I thought it would be better to write short stories rather than try to compose an imposing immigrant family epic.


JLH: Going back to that final story of the Girls section then. It is quite different from the other stories, the only one from a different character’s perspective. Why did you include it in that section?


KJ: Yeah, that story was problematic because it didn’t quite fit in the second part with the women’s stories, but it wasn’t from the perspective of the main character in the first part. It’s also set in an earlier time than the other Girls stories. It’s from the time between Basia’s mother’s childhood and Basia’s. And it’s a different setting too, in a very small, superstitious Polish village. But it is also about a young girl in Poland and about growing up in a misogynist, threatening environment.


JLH: Canada figures mostly as an absence in the stories. People talk about Canada, they come and go from there, but the stories take place almost entirely in Poland. What role does Canada play in the novel? What does it mean to the characters?


KJ: Immigrant stories are usually about the journey from one place to another and I didn’t want to write that. What interests me is what happens before and after the journey, the stories that frame the immigration story. So Canada does play a role in these people’s lives, but it’s not the part of their lives that ends up in the book, because that’s not what I’m concerned with. I wanted to describe what it’s like living in a place before you leave. Not the part just before you leave, but about the lives that people live for years before emigration. And about what it’s like to go back.


JLH: That relates a little bit to something I wanted to ask about the stories that don’t get told, the stories between the two sections. The stories of the first section work through the lives of girls who are just on the cusp of womanhood. The stories of the second section work through the lives of older, sometimes even elderly women. But there are no stories from the intervening stage of life, the stage of young womanhood. Why did you choose to leave this area unexplored? Is it something like the story of immigration, where you wanted to tell what came before and after rather than tell the intervening journey?


KJ: Part of the reason is just that I’m really interested in childhood experiences. I find that whatever happened to me in grade school, the friendships and the interactions with people, were really intense. Grownups don’t really have these kinds of friendships. They have spouses and kids, but it’s not as easy to make new friends, and when they do, they’re a different sort of friends. With friends in childhood you would have huge fights, betrayals, and then you would make up, and it was a very intense kind of relationship. So that interests me.

Also, as a writer, to work from the perspective of a child is challenging and interesting. It’s difficult to write from a child’s perspective and still make it interesting to adults, to have it contain a message that adult readers can decode. That challenge made me want to write stories about girls. It’s not that I didn’t want to write about Basia as a young woman, I just didn’t end up writing those stories. Also, if I had more time to write more stories, maybe I would have.


JLH: Having emigrated from Poland yourself, and having edited a collection of Polish diaspora writing in Polish[ed]: Poland Rooted in Canadian Fiction, how do you see yourself and your writing as participating in the tradition of Polish writers or Polish ex-patriate writers?


KJ: That’s a big question. There’s this attitude that ex-patriate writers aren’t really Canadian writers. They’re immigrant writers. And you don’t want to be labelled as such, where people assume that all your writing will be about immigration.

Another problem is that Poland is not that interesting to people outside of Poland, to people in the West. A lot of Polish writers end up writing about Russia, because people here basically think Russia and Poland are the same, but Russia is more interesting because they hear about it more in the news and they know Russian authors better. Everyone knows about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but people don’t usually know many Polish authors. But this is slowly changing, and I hope that the Polish(ed) anthology helps with that.

All of that is a big question for me – where am I as a Polish-Canadian writer? I ask myself, if I were a writer in Poland, if I had never left, would I still have written these stories specifically? And I think I would, only slightly differently, because I wouldn’t have to explain a lot of the things that people in Poland know – for example, playing on the carpet beater stand. In Poland I would just say trzepak, and everybody would know.

I just write what interests me, and that would have been a bit different if I had stayed in Poland because my experiences would have been different, but a lot would have been the same. I think the same things would still intrigue me. I don’t think of having some kind of mission for my writing, or writing what I “should” be writing as a Polish-Canadian, or anything like that.


JLH: The stories in the Girls sections are set several decades ago and depict a world that is both patriarchal and misogynist, where children compare the beatings that fathers give, and where girls are variously harassed, assaulted, and raped. They don’t see this a good thing, but they do see it as almost unavoidable thing, as a normal part of their world.


KJ: Yes, playground sex education has taught them to associate sex with violence. It’s what they see, and it’s what they understand as normal. It’s almost what they’re taught to want.


JLH: On the other hand, the stories in the Women section are more recent and tend to depict a more female dominated world, where sons and husbands are weaklings and drunks. What are you exploring with this contrast?


KJ: That’s interesting. I never thought about it in that way. I think it’s partly because the power men have in the first section is over children. The stories are from a child’s point of view, and she sees the women as weaker, as going shopping, cooking and cleaning, while the men go to work and have the money. She doesn’t see that women have their own power, which comes from making the men, husbands and sons, dependent on their care.

Part of it is also that men who are powerless with their mates and their mothers are able to exercise power over their children. Not all men are like that, but in the families I show in the first section, that’s what happens.

