THE BARBARIANS AT THE GATES
An interview with W.S. Kuniczak, the author of The Thousand Hour Day and other novels, and the translator of Henryk Sienkiewicz's books.
Andrzej M. Salski: - During one of your lectures you said that in
the last two hundred years Polish Americans somehow missed the opportunity
to create their own writers who would be well known in the United States.
W.S. Kuniczak: - In saying this, I meant a "world class personality," a writer well known not only in the United States but all over the whole world.
- Why do you think that it is vital for Polonia to create such a
writer? Would you explain what is necessary to create such personality.
- It is the question of how the "minds are set," not the system. If indeed literature is the highest point of a nation's culture, its expression, the writer is the arrowhead of that culture. If there is any question of anything that one can do to create such a person-it takes generations. You should consider the figure of Shakespeare, for example, as one single individual standing on a pyramid composed of five or six or seven generations of writers of rising importance-then you might have one who is a "world class personality." You don't create such writers-it's a matter of evolution.
One level of writing evolves out of the one before, gives way to the one after, and so forth until in the process of intellectual and artistic refining you get to the point where you have a man who can speak to the world. And you don't learn about that in college. You don't get there with a Ph.D. or being born in a rich middle class or upper class. You get there with the steady commitment and emotion to the art of writing. That's how a society creates a world class writer.
- Do you know any Polish Americans here in the United States who
you think will become the best writers?
- I don't know one.
- The Kosciuszko Foundation promised a special stipend for
these young Polish American students who want to be writers.
- Yes. It is essential that we as Polish Americans start to create this necessary pyramid. We have to start making our own writers from the very beginning because we have nobody else to help us in this endeavor. Yes, there are lots of Ph.D.'s and professors who are writing all kind of things which almost nobody wants to read, because these people are excellent teachers, I am sure, but they are not fine writers.
Secondly, we have all kinds of amateurs; at this moment the wonderful Polish word "grafomania" comes to mind. We have hundreds upon hundreds of those. Yes, by all means, let them write, let them write whatever they want, but we cannot expect that any other community but our own will ever pay the slightest attention to them, simply because they are not good enough to be read outside our own community. We should keep them in our community, let them write, let them express themselves, but there is no way that these people could even approach anyone beyond our own community and do it convincingly or impress anyone outside.
You can train writers assuming that there is talent to begin with, assuming there is a desire to be a writer and to write. Like the young man I met upstairs a few minutes ago, the young Janek, he's not even in high school yet, but he probably is going to be a writer because he is determine to be one, but he has to be trained, he has to be shown what works in writing and what doesn't. He has to learn how you approach it. Writing is like entire discipline, and you have to create the mystique of it in the boy's mind. It's a matter of education and determination.
Writing becomes a habit after while, as it is with me, and then it just flies, and then it is a matter of mastering of techniques. As you know, sometimes we can experience the lack of inspiration, but we can always master the techniques of doing something-the precision, the perfection of how things should be. That's to our advantage, That's in our character. All we have to do now is to find people early enough to train them in everything they have to know.
We have to create very good literary fiction in English because there is no use talking to the world in Polish. Nobody is going to learn anything about us if you keep talking to them in Polish. We have to speak to the world in its own language-and English happens to be the international language right now. So we train American writers who will speak for us and you should begin that very early. Because of that I started the Writers Institute at Mercy College at Erie, Pennsylvania, six years ago.
The Kosciuszko Foundation which I've been talking about, is looking into the possibility of funding scholarships in quite substantial amounts, to send possibly ten or twelve young Polish American High School students every summer for as long as the Institute runs, to have their creativity explained to them, to have them encouraged and enthused to became writers, and to be shown how to do it.
- Did you have any students of Polish origin at the college?
- Of Polish origin? I think I had one several years ago. A young man who didn't speak Polish, he didn't even know he had a Polish name and he knew absolutely nothing about anything Polish. He was an American. And he was superb, a superb young writer. He went on to Emerson College. I don't know where he is now. I lost contact with this student.
- But how is it possible to create a Polish American writer who has
no knowledge of Polish traditions, history or culture?
- It isn't necessary, my friend, for him to write about Polish things. If he achieves international success in stature, just his Polish name will be enough to...
- But he will be an American not Polish American writer.
- Yes, of course, I want American writers to write about things Polish and to understand things Polish.
- Couple of years ago you finished your work on the translating of
- Yes, thank God.
- And soon after that you wrote your own novel. Could you tell us
about this novel which was written after you finished your translation
of Sienkiewicz's books.
- The translation of the trilogy and the translation of Quo Vadis are published already. I wrote also a little fairy tales book, 26 collected Polish fairy tales and fables, The Glass Mountain, published by Hippocrene Books in New York.
- And your novel?
- In five weeks, it didn't take longer, I wrote a 300 page novel about immigrants. It's based on my own experiences, in coming to America as a specific kind of immigrant, the tremendous problems I encountered with the existing Polonia. It is interesting because the same problems are being encountered by the new waves of immigrants from my immigrant generation. This thing repeats itself. The Barbarians arrived at the gates to loot Rome, and the disgusted Romans are trying to defend themselves, then the Barbarians become the Romans and they are became disturbed by the next wave of Barbarians which comes along.
