• Nobel Prize-Winner Olga Tokarczuk in Conversation with John Freeman

    The Newly Minted Laureate and Author of Flights

    Olga Tokarczuk, alongside Peter Handke, has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Literary Hub’s John Freeman spoke with her earlier this year about her novel Flights, onstage with translator Jennifer Croft.

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    John Freeman: Flights travels through space and time brilliantly, mysteriously. You’ve written eight novels, two collections of short stories—was this the kind of book that you could only write, given its scope and how much travel was involved, once you had had that experience of being invisible while traveling? I wonder if you could talk about that.

    Olga Tokarczuk: I was invisible until the moment I realized that it’s good to have dreadlocks. (laughter) Then everyone paid attention to me and asked me what is going on, and then I had to explain that this is a very old, Polish manner of hair. It is something that is very native and so on and so on. But yes, I think woman crossing their forties, they become a part of the invisible world. And so as described in my book, it has very good and darker sides of this state of existence. The good is that you have to be a perfect narrator, because nobody notices that you are watching him or her. So you are like free eyes, traveling through the world and observing everything without any—yeah, without being noticed, even. So this is a very good position.

    JF: This book is full of tales that feel collected and curated as well as invented and told and I wonder if you could give us just a tiny bit of a clue as to what the percentage is. Because in several cases the narrator is in an unnamed foreign city and strikes up a conversation with a traveler. Are you inventing the authenticity of that actuality or are a lot of the events in this book based on real experience?

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    OT: Mostly all of them are based on my experience as a  traveler, but not to the end because the narrator in this book is created, designed. For instance, the first thing is that writing such a constellation novel, the novel constructed from small fragments, you have to have something which is stable. One stable position in this book. And then I realized from the beginning that it must be a very strong narrator. And of course I created this narrator from my—my own perspectives, points of view, my qualities and so on.

    But I was sure that this narrator should be of such material that there is such a passage in the beginning of this book when I display the blood tests of this narrator. So the reader can even know such a material, organic detail of the body of the narrator. To be sure that this narrator could be real, really. Yes, many of those points of view and perspectives were mine, but also sometimes I used to skip from myself and pretend I am somebody else. And this is this kind of freedom of a writer which I love very much, and perhaps the real reason that I prefer to be a writer than psychologist, for instance.

    JF: I’m curious, Olga, if you can recall the first trip you ever went on in your life?

    OT: When I was a child and I grew up in such a time, completely different than the times we are now living in, that the children were free. So they could go out in the yard, and far out to the park, and there were no pedophiles around us. I don’t know, it was a different world. So as a young girl I liked very much to explore my space. I used to make shorter and longer excursions and one of these excursions I went to the Oder River, which was in my area about two kilometers, so about one mile away from my house. And I had a feeling for the first time in my life that I am a conqueror. That somebody who is very courageous, someone who is doing something new that nobody did before me. That was a very important experience for me as a child. Exploring the world and also making the world safe and trustful in a way.

    So I think that today’s children don’t have such experience, to explore their own space around them. And I still remember the moment when I reached the river, and the river was huge, of course, and magic. It was something. “I did it,” I said to myself. It was only a mile but it was a big step for humanity! (laughter)

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    JF: There is something in this book about the elements, that water keeps coming up and whales which are swimming through the book. It does feel like a real journey, in a classical sense, ends at or travels across water.  Do you think there’s something mythic about water? That we long for it in some way?

    OT: Of course it is. This is the metaphor of our unconsciousness. This is trivial but I think it works: water is a border, a symbol of the border we can cross. Ship, boat, it’s another kind of symbol. So to cross the water I think it still exists under the common awareness, consciousness of Americans. You are behind the water from our European perspective. But this is very important. And water is also flat, something dangerous, but also something which is fruitful, giving us the power for the plants to grow.

    So it’s an endless container for meanings. And for me, I think, when I discovered in my childhood maps, quite very early I discovered the shapes of rivers are the same shape as human nerves, human veins. This book is also very deeply rooted in fractality. That the big things are very similar to the smallest one. So we are living in the microcosm, which is, you know, connected in many directions, in many points, so it is something metaphysical in this idea of fractality.

    JF: I’m curious, before we get deep into this book, you did study psychology and that is also in this book in the invented life of the narrator. And Jung, I’ve read, is particularly important to you. In what way does that affect the way you tell stories?

