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Vol 3, No 9
5 March 2001
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Map of Central Europe Dilemmas of Creativity
The Belarusan writer in
post-war Poland

Sokrat Janowicz

It is a commonly held belief that belonging to an ethnic minority means facing a worse fate than that of the majority. This judgment refers mostly to mobile and extraordinary individuals. In regional and social terms, however, it frequently is groundless, because it is nothing more than a common statement referring to an area inhabited by a minority, usually peripheral as well as vividly backward both economically and culturally. Thus, obvious problems occur in the shaping of the elites who get sucked in by the country's center. One can see this phenomenon—known as brain drain—operating on a global scale, too. The provincialism of Canada, let alone that of Mexico, when compared to the United States, is an example

Belonging to an ethnic minority inevitably results in the creation of a defense mechanism, a psychological equivalent of the immune system, if its emancipation tendencies prevail (a better term to use here would be, perhaps, the sociological notion of mindset of "besieged beliefs"). Having aspirations to develop always triggers the law of action and reaction. However, if a renaissance is to occur, the existence of relatively considerable potential supported by a dynamic infrastructure is a basic requirement. Otherwise, instead of getting involved in a development that is "roots and revival oriented," people tend to migrate to areas that easily absorb a new workforce and to industrial urban areas.

The result of all this is a well-known effect of spontaneous emigration, completely draining the human resources of a given area, turning it into an economically dead space. In Poland, one can see this process in the eastern borderlands which extend from the Bieszczady Mountains to the northern parts of the Puszcza Augustowska and which incidentally have acquired the derogatory name of "the eastern frontier." Analogous examples from Western Europe include Bretanny, Ireland, or Spanish Galicia.

Ethnicity and ethnic space

I am very well aware that there are ethnic minorities that exist only in a diaspora—usually urban or metropolitan one. If they do not create an ethnic ghetto of their own to serve as ethnic territory, then they disappear rather quickly, unless they are somehow sustained by a fresh intake of new immigrants (like the Polish district in Chicago or the New York Spanish-speaking quarters). I'd rather my remarks be considered not in the context of minorities as such, but in the context of those particular minorities who have their own ancient "small fatherland," distinct in all areas of life.

Such is the Białystok region, with the exception of its Western part, which belongs rather to Eastern Mazovia and of Białystok itself, which is a city dominated by Poles and suffering from a Paris-complex, as nearly half of the voivodship inhabitants live there nowadays. A stable ethnic minority, like the Belarusans, creates its own culture and absorbs both Polish and global cultural patterns. Consequently, we observe a gradual acquisition of attributes characteristic of every developed nation. The first to emerge from the abyss of folklore and civilized isolation is the literature of the second, or even third, generation of authors, which then becomes professional and reaches a pan-European context.

At this point, other art forms, such as painting, emerge concurrently and with equal strength. (Leon Tarasewicz, who lives near Białystok, for example, is a contemporary artist of international fame). Theater is a difficult case here, because it is impossible to develop it in isolation from an ethnic audience; it is also too strongly conditioned by the degree of penetration of so-called high culture into the nation. Next, we have scientific, technical, and organizational talents. In the final stage of this coming of age of a nation, one can witness the emergence of a ruling elite and of professional politicians. The construction of this pyramid ends here.

The Belarusan ethnic minority in today's Poland has already come of age more or less. Its writers will not be able to afford being literary preachers a for long time, though. Whether they want it or not, the addressees of their work push them into the role of minority leaders, of the nation's conscience. Bohemia is looked down on, without any tolerance: it is even seen as disgusting and outrageous. This moral terror enforces a seemingly fake ethnic celibacy. Virtue-oriented fanaticism deforms talent, limits (or even degenerates) writers. Belarusans defend their stronghold amidst Poles spurred by a united battle cry: "We won't get Polonized!" Such an attitude is quite common for other European minorities as well, judging from the impressions I got during a Pen-club meeting in Bled, Slovenia a few years ago.

