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In search of a distinctive English-language Polish-Canadian writing (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted February 29, 2016

This essay is partially based on my article,"Is there a distinctive English-language Polish-Canadian writing?: In search of a fragmentary tradition." Strumien (Stream) (Rocznik Tworczosci Polskiej w Zachodniej Kanadzie) (An Annual of Polish Creative Endeavour in Western Canada) no 8 (2012), pp. 18-24  strumien.ca  That article was based on a draft of a presentation read at the 19th Annual Conference of the Polish Association for the Study of English (PASE) -- Crossing frontiers, staking out new territories (Kalisz, Poland: Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan – Kalisz Campus), April 19-21, 2010.

Canada today is officially and juridically a multicultural society. This means, among other things, that the distinctive cultures of various diasporas are – at least in theory -- encouraged, and, to a greater or lesser extent, supported by Canadian federal, provincial, and major-municipal governments. At the same time, the so-called main Canadian culture also receives extensive support from all levels of Canadian government. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canadian book publishers, Canadian magazine publishers, and many individual authors, are subsidized -- especially by the federal government.

In more recent decades, there have arisen in Canada a number of distinct "hyphenated" literatures in the English language, such as the Italian-Canadian, the Ukrainian-Canadian, the Indo-Canadian, and so forth.  There is as well the participation of authors of various ethno-cultural groups in the so-called mainstream of CanLit. One example of this type of authors is Rohinton Mistry.  "CanLit" – an abbreviation of "Canadian Literature" is the term used to describe the core of Canadian book publishing endeavours. Among the archetypical CanLit authors is Margaret Atwood. 

There are, according to the most expansive definition of the Canada Census, over one million persons of Polish descent in Canada. Despite these apparently large numbers, a distinct Polish-Canadian writing in English has not really taken flight, nor have more than a few authors of Polish descent achieved some prominence in CanLit.

Leaving aside Polish-language writing – which may be termed as Polish literature in Canada -- Polish-Canadian writing may be subdivided into works by émigré authors in the English language, of which there is some presence; and works by persons of Polish descent born in Canada (or who arrived in Canada before later adolescence), of which there is less of a presence.

First of all, there is among nearly everyone among the generations born in Canada, a drastic loss of Polish language and of significant affinities with Polishness. Can persons who have a rather imperfect knowledge of literary Polish, still be strongly linked to Polish matters on the basis of a strong affect for their parents' heritage? It has often been considered that a given language is one of the strongest markers of ethnic affinity and identity. So it is clear that persons of Polish descent in Canada who write in English are really partaking in an intermediary literature.

Is there a definable Polish-Canadian literature? One thing to be noticed is that there is comparatively little fiction. Most of the writing consists of various types of memoir, as well as, especially in the case of the author of this article, academic and journalistic writing.

I would like to discuss "A Mother's Legacy", Apolonja Kojder's memoir in Marynia, Don't Cry: Memoirs of Two Polish-Canadian Families (University of Toronto Press, 1995). (The title of the entire book is taken from Pola's memoir; the second memoir is by Barbara Glogowska.) Pola draws helpful attention to such matters as to how difficult life truly was in earlier parts of the Twentieth Century, as well as chronicling her highly tragic family history. Her father, mother, and their young daughter, Apolonja Rozalia, were deported to Siberia, where Rozalia would die – a sister whom Pola (who was born in 1948 in Canada) would never come to know. (Her parents settled in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.)  Her uncle was murdered by the NKVD as part of the Katyn massacres in 1940. She lists twenty relatives who did not survive the war. Tragedy continued after the war's end. Her father's cousin, Wladyslaw Kojder, a prominent leader of the independent Polish Peasants' Party, was brutally murdered by the Communist secret police in September 1945. She found out many years later, that another of her relatives had died in 1947 as a result of chemical poisoning from slave labour in a chemical factory, to which he was assigned after rejecting an offer of Soviet citizenship. Pola's father died in 1968 in a tragic workplace accident, while saving the life of another worker. Those were times when workplace heroism was not usually recognized.

During her speech at the Katyn commemoration ceremonies in April 2001, Pola endeavoured to describe to an audience which included Canadians the vastness of the Katyn tragedy. In the context of Canadian multiculturalism, her drawing attention to the somewhat variegated nature of the Katyn victims – all Polish citizens of various faiths and ethnic backgrounds – was rather creative and appropriate.

At the 2008 Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Slavists held at the University of British Columbia, Joanna Kordus, a graduate student at UBC, presented a paper:

"Feminine Life Writing and Polish Ethnic Invisibility in the Canadian Landscape: Reading Apolonja Kojder's Marynia, Don't Cry Transnationally."

Later in 2008, Joanna Kordus (who had emigrated to Canada at the age of thirteen) successfully defended her M.A. thesis in Comparative Literature on the topic of:

"Self-Inscriptions: Ethnic, Indigenous, Linguistic and Female Identity Constructions in Canadian Minority Life Writing: A Comparison of Apolonja Kojder's Marynia, Don't Cry and Rita Joe's Song of Rita Joe."

In her paper and thesis, Kordus brought attention to the many worthwhile and noteworthy aspects of Pola's writing. She noted it was an almost singular example of a specifically Polish-Canadian identity and vision in Canada. Against all the odds, and in the face of long-term travails and marginalization, Pola was attempting to give voice to a specifically Polish-Canadian identity. In her thesis, Kordus compared this to how the Aboriginal author Rita Joe was also writing out of a place of suffering. She compared Kojder's use of Polish words, and Joe's use of Aboriginal words, in the respective texts, as an attempt to catch some of the essence of conceptual differences between the so-called Canadian mainstream culture, and the two minority visions. Kordus suggested that a dialogue between diasporic and aboriginal minorities could lead to helpful insights.

Apolonja Maria Kojder is indeed a representative of a fragmentary tradition of Polish-Canadian writing, a tradition that has been beset by various adversities.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.




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