    OT: My mother was a teacher of Polish literature and I was, in a way, designed to study literature too, as she was. But fortunately I had a kind of teenager fight with her, kind of major rebellion against my parents, and this is really a very healthy state of mind. So I decided not to study literature and have nothing to do with literature. Psychology was mine, really deep, and I was convinced to study psychology. But you have to have in your mind that it was the beginning of the eighties in Poland, it was a really dark time. Marshall Law, empty shops, and a kind of total common depression in our country. So psychology was also just escaping from reality a little bit. And of course I’d read Sigmund Freud in secondary school and that was the first impact I had from psychology. I thought very naively that my entire study would be studying Sigmund Freud. Of course not, because it was under the communists and the academia, the university world, would rather be concentrated on behavioral understandings of human—of human beings. But studying psychology I very quickly started to work with clients, with ill people. I was a volunteer from the very beginning. And then I made my first huge discovery: that reality can be perceived from many points of view.

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    Perhaps now, in the 21st century, it sounds trivial but then, many years ago, it was a revolution for me. So that means there is no objective something, but we can only perceive this reality from these points of view. And I remember one of my first clients—it was a family and I had two brothers and they had to tell me the story of their family. And they produced completely different narratives about the same family. And then I said, “Well? What does it mean?” I think that was my first step to writing because still—I would insist that writing is looking for a very particular, specific point of view in reality which is obvious for many people. And we, as writers, we have to find out certain points of view which change perspective, which show there is something new in what we are perceiving. Is it—is it clear what I’m saying—?

    JF: Really clear. What’s remarkable about this book is how at the center of the universe is this voice leading you through these stories and then they spoke off in circles around, each one traveling for five, sometimes fewer pages, sometimes more, and how at the moment they acquire the heavy momentum of lived experience they’re interrupted and then the voice comes back and another set of stories boots up. Olga, there is a lot in this book about specimens of the human form, whether contained in formaldehyde or duplicated in art, whether they’re amputated. I’m curious—you obviously have an intense interest in the body.

    When did you figure out a way to connect this to the metaphorical and metaphysical questions of flight and movement? Because to me that connection has never, ever been made, of the body arcing through space and time in our lifetimes and our desire to make it immortal by making it a specimen, and our movement through the world and the way it can make us feel endless.

    OT: I wish I could answer this question but to be honest I don’t remember when it happened, when I started to associate those two things. The book was written I think twelve or thirteen years ago. I think the beginning of this idea was my middle life crisis. I remember such a moment in my life when I was sitting in the waiting room waiting to go into the doctor and make some kind of test, blood test or whatever. And then I realized that I know many things about outer space, like where are the planets and many things about the Amazon’s geography and so on, but I don’t know how my liver is working. What is the color of my stomach? How my veins are going under my skin. I realized it’s a shocking lack of knowledge and must be some terrible sick that we don’t know our body.

    Then making travel and making research for this book, of course I found out this obsession which has settled the most in the whole Netherlands. They felt like three hundred years ago the same way I felt in this waiting room. So what’s going in our bodies? Why is it such a huge mystery for us? Then I started to study the history of anatomy. Thank god I had at the time a scholarship in Amsterdam so that I spent like one year studying the history of anatomy. And a very crucial point in this book, discovered by accident by me, is that at the same time in the same year, 1574, the two big books appeared, were published. One, it was the famous one, which told us how the universe was built and how it worked, and at the same time was published Vesalius’ Atlas of the Human Body. So that this particular point and year, those two microcosms were connected. And of course the book is based on intuition, so sometimes it’s very hard to explain what I really meant and how it was designed. But yeah, this is the kind of mystery in writing such a book, that you have to trust your intuition. And sometimes this intuition is crazy, and sometimes you feel that you have an obsession and it is perhaps something sick but anyway, you go ahead.

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    JF: One of the anatomists in the book, after dissecting—I forget if it’s a human or an animal— that it was sort of reassuring that the body’s just a mechanism. And I wonder if you agree with that. I saw someone die and my first reaction was, “Oh, it’s just like a holy machine,” and that was sort of soothing. But you don’t agree?

    OT: No, I don’t agree. It seems to me that it’s quite an archaic point of view, like the beginning of the Enlightenment when the people started to think about the world as a collection of mechanisms, toys, manners. But I think it is mystery still. We don’t know—even if we have science and we know more or less how the brain is working, there are still so many fields completely uncovered. We still don’t know the big, big questions of our times. How consciousness is working, how it works? Why do we have this feeling that we are separate from the rest of reality? Why do we feel that we are separate from each other? Yeah, the consciousness is something still very, very obscure I would say.