Editors in the home country just outside the borders alleviate the problem of marginality in market terms that writers belonging to an ethnic minority must face. In the case of Belarusan writers, though, this outlet does not bring much solace due to a nearly complete eradication of our native language by imperial Communism. Even an ingenious Belarusan book is not a bestseller in Belarus; neither is a sensational detective story. Belarusan language has become socially alienated. It will take years and generations as well as an enormous undertaking on a nationwide scale, to bring back its position in everyday life. Unlike the drama of Gaelic in Ireland or Italy, Belarusan language can be re-introduced, because it has been replaced by a similar idiom, and because it is usually understood by native Russians (the Republic of Belarus has already undertaken steps in this direction).

I think this prolonged foreword was necessary to put the main topic in a proper perspective.

Different countries, different profiles

The Belarusan writer in post-war Poland is usually a person with a university degree (not necessarily one in the realm of the Humanities). The literary tradition of the Belarusan nation, especially in the first decades of the 20th century, consists—nearly without exception—of self-educated people who acquired the necessary knowledge on their own. It is impossible to name anyone with a university diploma among the writers of "young Belarus." Poor preparation in terms of technique and intellectual self-awareness must have negatively influenced the quality of work, regardless of the high quality of talent.

The leading poets of Białystok-based Białowieża (Bielavieza) did not have to struggle with similar flaws and readily advised their weaker colleagues who hardly acquired secondary education. But the problem lies elsewhere: is an author doomed to use his native language? Some wrote in Polish, thinking it was a better choice. Others were convinced that fidelity to the ancestors' tongue required carrying the burden of a mission that would direct their strength towards extra-literary activities not really necessary in reaching artistry as an author. They disappeared. Not one of them made their mark; not even hopefuls like Aleksy Kazberuk, Edward Jaroszewicz and Mikolaj Samojlik.

As I am interested in European literature, I noticed a telling detail: it lacks expressions of love towards a writer's language, it lacks phrases such as: "I bow to you, Belarusan language, and I believe in you alone. My God! My religion!"(which I wrote). A French or English poet could think it sounds weird, as if not modern. I would probably spend long hours explaining why poets in Belarus declare limitless love to their mother tongue. It is a declaration they are willing to defend this language with all their strength-a declaration often ended with a threat, as in a poem by Jurka Traczuk: " The Giant of White Russia/ Will kill you all, traitors!"

Ethnicity and cultural identity

Once the problem of language is resolved in favor of the minority, educated aspiring authors immediately face a complicated maze of other issues, which they deal with more or less successfully. Choosing to write in Belarusan while having been shaped by, say, Warsaw University and by the psycho-existential atmosphere of non-Belarusan statehood, reveals unforeseen dilemmas. Compared to them, Polish vocabulary and style creeping into texts seems like a minor detail that could easily be removed by routine proofreading. To choose the Belarusan language is to choose a world that is different from that of a Pole. A conflict of double ethnicity within the author ensues.

Both form and content are mostly conditioned by the traditions of national literature, by the cultural code, and by all that makes Belarusan personality distinct. Authors can delve deep into this personality in order to more easily connect with readers, but in a situation where readers do not have a developed taste and where intellectual elites are scarce, they are endangered by a certain intellectual idleness and simple tasteless writing. It is a degeneration of talent, it is stooping to plebeian lows, and it is resorting to artistic minimalism. This is not a distinct phenomenon everywhere; the perception of a popular writer in Poland and Russia, for example, is totally different: it is the highest honor in Moscow ever since Uwarow, whereas in Warsaw it is merely a small step towards true art.

It is not a coincidence that Polish criticism classifies the literary works of writers from the Belarusan ethnic minority as representative of the peasants' culture (the idea came from Henryk Bereza, who defined it most accurately in his book Związki naturalne, Natural Connections). Bielavieza authors are irritated by such a classification. Their irritation, however, has different sources than that of, say, Wieslaw Mysliwski or Stanislaw Srokowski, who are rather more interested in entering the national pantheon than being on the pedestals of disdained rural fringes. Poles keep convincing us that they treat us like amicable losers who are heading for "Polishness" anyway, like Uniates in Lithuania dreaming of coalescing with Roman Catholics.

