From the Mississippi Delta to Krakow’s Old Town: A Writer’s Journey
Steve Yarbrough Bears Witness to a Poland in Search of Itself
The world of my Mississippi Delta childhood was circumscribed by three cotton fields, a drainage ditch for conveying run-off from those fields to the Mississippi River and, more importantly, by rigidly imposed lines of color and class. The only white kids who lived nearby were wealthy and uninterested in working-class boys like me. Black kids lived just down the road, but playing with them meant risking a whipping with my father’s leather belt. After he administered a couple of those, I learned my lesson. Like Flannery O’Connor, who justified her refusal to meet James Baldwin by saying “I observe the traditions of the society I feed on,” I lived by local mores. In my case, there wasn’t much choice.
A kid who has no one to play with will usually does one of two things: find ways to get in trouble, or develop a rich imagination. I mostly did the latter, spending hours at a time with books that had been chosen with absolutely no sense of discrimination. One day I might be reading the popular historian Bruce Catton, the next immersed in a Hardy Boys mystery that I had already read five times. What went on outside my window, in the cotton field or the soybean patch, held little interest for me, as did the events shaking the South and the rest of the country. I had a front-row view of the Civil Rights movement, for instance, but at the time it made only the faintest of impressions. I knew my father was a member of an organization called the White Citizens’ Council, but so were the fathers of all the other white kids with whom I was acquainted. How could it be noteworthy?
Once I entered high school, I heard of Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor and Warren; based on what my English teachers said, it sounded as if they wrote about people like my family and me, about cotton fields and hog killing, coon dogs and deer-hunting, flood water and baptizing, racial trouble, money trouble, and so on. By the age of 15 or 16, I knew all I wanted to about all those subjects, as well as a lot that I didn’t, and I could not imagine why anybody, anywhere, would want to read books devoted to them. Give me a good World War II novel or one about bank robbers. Give me The Happy Hooker.
If someone had told me that as an adult I would spend more than 30 years writing five novels and three collections of short stories set almost exclusively in the Mississippi Delta and that all of them, to one degree or another, would deal with the area’s tortured racial history, I would have laughed in their face. By this time I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew that I did not want the adjective “Southern” to modify the noun.
Most writers, I suspect, choose their own material, or at least think they do. My material, however, always seems to choose me.
I first visited Poland in 1987, a few months before the woman I was living with, the Polish essayist Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, and I got married. We had met three years earlier in Blacksburg, Virginia, and I wanted to see where she was from. She couldn’t return with me because at that time Poland was still under the control of the Communist Party, and she had stayed in the US beyond the terms of her exchange visitor visa.
“I loved the people I’d met [in Poland] but found a lot of things maddening. . . For me only one other place in the world had ever evoked so many contradictory feelings. That place was Mississippi.”
From the moment I landed in Warsaw, where I was collected by my future sister- and brother-in-law, my feelings were conflicted. I already knew a lot about the country, partly from having read recent books like Timothy Garton Ash’s masterful The Polish Revolution: Solidarity, Norman Davies’ exhaustive two-volume history Heart of Europe, the novels of Tadeusz Konwicki and Marek Hłasko and the poetry of Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. In addition, while growing up I had read a lot of World War II fiction set in Poland and, if much of it was poorly written, it was also historically enlightening. I knew, for instance, that the last group of fighters from the Ghetto Uprising had died in the basement of a house at Miła 18 and that in 1944 the Soviet army had halted its advance on the Vistula’s east bank and watched while the Germans destroyed the city, which had subsequently been rebuilt from rubble during the darkest days of the Cold War. The country’s resilience was hard not to admire.
Yet a lot of things bothered me. Though Martial Law had technically ended four years earlier, you could not walk down the street in any major city without seeing soldiers. Once, when I went to a beach in the Mazurian Lake District with Ewa’s aunt and uncle, three troop carriers pulled up and disgorged a military contingent, whose commander marched them back and forth along the shore for half an hour or so.
Grocery stores were often all but empty. Clerks either did not bother to look up at the customers, or if they did, it was with anger and outright contempt, as if they were furious about having to do something as useless as making change. Every day, a couple of hours after people got off work, you’d see drunks taking mostly unsuccessful swings at one another or working their frustrations out on innocent street signs.
I learned to listen for the word Żyd—Jew—and to recognize when it was spoken in the same tone my father used when holding forth about Black people. One of Ewa’s relatives, an otherwise affable man, always said the word with venom and accompanied it with angry gestures, though he was exceptionally open-minded when it came to gays and lesbians, who still had to keep their sexuality under wraps; and unlike some Poles he had no problem whatsoever with the many African students who studied there at the time.
