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?
Vladimir Nabokov once said in an interview: “I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning.” There are many ways to interpret this, especially when the artist writes in several languages, as Nabokov famously did, having switched to English in his early forties, but never completely abandoning his native Russian. Did Nabokov really only ever write for himself? The jury may still be out, but this much is clear: his one-man audience was more demanding than most.
Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s memoir covering the first four decades of his life, up to his emigration to the U.S. in 1940, was written in English and initially published in America as Conclusive Evidence. To his British publisher Nabokov suggested a different title, Speak, Mnemosyne, which was rejected on the grounds that “little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.” Yet another idea was The Anthemion, “but nobody liked it; so we finally settled for Speak, Memory.” Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, makes frequent appearances in all the book’s versions, including the authorial Russian one, produced under the title Другие берега (Other Shores). In his introduction to the Russian edition Nabokov explains his decision to rewrite the book significantly by the drawbacks he noticed when he first embarked on the “mad enterprise” of translating Conclusive Evidence—the drawbacks that would make an exact translation “a caricature of Mnemosyne.”
Recently Manhattan’s peerless and endlessly vibrant 92nd Street Y released thousands of recordings of events held there over the years in honor of the institution’s 75th anniversary. I have only just begun to delve into the trove of offerings, but I have the following recommendations to make —