Driven into complexes, we create new ones ourselves. We shudder at being called peasant wordsmiths, we hate posing as muzyki (peasants), and we bother others by insisting that we are a distinct nation, not a neighboring sub-species. In the end, we avoid Warsaw, where we would get de-bumbkinized, and we arrange our own Thursday dinners (1). It is interesting how our books are interpreted incorrectly in Poland, and, quite surprisingly, accurately in England (see Shirin Akiner: Contemporary Belarusan Writers in Poland).

In a way, we exist like strangers in a strange land, like a Belarusan rose pricking Polish heel. There are pieces that even Belarusofile translators in Poland would not risk translating, like Gogol's Taras Bulba. Similarly, I cannot think of any Ukrainian version of With Fire and Sword (2). I could not have written my Białoruś, Białoruś (Belarus, Belarus) in any other way&—yet it is a way that became an insult to Poles, even to those whose mentality goes beyond that of a high school teacher.

Rusticity is still alive in poems of the Bielavieza group, even though they can only experience it in ethnographic museums. And vice versa, Polish hillbillies, once they have a go at poetry, may be proud of those gentry mansions and of their rebels, but they do not remember that newly propertied peasants would willingly help Cossacks hunt down those same rebels in January 1863. What is solvable in public discourse becomes impossibly entangled in literature. The literature of the Belarusan minority in Poland is not able to avoid anti-Polish understatements. It is not a result of an incurable nationalism, however, because such pathology has cultural people embarrassed as if they contracted syphilis.

The burden of the past

A short story is not a newspaper article and, if it is to outlive its author, it needs to convey some truth about life. And the Belarusan truth is not always congruent with Polish one. Well, here we have another dilemma, should we leave it alone and look for a substitute? If so, would we still be dealing with literature? The fate of a nation mirrors its literature. A Belarusan is a nuisance to a Pole—a roommate suddenly demanding a space of its own. The old Rzeczpospolita turned to sand in ancient centuries, but its spirit, its psychological space, is still with us and frightens during crises.

To end the above considerations, I would like to quote a young researcher form the US, Adam Zamoyski: "modern Belarus appeared as a nation from a nation." For the Decembrists and the following generation of Poles, it would only appear after Smolensk, and certainly after Witebsk and Mohylew.

The Belarusan ethnic minority in today's Białystok region is partly stuck in bygone times, with a serious foundling complex that will not be overcome anytime soon by the emancipation of the Republic of Belarus. That is why great Belarusan references are scarce in our literary creation, as if there were never any connection between Belarusans here and beyond the border. The émigré writers in the West are more from Miensk and Grodno than we are, because they took with them the weight of the "Belarusanness" that has shaped them.

Here, contact with the Belarusan movement broke off after the last World War, partly as a result of the intelligentsia having perished in Soviet deportations, partly because of the post-Home Army underground stereotype that led us to believe that all Belarusans are Communists. It is enough to say that at the end of the 1950s, when we founded a literary association at a Belarusan-language weekly called Niva, we were hardly aware of the existence of Belarusan literature; only few of us had some high school knowledge about it.

Ahead of us were years of studies and greatly belated artistic prowess. Białystok was cultural wilderness, so we somehow followed the path of the aforementioned self-educated authors, except that for us it was shorter and we learned the arcane nature of art more quickly. Some would see in this unfortunate condition a unique chance for the emergence of highly original creations, free from the burden of Polish tradition on one hand, and purely Belarusan one on the other.

The obvious infantilism of this calculation (or better, the mere assumption) was already a joke, even back then. It did not fade altogether though rather it encouraged some of the more intelligent opportunists to join the political debate by raising the issue of whether Polish-Belarusan literature (which was to please Warsaw) or Belarusan-Polish literature (which in turn was to please the Kremlin bosses, who were fearing the possibility of Belarusan irredentism in the borderland of Russia and its empire)[was more acceptable]. Thus, the act of double censorship started to weigh heavily upon us.

First, every phrase was analyzed by specialists from the Ministry of Interior, who then forwarded it (or not) to the local censor. We soon noticed that the police did not pay the slightest attention to books published in Polish. For example, a long time ago, the Polish versions of two of my novels Sciana (The Wall) and Samosiej (Self-seed) appeared almost without delay. The original versions, however, are still in my drawer (I have some promises from Miensk nowadays).