    JF: There’s a scene with a character who’s on a plane with an astrophysicist who studies dark matter. This book is full of lots of alarming information and in that conversation is the piece of information that there’s more dark matter in the universe than there is visible matter, and then the physicist looks out the window and says, “We don’t even know why it’s here,” as if the plane is flying through it. And I wonder—that kind of information begs the question, is our arc through the universe, is it positioned on mystery but also a bit of faith? A faith in the benignness of the universe, or is that too naive?

    OT: I don’t know. As I writer, I have courage to be—to ask questions and not to find an answer because then I should change my job and try to be a scientist. And this is the better freedom, to be a writer. Just ask and show strange things. Yeah, please think reading this book. Just ask yourself what’s going on.

    JF: I’m gonna ask one or two more questions, and I suspect you have some as well. One of the fabulous things about Flights is just how many different lives she can create so rapidly, and so believable, and then drop as if that is such an easy thing. It’s sort of like having these passing glancing interactions with really interesting people that you then have to say good-bye to, on a flight, on a train, in a bus waiting room.

    Thinking of a few of them, there’s a man on holiday with his wife and child on an island near Croatia. The child and the wife go missing. There’s a man who has to have his own leg amputated, who has phantom leg syndrome. There’s another man who has an obsession with the vulva and takes pictures, I think, of underage girls but is also simultaneously doing some research on anatomy. It’s like he’s questing. And a lot of these people in this book are searching for something missing. And I wonder if you can talk about our ability to narrativize absence and what—where that narrative function breaks down and becomes obsession? Because I think an obsession is the opposite of a narrative. An obsession is a repetition of a sentence over and over again, whereas a narrative has some elaboration.

    OT: I don’t agree with you. I think obsession is narrative because compassion is repetition, but obsession—I wouldn’t, it’s impossible to write this book without obsession. I work on obsession.

    JF: I do too! (laughter)

    OT: Yes, so I even have kind of rituals to put myself in obsession. You know, it is like an incantation in a way. The biggest obsession I had in my life was an obsession connected with Jacobs Book. Eight-year long obsession, can you imagine, reading only things connected with the 18th century, referring only to Jews and Jewish culture and religion and mysticism and the beginning of the Enlightenment in central Europe. But it was a very, very hard obsession. Thank God I survived this and the result of the obsession was the book. So I really do believe in obsession. It is something very positive. We know obsession is something that can destroy us but from my point of view obsession is just keeping energy at one point. And it can be painful but it’s also very fruitful.

    JF: That’s also a good description of prayer, keeping energy at one point. As I read this book there’s a lot of people on quasi-spiritual quests. A man goes to India because he wants to find the tree that Buddha had his revelation under and there are people speaking or asking—I think prayer is asking a question of God and swearing is speaking to God and—I came away from this book with a really pressing desire to ask you if you believe in God?

    OT: (pause) What kind of God? ( laughter)

    JF: See this is a demonstration of the book! (laughter) No, I don’t believe I’m asking in a big, long beard with tons of books and lightning bolts and punishment and shame. Some sort of organizing creative force—?

    OT: Yeah for sure, then yes, I am a believer. But for sure I don’t believe this is something similar to human beings. For sure not. Perhaps he or she or it doesn’t understand what—when we are talking about him or her or it.

    JF: One final question. Since this is a book called Flights, and it makes me wanna travel because she talks a lot about the trips in the book as pilgrimages, and when you see your everyday commute as a pilgrimage suddenly you look at the detritus on the road in a different way. And if we were both sitting in front of one of those giant boards of Departure cities and you could look at an almost endless board, which is the city name which makes you most wanna get on a flight?

    OT: I have to think a while. I don’t know, really. I changed very much during these ten, twelve years and now I have a house in Poland in the Southern part of Poland which is the small tail on the map of Europe. And this part of Poland never belonged to Poland in history. We gained this part of Poland before the Second World War as a kind of gift from Yalta because we lost a huge, you know, land in the East. So I live there and I have an old house there and the house is under renovation now, and every day I call from the United States to my husband and ask about the roof, and the pipes, and the windows, and such things. So I think if I—I dream to go back there and take care of these renovations. (laughter) A completely different direction!

    John Freeman
    John Freeman
    John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing, as well as a trilogy of anthologies about inequality, including Tales of Two Americas, about inequity in the US at large, and Tales of Two Planets, which features storytellers from around the globe on the climate crisis. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017, followed by The Park in 2020. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He is the former editor of Granta and teaches writing at NYU.

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