The Multiple Worlds of the Writer: In Conversation with Margo Rejmer

I feel that I live longer than I do in reality, because I have three parallel lives . . .

Margo Rejmer’s spare, exacting prose and illustrious methods have earned her widespread praise for both her meticulous reportage and her discerningly detailed narratives. From recollections garnered from the survivors of Communist Albania, to the stories collected from the varied and elaborate landscape of Bucharest, to the grappling of relationships in certain toxic fictional characters in Warsaw, the worlds depicted are all at once worn with secrecy, curious with hope, and bold with the human instinct for survival. In this following interview, Asymptote’s Filip Noubel speaks to Rejmer on subjects of writerly process, choice under totalitarianism, and individual freedoms.

Filip Noubel (FN): You have written two books on the experience and the consequences of dictatorial Communism in Ceauşescu’s Romania and Hoxha’s Albania. What drew you to those countries that, even within the context of then Communist Central Europe, have been generally perceived as economically underdeveloped, politically very conservative, and unattractive as destinations?

Margo Rejmer (MR): Both of the books, Bukareszt. Kurz i krew (Bucharest. Dust and Blood, 2013) and Błoto Słodsze Niż Miód. Głosy Komunistycznej Albanii (Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, 2018) deal with problems of power, strategies of survival in the authoritarian system, and searching for spaces of freedom. Although, when I started working on them, I didn’t know where they would lead me, as it turns out, everyone has their own inner path that leads to the same point. My book about Albania was supposed to simply be a guide to the Albanian mentality for the Polish reader. In the end though, it turned out to be a story about an isolated Orwellian-Kafkaesque space where people are controlled and punished, yet try to look for happiness and for a substitute for freedom, at least internally.

As for Romania, I have never felt that this country is foreign to me; everything seemed familiar. From the very beginning, I was fascinated with the multi-layered architecture of Bucharest. I thought that if there can be so many seemingly incompatible elements in one city—from noble modernism, through the ruthless tracts of communist blocks, to the fairy-tale style of Brâncoveanu architecture—it means that history has dictated human life, thus the city’s architectural diversity corresponds to the variety of stories I can collect. As it turned out, this was a relation between power and the people—a thread that is common in both books.

FN: You are a slow writer—in the sense that as a part of your process, you take time to live in a place, actually learn the language properly, and spend a lot of time listening to people, even if it takes four years.

MR: To me, the process of plunging into a new reality, gathering experiences, and entering into relationships is equally as important, and maybe even more important, as the final result. Thanks to the fact that I work on my books for a long time, I can look at a given issue from many perspectives, think deeply, and emulate the experience in the lives of my characters. I change my conception, and the book slowly grows in its meaning. Thanks to this, I feel that I live longer than I do in reality, because I have three parallel lives: Polish, Romanian, and Albanian; I function simultaneously in three different worlds, and as the years go by, my worlds multiply.

FN: There is a visible difference between your two books. In the first book, you are very much part of the narrative; we follow you in your life in Bucharest, in your cycles of curiosity, despair, and attachment to the place. In the second, you are almost absent and instead give the space to Albanian voices. What has brought about this change?

MR: From the perspective of time I see “Bucharest” as a literary sketchbook, a stylistic exercise. The tongue, like a chameleon, adapts itself to the subject. I experimented with different forms, because as a writer I was curious as to what I could achieve. I don’t consider myself a reporter. Sometimes I think that I’m just a writer who has the gift of entering into deep relationships with people, and this text is the result of such a process, and not any other.

At some point, my life became a book about Albania. I could not separate the two. I woke up thinking about the book and fell asleep analyzing what I heard during the day. I wanted to learn as much as possible, to look as rationally as possible at what grew to monstrous sizes in my head, and lost its proportions. The scale of enslavement of individuals. Spaces of freedom. Closed borders. What permeated from other worlds. Propaganda. And a man who builds in his head a vision of the world that does not necessarily correspond to reality. I did not want my ideas about communist Albania to mark the book, so I decided to intervene as little as possible, and instead let the voices of the characters narrate throughout the book. Still, I wrote a few short chapters, inspired by anecdotes, that resemble short stories.

FN: In Central Europe, Poland has a rather unique and rich tradition of literary reportage that is often traced back to Ryszard Kapuściński. It is quite ironic, for example, that the book that has become an international reference to post-Communist Czech society, Gottland, is penned by another Pole who also lives outside Poland, Mariusz Szczygieł. How do you explain the strength of this tradition? Have you been inspired by some of those authors? What do you think is most characteristic of Polish reportage?

MR: I analyzed the texts of both Kapuściński and Szczygieł to enrich my workshop. I admire both of these authors.

Reportage has always been popular in Poland, but this genre has reached unprecedented praise over the last decade. We have an acclaimed middle generation of reporters, under the sign of Szczygieł, Tochman, Jagielski, and Domosławski, but also a great generation of young reporters, ready to reach the four corners of the world, traveling to distant islands and to little-known African countries. In the last few years, several books have been published about Burma, Cambodia, Turkey, and Russia. And yet the market is limited, no reporter will become a millionaire; we do it not for the money, but because we love this profession. Poles have a great curiosity about the world. I can see it when readers meet authors and ask dozens of questions, having often visited the places described in the books. My readers are very inspiring, wonderful people. It is fascinating that on the one hand Poles are perceived—even by themselves—as a conservative, parochial nation, yet on the other there is such a vibrant, extremely dissimilar current of individualists fascinated by the diversity of the world, both authors and readers. Many Poles practice extreme sports and are famous as alpinists climbing mountain peaks in the winter, or as divers who break depth records. The popularity of the reportage somehow reflects the other, better side of the Polish nature.