Slow but inevitable change

Being a minority is not a pleasant state at all; it requires character and a strong will, as discovered by Jerzy Lovell from the forgotten Życie Literackie (The Literary Life)—a now forgotten Polish author himself and a pioneer promoter of the civil liberties of minorities back in the times when Tadeusz Mazowiecki's ministers, not suspecting the future collapse of the Communism at all, were busy moving along their career paths.

The urban motif is only now beginning to appear in Belarusan literature, and in Białystok it is a mere infant. It will undoubtedly become dominant, but not to the extent that it is in the West. The tendencies towards change in the social structure of our minority clearly indicate that the absorbing capability of metropolitan agglomerations is diminishing; a development which favors satellite centers and towns. Białystok is said to be a Belarusan center, but those born there grow up to be Poles in general, and their often-encountered "Belarusanness" is declarative, not ethnic.

So far, only one indigenous Białystok inhabitant has bean featured in Bielavieza, author Jaroslaw Janowicz who, however, is inspired by his parents' close environment. A literary talent grows in a linguistic medium, and, if not in a folkloric dimension, then at least in an environmental one. This is proved by quite a large number of our poets originating from local centers—Nadzieja Artymowicz, for instance, is from Bielsk Podlaski.

The bucolic motifs in our literary creation can be sensed even in highly philosophical texts. It is deemed that they will still be present in Belarusan and minority writing even when it will be impossible to find an author of rustic provenance. I am not pessimistic about it, though. Unlike your average city slicker, I feel the growing importance of the fact that the globe is shrinking, of the emergence of the so-called global village. But this is the future anyway. Contemporary realities pushes us into a thematic anachronism: crying after a lost Arcadia, feeling nostalgic about walking barefoot in the field, or about plowing it with horses, is becoming incomprehensible to our children raised in cities, let alone more or less distant Europe.

Such writing requires footnotes. Are we going to be a literature of a deep province? Of course and there is a big opportunity to make it unique! Please notice the poor vocabulary and metaphoric colorlessness of language among people from big cities. The word as a tool has always flourished somewhere in ecological Barbaria. Captured and dragged to the cultural market, it was polished and finally given its price. Meadows of vocabulary are impossible next to factories and offices. The civilization of money and goods has a standardizing character, unfortunately.

Serious dangers, big rewards

We are talking about perils faced by every writer who is more than a journalist (the latter needs less than a thousand lexical items; press researchers claim it actually is as little as 800) and about the dangers that may cause an author to lose the characteristics of a national writer and thus become a Polish writer of Belarusan language. It is relatively easy to become interested in issues undoubtedly important for the minority area, both physically and psychologically, but created by the nation in charge of the majority state. One cannot be deaf to Poland of course, but it is better to be cautious so as to not to allow its melodies to extinguish our own orchestration.

A minority sucked in by a majority is a small dilemma, anyway. A much bigger problem is the infertility of such an annexed area, the infertility of humanistic values rooted there. Culture is easy to destroy, and, once annihilated, it will not be reintroduced, just like it is impossible to bring back an ancient species. One cannot play with Belarusan minority as if it was a child's toy or strangle it and revive it interchangeably because doing so leads straight to death.

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If one disregards the undeniable barrier of language, Belarusan writers in Poland do not risk finding themselves in isolation as artistic individuals. But they face even more difficulty than typical provincial writers from Poland do. This opinion does not run counter to my previous arguments, as I'm referring to uniquely talented individuals. Those of minor skills will not have a chance to blossom in full, and yet when one looks at it from the Polish side they enjoy a much bigger satisfaction in terms of their reception, thanks to the aforementioned psychology of the besieged castle. This, in turn, negatively influences their texts and their technical level; it pushes them into being copycats, serving the current socio-political demand.

Ambitions of extra-literary leadership diminish talent, fill it with provincial ingenuity, which bursts like a soap bubble when confronted with real literature. Unfortunately, it is quite a frequent drama in the lives of the Bielavieza authors, even though they usually become aware of it quite quickly. But it is still present on the horizon of emotions and mind, which delimits the heaven of ideas and the earth of life and marks the boundary between being a creator and being a Belarusan. God, I am sad when I take a look at a certain political movement that came to life a few years ago among our ethnic minority: everybody involved in it has become a mini-Havel. Instead of writing stories and poems, they voice their opinions on party conferences, play their little games, make speeches and present reports from activities that will be forgotten in a year's time. Such a waste of time, if you ask me...

