Ewa Marcinek is a Polish-born Icelander and a writer. Her new book has been receiving a lot of attention in Icelandic cultural life, and for a good reason.
The first thing that struck me when reading Ísland Pólerað (which could be translated as Polish-ing Iceland) is not that the author is a Polish-born Icelander, but how different the book is from traditional Icelandic voices, while still approaching a very Icelandic reality. This, of course, is no coincidence. The writer, Ewa Marcinek was born in Poland but moved to Iceland in the summer of 2013; five years after the complete failure of the Icelandic banking system and the same year she was attacked brutally in her hometown. An experience she goes through in her debut novel.
A broken heart lead to Iceland
“I lived in Wroclaw and was in a relationship for nine years,” she says. She says that her life took a U-turn one day when she and her boyfriend broke up. It also broke up the comfortable pattern of her life and it was time to seek out something new. At least something different.
“I came to Iceland in the summer of 2013 for work. I was running a cultural project in collaboration with Bíó Pardís. And I loved being here. I spent three months in Iceland and although I wanted to stay, I also needed to return back home,” Ewa explains.
When she came back home to Poland she experienced horrific trauma.
“I was attacked close to my home, and after that, I decided to move to Iceland,” Ewa said, confirming the autobiographical nature of her book.
There is not much in the description of the novel that indicates that it’s autobiographical, although it’s very clear that Ewa had based it on her own experiences. That alone is of course not unusual. But the story itself is poetic, yet in some aspects, quite a ruthless journey into the life of a Polish immigrant in Iceland with a terrible trauma in her not too distant past.
This obviously changes the view of this reader on the story. Ewa doesn’t shy away from her horrible experience in the book, which is described in a shockingly beautiful way. It’s a piercing experience for the reader.
Ewa says that she was one survivor of four women that this man attacked, and she managed to fight and escape, unlike other women that crossed paths with him.
“He was arrested while I was still in Poland and I had to identify him from a lineup,” she recalls. The trials were held after she left the country to move to Iceland. She didn’t want to go back for the trial. The reason was guilt.
“I felt guilty, for I didn’t report the attack straight away to the police, so he escaped,” she says. “I couldn’t bear to return and face the victims that he attacked afterwards.”
Asked if it wasn’t hard to revisit these moments for her book, Ewa answers: “At first I was disconnected, but when I used this experience in my play, Polishing Iceland, it hit me hard. Seeing it on stage was very hard.”
Ewa says that the attack convinced her to move to Iceland. “Iceland felt very safe for women, and I feel very safe here,” she says.
Casual xenophobia…and not so casual xenophobia
But the novel tackles another obstacle every immigrant in Iceland knows all too well — and one Icelanders would be wiser to recognise by reading Ewa’s book: xenophobia. Ewa approach this subject with a masterful and warm mind, by showing the reader that xenophobia is complicated, but always in some ways idiotic, although, she would probably not describe it with such a harsh word with her delicate writing style.
“I was a bit surprised how Icelanders categorise Polish people. They had this concept about the Polish people living in Breiðholt [perhaps not the fanciest neighbourhood in Reykjavík]. The idea is about the lonely Polish worker that works every day and drinks a lot in the evening,” she explains.
It was pretty obvious that Ewa did not fit into these xenophobic assumptions. But she was an immigrant, she worked at a restaurant, and sometimes people didn’t want her to serve them, not because she was Polish, but because she couldn’t speak Icelandic.
“It was very empowering to write this experience out in the book,” she says. Asked if all of these conversations she describes, for example with Icelandic bigots, were truthful as well, she answers yes, these conversations were as accurate as her memory allowed them to be.
Ewa says that the focus was also to be truthful as well as reflect the poetic reality of her life.
Finding her place
Ewa is as far from the stereotype Icelanders have in mind when they describe the lonely working Polish man. She finally found her voice through an incredibly productive, and I might add, important cultural space in Iceland, where writers, poets and novelists meet and hone their skills as writers.
This assembly is called Ós Pressan, and they have been impressively active in producing poetry and now a novel from writers that are not native speakers in Iceland. One of the books that are a very good showcase for these writers is Pólífónía af erlendum uppruna, an excellent assembly of poetry edited by the poet Natasha Stolyarova, although the book is not connected to Ós Pressan directly. To top everything else, one of Iceland’s greatest poets, and established international writer, SJÓN, has been helping the group out.
But before we go into that, I ask Ewa about the style of the book. Although it’s very focused on the story of this young Polish immigrant, it’s pretty unorthodox when it comes to its structure. Some pages are poems, with often brilliant takes on the language, Polish as well as Icelandic, but we leave that for readers to enjoy. At other moments, the book reads like short stories, although the threads are very carefully woven throughout everything. It’s an impressive style, and a very delicate one.
“Yes, this book would not be classified as a novel, but poems and short stories,” Ewa explains. She says she feels more comfortable in that writing style, instead of sitting down and writing a big novel.
“I have a background in poetry and I tried writing a novel, even a short story, but Angela Rawlings helped me a lot in finding the style. She was there from the first to the last sentence,” Ewa says. If you are a devoted reader of The Reyjavík Grapevine, you might have seen Rawlings’ name in the paper, since she was writing for us before COVID-19 hit us all. She has also written and published experimental poetry. One more incredibly impressive writer among the skilled writers at Ós Pressan.
No conflict, just a new dimension
When asked if Ewa has a conflict with the Icelandic language, and perhaps experiences it as a serious cultural hindrance, Ewa answers: “We are not fighting the language, rather creating new pockets. It took me time to figure out why the language is so precious to Icelanders, and I didn’t really know much about the Icelandic culture, but I grew to love it.”
She says that it’s pretty obvious that if everyone would pick up English, instead of protecting the language, the Icelandic culture would disintegrate.
“There is strength in this puritanism when it comes to the Icelandic language,” Ewa adds.
That said, the life of a Polish writer who has found comfort in writing in English, is not an easy life.
“It is challenging,” Ewa says. But thankfully, Icelanders have spotted her brilliance, and now she is on the Icelandic artist stipend and working on her next book, whatever it will be. Ewa says that just getting published by Forlagið [the biggest publisher in Iceland] was a victory in itself.
“Just knocking on the door of Forlagið and getting a yes from them was incredible,” says Ewa
Her book, Pólerað Ísland will hopefully be published in English at the beginning of the summer. But also keep in mind, if you’re training in Icelandic, the book might just be very approachable, even quite brilliant. For Icelanders, this is of course a must-read and a very unique point of view when it comes to Icelandic literature.
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