Nevertheless, I had seldom been treated with greater kindness than I was shown by Ewa’s family and her friends in cities like Olsztyn and Wroclaw. In a country beset by shortages of everything from meat to toilet paper, I was fed like royalty, my comfort and satisfaction a constant source of concern to people whom I might have met only an hour ago. I was “our American guest,” in a place that loved all things American and where the best thing you could say about people was that they had been good hosts. They poured so much Polish vodka down my throat that I began to perspire at the sight of yet another icy bottle.
When my three weeks there had passed, and the plane lifted off the tarmac at Okęcie Airport to transport me back to the US and the Polish woman I would marry and spend the rest of my life with, my emotions were a stew. I was glad I had gone there but just as glad I was leaving. I wanted to go back one day, but not too soon. I loved the people I’d met but found a lot of things maddening. What I probably should have realized immediately but did not was that for me only one other place in the world had ever evoked so many contradictory feelings. That place was Mississippi.
“Falling in love with Ewa had taken no time at all. Falling in love with her country was a lengthier process.”
Over the next decade and a half, we visited the country six times. Our shortest stay was just under two months; the longest—in 1992, when I had a sabbatical—half a year. The greatest gap between visits was only three years. Each time we went there, I was struck by the changes since our previous trip. On every visit, I had experiences that I either could not or would not have had back home: playing bluegrass guitar in the Olsztyn town square with a Polish folk group, taking a 110-mile canoe trip through the former East Prussia with ten other couples on some of the most beautiful rivers and lakes I’ve ever seen, spending the better part of a Toruń evening drinking Wyborowa and talking with a great Polish mountaineer about his ascents of K-2, Annapurna and Nanga Parbat.
What I got to witness, during all these years as the American guest, was a country redefining itself. It had never truly been allowed to recover from the Second World War, during which its considerable riches had been destroyed or plundered, before a different occupying force took over to plunder it some more. Ridding itself of that power had taken 45 years, and turning itself into a liberal democracy would require at least another 25. Many people took the time to explain this to me. They explained it again and again, trying hard to make sure I understood, that I got it just right. They might have been white Southerners, c. 1965, struggling to explain their mysterious region to disbelieving folks from New York and California.
That’s the last word in my latest novel, The Unmade World, much of which is set in Poland. My main character, an American journalist named Richard Brennan, is married to a Polish woman whom he met while covering the revolutions sweeping Eastern Europe in 1989 to 1990. For many years, he has spent part of each year in her country, in the apartment where she grew up. Due to a chance encounter with a pair of Polish criminals on a snowy night outside Krakow, his life takes a terrible turn, forcing him to come to terms with grief and loss, in a country that is no stranger to tragedy.
Like Richard, I eventually came to think of Poland as home—specifically, the city of Krakow. In 2002, we bought an apartment there, just a 15-minute walk from the Old Town and right across the street from the haunting Jewish cemetery. Two or three years later, I first heard myself use the word “we” when what I meant was Poland.
We’ve got a good chance in the Euro Cup . . . We have a poetry tradition second to none . . . Our vodka is the smoothest you can buy. . . We’ve got some of the greatest pianists in the world.
Falling in love with Ewa had taken no time at all. Falling in love with her country was a lengthier process, and the city of Krakow sealed the deal. I came to know it better than any American city. Having no car helped. For years, I walked all over the majestic Old Town, which has the largest medieval square in Europe. The jazz clubs, most of which are in cellars that date back to the 14th century, became my 52nd Street. Three a.m. often found me at U Muniaka, hanging on every note of the great saxophonist Janusz Muniak, who was unknown in the US to all but the likes of Hank Jones, Branford Marsalis, and Lee Konitz, each of whom came to perform with him in Krakow. When I ambled home at dawn, many cafes were still open, people in the streets, lovers necking on park benches.
We made some of the best friends of our lives there, and I eventually found my own special spot, an outdoor café named Bunkier that figures prominently in my novel and offers fabulous views of Planty, the broad, green band ringing the Old Town. The café operates year-round: in cold weather, they lower clear plastic drop-panels and turn on space heaters. I spent countless hours there, sipping beer, reading and watching people stroll by. Many times my daughters accompanied me, as did Ewa. Typically, though, I went by myself.
One day in 2015, while I sat there alone at my favorite table, a notion announced itself with the kind of insistence I have learned not to ignore. So I closed my iPad’s Guardian app, opened the Pages app and typed what became the first couple of sentences of The Unmade World. Somehow, I had come to belong to this country and this city, owning and being owned by them, as I had once owned and been owned by Mississippi.