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The award-winning Polish Canadian novelist talks about emigration, her writing and how she learned English from a Scottish woman

SCoTSbarSzCz: How did you end up in Canada? EVa STaCHNIaK: I came to Canada on scholarship in 1981, right before Solidarity movement was crushed. In Poland, I had taught in the English Department of the University of Wroclaw, and in Canada I became a graduate student at McGill, in Montreal. Sb: How different was it from life in Poland? Was it easy to adjust to life there? ES: In 1981, everyday life in Poland was dominated by political uncertainty and widespread fear of the Russian invasion. Canada was peaceful and prosperous and very welcoming to newcomers. Sb: It’s often said that people feel closer bonds to their homeland when they emigrate. Do you ever feel nostalgia for Wroclaw? ES: I “discovered” the full significance of Wroclaw in Montreal. Viewed from an immigrant’s point of view, my native city became fascinating because of its troubled history, its German past and Polish present. I still love returning to Wroclaw, watching the city mature, grow confident in its identity. Sb: You write you novels in English, rather than Polish. Why? ES: I started writing in Canada. My first novel, “Necessary Lies,” was an answer to the question all immigrants are asked: “Where are you from?” Since the question was asked in English, I answered it in English. I continue to tell Polish stories, still largely unknown outside Poland. “Dancing With Kings” is based on the life of an 18th century Greek beauty who had married a Polish count and inspired the creation of a magnificent garden. “Dysonans” tells of Polish émigrés in France, in the 19th century. Sb: are there elements of life that you still miss about Poland? ES: Family and friends. But, thanks to


modern technology and changed political circumstances I don’t feel separated from Poland. My novels are published in Poland and I travel there often. Sb: one Edinburgh-based Pole told me he felt that Scots and Poles got on well because we are both nations of ‘smiley happy people’. What are your impressions of Scotland and the Scots? ES: The Scots, like Poles, had to define themselves in relation to a powerful neighbour. Both our nations had lost their political independence but never their cultural identity. During my recent visit to Scotland I was charmed by the kindness of strangers and by the stark beauty of the land. I hope to go back. Sb: Tell us about how you learned English as a child. ES: My mother found a wonderful teacher for me, a Scottish wife of a Polish pilot who came to live in Wroclaw after the war. Mrs. David had no patience for grammar exercises; she spoke to me about her life in Scotland and her immigration to Communist Poland –a difficult decision – and I absorbed English through her stories. A wonderful way to learn … Sb: are you currently working on a new novel, and if so, what can you tell us about it? ES: I’ve just finished a novel set in the Winter Palace, based on the life of Catherine the Great.

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