Why this Polish novel is about a war-torn Ukraine
EThat same evening, the great-grandmother closed the front door in her own elaborate ritual, as if she believed she could protect us from uninvited guests, such as those who had called her home in 1937, taking her husband with them forever… . That night they rang the doorbell. He said it was a mistake and he would be right back, kissed me goodbye and left with the strangers. I never saw him again” — reads the first paragraph of the chapter titled “Doors” in Ukrainian-Polish writer Zanna Sloniowska The stained glass house–Window. Sloniowska, born in Lviv, who was once in Poland and now in western Ukraine, talks about the generational trauma of war, displacement and loss and how survivors deal with it . When the Ukrainians read the novel, they said to Sloniowska: “This is my grandmother. This is my experience. It made painfully aware of the trauma of Russian occupation since 2014 and, for older readers with folklore ears, a centuries-old history of repression in the region since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. .
Ukrainians, literally, have choked on the weapons of multiple regimes throughout their war-torn history. This points to a question that scholars around the world have always asked but never answered: how do you write during war?
It didn’t matter to Ukrainians that the novel was originally written in Polish, Sloniowska’s native language. They devoured it like their own, like a “Ukrainian novel”, which, for the author, was a “fundamental experience”. For a region that for decades has known violence, Sloniowska gave them the language to express it. The stained glass house–Window has, at its heart, four generations of women who have survived the war, its memories and reconciliation with the past in a city where every corner tells a story.
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Trauma gave way to creative freedom
Prior to March 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and declared war, the latter’s political and cultural history was under winter frost for the rest of the world. As a result, few have seen the fissures between Poland, Ukraine and Russia that have penetrated deep into their individual histories and divided identities and cultures – particularly India, whose distance from Ukraine is become metonymic for his lack of knowledge. So far, while walking a tightrope between maintaining the status quo with the United States and not antagonizing Russia, India is finally craning its neck to see what is really going on in the North.
Like most war-torn nations, Ukraine’s history is turbulent, fragmented and has taken a heavy toll on the lives and psyches of its people. Zanna Sloniowska believes that “the country and its culture have always been at a crossroads”, prompting her to dig even deeper to find her home. Personal trauma, she told me in conversation, was the starting point for writing The stained glass house because, for her, “art was a means of saving oneself. It gave me freedom”.
Sloniowska had tied her lifelong trauma to the spine of the book with exile, personal loss and melancholy saturating its pages – until it was released in English for the world to read. “I cried when I saw it in English. For me it was a provincial text, an intimate memory that I was not ready to share with the world,” she says. English was a “too official” language, Polish itself, and Ukrainian, a close brother.
For Słoniowska, Ukrainian culture had its own charms – far from state scrutiny, oral storytelling was common practice, humming songs a regular feature of the day. It preserved the crumbs of history and healed some wounds inflicted by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis, the Soviets and the Russians. When she left Lviv in 2002, she instinctively felt that “something was wrong” – the Polish didn’t hum too often, the tune light without the haze of trauma.
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Write in conflict
Today, if you ask the same question to Zanna Sloniowska: “How do you write during the war? she has a different answer: you sew nets in libraries for the army fighting on the front line. This is the picture she paints of what is happening in Ukraine right now, where writers, readers and authors have taken to the streets as volunteers to barber a country to which they cling desperately as at their home. The same dilemma sets us apart during the war: do you do elite art or do you come to the streets to fight? A character in The stained glass house chooses the latter.
Or, if you’re a neighboring country like Poland, you put aside the war that happened a century ago and “open your hearts and your homes” to welcome those who seek to escape, Sloniowska said. at ThePrint.
As India scribbles Ukraine’s history on new pages, Ukrainians have a question for them: what do they have to say about the war? Except for presenting an apologetic stance on India’s non-alignment, Sloniowska has mostly been met with sidelong glances.
(Editing by Zoya Bhatti)