Weronika Gogola is a Polish writer and translator from Slovak and Ukrainian. Her first autobiographical book Po trochu (Little by Little, 2017), which depicts her childhood in the small village of Olszyny in the Carpathian mountains, is composed of “stories from real life that are usually told bit by bit, in snippets and fragments.” The book was nominated for several literary prizes and in October 2018 won the Conrad Award for a prose debut. For the past three years, Gogola has been based in Bratislava, where Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, caught up with her last November.
Julia Sherwood: First of all, congratulations on winning the Conrad Award! I loved your book and think that the prize was more than deserved. What does it mean for you?
Weronika Gogola: This award is incredibly important to me, especially since, in the case of the Conrad Award, it’s not just the judges who decide but, first and foremost, the readers. I’m incredibly grateful to them. Besides, a prize is a kind of validation, as well as a bargaining chip for the future. I know that sounds unfair but that’s how the world works—the more prizes and nominations you have the more seriously you are taken. Unfortunately. But, of course, it’s nice to be appreciated. In addition, the Conrad Award includes a grant, which has allowed me to concentrate on my writing without financial worries.
JS: Your book is very firmly located in the world of your childhood. You grew up in a small village in rural Poland, yet ended up living abroad, and are currently based in Slovakia. Were you already living abroad while working on your book, and did the geographical distance give you a new perspective on the place, or did this make the writing more challenging?
The Asymptote world tour this time begins in Pakistan, with an update on the Punjabi literary scene from Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor. Then, we fly north, where Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large in Slovakia, shares the latest publications and literary events in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Our last stop takes us southwest to Argentina, where Assistant Editor Alexis Almeida talks poetry festivals, feminism, and politics. Welcome aboard, and enjoy the ride.
Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, with news from Pakistan:
It’s been 250 years since one of the most famous renderings of the Punjabi tragic romance came into being—Heer by Waris Shah, which remains an influence on Punjabi literature and folk traditions. But Punjabi has suffered as a consequence of marginalization during the colonial rule (when Urdu was patronized) as well as the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan, when (Punjabi-speaking) Sikhs were forced to leave their homeland in Pakistani Punjab (while Urdu and Muslims were expunged from India).
Amidst a growing Punjabi literary movement to correct this historical wrong, Asymptote encountered a reading club in Lahore dedicated to and named after this legendary text—the Heer Study Circle.
Ghulam Ali Sher, co-founder of the group, shares its purpose with Asymptote: “to inculcate an interest for Punjabi reading among university youth; to do away with the religiously-oriented sufistic reading of such Punjabi folktales for a more pluralistic and people-oriented interpretation; and to trace the socio-economic patterns of pre-colonial Punjab through popular historical sources, like this folktale, against the biases of mainstream historiography.”
My Brilliant Friend is the 30th book to be published by INAQUE, a small independent publisher in Bratislava, and one of very few in Slovakia to specialise in translated literature. Elena Ferrante’s books appear in INAQUE’s Women’s Fiction series, which features stories by Jamie Quatro and Tessa Hadley, among others. Titles planned for 2016 include The Story of a New Name, part two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga, Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days and Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, life stories of distinguished and unjustly forgotten women who lead a full and fascinating life without the need for fathers, brothers or husbands.
Julia Sherwood: Sometimes an encounter with a book or an author is almost a story in its own right. Where did your own stories intersect with those of Elena Ferrante’s novels?
Aňa Ostrihoňová: Sometime in 2006 in Villerupt in France, I went to see Days of Abandonment during a festival of Italian cinema. A friend was keen to see the movie because, like three other movies shown that day, it starred her favourite actor Luca Zingaretti. I was struck by one scene in particular, in which Olga, the protagonist, is talking to the editor of a publishing house who has asked her to translate a novel. The editor tells her that the manuscript she delivered is a great story but it’s not the book she was supposed to translate. Later I realized this was a ploy the scriptwriter used in order to include in the movie the story of La Poverella, which comes back to haunt Olga in hallucinations from her Naples childhood. The scene doesn’t occur in the book.