Polish-Canadian writing

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.2 (Spring 2016)


Language, Rhetoric, & Grammar



In Search of a Distinctive English-language Polish-Canadian Writing
Mark Wegierski

Mark Wegierski concludes that Polish-Canadian writing is unlikely to develop significant ethnic content after an established pattern of cultural assimilation.

This essay is partially based on my article, “Is there a distinctive English-language Polish-Canadian writing? In search of a fragmentary tradition,” Strumien: Rocznik Tworczosci Polskiej w Zachodniej Kanadzie (Stream: An Annual of Polish Creative Endeavour in Western Canada), no. 8 (2012), pp. 18-24; strumien.ca. That article was based on a draft of an English-language presentation read at the 19th Annual Conference of the Polish Association for the Study of English (PASE) – Crossing frontiers, staking out new territories (Kalisz, Poland: Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan – Kalisz Campus), April 19-21, 2010.

Apolonja (Pola) Maria Kojder—representative of a fragmentary tradition

Canada today is officially and juridically a multicultural society. This means, among other things, that the distinctive cultures of various diasporas are – at least in theory – encouraged, and, to a greater or lesser extent, supported by Canadian federal, provincial, and major-municipal governments. At the same time, the so-called main Canadian culture also receives extensive support from all levels of Canadian government. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canadian book publishers, Canadian magazine publishers, and many individual authors, are subsidized – especially by the federal government.

In more recent decades, there have arisen in Canada a number of distinct “hyphenated” literatures in the English language, such as the Italian-Canadian, the Ukrainian-Canadian, the Indo-Canadian, and so forth. There is as well the participation of authors of various ethno-cultural groups in the so-called mainstream of CanLit. One example of this type of authors is Rohinton Mistry. “CanLit” – an abbreviation of “Canadian Literature” – is the term used to describe the core of Canadian book publishing endeavours. Among the archetypical CanLit authors is Margaret Atwood.

There are, according to the most expansive definition of the Canada Census, over one million persons of Polish descent in Canada. Despite these apparently large numbers, a distinct Polish-Canadian writing in English has not really taken flight, nor have more than a few authors of Polish descent achieved some prominence in CanLit.

Leaving aside Polish-language writing – which may be termed as Polish literature in Canada – Polish-Canadian writing may be subdivided into works by émigré authors in the English language, of which there is some presence; and works by persons of Polish descent born in Canada (or who arrived in Canada before later adolescence), of which there is less of a presence.

First of all, there is among nearly everyone belonging to the generations born in Canada, a drastic loss of Polish language and of significant affinities with Polishness. Can persons who have a rather imperfect knowledge of literary Polish still be strongly linked to Polish matters on the basis of a strong affect for their parents’ heritage? It has often been considered that a given language is one of the strongest markers of ethnic affinity and identity. So it is clear that persons of Polish descent in Canada who write in English are really partaking in an intermediary literature.

Is there a definable Polish-Canadian literature? One thing to be noticed is that there is comparatively little fiction. Most of the writing consists of various types of memoir, as well as, especially in the case of the author of this article, academic and journalistic writing.

I would like to discuss “A Mother’s Legacy”, Apolonja Kojder’s memoir in Marynia, Don’t Cry: Memoirs of Two Polish-Canadian Families (University of Toronto Press, 1995). (The title of the entire book is taken from Pola’s memoir; the second memoir is by Barbara Glogowska.) Pola draws helpful attention to such matters as to how difficult life truly was in earlier parts of the Twentieth Century, as well as chronicling her highly tragic family history. Her father, mother, and their young daughter, Apolonja Rozalia, were deported to Siberia, where Rozalia would die – a sister whom Pola (who was born in 1948 in Canada) would never come to know. (Her parents settled in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.) Her uncle was murdered by the NKVD as part of the Katyn massacres in 1940. She lists twenty relatives who did not survive the war. Tragedy continued after the war’s end. Her father’s cousin, Wladyslaw Kojder, a prominent leader of the independent Polish Peasants’ Party, was brutally murdered by the Communist secret police in September 1945. She found out many years later that another of her relatives died in 1947 as a result of chemical poisoning from slave labour in a chemical factory, to which he was assigned after rejecting an offer of Soviet citizenship. Pola’s father died in 1968 in a tragic workplace accident, while saving the life of another worker. Those were times when workplace heroism was not usually recognized.

