Today’s Q&A is with Magdalena McGuire, author of The Shape of Your Song
What was the initial inspiration for your novel?
I was born in Poland and moved to Australia when I was two years old. I’ve often wondered how things would’ve turned out if my family had decided not to leave the country. There’s no doubt that life in Poland in the 1980s was tough. Communism brought with it political repression and economic hardship, and people didn’t have the type of freedom of movement we take for granted in the West. But in spite of – or perhaps because of – these hardships, things like books and art and history really mattered to people’s lives. They weren’t just forms of entertainment or ‘elitist’ pursuits; they were essential ways to nourish the soul and survive the indignities of the communist regime.
Part of the reason why I wrote my novel, The Shape of Your Song, was a ‘Sliding Doors’ desire to explore what life could’ve been like for a young woman living in communist Poland. What was it like to live through a turbulent period in history when civil liberties were curtailed? How was it that artists managed to make such exciting work when, officially, they were stripped of artistic freedom? And what would be the fallout when love and politics came into conflict? Communist Poland provides a vivid and unique setting for examining these questions – questions that, of course, have universal significance.
The other impetus for the novel came from my desire to provide a nuanced account of Polish history and culture. I’ve often met people whose only knowledge of Poland relates to the terrible events of World War Two and the long queues for food under communism. Very few seem to know about the country’s rich artistic heritage. Indeed, until I started doing research for this novel, I knew little about Poland’s experimental art scene, and was excited to learn just how radical and resourceful Poland’s artists were. I also discovered that few works of fiction explore life in Poland during the communist era, and fewer still (if any) portray Poland’s avant-garde art scene. There are so many incredible stories waiting to be told about this era, and I hope my novel unearths some of them.
One desert island: one book. Which one?
Having survived another rainy Melbourne winter, the idea of moving to a tropical island sounds like bliss! The only problem is the lack of reading material… If I were forced to choose just one book for company, I’d go with Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The plot isn’t so important in this book. What’s important are the beautiful sentences that you can read again and again, which make it an ideal book to be stuck on an island with. You could open any page of this book and find a sentence to linger over. Here’s just one that I really like:
She smiled at him, making sure that the smile gathered up everything inside her and directed it toward him, making him a profound promise of herself for so little, for the beat of a response, the assurance of a complimentary vibration in him.
Which authors inspired you to start writing?
When I was young, I devoured books such as Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry. I loved the fact that they featured heroines who were into reading and writing. They showed me that being a writer wasn’t something that only dead white men could do and inspired me, as a child, to start penning stories of my own.
What is your current read?
At the moment I’m reading a book of short stories called, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, by Ana Menéndez. The writing is clear and poetic, and the stories explore many of the themes I’m interested in, such as migration, belonging and identity in cross-cultural contexts.
Do you have any hints or tips for people who want to start writing?
Although I wrote stories as a child, as an adult I felt that I’d lost my sense of creativity (a law degree can do that to you!). For many years, I wanted to rediscover the pleasure I’d found in writing as a child. When I finally tried to write fiction, I was frozen by the fear of writing something bad. This fear of failure stopped me from writing for many years. Finally, I decided to just scribble my thoughts down in a journal – it didn’t matter what I was writing, as long as I got the words down on the page. I found that giving up any preconceptions about the end product was a great way to start writing and, indeed, to keep writing even when I’m plagued by self-doubt.
Extract from The Shape of Your Song
Poland, December 1981
It was eleven days before Christmas and an orange-tailed carp swam in the bathtub, opening and closing the black tunnel of its mouth. Seven floors below us, military tanks lined up in the street. Militia gathered by the tanks, wearing green uniforms and fur-trimmed caps. They held out their hands to cages of burning coal.
My father always said that in Poland, peace was like a well-stocked butcher’s shop: both were impossible to find. So I should’ve been prepared for this. Yet it seemed impossible that our country was now at war against us, its own people.
Martial law was for our own good, the government said. We were all required to make sacrifices. And we would all be safer as a result.
‘Bullshit,’ Dominik said. ‘This is complete bullshit.’ More frenetic than usual, he darted around Małgorzata’s kitchen, rearranging newspapers, books, the cracked cup we used as an ashtray. Occasionally he stopped at the window, pulled back the curtain and stared at the dark street.
I rested my hand on his back. He twitched under my palm like one of Father’s rabbits when I tried to pull it out of the hutch.
Dominik closed the curtain. He lifted Małgorzata’s telephone off the hook and pressed it to his ear. ‘Still dead. They’ve cut us off from the world.’
Sitting at the kitchen table, Krzysio checked his watch: ‘Well, folks, one hour till curfew.’
Yesterday we learned there was a new set of rules we had to live by. From the stroke of midnight there were to be no public gatherings, no travel between cities without permits, and no one was allowed on the streets after ten at night.
Dominik ran a hand through his hair. The ends stood up, electric. ‘Let’s go out. Show them we’re not afraid.’
‘And get arrested?’ I dragged a jar of honey wine across the table, doled the amber liquid into cups. ‘Here.’ I handed one to Dominik. Perhaps it would soothe his nerves.
Małgorzata must have sensed it wasn’t enough. She dipped her hand into the chest-pocket of her overalls and pulled out some hashish. ‘If they treat us like naughty children, that’s exactly how we’ll act.’ Her curls fell over her cheeks as she rolled a joint, dabbed it on her tongue to seal it.
