by Urszula Chowaniec
Izabela Filipiak is without doubt one of the most significant Polish authors of the past two decades. Her contribution to post-communist Polish culture is huge, and includes her prose that reveals the mechanisms of domestic violence and dictatorship, which are so often forgotten in the name of political ideals, her brave and eye-opening essays, ironic dramas, lesbian poetry and ground-breaking research on modernist poet Maria Komornicka.
Izabela Filipiak was born in Gdynia in 1961. She decided to study Polish Studies at the University of Gdańsk and became a student of Maria Janion, under whose supervision she wrote her M.A. thesis on Stanisław Grochowiak’s dramas (the title of thesis: Death as Violence) in 1986. Later, she decided to leave Poland. She asked for asylum in France, and subsequently moved to New York. She came back to Poland in 1996, lived in Warsaw for a while and then again moved to the United States, to Berkeley, from where she wrote Letters from the Gulf (Listy znad Zatoki, http://kobiety-kobietom.com/filipiak/). In 2005 she was awarded her Ph.D. at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Now she lives in Gdańsk and works in the Department of American Literature at the University of Gdańsk.
Izabela Filipiak made her literary debut in 1992 with a collection of short stories entitled Śmierć i spirala (Death and the Spiral). This collection, though not autobiographical, refers mainly to Filipiak’s experience of living in the US as a political emigrant during the 1980s. This experience of displacement, both from the physical place, from home and from the culture with which one can fully identify, forms part of the author’s literary world.
In 1995 Filipiak published one of the most influential books of that decade, the novel Absolutna amnezja (Absolute Amnesia), a metaphorical narrative that directly criticizes the Polish construction of family and the notion of political engagement in politics. In 1997 she published Niebieska menażeria (The Blue Menagerie)—a collection of short stories on immigration, the search for a space of one’s own, with a leading I-narrator, who gives the collection a very autobiographical theme. In the second half of the 1990s she became a feminist icon on the literary scene. One of the first Polish woman writers to achieve fame after 1989, she openly admits that she is a lesbian and, in 2002, she published a collection of poems, perhaps the first openly lesbian collection of poems to appear in Poland, entitled Madame Intuita. She openly criticized the conservative and homophobic elements in Polish culture in Kultura obrażonych (Culture of the Offended, 2003). She also published the interesting novel Alma, the play Em, as well as the book on Maria Komornicka (Obszary Odmienności. Rzecz o Marii Komornickiej). Her literary journey extends from writing about the experience of emigration and dealing with the notion of physical displacement, to criticism of the domestic culture, and an attack on the mechanisms of psychological or cultural oppression.
As mentioned above, one of the most important issues taken up by Izabela Filipiak in her literary world is the notion of emigration and displacement. Izabela Filipiak is skeptical about the possibilities of merging into another culture too easily. She describes the problem of leaving not so much as one of leaving a space but of abandoning one’s language, habits, and one’s comfortable and known routines. For Izabela leaving is a complex process:
Autumn. I have just come back to Poland. Return is not something one can experience easily, just like that…you come back and that’s it, you are here. No, one comes back layer-by-layer; each one deeper than the previous, deep to the core of your bones, to the pain and the bewilderment. One leaves in the same way. Bit by bit, you rip off what we had in common, what belonged to us and to other people, to us and another place. (Niebieska menażeria, 1997, p.5).
Leaving Poland, abandoning home and fatherland is a symbolic gesture of revolt and cry for change. The writing of Izabela Filipiak is for me a most vivid, brave voice that demands a change in a culture that for too long has been too male, too patriarchal, too heterosexual, too traditional. She demands that we listen to other voices without stigmatizing them as Other, the comfortable label of seemingly tolerant discourse. But Izabela Filipiak knows all too well that these demands are not easily met, because these changes require a lot of work, sometimes painful transformation. Bit by bit, rip off what we had in common, what belonged to us… And while I suppose that Izabela Filipiak is not afraid of such changes, Polish mainstream culture is still afraid of Izabela Filipiak.
Madrid, July 2011.