Kamila Slawinska about life in New York and more

Kamila Slawinska has been living and working in New York for the past 10 years. On Valentine’s Day 2008 she released her first book – New York: An Impractical Guide, which is very successful in Poland. The author gives Opinia insights on the City, discovers its flaws and qualities and provides a definition of personal success.

This is going to be a discussion about New York, but perhaps you are not surprised…? 

Well, a book titled New York: An Impractical Guide is bound to provoke New York-centric interests — but I tend to think that its self-proclaimed impracticality can, and perhaps should, trump its New-Yorkness.

It is first and foremost a tale of immigration; a story on the search for personal identity in a new and strange land, on what it means to be Polish away from Poland… The true subject here is not only New York, but rather all these deeply personal things I mentioned, things of little or no use to people hungry for Big Apple stories.  

You have written a book which is not a guidebook, nevertheless, it provides readers with plenty information about the city and guidelines for those who want to see the place from a citizens perspective. How do you come across the idea to write such a publication about NYC?  

It was never my intention to give guidelines to anybody: that is why there are no maps and no addresses in my book. Its perfect target audience are flâneurs, aimless urban wanderers, people curious of everything and nothing in particular at the same time; those who do not rush, who don’t care for any „must-see” tourist attractions; those open-minded enough to notice exquisite (and often ignored) beauty of small everyday things. In a way, this special kind of people — internet flâneurs, as I call them —are the ones who eventually made me compile a collection of minute notes on New York, which I have been publishing on my blog, into a book.  

People would visit my blog (despite my conviction at the time that my posts would never be read by anyone), sometimes by accident. They’d read, they’d comment and share their own thoughts. What eventually made me realize that this may be book material was a chance encounter with one of my online readers: the girl whom I met in real life for the first time handed me a huge pile of printouts… and asked for my autograph on it! The enthusiasm of online readers like her prompted me to send the manuscript to publishers. It was soon accepted by W.A.B. publishing house —and then it was when the real work begun.  

It took me hours to work a messy first draft it into what eventually saw the light of day as the book you know; fortunately, the most knowledgeable and helpful W.A.B. editors supported me every step on the way. All in all, it was two years since the first blog entry was published when the book finally hit the bookstores. 

You have included a myriad of stories from the city history. How did you manage to get the information and materials for the book?

There are many sources, but two are special and I feel particularly indebted with them: first and foremost, I owe most of my knowledge to the oral history. There are people who have been living in the City long before I even got there and who can tell marvelous stories of New York past. These oral histories are priceless and unique; they constitute a one-of-the-kind sort of personal legend. These unrecorded tales will some day be gone forever along with the people who tell them—unless someone cares enough to write them down. I, for one, care to listen and take notes when old men and women recount their stories; I love eavesdropping on conversations in bars and in the streets or on the subway… Someone described NYC as a City of Eight Million Stories: and this is true, whoever dwells here, has a story to tell. All it takes for those stories to come to life is a keen ear.  

My other important source and inspiration was Ric Burns’s New York. A Documentary Film—an excellent eight-part TV documentary series, produced almost ten year ago for PBS. It is an absolutely stunning achievement, unmatched by any other documentary film on NYC I have ever seen; it is a real masterwork of both style and content: I am hoping one day some Polish channel will finally show it to the Polish-speaking audience. I saw it shortly after my arrival to New York, almost by pure happenstance—and I was deeply affected by Burns’ passion for New York history and his marvelous ability to unearth little-known facts and figures, to restore long-lost pieces of the past. His film inspired me to start my own little investigation every time I heard an intriguing story; it made me want to dig through New York’s splendid libraries and archives. There are treasures still hidden there, waiting to be discovered by those who know what they are looking for. 

Big Apple is often presented as the American Dream in candy pastel colors. Although, living there, can be quite depressing because of its overcrowded character and strongly divided society class hierarchy. What are your feelings about this place?

Let me put it this way: when people ask me what was my book about, I tell them, half-jokingly, that it is a love story. And in fact that’s what it is: the book tells a story of a certain woman, falling in love with a certain city. Obviously, as it is the case with every love that is to last, this feeling does not come easy and has its ups and downs; still, after ten years of living in this most unusual city of tremendous contrasts, I can state with certainty that New York has made me what I am, made me become what I would have never had become otherwise.  

Does it mean I see no flaws in my City? Not by a long shot. My love for it only makes me more forgiving of all its shortcomings. Despite its inevitable disappointments and outright cruelty New York is still the place where even most outrageous dreams may come true. Few people are truly aware of the fact that there is probably no other place where people work equally hard to achieve their dreams. Still, even with global economic crisis looming more ominously over NYC every day — if there is a place at all where everything is possible, New York is the place. That I strongly believe.  