During her speech at the Katyn commemoration ceremonies in April 2001, Pola endeavoured to describe to an audience which included Canadians the vastness of the Katyn tragedy. In the context of Canadian multiculturalism, her drawing attention to the somewhat variegated nature of the Katyn victims – all Polish citizens of various faiths and ethnic backgrounds – was rather creative and appropriate.

At the 2008 Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Slavists held at the University of British Columbia, Joanna Kordus, a graduate student at UBC, presented a paper: “Feminine Life Writing and Polish Ethnic Invisibility in the Canadian Landscape: Reading Apolonja Kojder’s Marynia, Don’t Cry Transnationally.”

Later in 2008, Joanna Kordus (who had emigrated to Canada at the age of thirteen) successfully defended her M.A. thesis in Comparative Literature on the topic of: “Self-Inscriptions: Ethnic, Indigenous, Linguistic and Female Identity Constructions in Canadian Minority Life Writing: A Comparison of Apolonja Kojder’s Marynia, Don’t Cry and Rita Joe’s Song of Rita Joe.”

In her paper and thesis, Kordus brought attention to the many worthwhile and noteworthy aspects of Pola’s writing. She noted it was an almost singular example of a specifically Polish-Canadian identity and vision in Canada. Against all the odds and in the face of long-term travails and marginalization, Pola was attempting to give voice to a specifically Polish-Canadian identity. In her thesis, Kordus compared this to how the Aboriginal author Rita Joe was also writing out of a place of suffering. She compared Kojder’s use of Polish words, and Joe’s use of Aboriginal words, in the respective texts, as an attempt to catch some of the essence of conceptual differences between the so-called Canadian mainstream culture and the two minority visions. Kordus suggested that a dialogue between diasporic and aboriginal minorities could lead to helpful insights.

Apolonja Maria Kojder is indeed a representative of a fragmentary tradition of Polish-Canadian writing, a tradition that has been beset by various adversities.

Looking at some prominent Polish émigré writers and professors in Canada

While there may be some fragmentary tradition of Polish émigré writing in Canada, there are comparatively few Polish-Canadian writers born in Canada.

The three major figures of Polish émigré writing in Canada are, it could be argued, Melchior Wankowicz, Waclaw Iwaniuk, and Benedykt Heydenkorn. Heydenkorn is mentioned here because of his huge achievements in the area of sociological works about the Polish-Canadian community, especially those published by the Canadian-Polish Research Institute in Toronto.

Some other figures engaged in writing and literary pursuits that were born in Poland include Florian Smieja, Bogdan Czaykowski, Andrzej Busza, Adam Tomaszewski, Barbara Sharratt, Eva Stachniak, Eva Karpinski, Stanislaw Stolarczyk, Marek Kusiba, Andrzej Pawlowski, and Jaroslaw Abramow-Newerly.

Of these persons, Eva Stachniak is today probably the most prominent, having achieved considerable success in Canada and the U.S., especially with her most recent bestselling novels about Catherine the Great of Russia.

Edward Mozejko was a prominent professor of literature at the University of Alberta (Edmonton).

Tamara Trojanowska is the leading professor in the Polish Language and Literature program at the University of Toronto. She is extremely energetic, and has organized at least two international conferences on Polish themes at the University of Toronto, most notably in February 2006. Piotr Wrobel holds the Chair of Polish History at the University of Toronto. Irena Tomaszewski was born in a Soviet labour camp during the Siberian deportation, and has brought to publication, for example, the prison letters of Krystyna Wituska – who was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Germans during World War II. The book is entitled, I Am First a Human Being (Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1997).

Zbigniew Izydorczyk teaches Medieval Literature at the University of Winnipeg. Together with Kazimierz Patalas of the Freshwater Institute in Manitoba, he brought to fruition the appearance of Providence Watching: Journeys from Wartorn Poland to the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 2003). This was an English translation of a work which professor Patalas put together with considerable effort, Przez boje, przez znoje, przez trud: Kombatanckie losy (Through battles, privations, and hardship: The fate of Polish soldiers; Winnipeg: Polish Combatants’ Association – Group 13, 1996).

The number of senior academics in Canada who could be identified as belonging to the Polish-Canadian community is relatively small, especially in the more socially- and culturally-impacting areas such as the social sciences and humanities. It could be argued that the holding of academic positions in medicine, sciences, engineering and other technical areas, and business has relatively small social and cultural impact. By comparison, the number of, for example, academics of Ukrainian descent in Canada (especially those focussing on humanities and social sciences) is far, far larger.

