When debut author Andrew Borkowski was growing up, CanLit was just emerging in all its glory but Mr. Borkowski still did not see himself reflected in what he read. “Growing up, I wanted to be a Pierre Berton, or a Mowat, or an Atwood, or a Munro - but with a slightly more complicated last name. I didn’t have a sense that CanLit was about what I knew.”
As CanLit grew beyond stories of wind-swept prairie towns and rain-swept coastal villages, it came to embrace the multiculturalism that had since become official policy but still Mr. Borkowski didn’t hear the Polish voices that comprised his reality. “We’ve got South-Asian-Canadian literature, we’ve got Chinese-Canadian literature, we have Italian-Canadian literature – where is the Polish-Canadian literature? There are a million Canadians of Polish descent and until very recently there have been no books.”
According to Mr. Borkowski, the Nazi targeting of artists and intellectuals played a role in the silencing of these voices: “If you’ve lived through that kind of experience you don’t want your kid to be a writer, you don’t want your kid to be an intellectual,” he explained. Mr. Borkowski also believes that repression and the desire to protect their children resulted in a silence around war experiences that his own father only broke in his 50s. “And my father spoke more than most.”
Mr. Borkowski, a second generation Canadian began the evening by acknowledging his father as the book’s inspiration. A junior officer in the Polish lancers who escaped Poland to join the Free Polish Army in France, then Britain and who later joined the air force. “His story forms the basic architecture for the collection,” explained Mr. Borkowski
While the talk was entitled “Out of the Shadows: Polish Canada - Myths and Realities”, the realities in both their touching humour and their raw horror were the most captivating stories of the evening.
Both his talk and his book begin with a defining moment in his family’s history: one that Mr. Borkowski’ father carried with him from Poland to France to Britain and finally to Canada, and one that Mr. Borkowski himself, although not even born at the time, carries with him to this day and tells in a halting voice. Pointing to a slide of a Polish cemetery, Mr. Borkowski described the day that the Einsatzgruppen gathered up more than 480 people from his family’s village, including his grandfather and four of his ten sons together with their wives and children and executed them in reprisal for resistance activities in the area. “They machine-gunned them, three at a time, down into the pit they had dug,” recounted Mr. Borkowski. “It took eleven hours.”
In spite of these horrors, mixing fact with readings from his debut book, Copernicus Avenue, Mr. Borkowski managed to keep the audience in the tightly-packed Lady Eaton Pit laughing for a good part of the evening with his animated impressions of characters from his childhood Polish-Canadian community and poignant observations of the experiences and efforts of DPs (Displaced Persons) trying to find their way as new Canadians in the years following the Second World War - from suspicions, stereotypes, and systematized racism, to moments of bonding at a community square dance over beer (“straight out of the bottle” – a practice the protagonist finds repulsive but gamely adopts in order to seem more Canadian) and (finally) a connection with the other men at the bar over the Leaf’s Polish goalie, Turk Broda.
In his final reading of the night, Mr. Borkowski related the story of Polish displacement from their homes to villages in Germany, where they were simply told to “pick a house.” Ten years on, the story’s protagonist, Stefan, is visited by the German who once lived in the house Stefan now inhabits. While Stefan welcomes the German in and gives him supper, there is no mitigating the suffering that both still feel from the displacement, even a decade on. Besides his hospitality, Stefan knows he has only one thing to give. “The only comfort I can give you,” Stefan says to the uprooted German, “are the stories of our own suffering… but it’s best to forget these things.”
Copernicus Avenue is published by Cormorant Books and was the winner of 2012 Toronto Book Award and Finalist for the 2012 Danuta Gleed Literary Award.