Many people aim to define success. Even more of them desire to become successful, especially in New York. Are you personally feeling like a successful woman? You have written a book about a place which is a dream for masses?  

„If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere”, as the famous song by Sinatra (or Lisa Minelli, depending on which version you prefer) goes. I have made it so far and consider it a big success, under New York circumstances. But does „making it here” constitute a success by any standard? The misfortune of many of my contemporaries lays in the fact of their making financial prosperity a sole measure of success in life. Fortunately, I am much more old-fashioned in this department, especially compared to a typical person my age. I enjoy my life the way it is, unglamorous and humble as it may seem. I like being where I am. New York keeps surprising and inspiring me every day. The peculiar logic of this place somehow works in perfect harmony with my rebellious nature.  

The fact that I am confronted every day with stunning cultural diversity makes me evolve and grow as a person, and so I grow, along with my ever-changing City. It is impossible to be bored here; it is impossible to stay emotionally, professionally or otherwise idle when one finds himself/herself in the middle of this furious whirlpool of activity that is New York. And if it ever happens to me to grow discouraged or bitter, to forget the uniqueness and glory of this place — I try to recall that there are hundreds and hundreds of girls arriving on countless planes, touching down on JFK Airport in every hour of every day. These girls, young, clueless and determined to conquer the Big Apple, with one suitcase in their hands and absolutely no idea what they are getting themselves into — they are just like me when I first got here. Of every hundred arriving, there will be only few who would stay and thrive against all odds, the way I did. That is an achievement, if you ask me. So much for the personal success now, on to professional – literary one.  

Ever since the Impractical Guide has been published, I keep receiving letters: these are unusually personal and moving letters, coming from perfect strangers. People who write them have read the book but never met me; they often never have visited New York in their life; still, they find a connection, a feeling in my book they can call their own — something strong enough to prompt them to make an effort of sharing this special something with me. I can’t tell you enough how proud and happy these rare moments of connection make me. I consider them an ultimate proof that that I managed to get something right by writing this little book of mine. If this is not success, I don’t know what is. On the other hand though, if your idea of success is making tons of money, owning a mansion and a luxury car, being featured on the cover of People Magazine and appearing on Oprah — I must come across as quite a loser. It’s all about individual priorities. 

Many people associate New York straight away with Woody Allen. You have quoted him on the cover of your book as well. What do you like about his style and movies?

I didn’t pick the quote for the cover; my publisher did. I did not object though, being quite aware that a smart/sexy quote on the cover quite often is what makes a book by unknown first-time writer sell J I owe my eternal gratitude to Mr. Allen for this brilliant and witty one-liner which, I am sure, sold more books than I could ever sell without it. Still, do I love Woody? I do and I don’t. I never ceased to appreciate his unique, ironic, self-depreciating sense of humor and his love for New York. On the other hand, I hold Allen somehow responsible for conceiving, disseminating and immortalizing another shallow stereotype about New York as a city of wacky, neurotic eggheads.  

It may have never been his intention to do so, and most likely realizing what he did would not please him — but he made people watch Manhattan or Annie Hall and believe there is noting more to learn about New York and about New Yorkers. The truth is his vision of New York, and as such, charming as it maybe, it is no truer or no better than the next guy’s. There are as many different New York’s as there are people trying to grasp and describe the elusive nature of the City in their individual way. There is no point in singling out any of them as one and only true one.  

Do you think that sharing an emigrants life bring people of the same nationality together? Or is it completely opposite, because of a desire to absorb the culture and opportunities of the new country?

 It’s a complicated question, calling for an answer much more extensive than what we have time for here. Life in New York, in this melting pot of cultures, conditions people for taking extreme stances: some struggle to blend in, some retreat into safety of close-knit ethnic communities, sometimes called ghettos. Each of these attitudes has its pros and cons; my own preference is strongly in favor of embracing diversity. In my mind, there is no better way to discover one’s true identity but by way of reaching out to others, however different, and by trying to make peaceful coexistence with peoples of other cultures possible. This is the way to find out the true meaning of one’s birthright, no better means of discovering unique qualities of one’s mother tongue.  

This is an issue I examine in-depth in my book: a sense of national/ethnic background, a sense of community and belonging among New Yorkers is quite peculiar by everybody else’s standards. Almost everybody here comes from someplace else or calls themselves a first-generation American. Hence the sense of heritage and identity is quite often a matter of personal choice much more than of actual background or upbringing. I have met people who consider themselves Poles (or Italians, Irish, Germans, you name it) but have never been in their Old Country and speak no word of its language. This by no means makes their sense of identity any less real. If you ask me, I have come to appreciate my heritage and culture in which I grew up in much more since I left my home country. 