Let us now look at some of the memoirs published in the English language.

In 1989, there appeared Kon Piekarski’s Escaping Hell: Memoirs of a Polish Underground Officer in Auschwitz and Buchenwald (from Dundurn Press).

In 1990, B.D.E. Prazmowski published Eagle’s Brood: A Life in the Polish Resistance (a work of history-based fiction).

One of the latest memoirs to appear (of those published by a professional Canadian publisher) is Without Vodka, by Aleksander Topolski (McArthur & Company, 2000).

In 1995, there appeared the work of history-based fiction, Uncrowned Eagles, by Witold Ulan (edited by Adrienne Scott), which sought to bring a perspective on the Communist and Solidarity period in Poland to a North American audience.

In 2004, the University of Toronto Press published Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon’s The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours: A Memoir of the Second World War.

In 2006, Janusz Karpinski’s It’s a Long Way to Glasgow, which is largely a “Siberian memoir”, appeared.

Looking at English-language Polish-Canadian writing

Leaving aside Polish-language writing – which may be termed as Polish literature in Canada – Polish-Canadian writing may be subdivided into works by émigré authors in the English language, of which there is some presence; and works by persons of Polish descent born in Canada (or who arrived in Canada before adolescence or in early adolescence), of which there is less of a presence.

Louis Dudek (who passed away in 2001) is probably the most prominent writer of Polish descent born in Canada. Polish or Polish-Canadian issues do not appear to have played a major role in his poetry and literary criticism.

Sophia Kaszuba is also Canadian-born. Her poetry in Like a Beast of Colours, Like a Woman does not explore Polish themes. As far as other persons engaged in writing who were either born in Canada or arrived in this country before later adolescence, there is only a very small number.

The most prominent of these persons are probably Apolonja Maria Kojder (author of “A Mother’s Legacy”, which is the main part of Marynia, Don’t Cry: Memoirs of Two Polish-Canadian Families), and Helen Bajorek-Macdonald, who has written an M.A. thesis at Trent University on the deportations of Poles to Siberia and their eventual arrival in Canada. (The author of the second memoir in Marynia, Don’t Cry is Barbara Glogowska.)

Another fairly prominent person is K.G.E. (Chuck) Konkel, who has professionally published two novels, The East Wind Rain and Evil Never Sleeps, set in exotic locations, Hong Kong and Mexico, respectively. In an interview published in the print and web version of Miedzy Nami (a Hamilton, Ontario-based Polish-Canadian magazine), he reported that his third novel, which he is working on, will definitely have Polish themes, being set in Europe shortly after the end of the Second World War. Chuck Konkel is one of a very few non-émigré Polish-Canadian authors who have had some success on the so-called “CanLit” scene.

Christopher Gladun (who untimely passed away in 2003) maintained an extensive website dedicated to the memory of his mother, Janina Sulkowska-Gladun, who lived through the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland and deportation to Siberia (including political imprisonment and torture by the NKVD) and eventually came to Canada.

Les Wawrow was the editor of the original Echo magazine, an interesting Polish-Canadian publication of the 1970s.

Jan K. Fedorowicz had good scholarly credentials as a historian, but chose to dedicate himself to business pursuits.

Richard Sokoloski, a third-generation Polish-Canadian, is a professor of literature at the University of Ottawa.

Roman Smolak did an M.A. thesis at York University about Polish-Canadian identity, but is currently not engaged in scholarly or writing pursuits.

Barbara Janusz, who had lived for many years in Calgary, Alberta. won an award for her short story, “The One-Legged Sandpiper”. She was also among the first women practicing criminal law in Canada.

Her colleague Anna Mioduchowska has professionally published a number of short stories, for example in the Edmonton-based speculative fiction magazine, On Spec.

John Kula is the editor of Simulacrum, a hobby journal dedicated mostly to historical board wargames.

Maria Kubacki is the former editor of The New Brunswick Reader, a weekly magazine of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal.

Luiza Chwialkowska (who came to Canada from Poland when she was five years old) is a reporter with The National Post. She appears very frequently in that newspaper, but not as an opinion columnist. Another reporter with The National Post is Jan Cienski.

