In the fall of each year Kraków hosts the Conrad Festival, a week-long festival that brings together authors, artists and literary enthusiasts from Poland and abroad. This year’s festival, appropriately themed pod prąd (‘against the current’), boasted one hundred official events, not to mention a plethora of parties and impromptu bookshop meetings. This intense week of cultural events culminated with the start of the Kraków Book Fair.
The festival, considered one of the largest and most influential in central Europe, is becoming increasingly international, with interpretation and non-Polish speakers at many events. This year’s line-up featured international authors such as Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, Hooman Majd and, as a kind of festival headliner, Jonathan Franzen.
For me, representing the Feminist Press through an invitation from the Polish Cultural Institute in New York City, the Conrad Festival was a fantastic crash course in Polish literature. I had brunch with Poland’s most influential contemporary author, Olga Tokarczuk, whose weighty new novel Księgi jakubowe (The Books of Jacob), which challenges the dominant narrative of Polish–Jewish relations, has prompted death threats. I attended a panel featuring the inspiring Turkish writer and human rights activist Aslı Erdoğan, who painted disturbing scenes of recently witnessed atrocities against the Kurds in Turkey. I met with Dr Beata Kowalska, professor of gender studies and sociology at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University, where we discussed different global feminisms. I was guided around the city by incredible translators Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tul’si Bhambry and Sean Bye, who also organised the trip.
My festival highlights were all events featuring women. Alexievich’s event, despite being moved at the last minute to a larger auditorium, was almost entirely full; Tokarczuk’s panel had attendees sitting in aisles, hallways and on top of one another in the attempt to hear the Nike Award-winning author speak. Legendary writer and journalist Hanna Krall received a standing ovation, which she movingly implored the audience to cease for fear of bursting into tears.
All of these events were electric, fueled not only by interesting speakers and panels but also by the attendees themselves, who relentlessly showed their support for the entire duration of the festival. The Polish literary community is a deeply passionate, dedicated lot, rallying to the side of their favorite authors in good times and in bad.
I was struck by the values and interests of these authors, and of the Conrad Festival itself: exploring the hidden places, lesser-known languages, and uncomfortable subjects of world literature – or as Erdoğan put it, ‘the eternal questions with only temporary answers.’ Olga Tokarczuk is specifically interested in exploring the silences and gaps in our collective histories, and openly claims to be feminist and atheist – bold assertions in an increasingly conservative country. And Hanna Krall, whose legacy in Poland is undisputed, based her life’s work on collecting and documenting stories from the Holocaust. Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts (translated by Philip Boehm, published in the UK in 2013 by Peirene Press with the support of a PEN Translates grant, and forthcoming in the US from the Feminist Press) is a reportage on one Polish woman’s experience during World War Two – a topic Krall continues to vehemently write about so that people ‘get scared of what human nature is capable of’.
With the conclusion of the festival and my return stateside, I look to the future of Polish literature in the US. Many Polish books have been translated for American readers, but there is, of course, always more to be read. Luckily, Poland’s Book Institute has grant programs covering translation and publicity costs to encourage foreign publishers to acquire and translate Polish works. With this financial support and with Poland’s position as BEA’s 2016 market focus, my hope is that more of this wonderful literature and poetry will find its way into the US – especially Polish works by women. Authors like Olga Tokarczuk, Hanna Krall and Wisława Szymborska are on the top of many lists both classic and contemporary, but what about Polish women writers who haven’t yet been translated into English?
There’s novelist Sylwia Chutnik, who raved with me about Kathleen Hanna and the international riot grrrl movement of past and present; Dominika Slowik, who at the age of 26 has published her debut novel Atlas: Doppelganger; brilliant reportage writer Małgorzata Szejnert, whose most recent book Wyspa Klucz (Key Island) intimately retells Ellis Island’s history; and Agnieszka Graff, who has served as the gateway to feminism for many in Poland. The list goes on.
For Dr Beata Kowalska, the main challenge of feminism in Poland is building bridges: connecting the brave, radical ideas of academia to Polish women everywhere, and, more globally, creating increasingly interdisciplinary, diverse social movements.
The Conrad Festival is a similar act of bridge building. By connecting authors, artists, activists and publishers from all over the world, we can break down cultural barriers, expose the historical gaps in our own narratives, and give voice to the pervasive silences in the world today – all through the lens of Polish literature.