- History repeats itself.
- Absolutely. All the way down the line. The same attitude. Just as I looked at the old Polonia which I found here when I arrived; and they all expected me, the next morning, to report to the nearest factory to go to work. But I didn't come here to work in a factory. I have no interest working in a factory, I could have done that in Europe. I came here to become a novelist, a writer. To them that was: "What, are you crazy! That's not the way to do it. We didn't do it that way. What do you mean 'become a writer'? Get to work, get to work, you lazy bum."
Well, OK, new waves come here of young educated Poles and they are somewhat arrogant because of their education, just as I was very arrogant about mine; and they looked at me with the same arrogance with which I looked at the preceding waves and history repeats itself. They felt themselves my superior, which they probably were, which is fine. I wished them luck, and I considered them to be a bunch of not very intelligent people. It's really funny. We mustn't make tragedies out of our immigrant experiences. We have to learn how to laugh. It is one more thing we have to start doing-that is, to laugh at ourselves. We are far too serious.
I realize of course that the Polish American community has been so totally traumatized by Polish jokes and the unpleasantness that is always being heaped on Polish Americans by some hostile minorities, that they simply cannot laugh at themselves. They still are afraid to do it. Anything which makes them seem funny is dreadful to them. That's no way to live. You have to look at yourself and say: "Come on-laugh a little bit." It makes life so much easier. But many Poles take themselves with such deadly seriousness that they become deadly to their community.
- Why do you think so?
- Because they are so terribly serious about themselves and so defensive. A sort of mentality, a ghetto mentality. Everyone huddles together looking around for enemies, instead of saying "Hey folks, here I am. I'm one of you, give me a break and I'll do twice as well as you do."
- It's very often easy to see in the Polish community that almost
everybody works only for himself, and not at all for the community.
- That's OK, too, provided you achieve the kind of American success which reflects well for the community. I'll tell you something. A few years ago, before Karol Wojtyla became the Pope John Paul II, he came to New York as a cardinal. And there was a meeting at the Kosciuszko Foundation of all of the notables of American Polonia. And every one of them got up, the professors, and the academics and read a paper. All about various aspects of Polish culture, history, Polish economics, Polish this, Polish that. And as they began their papers, they apologized to the Cardinal for how little they know about things Polish. It's same line: "We realize that we know so little about these things in comparison to scholars in comparable fields in Poland, but..." and then woops, off they go on with their papers.
And then, the cardinal got up. It was his turn, and he said:
"Ladies and gentleman. Thank you for your most interesting papers. I agree none of you knows as much about these things as comparable Polish scholars but there is no reason why you should, because you are not Poles, you are Americans, and your concerns should be properly those of Americans. We are very grateful that you are interested in things to do with Poland to the extent that you are, but don't make the mistake of trying to build a new Warsaw in New York. There is a very good Warsaw in Poland. We don't need another one."
And then he said: "Become the best possible, the most successful Americans, you possibly can be, and then bring the influence which you have won with your American success to the cause of Poland. That way you can do much more than trying to build a new Poland in America where it isn't wanted."
- Once you said about the similarities in Sienkiewicz's and your
lives, and that it is like a kind of reincarnation. Would you compare...
- No, I won't talk about that because Polish Americans will think I'm totally crazy, which they think anyway.
- OK. It's kind of a joke. It's interesting that Sienkiewicz began work as a journalist and I was a journalist. His first book was published when he was 36, my first book was published when I was 36. His major literary composition was a trilogy, mine was a trilogy also. He had 4 wives, and I had 4 wives. He has some Tartar history in his family, and so have I.
- What about children?
- There we break down, he had of course children, I did not.
- Is it true that you never lived in one country longer than 5 years?
- Not at one time. I've been in America quite some time now. I don't know why. I'm terribly curious about the world and people. I constantly want to experience new things, and what things are possible for people. This is something about Sienkiewicz... He had this compulsion to understand other cultures, and I do, too. I want to understand everything about every kind of culture there is.
- Is it possible?
- No, but I'm doing my best, I have the feeling that I've been in touch with it, penetrated; not as a visitor, not as a tourist who comes, and who reads a book about it, but as one who lives there as the people live. One of the most interesting things about my travels is that except for America I have never stayed in a hotel. I always either rent an apartment, or a house or meet some people and live with them in whatever country it is. And I don't go to hotels. I live like the people with the people.
- Your first book A Thousand Hours Day was published in English in
the United States and achieved a big success.
- Yes, it was a very, very big international success.
- For a first novel.
- It is impossible, absolutely impossible today.
- And the same we can see with your translations of Sienkiewicz's
- Yes, Sienkiewicz's novels accomplished the same thing.
- I wish you'll have a great success-perhaps much bigger-with your
- It's possible. All my books do very well, even though the theme is always Polish, but I'm always told by Polish Americans: "Oh, well, what's the use. We have so many other writers but American publishers won't publish their books because they are about Poland." Well, maybe American publishers won't publish these books because they are not written well enough.
- Thank you very much for your valuable reflections and time.
- You are welcome, my friend. I wish you luck. I hope you achieve your dreams. It's good being a writer. I hope you make it as a writer because you have more time than God invented.