Ewa Marcinek is a Polish-born Icelander and author. Her new book has received much attention in Icelandic cultural life and not without reason.
The first thing that struck me when reading Iceland Polished (which could be translated as Polish Iceland) is not that the author is a Polish-born Icelander, but how different the book is from traditional Icelandic voices, but still very Icelandic. reality. Of course, this is not a coincidence. The writer, Ewa Marcinek was born in Poland but moved to Iceland in the summer of 2013; five years after the complete collapse of the Icelandic banking system and the same year there was a brutal attack on it in its hometown. An experience she goes through in her debut.
A broken heart led to Iceland
“I lived in Wroclaw and was in a relationship for nine years,” she says. She says 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 look for 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 had to return home, “explains Ewa.
When she returned to Poland, she suffered terrible shocks.
“I was attacked near my home and after that I decided to move to Iceland,” said Ewa, confirming the autobiographical nature of the book.
There is not much in the description of the novel that suggests that it is autobiographical, although it is very clear that Ewa based it on her own experience. That in itself, of course, is not unusual. But the story itself is poetic, but in some ways a rather ruthless journey into the life of a Polish immigrant in Iceland with a terrible shock in its not too distant past.
This obviously changes this reader’s view of the story. Ewa does not shy away from her horrible experience in the book, which is described in a shockingly beautiful way. This is a poignant experience for the reader.
Ewa says she was one of four survivors of this man’s attack and she managed to fight and escape, unlike other women who got in his way.
“He was arrested while I was still in Poland and I had to identify him from the group,” she recalls. The trial was held after she left the country to move to Iceland. She did not want to return to court. The reason was guilt.
“I felt guilty because I did not immediately report the attack to the police, so he escaped,” she said. “I could not stand to turn back and face the victims he attacked afterwards.
Asked if it was not difficult to recall these moments for his book, Ewa answers: “At first I was disconnected, but when I used this experience in my play, Polish Iceland, it came as a great surprise to me. It was very difficult to see it on stage. “
Ewa says that the attack convinced him to move to Iceland. “Iceland was very safe for women and I feel very good here,” she says.
Free xenophobia… and not such xenophobia
But the novel addresses another obstacle that all immigrants in Iceland know too well – and only one Icelander would be more sensible to know by reading Ewa’s book: xenophobia. Ewa approaches this subject with a masterful and warm mind, by showing the reader that xenophobia is complex, but always in some ways half-witted, although she would probably not describe it so harshly with her delicate writing style.
“I was a little surprised at how Icelanders classify the Polish people. They had this idea about the Polish people living in Breiðholt [perhaps not the fanciest neighbourhood in Reykjavík]. The idea is about the lonely Polish worker who works every day and drinks a lot at night, “she explains.
It was pretty obvious that Ewa did not fit into these xenophobic criteria. But she was an immigrant, worked in a restaurant and sometimes people did not want her to serve them, not because she was Polish, but because she could not speak Icelandic.
“It was very empowering to write this experience in the book,” she says. Asked if all these conversations she describes, for example with Icelandic extremists, were also fair, she answers in the affirmative, these conversations were as accurate as her memory allowed them to be.
Ewa says that the emphasis has also been on being true and reflecting on the poetic reality of her life.
Finding their place
Ewa is as far from the stereotype that Icelanders have in mind when describing 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 sharpen their skills as a writer.
This gathering is called Ós Pressan and they have been extremely diligent in creating poems and now a novel by writers who are not native to Iceland. One of the books that is a very good showcase for these writers is Polyphony of Foreign Origin, a great collection of poems edited by the poet Natasha Stolyarova, although the book is not directly related to Ós Press. To top it all off, one of Iceland’s most famous poets, and a well-established international writer, SJÓN, has assisted the group.
But before we go into that, I ask Ewa about the style of the book. Although it is very much focused on the history of this young Polish immigrant, it is rather unconventional when it comes to building it. Some of the pages are poems, often with a brilliant grasp of the language, Polish as well as Icelandic, but we let readers enjoy it. At other times, the book reads like short stories, though threads are very carefully woven through it all. This is an impressive style and very delicate.
“Yes, this book would not be classified as a novel, but poems and short stories,” explains Ewa. She says she feels better in that writing style instead of sitting down and writing a great novel.
“I have a background in poetry and I tried to write a novel, even a short story, but Angela Rawlings helped me find the style. She was there from the first to the last sentence, “says Ewa. If you are a devoted reader of The Reyjavík Grapevine, you may have seen Rawlings’ name in the paper, as she was writing for us before COVID-19 broke through in all of us. She has also written and published experimental poems. Another incredibly influential writer among the few writers at Ós Press.
No conflict, just a new dimension
Asked if Ewa is in conflict with the Icelandic language and perhaps experiences it as a serious cultural obstacle, Ewa answers: “We are not fighting the language, we are creating new pockets. It took me a while to realize why the language is so precious to Icelanders and I did not really know much about Icelandic culture, but I began to love it. “
She says it is quite obvious that if everyone adopted English, instead of protecting the language, Icelandic culture would be divided.
“There is strength in this puritanism when it comes to Icelandic,” Ewa adds.
That being said, the life of a Polish writer who has found solace in writing in English is not an easy life.
“It’s challenging,” says Ewa. But fortunately, Icelanders have spotted her brilliance and now she has reached the Icelandic artist grant and is working on her next book, however it may be. Ewa says that it is right to publish with Forlagið [the biggest publisher in Iceland] was a victory in itself.
“Just knocking on Forlaginn’s and getting a yes from them was unbelievable,” says Ewa.
Her book, Polished Iceland, will hopefully be published in English at the beginning of the summer. But also keep in mind that if you are training in Icelandic, the book could just be very accessible, even quite brilliant. For Icelanders, this is of course compulsory reading and a completely unique perspective when it comes to Icelandic literature.