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Migrant Conversation Pieces, or a Phrasebook for Beginners

  • By Kaja Pawełek
  • 11th May 2016
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On 19 May, Polish visual artist, Monika Szydłowska, will launch 'Do You Miss Your Country?', a collection of her art in book form, at Free Word Centre. Here, contemporary art curator, art historian and writer, Kaja Pawełek, reviews the book and considers what its place within the context of contemporary Polish culture.

It’s the first time I’ve come across such an extensive discussion about the national superiority of potatoes: are British potatoes too watery, too light, or too tender for fritters? Is it true that someone even shipped a bag of Polish potatoes to the UK? Or are British potatoes actually decent, providing you follow the information on the packet? The comments under a drawing on the Na emigracji. (On Emigration) Facebook page could make another splendid drawing. A collection of 170 watercolours by Monika Szydłowska, initially published, liked and shared online, has been now put back onto paper. The cover of this small, handy book resembles the thick texture of watercolour paper. Ideal as a companion on any low-fare flight, not only between Edinburgh and Warsaw, this portable artist’s sketchbook combining text and image is based upon true dialogues. It’s a personal visual diary of a newcomer (the author arrived in Edinburgh from her hometown of Warsaw in 2013), intertwined with the everyday reality of Polish immigrants in the UK. Funny, ironic, but also poignant at times, it depicts rituals belonging to the immigrants’ folklore and intercultural (mis)understandings.

Neither a narrative graphic novel nor a comic book, Do You Miss Your Country? is formed of individual drawings. They almost always depict conversations, pinpointing the inevitable comic potential for mistranslations in interpersonal communication. Each image touches upon an aspect of the immigrants’ daily life: misspellings of names; mispronunciation and foreign accent; explaining one’s own nationality; encountering other immigrants; and learning new codes of social behaviour. The artist focuses solely on human figures, and the book’s visual language recalls the characteristic, slightly old-fashioned illustration style associated with the watercolour. Although there is hardly any background, the locations are easily recognisable as shops, workplaces, the home or public transport. The homeland is also present: family members appear on computer screens during Skype conversations to get a glimpse into the immigrants’ new environment, and vice versa. Even the otherwise anonymous infrastructure, such as a low-fare flight, becomes a strangely familiarised/humanised (but not much loved) element of that chain of relations, a superpower one tries to outsmart: Ryanair wrote to me that we shouldn’t wrap presents because security might want to see them. I’ll wrap them anyway.

Disseminated through social media, the drawings prompted instant feedback and became a form of communication between Polish expats in the UK, Poles (still) in Poland, and the international public involved (flatmates, partners, friends). Emigration is probably one of the most universal experiences in the history of Poland. Its impact is irrefutable and documented by an extensive archive of artworks, whether literature, theatre or music: acts of longing, mythologizing, and preserving the national culture abroad. Politically motivated, or understood as a rebellion against the difficult living conditions and lack of personal independence, emigration has been part of the national mythos and identity. The Polonia (Polish diaspora) supported the fight for change and freedom in the country, rather than weaken national morale. After 1989, that context started to dissolve, and the notion of exile disappeared. However, this didn’t stop emigration, which reached historical levels – especially after the EU accession in 2004. At the end of 2014, about 2.3 million Poles were living abroad. Over 850,000 were based in the UK, making them Britain’s biggest immigration group. Unofficial numbers are still higher, and indeed it’s hard to spend a day in London without hearing Polish on the street, on the Tube, or in a shop. At the same time, many – particularly smaller – cities, towns and villages in Poland are slowly being deserted.

The developed world fashionably labelled migration as mobility, which fits the neoliberal ideal of free flux of capital and people, not caring much about long-term effects. Like in a game, individuals move along, and their emptied positions are filled by others, who are replaced by someone else, as long as there’s still someone interested in accepting the given conditions. The hope to find a better life in a world full of inequality – or a different one, according to the globalised, cosmopolitan and post-national narrative – puts millions in motion. Somehow, it doesn’t work that way in Poland: people leave, but there are few to replace them – for obvious economic reasons, but also because of the homogenous, monolithic culture, apparently still not quite ready to open its doors to others (just to mention the recent negative attitude towards refugees). One could expect that emigration on such a scale would cause deep concern (I wonder what’d happen if everyone left and Poland was empty?), but this hasn’t been the case: the quiet political acceptance of the brain-(and-hands)-drain could be explained by the wish to keep unemployment rates low, and by the satisfaction with the inflow of cash for emigrants’ families in the country. A general neoliberal laissez faire and anti-political approach to self-entrepreneurship contributes too: if they want to go, why should we stop them?

What is even more surprising is how relatively rarely that important social phenomenon has been reflected upon in culture and in the arts. Obviously, this could be explained by the very different nature and conditions of migration in a globalised world, and particularly within the EU. The new infrastructure of affordable communication and travel softens the decision to leave by offering a state of in-betweenness and the possibility of commuting. In that context, the question from the book’s front cover: Do You Miss Your Country? which is simply answered with ‘No’, opens a new chapter in the iconography of Polish migration and could provide an initial argument in the debate on the changing national, European and global identity.

The environment depicted in the book could be described as universal for a generation of young Polish immigrants: casual, low-paid jobs one has to start with, even if holding a university degree. There are neither dramatic stories of failure nor spectacular successes. Even if immigrants from Poland are very diverse and the stereotype of a plumber doesn’t provide the full picture, as there are also Oxford students, artists, registrars and financial managers in the City, the book provides a narrative familiar to many (The worst and the best Poles are coming here, as another drawing reads). It’s an attempt to come to terms with one’s own identity abroad, an identity mirrored in the observation of other immigrants; an attempt to find a new self in a foreign society (Watch out, you can change here. – Good.)

Drawing, although sometimes still regarded as a preliminary technique, can be a useful social and political tool. Not only does it contribute to the respected history of satire and caricature, but also to a genre of historical and politically engaged comic and picture books for adult readers. The choice of a classic artistic technique instead of the new media, such as digital photography or video, underlines the fact that omnipresent images are not enough to tell the full story of an identity in the process of transformation. Do You Miss Your Country? picks everyday details: words, phrases, objects and gestures which trigger the readers’ own experiences and imagination. Humor, typical for a cartoon, is a natural ingredient and helps to avoid the trap of sentimentality or didacticism, allowing distance and self-reflection.

The key to Do You Miss Your Country? is the question of translation. The book is bilingual: some captions are in Polish, others in English, sometimes both. There are translations in the margins, so that everything can be understood – or at least the literal meaning. However, different readers will have different levels of cultural access to the deeper meaning of the situations depicted. The nuances will probably be most fully understood by bilingual readers familiar with the author’s experience of in-betweenness, of living in two languages and trying to understand others while constantly self-translating. Nevertheless, monolingual readers will also understand a lot, since the experience of migration doesn’t necessarily need to be first-hand. After all, is there a family in the UK or in Poland which is unfamiliar with at least temporary migration?

Perhaps this book should be read in pairs or in groups, in collective multinational reading sessions where mutual translation could take place, in which all the joy and pain of identity can be taken with a pinch of salt after all.

Do You Miss Your Country? will launch at Free Word Centre on 19 May, where the artist, Monika Szydłowska, will be in conversation with Sarah Lightman, an artist, writer and curator, and co-founder and co-director of the Laydeez do comics collective. Click here to book a ticket.

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