Diana Kuprel, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has done literary translation from Polish to English, was for about half a year the editor of Books in Canada. Unfortunately, this was at a time when the publication was financially troubled, and shortly thereafter it suspended publication. It managed to resume publication in 2001, and its September/October 2001 issue announced the granting of the 2000 Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award to Eva Stachniak (an émigré author) for her book, Necessary Lies. Eva Stachniak is an émigré Polish-Canadian author who has achieved considerable success in CanLit. Diana Kuprel was also for a few years the editor of ideas, etc. This was a publication of the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto – open only to contributions from students, alumni, and professors of that major faculty at the university.

In Aleksandra Ziolkowska’s Dreams and Reality, there is a section about “Mark, A Journalist with a Future” (pp. 313-330). This is Mark Lukasiewicz – who already, in January 1982, published a series of articles from Poland, in The Globe and Mail. However, I was unable to find references to this person through various Internet searches. It appears he has not come close to becoming a household name in Canada or the United States.

Among notable younger persons, there is Joanna Szewczyk, who came to Canada when she was thirteen years old. She has completed a Journalism degree at Ryerson University.

In 2005, Anna Piszczkiewicz published a slender volume in English, Soaking in the Remnants, as a major project in her BA(Hons) in Professional Writing at University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). This described an emotional return trip to Poland at about the age of twenty, which she had left at about three and a half years of age.

In 2009, Piotr Brynczka published a book called Petrified World. It was published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy, Canada’s independent science fiction and fantasy press. Petrified World is a children’s book that is meant to be read as a sort of interactive adventure. Choosing a few out of a number of possible magical abilities when a person begins reading the book, he or she is then guided to different pages of the book depending on choices made, resulting in different outcomes.

In 2011, there appeared an important collection of short stories, Copernicus Avenue, by Andrew J. Borkowski (Cormorant). He is a Polish-Canadian born and raised in Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village, and the stories are somewhat fictionalized renderings of actual people and scenes in this area of Polish settlement in Toronto. He was able to bring this book into being after one of his published short stories had been nominated in 2007 for a major Canadian short story award. The appearance of Borkowski’s book may be seen as a huge breakthrough in Polish-Canadian writing endeavour. Perhaps it creates some greater hope that other Polish-Canadian writers and themes may become more acceptable to so-called “CanLit”. Copernicus Avenue was nominated for and won the 2012 Toronto Book Award.

A significant Polish-Canadian writer in the Toronto arts scene and in the literary landscape of Toronto has indeed been long awaited.

In 2012, there appeared the book Giant, by Aga Maksimowska (Pedlar Press). It is a story about a Polish girl’s arrival in Canada at the age of eleven, in 1989 – which coincides with the Eastern European revolutions, and her reaching of puberty – creating all kinds of interesting identity-conflicts. The book was nominated for the 2013 Toronto Book Award.

In 2013, Jowita Bydlowska has published a memoir, Drunk Mom (Doubleday, 2013), but its Polish or Polish-Canadian content is minimal. Jowita is the longtime partner of Russell Smith, a well-known Toronto writer and raconteur. While Ania Szado’s gloomy first novel, Beginning of Was (Penguin Canada, 2004), had some Polish elements, there is no Polish content in her second novel, Studio St-Ex (about Antoine de Saint-Exupery in New York: Viking, 2013).

So the field of English-language Polish-Canadian writing is perhaps slowly growing.

The cultural life of the Polish-Canadian community in North American context

There are a number of major issues faced by the Polish-Canadian community which are probably more related to the over-all social environment of current-day Canada rather than the Polish-Canadian community itself. Canada and the United States today are countries where the various mass media have reached a historically unprecedented level of importance in determining the way in which persons think, create, and live. Living in such a mass-media saturated society, it now becomes almost impossible to even conceptualize how life might have been lived before. To the extent that a certain cultural tendency does not appear prominently in the mass-media, its presence in society is almost certainly going to be minor.

There is indeed some question whether the Internet, with its potential for a genuine pluralism of outlooks, is rather different from earlier media, where the presence of so-called gatekeepers was always quite salient. However, the Internet arrived after over four decades of the very heavy conceptual and infrastructural weight of earlier media, most notably television.

Canada today is clearly in the ambit of a North American mass-media based pop-culture. This pop-culture quite relentlessly obliterates any distinctive fragment-cultures. This happens especially when they lack a presence in the mass-media and pop-culture, or in the state-supported official custodians of Canadian culture (typified by CanLit), or are unable to generate a certain cultural resiliency on their own. As far as maintaining a literary community, assimilation results in a continually shrinking and disappearing core audience.

