A conversation with Angelika Kuźniak, author of a book dedicated to the Polish-romani poet Papusza.
by Salvatore Greco. English translation by Lorenzo Berardi
Papusza is an author who goes beyond any label. She was a Polish poet but of Romani descent and nobody knew about her or when and where she was born. Perhaps had not Jerzy Ficowski made her known by spreading her poems she would have stayed unknown. However, due to this reason, Papusza’s story is striking and fascinating. She grew up a simple and apparently uncouth woman and yet she was deep and suffering. This woman was portrayed in a movie by Krzysztof and Joanna Krauze in 2013 and, one year earlier, in a book published by Czarne and written by Angelika Kuźniak; its title? Just Papusza.
To dig deeper into a book that its own publisher labels as reportage, but that is actually much more complex than that just like Papusza herself was, we talked with the author. Kuźniak is a writer whose books are akin to portraits of exceptional women where words help drawing a perfectly balanced picture between subtlety and in-depth analysis.
Why did you choose to write about Papusza?
I’m not sure I remember this right, but there are two versions of the story: a matter-of-fact one and a more ‘romantic’ one. The first version is that it all started with a poetry book by Papusza that someone gave me and that brought me to learn more about its author. The latter is that I grew up in a corner of Poland that lies approximately 80 kilometres from the city where Papusza spent most of her life. I often went to that city and Papusza was there somehow, if only in the memories of the other gypsies who lived there. I don’t know how to explain this; by that time Papusza had already passed, but it was as if she was still around. We can say that the inspiration for the book is a combination of those two versions then. After all, writing a book is something that may take years of your life and I can’t picture myself spending so much time together with a person I can’t stand or that doesn’t interest me at all.
Was it hard writing a reportage made only of indirect sources?
I’d say it was harder and easier at the same time. Let me explain this: I love talking to people and not only because it’s something crucial in my profession, but I don’t feel like quoting in my books each and every person I spoke with. I’ll give you an example: in the part of the book where I describe the way harp strings are made I spoke with three folk music artists to get it right. Obviously, readers are not aware of this back story and they may assume that I’ve just read something about the whole process, but it’s not the way they think. What interests me is to tell what really happens and not that I went here or there and talk with this guy or with that woman. Sometimes I’ve to reveal this bit in order to explain where or from whom did I get something. However, I prefer staying in the background and letting the characters shape the book and less surnames are in the story the better it is.
This explanation brings us straight to my next question: Papusza is an unusual reportage due to its topics, due to the importance it gives to feelings, due to a writing style that deals more with narrative than with reporting. Would you agree with this?
I always say that my books are not ‘reportages,’ but belong to a literary genre that is a mix of reportage, fiction – although I wouldn’t be able to write a proper novel – and who knows what else. The traditional Polish reportage style is not mine. As a reader, I’m not the greatest fan of reportage even though I appreciate a lot the staggering amount of work it involves. I do respect reporters who unveil dark stories, scandals and so on, but I’ll always feel closer to authors such as Hanna Krall or Wojciech Tochman who know how to write about suffering, sometimes even with a single word.
What do you enjoy reading? Is there a literary genre or an author that you like more than others?
As a general rule, I read many books related to the topic I’m working on, but those works aside I read a wide range of stuff. Getting older I re-learned reading for the pleasure of doing it. If I have to mention a single author, than it’s certainly Małgorzata Szejnert whom I consider an uncontested master. Her written Polish may seem a bit old school, but it’s so beautiful that I’d suggest to read her books if only as a model of nice writing style. And if a book is well written, no matter what it is about, I’m keen to read it.
Do you think that Papusza today is well known in Poland, as a historical character and as a poet?
When I wrote my book on her, there wasn’t much debate about Papusza. Later on, thanks to the movie by Krzysztof and Joanna Krauze with whom I cooperated as an advisor, the interest has grown, but before that she was considered a marginal character. Even gypsies – and I use this term because Papusza herself did that, not in a derogatory way – weren’t keen to talk about her or struggled to remember about her. Today things are very different. Today poems by Papusza are translated into many languages. To me as an author this brings great satisfaction as I played my part in giving Papusza a new youth, a new life so that her name is now familiar to many people.
Back to sources, the book manages to convoy an effective sense of proximity to its main character considering how you couldn’t meet Papusza in person due to obvious reasons.
Perhaps, it’s this that makes the book an engaging and unique work. I could gain access to a lot of materials and I re-enacted the main character in the way I felt truer to me. The initial monologue, for example, is not taken verbatim from a recording, but it’s something akin to radio editing. First I listened to several hours of recorded accounts then I wrote them down organizing them by thematic areas. And the most important thing for me is that, whoever I am writing about, I delve into their characters. When working on Papusza I listened to all those recordings again and again focusing on the background sounds too or paying attention to those moments in which she stops talking and smiles. It’s this process that helps in creating a feeling of proximity. Today when we read Papusza’s letters, we can figure her feelings out, but always from a distance; and I believe the way I worked on my book did help in getting a more defined picture of her. I love working in this way, digging deep into the materials I have, and it’s at the same time easier and harder than interviewing people.