Maybe I am nonsensically strict if I allow myself to forget that nothing is created in isolation from people. In an interview I once concluded that I became a Belarusan writer in relationship to Poles and, what is more, thanks to them. I was surprised by it, too. I began to ponder the mechanisms of my case, searching for a revelation. But the revelation never came. Asking me such a question, a journalist was referring to the scale of the reception I got and I quickly realized that this is normal: a piece makes the author worthy when it is translated somewhere else; best if beyond this better border. It accelerates the author's recognition.

Time for a new sense of self

I am running out of specific problems a Belarusan writer must face; all other potential problems are the same, no matter what nationality and language. One may think that we do not have much choice when it comes to our lexical store because Mother History has shown us little favor. To avoid explaining this issue in a juvenile manner, my answer is that if a person such as Jan Maksymiuk, board member of Bielavieza and an expert in English, is able to finish his long work on the Belarusan version of Ulysses, then the problem does not exist (a biographical curiosity: Maksymiuk is a physicist by profession).

We may feel a little impoverished by the excess number of poets and lack of prose writers (epic writers we can only dream of). Reading writers from Miensk, we promise ourselves to follow in their footsteps yet nothing comes of it; noble plans cannot replace the necessary talent. Our scholars on the history of literature comfort Bielavieza authors by saying that in the end it is not so bad, that youth is always lyrical, and that development will come with age.

Yet one cannot exceed one's powers—it refers to other societies and nations as well—I experienced that myself. I became concerned with the poor diversification of literature in the Belarusan corner of Poland. I began writing stories and novels, dramas and comedies, and many other things. I even published some of them, which I confess today with a huge embarrassment, because the majority of them proved to be unskilled crap; forced texts. I find consolation in the fact that a crime is never without sense. Literature, its genres, would always begin awkwardly: first there was Mikolaj Rej and only then the great Jan Kochanowski—not to mention Pushkin's uncle and Pushkin himself.

I am no longer wasting my days and my nights; I am counting them diligently after having been through half a century of life. I do not experiment; I rather concentrate on what I know for sure will not be too hard a work for me and without any meaning to the world. But I ask myself a question: is this commentary not a subconscious reflex of the psychology of the besieged castle in which one always has to have ammunition? And maybe I underwent a totally ordinary process: I tested my abilities in different directions in order to find the one most suitable.

Also, I doubt whether it is legitimate to claim that a Polish word in Poland automatically finds its way into mouth and onto paper, and a Belarusan one needs to be especially called for. No matter how artificial it may sound, I see this additional trudge of building a phrase as something positive, an additional element of an artistic filter sent here by fate. Polish language imposing itself on us in this quite non-hooligan manner, works as a fresh breeze, removing all waste from Belarusan. I would like to end this text on a personal note with this minor remark.

And, probably due to the rules of my age, more and more often these days I consider myself to be just a writer; I am a Belarusan author—only when somebody wants me to be.

Sokrat Janowicz,
translated by Wojtek Kość , 5 March 2001

This article appeared originally in the Polish language in Issue 12 of CER partner Krasnogruda, a quarterly publication issued by the Pogranicze ("Borderland") Foundation

The author:

Sokrat Janowicz was born in 1936 in Krynki, the Białystok region of Poland. A graduate from the University of Warsaw, he has a Masters degree in Belarusan, Polish and Slavonic Philologies. He has worked with Białystok-based Bealrusan weekly Niwa since 1956. He is a co-founder of the Białowieża (Bielavieza) literary association and a member of the Belarusan Socio-Cultural Association (also based in Białystok). He is a member of the Polish Pen-club.

Moving on:


1. "Thursday dinners" is a reference to meetings held by the last King of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, where he would dine with artists and discuss literature, arts, etc [Back to the article]
2. A novel from Henryk Sienkiewicz, original title Ogniem i mieczem [Back]


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