blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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A Correspondence with Katarzyna Jakubiak
Conducted April 13, 2022

Katarzyna Jakubiak is the author of the short story collection Nieostre widzenia (Biuro Literackie, 2012). Her story, “Made of Sugar,” appears in the v20n1 edition of Blackbird and is the recipient of the 2022 Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto Short Fiction Prize. On April 13, 2022, Katarzyna participated in an email interview with Blackbird associate editor, Jamie Walters, to discuss this work, which follows the rise and fall of a family bakery in post-WWII Poland.


Jamie Walters: Your story “Made of Sugar” defies genre, borrowing from both lived experience and magical realism. How do the conventions of nonfiction inform your fiction, and vice versa?

Katarzyna Jakubiak: Fiction and nonfiction absolutely feed each other in my writing. I am the author of two books published in my native language, Polish—a collection of short stories, published in 2012, and a collection of essays, which is forthcoming this year. As I was finishing my second book, I realized that it can almost be treated as a sequel to my first. Each body of texts is grounded in a deeply personal perspective and in real-life experiences, and the difference between lies mostly in the degree of factuality. I think that my inclination toward blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction is related to the Polish literature that shaped me as a reader: writers like Tadeusz Różewicz, who never assigned labels of either “fiction” or “nonfiction” to his prose; Bruno Schulz, whose magical and fantastical stories are nevertheless rooted in his personal experience; or Ryszard Kapuściński, whose books of reportage from all over the world read like magic-realist novels. (I did not recognize the orientalist tendencies in his writing until much later in my life.) Because I am an academic by profession, I think that even my scholarly writing exists in a symbiosis with my creative writing. Somewhat by necessity, I learned to harness the energy present in each form of writing to inform the other.

JW: Your narrator is an aspiring writer who, on desperate occasions, drafts her stories on toilet paper: “I wanted to turn my parents into characters . . . I would have them make love when for months they did not even exchange a kiss, or talk to each other when they fell into long silences.” What did you write as you were growing up?

KJ: The image of writing on toilet paper is an intentional hyperbole, but I was indeed a passionate writer when I was growing up. I started at the age of five by mimicking fairy tales and folk tales from our home library, and then I moved on to writing adventure novels with animal or child protagonists. My favorite work from that period is a novel about a haunted castle with elements of a psychological thriller, which I wrote between eleven and twelve years old. This book was inspired by a popular Polish YA series Pan Samochodzik—Mr. Car—about an art historian with a versatile car, who helped teenagers solve various mysteries. In my adolescence, I switched to writing poetry, mostly in the style of Tadeusz Różewicz or Zbigniew Herbert, and I continued to be a poet until my early twenties when I decided to focus on prose again. This decision was influenced by the Creative Writing School of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, which I attended in 1995–97. Many of my peers and instructors told me that my strengths lay in prose. However, I did not abandon poetry entirely. In a way, I still “write” it by occasionally translating Polish and American poets.

JW: If setting is a character here, then it’s an insatiable one. We see Poland’s shift from communism to “ravenous” capitalism, lists of bakery sweets, and the metaphor of consumption as death: “Cancer, the big crab from the horoscope, ate Grandma.” Can you talk more about the setting and, perhaps, this hunger?

KJ: Poland’s transformation from communism to capitalism was driven not only by the society’s desire for freedom and democracy but also by the desire for luxury goods. From my childhood I remember an almost cultlike attitude toward products imported from the West and sold in special stores, where one could only pay in dollars. Of course, few could afford these products, and dollars were not readily available either. A similar attitude of worship surrounded private boutiques, which started opening after the so-called “thaw” in Polish communism in the 1960s. They carried clothing products that their owners brought from the then “freer” parts of the communist bloc, like Turkey, Greece, or Yugoslavia. Private bakeries, like the one belonging to my grandfather, were also popular because of their ability to create a small world of luxury for the local consumers. The state-owned grocery stores offered only basic assortment, and frequently had shortages. People would stand in lines for hours to buy nicer cuts of meat or “special” goods like bananas or oranges. During martial law in the ’80s we had rations, and I remember being allowed only one chocolate bar a month for the whole family. Our bakery made up for this lack (though with some limitations—the supply of raw ingredients was still rationed). Customers lined up to satisfy cravings that they could not satisfy in the dominant state-owned stores. The metaphor of death as consumption emerged subconsciously during my process of writing the story, but it made sense when I discovered it. I wrote the first draft of the story shortly after arriving in the United States for the first time, and my encounter with the impact of capitalism on communities made me realize the destructive potential inherent in unchecked consumerism.

JW: The first draft of your story “lay dormant” for years—a craft technique Zadie Smith calls “stepping away from the vehicle.” What does your revision process look like? How do you decide when a piece is finished?

KJ: My revision process is a bit haphazard. Usually, the long “dormancy” of my drafts is the result of circumstances, and not a conscious strategy. I am a full-time college professor and a parent, and responsibilities tied to these roles tend to distract me from finishing my drafts for long periods of time. However, this temporal distance has great advantages. After time has passed, I am often able to see more clearly what is most important to me in a text, what needs fleshing out and what should be cut. These old drafts also interact in interesting ways with my new experiences and ideas as well as with other texts I have written since. When I am working on a collection, one of my revision goals is to make the older and the newer texts fit together in an integral vision. With “Made of Sugar,” I am not sure exactly how I knew the story was finished except that I felt a deep sense of completeness and satisfaction. Recently, while working on my nonfiction book, I have developed greater appreciation for other people’s feedback. I find great value in talking to trusted readers about my work in progress, listening to their observations and questions. These conversations really help me determine how much my vision of the text corresponds with that of the reader. Of course, when one looks at a text from the perspective of translation theory (which is one of my scholarly areas of interest), a text is never finished, and translation becomes a form of an “afterlife” of the original. This is what happened when I translated “Made of Sugar” from Polish into English. My piece was finished in Polish, but then had a chance to be written again in another language.  

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