FN: Are your books translated, or discussed in Romania and Albania? What is the reception, and to what extent have you become a “familiar stranger”?

MR: The book about Bucharest has been translated into six languages, including Romanian. I received a lot of messages from Romanian readers who thanked me for my perspective as someone from the outside, for discovering new angles, but the book did not enter into the general consciousness. In Albania, Mud is still waiting to be published. Most likely two of my books, on communist and modern Albania, will be published simultaneously.

FN: Who are your literary references, dead or alive, in Poland and Central or Eastern Europe, including Romania and Albania?

MR: I am a devout follower of Herta Müller and Svetlana Aleksievich. Herta Müller writes with images, does not shun symbols, and creates while moving a universal narrative about humanity. I was captivated by the language of Müller; I saw it holistically as a proposal to understand the world. Her language is escapist, she turns to nature which is something final, with which you try to negotiate, but which—in the end—absorbs you.

Aleksievich, on the other hand, has created a perfect reporting method that requires great sacrifices—she works on a book for a decade or more, she interviews hundreds of people and then edits their stories leaving the essence untouched. Her way of building relationships with the hero is fascinating for me, saturated with intimacy. She always talks to people who have great sensitivity, discovers depth with them, sometimes the abyss, and this creates the most poignant literature.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is also very close to me. You can’t fake it. He has been with me since my teenage years, and the older I get, the more his talent grows in my eyes. I find in him a unique fascination with man, the need to question human nature, a catalog of weaknesses and disasters. Dostoyevsky should be a must read for every reporter, more important than any psychology textbook.

FN: In Mud Sweeter than Honey, one of your heroes says: “What is destiny? The river of events that flows through our lives. Imagine this: life is a river made of two streams that link together. The first is fate, everything that happens because of God’s will or destiny, great powers that are stronger than you. But there’s also the second stream, I’ll call it determinationall the events we can influence, that we shape using our own willpower. What we want to do, who we want to be. Everyone would like these two streams to form one current, for blind fate to respond to our predispositions and desires.” Is the question of what individuals do to influence their lives, be it under the harshest dictatorships, what lies at the heart of your writing?

MR: I like one of the interpretations of this book, which is that it is about the strategies of survival. I often wondered what my life would be like if I was born in those days. Initially, I only saw suffering within them, because the interlocutors focused primarily on their fear, surveillance, and a lack of control over life. But at the same time they fell in love, raised children, went on vacation, looked for happiness in hopelessness. That is why Mud is also a story about how an enslaved person deals with trauma, lack of freedom, and a sense of danger. What happens to a man who is a victim of politics, how political systems influence our moral choices and promote specific behaviors—sometimes solidarity, and sometimes meanness and extreme egoism.

FN: Will that also be part of your second book on Albania?

MR: Yes, I will definitely focus on how the totalitarian system radiates to modern Albania. My books always touch upon the problems of individual freedom, which is why an important topic for me is whether, thirty years after the collapse of such an authoritarian system, Albanians feel free, and what freedom is for them, or whether they need it at all.

FN: And looking back at Poland from the vantage point of living now mostly outside of it, do you think that people are still interested in “shaping their society with their own willpower”?

MR: This is a question I ask myself every day. To what extent do we, Poles, need freedom. To what extend the current power deprives us from it, to what extent it stretches its field of influence. On the one hand, I observe the conformism of Hungarians and the dominance of Orbán, and on the other, the wonderful leaps of popular masses and civil society in Romania. We are somewhere in between. Poland, once the country of Solidarność, has become a country where some citizens are poised against one another, and a new, hateful language is being created to widen the gap in society. We are a country of hard-working, frustrated people, in which the political transformation has destroyed social trust and weakened ties. This fatigue and distrust was used by the Law and Justice party which on the one hand introduced a social assistance program, bringing a real improvement in the quality of life, but on the other, divided us into good and bad citizens, creating only the right model of the Pole and undermining confidence in the elite. From year to year, under the favorable eye of power, the fascist movement is growing. The country is turning murky, and the voice of people of culture calling for repentance is mocked and drowned out. Black clouds are gathering all over the world, current systems are shaking and scapegoating the weakest and most vulnerable. We all know that the system requires a profound change and no hunt for the one to blame will distract attention from the disaster that is on the doorstep.

Margo Małgorzata Rejmer, born 1985, is a Polish writer, journalist, and essayist. She debuted with the novel Toxaemia, but her interest soon shifted to nonfiction; a few years spent in Romania resulted in Bucharest: Dust and Blood, a book of reportage that received a number of awards and nominations (e.g. the prestigious Newsweek Teresa Torańska Award and Gryfia Award). Mud Sweeter than Honey, the third and latest book, brought her the Polityka Passport Award, Arkady Fiedler Award, and nomination to the Ryszard Kapuściński Award. Her books have been translated into seven languages. Currently she is living between Warsaw and Tirana.

Filip Noubel was born in a Czech-French family, and raised in Tashkent and Athens. He studied Slavonic and East Asian languages in Tokyo, Paris, Prague, and Beijing. He now pursues a double career as a journalist and literary translator. After ten years in Beijing, he now works as Managing Editor for Global Voices Online, a citizen journalism platform that publishes news in over 40 languages. He has translated and published a number of Czech, Chinese, Tibetan, and Uzbek authors in French, and serves as Editor-at-Large for Central Asia at Asymptote Journal. He currently spends his time between Prague, Tbilisi, Tashkent, and Taipei.


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