IFOA: The protagonist of Illegal Liaisons, Jonathan, is a stay-at-home dad, while his wife, Megi, is a very ambitious career woman. Why was challenging traditional gender roles so important to this story?
Grażyna Plebanek: It was hard not to notice that this sort of challenging happens everywhere nowadays. In Brussels, Stockholm, Warsaw, I see more and more fathers pushing strollers. Whether it’s the effect of feminism or the economic crisis, the stay-at-home dad is no longer a rare phenomenon. Men are becoming more involved in the everyday life of their families. In the case of divorce, they share custody, half-half. A society of equality has been born, we are half-men, half-women in our family roles, for better and worse. One can ask if this is really good, but that’s another question.
The exchange of roles in Illegal Liaisons tempted me because I wanted to see if a man “playing the woman’s part” and captured by romance would behave like a woman. How would Anna Karenina behave today if she were a man?
IFOA: The novel is packed with very explicit sex scenes. Did you find them difficult to write?
Plebanek: Surprisingly not. This novel showed its own character from the very beginning. The scenes were almost writing themselves, erotic and otherwise. I was fascinated by the process of finding the language for the body. Most sex scenes in literature are based on words, they come from characters’ minds rather than bodies. I wanted to capture the way the body speaks. The lovers (Jonathan, a Pole who speaks perfect English and French, and Andrea, a Swedish journalist with Czech roots) mix languages, which lets them overcome the inefficiencies of any one language. Before I started to write, I feared that Polish could be too rigid a language to describe the passion, considering the influence of the Catholic religion over centuries. Luckily, I was wrong. Polish was a graceful language for this task.
IFOA: What’s been your most unusual source of inspiration?
Plebanek: Parrots. When I moved to Brussels, I was surprised to see green parrots flying in the parks, even in winter. They shouldn’t have survived here, seeing as they belong to a much warmer climate. Yet here they are, green, noisy, cheeky birds, who displace kindhearted pigeons and sparrows, flying in squadrons like an attacking army. It reminded me of stray dogs from Moscow, who also form packs. The way they manage to survive shows high intelligence. Animalistic intelligence is something that touches the lives of my characters—their bodies rise in revolt against social rules and restrictions. I was wondering if this wild part of my characters would overcome the social uniforms, whether they would turn into green parrots, wild dogs or stay well-fed pigeons.
IFOA: You received Poland’s Literary Prize Zlote Sowy for your promotion of Poland abroad. What do you love most about the country you’re from?
Plebanek: People. When I go back to Poland I feel something melt inside of me, because the people are warm, hospitable. Nowadays they know how to earn money, but they still remember the communist reality and therefore, they know how to share, to give without counting or asking for something in return. I love this part of our tradition as well as our colorful history—the kings, queens, knights, fat bishops—a thousand years of becoming who we are now with all of our complexity. I also love the literature, especially the great Renaissance poets who playfully used our language. I love the sense of humor typical for Polish intelligentsia. I love the richness of our culture. And I love Vistula, the longest and most unpredictable Polish river, which flows through Warsaw. She has always mesmerized me with her capricious character.
IFOA: Which of your novels would you like to see make it to the big screen?
Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons would be the natural choice as love is universal. It would be interesting to see a film in which Brussels, a great multicultural city, gets a new, passionate face that defies stereotypes—particularly that it is simply the city of EU officials. But my secret dream would be to see another one of my novels filmed: Girls from Portofino. This is a story of a friendship between girls who grew up in communist Poland and became adults in the capitalistic reality after ’89. Warsaw, my natal city, plays an integral part in this story.
Grażyna Plebanek is a bestselling Polish author and journalist. She will be reading from Illegal Liaisons, her first novel to be translated into English, on October 25 at 8pm alongside authors Kelly Braffet, Aleksandar Hemon and Sam Lipsyte.
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