Even a mention of Polish or Polish-Canadian matters in the mass-media is extremely infrequent. The author of this article is unaware of any persons who could be identified as belonging to the Polish-Canadian community working as opinion-columnists at any major Canadian newspaper. The author is also unaware of any such persons working as senior editors at newspapers, magazines, or recognized publishing houses. Nor is he aware of any such persons working as prominent literary agents, or being owners of more prominent bookstore chains.

Certainly, no Polish-Canadian writer has reached the prominence of Ukrainian-Canadian author Janice Kulyk-Keefer, who is a major figure in CanLit. She was one of only four core professors at the University of Guelph-Humber Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Along with her Ukrainian-Canadian colleague Marsha Skrypuch, Janice Kulyk-Keefer offers the hope to Ukrainian-Canadians that some important new writers could emerge in the future from that community. The Ukrainian-Canadian community, especially through the Taras Shevchenko Kobzar Literary Foudation, offers a huge annual monetary award for the best book on a Ukrainian theme. Also, the foundation offers, among numerous other initiatives, a scholarship completely funding attendance at the prestigious Humber College Writers’ Workshop for those who are working on a manuscript on a Ukrainian-Canadian theme.

There have almost always been in Polish immigration to Canada the profound socio-economic problems of substantial poverty and difficulties of adjustment. Whatever the immigrants achieved was achieved through very hard work. Polish-Canadians clearly lack to this day prominent philanthropic figures that can offer many millions of dollars to the community.

The Polish immigrants to Canada usually came from a background of profound insecurity. Given that the writing profession, and, indeed, most endeavours in the arts and humanities, often fail to offer a steady and substantial income, most parents usually felt more comfortable steering their children into more practical and technically-oriented professions.

There are also the problems with Polish community newspapers. They are typically published almost exclusively in Polish and have virtually no “affect” on Canadians of Polish descent.

The publication, Echo, edited by Les Wawrow, in which many articles appeared in English, was probably the only major attempt among young Canadians of Polish descent to try to “ride the wave” of Sixties’ change, endeavouring to create a unique amalgam of Old Country rootedness and progressive idealism. However, the publication failed rather quickly.

There has been a chronic failure to develop literary institutions in the community around which some kind of discussion or literary circles could form. The Polish-Canadian Publishing Fund, publishing books almost exclusively in Polish, is definitely a purely émigré phenomenon. In 1988, the Fundacja Wladyslawa i Nelli Turzanskich (Turzanski Foundation) was established with great fanfare. However, its usual practice has been to invite well-known, well-established authors from Poland to receive its awards.

A very courageous experiment in literary culture and life was the literary-artistic-cultural magazine, High Park, edited by Piotr Manycz. Twenty-five issues were published from November 1992 to December 1998. The physical and intellectual quality of the magazine was extremely high, and the magazine carried a fair number of articles in English. The magazine could have begun to create an artistic and literary circle around itself.

Further advances in technology could weaken the trends to total assimilation that certain earlier technologies have made possible. Earlier technologies such as television tended to be homogenizing and to intensify assimilative pressures.

The ubiquity of the Internet today creates all sorts of possibilities for remaining in connection with one’s ancestral culture.

Also, inexpensive telephone rates, satellite and cable television technology, and air travel by modern jet can maintain such links.

New printing technologies can make publishing far easier. There are also the possibilities of book-marketing through individual websites (using Paypal) or amazon.com – taking advantage of the so-called “long tail phenomenon”, or electronic publishing (PDFs and e-books).

However, the arrival of new technologies that could perhaps facilitate the persistence of fragment-cultures has probably come too late for the Polish-Canadian community. Also, immigration from Poland has now slowed to small trickle.

The concept of a Polish-Canadian literature in Canada is rather problematic. There is a greater presence in terms of all of the varieties of writing carried out by émigrés and Canadians of Polish descent, but they still do not amount to much on the Canadian literary, journalistic, and academic scene.

The result of this is that the Polish-Canadian community – beyond those persons who arrive as immigrants (and can presumably converse through the Polish-language community newspapers) – is largely deprived of a public voice and setting for intellectual reflection in regard to its place in contemporary Canadian society, as well as its possible future in Canada. Considering that Canada is today officially a multicultural society, this attenuation comes at a rather unfortunate time.

Mark Wegierski, a frequent contributor to these pages for years, is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Toronto.  His publishing interests range from political theory and practice to science fiction and popular culture.  Most recently, the culture of Poland, his ancestral homeland, has provided the focus of his articles.