Dominik threw himself on a chair. ‘This improves things.’ Małgorzata passed him the joint, and for a moment, their fingertips touched. I swirled the honey wine in my cup.
‘Na zdrowie,’ Krzysio said when it was my turn. To your health. I filled my lungs with smoke and counted to ten, twenty, before breathing out. There was a haze in the kitchen. All the hard edges turned soft.
Next to us in the lounge, the television was on. For the last twenty-four hours there was only one thing playing: General Jaruzelski telling us that martial law had been declared.
Citizens and Lady Citizens of the Polish People’s Republic! I turn to you as a soldier and chief of government. Our country is on the edge of an abyss. Achievements of many generations, raised on the ashes, are now collapsing into ruin.
His upper lip twitched as he said, ‘Let no one count on weakness or hesitation’.
Yet the drama of Jaruzelski’s words was undermined by his delivery: he read from his piece of paper in the manner of a schoolboy reciting a poem whose meaning he didn’t understand.
‘God,’ I said. ‘Couldn’t they have chosen someone more charismatic to send us to the gallows?’
Dominik took two strides to the lounge and punched his fist against the television to switch it off. ‘There’s no point in listening to that rubbish.’
He was right. For the real news we had to look elsewhere. Already we’d heard that hundreds of people – maybe even thousands – had been arrested the night before. Militia had knocked on their doors at midnight and taken them away.
My throat tightened. ‘Hey.’ I gestured to Krzysio. ‘How’s this for a real emergency – there’s not enough joint in my mouth.’
‘Happy to oblige.’ Krzysio passed it to me and then rifled through Małgorzata’s tapes. He selected one by Dezerter and slid it into the cassette player. Punk music blasted into the kitchen. ‘Jaruzelski could take some lessons in showmanship from these guys.’ Krzysio pretended to strum a guitar, thrashing his head more or less in time to the music.
My laugh was high pitched; the sound pressed against my bladder, my bones. Melting limbs made their way to the bathroom. As I left, Krzysio turned the music up. ‘Let’s be real,’ he said, ‘no one’s sleeping tonight.’
A doleful pair of eyes gazed at me from the bathtub. Perhaps the carp sensed its fate – to be fried with butter on Christmas Eve. Though we ate carp every year, the thought, now, of millions of fish floating in bathtubs and buckets, waiting to be killed, unsettled me. Must be the hashish. I leaned over the tub, dangling the line of my plait to the carp. It gaped at me in the shallow water.
I forced my legs to deliver me to the lounge, where I picked up my bag. ‘You OK, Ania?’ said Dominik. I gave him a wave to signal yes, fine.
Inside the bathroom, I took out my drawing pad and an ink pen that Dominik had given me for my birthday. I sketched a fish, which soon assumed Dominik’s features: his unruly hair and the John Lennon sunglasses he wore even in winter.
Hands, heavy on my shoulders. ‘What are you doing?’ Dominik crouched by my side.
I tore out the page and handed it to him. The title of the picture scribbled at the top, Portrait of Dominik as a Carp. I held my breath while Dominik assessed it. He assumed a serious expression: narrow eyes, slight frown. ‘You’ve captured a good likeness.’ He tilted his head to the side. ‘So Ania, are you going to serve me up on a platter on Christmas Eve?’
‘I’m sure you’d be delicious.’
‘Cheeky girl.’ Still holding the picture, he scooped me up and dangled me over the bath. ‘Do you really think your boyfriend looks like a fish?’ He lowered me closer to the water. ‘Do you?’
As I screeched, my fingers lost their grip on the picture. It floated to the bath; black ink leaked into the water.
Again, Dominik pretended to drop me and I screamed. ‘Now you’ve seen what your fish-man is capable of…’ He flung the drawing on the floor and then kissed my neck and carried me to the kitchen, my heart thumping against his chest.
‘It’s ten o’clock,’ Krzysio said.
The four of us stepped onto Małgorzata’s balcony, which was slippery with ice. The smell of burning coal cut through the air. People in the opposite apartment block were flashing their lights on and off, on and off. Some blew whistles. Others simply stood at their balconies or windows. Dominik cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, ‘We’re still here!’ He wrapped his arms around me, shielding me from the wind.
In the opposite apartment, two stories above us, a man in a dressing gown waddled onto his balcony, carrying something bulky in his arms. A television. ‘Enough!’ he shouted. ‘They’re playing that clown over and over and I’ve had enough.’
‘That’s a fair reaction to Jaruzelski,’ Małgorzata said. She huddled closer to Krzysio and warmed her hands in his.
The man heaved the television onto the iron rail of his balcony, nearly tripping over in the process. The television wobbled for a moment, then he pushed it over the edge. It dropped past the lower floors and there was explosive sound as it crashed and shattered on the ground. Instinctively, I clamped my hands over my ears.
The streetlight cast a yellow glow on the broken glass.
‘That’s what I think of their lies,’ the man yelled.
Someone from another apartment yelled back, ‘OK fine, but don’t come running to us when you want to watch the football!’ Laughter in the cold air.
A moment later, three militia rushed down the street, guns slung over their shoulders. One of them crouched by the broken television. He stood up and pointed at the apartment block opposite us, then at ours. The other two militia raced off in the direction he was pointing.
‘Looks like the party’s over.’ Krzysio kicked a bit of ice from the balcony and we went back inside.
We sat around the kitchen table and drank honey wine. Małgorzata turned down the cassette player and the scream of the punk music drained to a whisper. No one spoke as we waited for the knock on the door.