How do you tackle a character whose emotions and feelings are so deeply intertwined with such a specific cultural background? Did you have the study the Romani culture in order to understand Papusza?
I had an actual guide to Papusza that helped me in understanding the world of gypsies which is of the utmost importance for the book. Before being a poet Papusza was a gypsy and this is something crucial. Without the help of Ficowski this woman would have stayed a gypsy who sang to trees – a cultural heritage of herself and her culture – and nobody would have ever published her. And that’s precisely why it has been important for me knowing that world as best as I could, talking to them so to speak, even though Papusza is still a controversial character among the Romani people.
How did you choose the moments in the life of Papusza that you portrayed in your book? Why do you consider them as the most important ones in the poet’s life?
As my books are focused on emotions, I prefer calling them ‘portraits’ rather than ‘biographies’. I’m definitely not interested in writing a timeline of events. Suffice it to say that I didn’t check any document proving in what year Papusza was born. For what difference does it make whether the poet was born in 1909 or in 1910? Right, it’s good to know it, but it doesn’t change my attitude towards her and her story. I’m much more interested in knowing what events shaped her life and how they made it the way it was.
Do you think Papusza could have lived in this day and age?
I’d say so. After all, there’s a score of Romani poets who are culturally active today, writing and publishing their works. In Papusza’s times I can’t picture a gypsy woman like her knocking at a publisher’s door and asking them to print her poems. True, something like that doesn’t really happen even today, but there’s definitely more cultural openness in this respect. I’ve been reading some contemporary poems written in the Romani language, but so far I haven’t found anything as good as Papusza’s.
Is there any part of your book that means something special to you?
Since I started this profession I’ve always written down the opening lines of my books at the very end of the writing process. With Papusza I did the opposite and maybe that’s why I feel a strong bond with the monologue that opens the book. Those lines show all the sufferance, the pain and the greatness of this woman.
When did you understand that you had collected enough material to start writing?
I usually begin writing my books when I’m still looking for the sources and texts that I need, so I wouldn’t know what moment to pinpoint. This way of writing may have some cons with a few things slipping through in the process – like that bit about Papusza’s exact year of birth – and that’s why some criticize me. But as I grow older, I learned how to cope with such criticism. I’ve come into the conclusion that whenever I write something I do it first and foremost for myself. The goal is to reach the awareness I’ve given to the book I had been working on all that I could give it.
May I ask you how did you start writing?
I like saying that I started writing…riding a bike. I grew up in a small Polish town next to the German border. Once I saw a plaque at the gates of a graveyard, whose words spelled out: “Here lie men and women who lost their lives in a senseless way.” That plaque tickled my curiosity and I learned how all the women living in that little town committed suicide at the end of the war. They did that out of sheer fear as the Red Army soldiers were approaching to town and the women were afraid to be raped. Among them there was even a mother who hanged her own little daughter to the ceiling. I contacted Gazeta Wyborcza to tell them about this and they replied suggesting I could write about what had happened. This is how I started.
Who are the writers you admire the most and whose work inspired yours?
Małgorzata Szejnert is certainly the first name coming to mind for her writing style and for what her books meant to me. Hanna Krall is fantastic in summing up things while Wojciech Tochman excels at putting pain into words. Ryszard Kapuściński used to be important to me, yet now he’s much less; he’s most definitely a maestro, but doesn’t have any direct influence on what I write. Some people say that a reportage book doesn’t need to be well written in order to be effective, but I disagree. A good non-fiction work isn’t only about telling its readers facts, but it needs to be properly written and the words chosen by its author to deliver a message are important: this is what I seek when I write.
Sometimes authors relate so much to their characters that they struggle to leave them behind once a book is over. How did you feel when you were done with Papusza?
I used to get almost physically sick when I left one of my published books behind. Today I can handle these moments in a better way, and yet Papusza was an incredibly tough book to write. This is due to Papusza having something in common with me, for example we’re both quite irritable. Besides, there are key topics of her life like loneliness and love that belong to everyone and, as such, it was probably for the best that we two couldn’t meet in person. If we had met, I would have had to put all of myself into my questions to talk about topics as deep and as sensitive as the aforementioned ones. However, in writing the book I had to ask myself: how did I behave whenever I felt alone and full of fear in my life? What did I feel? That’s why I’d compare writing a book like Papusza to having open heart surgery. That’s why, in a way, it was a relief finishing the book; I really like the final work I delivered and even though there may be errors or details here and there that could be changed, I’ll never do it. Also, an updated version of Papusza is out of the question as the book shows the person I was in 2013. The same applies to my future books as they will reflect the person I’m going to be. When writing this book I faced and tackled my own emotions and I believe this is something that helps in making the book worthy.