Also, in a patriarchal society, women value a son more. So when they raise him to be a prince and do everything for him, of course he’s going to be weak and dependent on them for everything.  He will not achieve much because his mom is doing everything for him. So I think that’s what’s happening in the second section. The sons are spineless, so when they get married they move from under the thumb of the mother to that of the wife.


JLH: The title of the volume, Lemons, refers to one of the stories where a girl is sexually accosted by a man in a stairwell. There’s another point where a grandfather puts his hands up a girl’s skirt while they’re having their photo taken. This photo is on the cover of the book, with the upper parts of both people’s faces obscured, and with a large lemon covering the abusive hand. Talk a little about this representation of casual child abuse, both in the story and on the cover.


KJ: It was a different time – corporal punishment is fine, your father beats you, that’s fine, you’re proud of that – and these girls don’t know how to respond to these things. There’s no sex education. It’s whatever kids tell you on the playground. So I wanted to show how in that environment, this man in the stairwell saying these things could have been somebody’s dad. I wanted to show this environment of uncertainty.

And the dads, even though they beat their children, they also love them. When Basia tells her dad that there’s this man who said these things to her, her dad goes out with other fathers and tries to find this guy to defend her. It’s not as simple as the father beats his kids so he’s a monster.

In the story about the grandfather, it’s first of all about memory, because we’re talking about the memory of a young girl who may or may not remember something, whether it’s real or not.


JLH: But there’s photographic evidence, right on the cover.


KJ: There’s photographic evidence of something going in the wrong direction, but we don’t know what actually happened, whether a line was crossed or not. I’ll be honest, the story is autobiographical. The photograph is of me and my grandfather, and nothing happened with him except that I felt uncomfortable sometimes. He would kiss me on the mouth, tickle me a lot, put his hands on my thighs when I sat on his knee. He never went beyond that, but he died when I was in Grade 4. I remember him always telling me that he wanted to paint me when I got older. In the story this happens, but in reality it never happened.

What is real, however, is the story about the doctor and the anal rape that happens, but nobody considers it rape because it’s a doctor and it happens at a doctor’s appointment. And in a way it’s not. It’s just that things haven’t been explained properly to the girl. But she experiences it as rape, with all the psychological effects of rape. Only nobody else sees it that way.

That’s one of the things I wanted to write about. How do you define abuse? Do you define it by social rules, or by individual experience? The grandfather might have been doing things that were wrong, but the girl doesn’t experience it as abuse, whereas the doctor is doing something acceptable, but the girl experiences it as rape.


JLH: As opposed to that kind of fear of physical and sexual violence from men, the women of the second section seem to fear abandonment and disappointment by men. Was this a contrast you intended to emphasize?


JK: I was trying to write from the perspective of moms asking, what did I do wrong? What did I do that my son turned out this way? Both moms in the second section feel like this in different ways, but they can’t admit it, of course. They hide it, but they blame themselves for how their kids turned out.

Also the women in those stories are coming back to this place they remember, and they think they’re special. They think they can fix things, but they realize that they’re not that perfect and their memories aren’t that perfect. But they still love their sons. They’re still full of excuses for them. The woman who realizes that her daughter-in-law doesn’t love her perfect genius son, who is not so perfect and not so genius, has an absurd reaction. She accuses her daughter-in-law of stealing a rug, and is completely convinced that she’s right, and makes all these emotional excuses why it must be true.


JLH: Are you working on any new projects at the moment? What directions is your writing exploring now?


JK: I’ve been working on a novel for a while, which is different and harder for me. I’ve always written short stories or poems. With short stories I work by thinking about it a lot and holding the entire story in my head, and then I sit down and write it in a few hours, the whole thing, and then I edit it. So, because I’m used to working in this way, I try to keep my entire novel in my head, which is impossible, so I’m learning to work differently.

Part of the novel will take place in Victorian Canada, because I want to write about psychiatric photography and the treatment of hysteria. The main character will be a young girl who is the patient of a psychiatrist. He photographs her as part of her “treatment”, so she becomes a kind of muse for him but in a very submissive way. In the other part of the novel, I want to reverse this power struggle. I want to write about this artist and his wife and the muse who manipulates both of them, convincing the artist that he can’t be successful without her, and seducing the wife. So the muse will have the power in the contemporary plot.


JLH: Kasia, thanks for your time tonight. I think what you’ve shared will allow readers some insight into your book.


Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Vocamus Press, a micro-press that publishes the literary culture of Guelph, Ontario. He is also the Managing Director at Friends of Vocamus Press, a non-profit community organization that supports book culture in Guelph.

He has written a collection of poetry, short prose and photography called Island Pieces, a chapbook of poetry calledThese My Streets, and an ongoing series of poetry broadsheets called Conversations with Viral Media. His criticism, reviews, and poetry have appeared in places like The Bull CalfCV2Free FallThe GooseThe Rusty ToqueThe Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.

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