The more disconnected I am from Polish everyday life, the more I learn to value the proud moments of my home country’s history and beauty of its olden customs. The better my English gets, the more I learn to love my native language, with its unique melody and its charming, idiosyncratic qualities, too often totally lost in translation — and the more it angers me to see how little reverence my compatriots in Poland and abroad show for their own tongue. In a strange way, I feel more Polish here in New York than I have ever felt in my native Warsaw; perhaps I simply take fewer things for granted. However, it is to be pointed out that my understanding of Polish identity fits much better together with what Miłosz, Gombrowicz and Witkacy might have considered as such than it complies with laud, inflated and pompous notions, too often expressed in an appallingly dumb manner by self-proclaimed „spiritual leaders of the people” in today’s Poland.  

I have very few Polish friends in New York. I don’t consider myself s part any formally recognized „Polish community”, despite the fact that there are many such communities here. I hate to generalize, but I grew apart from this community, having encountered way too often its inexplicable lenience towards things I find unacceptable and flatly disgusting: towards reckless disrespect for law, towards expressions of racial hatred, obscurantism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. Don’t get me wrong: I would be the last living person to call all Polish people in NYC hateful bigots. There are plenty of wonderful, incredibly brave and hard-working Poles; there are tons of wise, resourceful and industrious ones. There are educated, bright Poles who (as a librarian friend from Greenpoint often accurately points out to me) are excelling in book readership among all NYC immigrants and who devour with special eagerness every new volume of, say, Father Tischner’s work that they can get at their local library.  

Still, strangely enough, almost all wonderful Poles I have ever met while in New York have blended perfectly in the multi-cultural Big Apple crowd; they all have been introduced to me by my non-Polish friends and it as it happened, each time the host or hostess introducing us usually had no idea that we came from the same country. It is a good thing to step outside the ghetto, no matter how beautiful and friendly this ghetto may seem. To me, it feels good to break free and embrace the only nation I ever pledged a lasting alliance to: the nation of open minds.  

You are the author of features 'Emails from Big Apple’ and film critic. Where is your career going to head now? Do you have plans for writing another book?

Emails from Big Apple series ceased to exist as soon as the wonderful ARTE magazine which featured them met its demise. And I can’t recall when was the last time any Polish paper published an article or review with my byline. The magazine editors insist that what I am offering them is „too wordy” and dismiss my notion of trying to point out the nuances of any subject as unnecessary pickiness. According to the majority opinion, apparently, there is no matter so complex as to require description in more than four thousand characters. Journalism is seen nowadays as a profession that requires nothing more than proficiency in translating and editing down of wire news bulletins. Being an old-fashioned as I am, I have no interest in perpetuating this kind of model.  

In my mind, the world around us is full of phenomena way too complex, too beautiful, too scary and too marvelous to be dumbed down and packaged into superficial mini-stories, good only for someone to study them, if you excuse me, in a loo. That’s why I gave up writing for Polish media and no longer call myself an active critic or journalist. I don’t consider myself a writer, either — I can be called an author of a single book at best. Yes, indeed, I would love to write another one; I do have several ideas which I would love to develop — but only time will tell if reconciling requirements of everyday life with creative writing is viable in my particular situation. I have learned quite quickly that there is virtually no way to make a living by writing books for the Polish market — unless you’re Katarzyna Grochola.  

For the time being, I live my low-key and quite happy live of an ordinary full-time worker, doing my middle-class job which has nothing to do with creative writing. So I don’t write—but I don’t complaint, either. I would be delighted to meet a generous benefactor ready to sponsor my total immersion in the sea of literature — and if you know such a patron, please kindly let him know that I am ready to offer my eternal gratitude and a special mention in my next book’s acknowledgements in exchange for a generous writer’s stipend. 🙂

What practical advices would you give to people, who want to discover a different New York?

Obviously, apart from reading your book… My advice is this: once in New York, walk as much as you can; don’t drive unless you have to. Avoid tourist traps; they do look much better on postcards than in real life— instead, go places you have never heard of. Listen to random locals more carefully than to your tour guide. Keep your eyes open. Don’t be afraid of getting lost. Enjoy this, in your way. 

Thank you very much for your time and I wish you lots of inspiration for another book.  

Joanna Gulbinska

Może Ci się również spodoba

Dodaj komentarz

Twój adres e-mail nie zostanie opublikowany.

Witryna wykorzystuje Akismet, aby ograniczyć spam. Dowiedz się więcej jak przetwarzane są dane komentarzy.