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Reader’s Guide: THE LULLABY OF POLISH GIRLS by Dagmara Dominczyk

February 24th, 2014

Dom_Lullaby “A coming-of-age tale of three young Polish women [that is] brimming with teary epiphanies, betrayal and love, as well as the grit of both New York and Kielce. [It’s] Girls with a Polish accent.”—The New York Times

Random House Reader’s Circle brings you an interview featuring Dagmara Dominczyk and Adriana Trigiani:

On Fiction, Friendship, and the F Word: An Interview with Dagmara Dominczyk by Adriana Trigiani and Christine Onorati

Adriana Trigiani is an award–winning playwright, television writer, and documentary filmmaker. Her books include the New York Times bestseller The Shoemaker’s Wife, the Big Stone Gap series, Very Valentine, Lucia, Lucia, and the bestselling memoir Don’t Sing at the Table. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Christine Onorati is the owner of WORD, an independent bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that has recently opened a second location in Jersey City. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and son.

DAGMARA DOMINCZYK: When Random House asked me to come up with an interview as part of the Reader’s Guide, I immediately asked both Adriana and Christine if they would take part. Adriana Trigiani, aside from being a bestselling novelist, has become a writing mentor to me and without her encouragement I might have never finished The Lullaby of Polish Girls. Christine Onorati is not only the owner of WORD, one of the best independent bookstores in the country, but she also happens to be a very close friend. These two women have been there for me throughout my entire writing/publishing process. Since all three of us are mothers with little time to spare for lengthy phone conversations, we exchanged a series of thought–provoking and insightful emails over the course of a few days.

ADRIANA TRIGIANI: I’m always fascinated by why a person becomes a writer. What was the first story you wrote?

DD: I don’t remember the first story, but I do remember a poem I wrote in the sixth grade about a sad little Christmas tree. It was a kind of ballad, told from the tree’s point of view, and I believe it rhymed, which was quite a feat for an eleven-year-old. Anyway, I remember that one because the teacher loved it and made me read it in front of the class. I liked how the words sounded spoken in my funny Brooklyn-Polish-accent, which all of a sudden resounded with a newfound strength. That was the first time my words, shared with an audience, gave me a backbone.

Writing, to me, has always been a means of survival and sustenance. I came to the United States when I was seven years old, with parents who didn’t speak a word of English, and from our very first day in New York City, it was sink or swim. Immigrant children learn to fend for themselves because there is no other option. What my parents couldn’t teach me or help me with, I learned from books. Reading led me to writing; reading was my gateway to learning a new language and a new way of life, an American one. I basically lived in my local library. My first bout with “serious” writing was when I was ten and I started a diary. That diary was the beginning of a countless string of journals, spanning my whole childhood and adolescence. For a while I mostly wrote poetry and then I graduated to writing folklorish stories about people I knew: character profiles with a bit of magical realism thrown in. One of my stories, called “Shell,” about a depressed father who one day moves into a giant eggshell that appears in the living room, was published in my high school literary magazine, which was beyond thrilling. Even early on, I liked giving a voice to characters that seemed to have no voice in real life. As a writer, I was innately drawn to the underdog.

AT: What do you remember about your immigration experience, and how did that help you when you sat down to write Lullaby?

DD: I remember an immeasurable sense of loss. Loss of home, familiarity, language. I saw that loss and longing on my parents’ faces, though they never spoke about their own feelings of alienation. All I knew was that my parents constantly fumbled for words, cleaned houses for cash, drove taxis, and rarely ventured from our public housing apartment complex in Brooklyn. However, underneath the sadness that I saw in the daily toil of their life in America, there was a sense of possibility and adventure that my sisters and I felt. I stood out, for sure—my lunchbox was full of lard and bacon sandwiches or salted cucumbers, and my clothes were bought by the pound from a second-hand warehouse called Domsey’s. In school, my last name was ridiculous and clunky next to all the melodious Italian and Irish ones. I felt like an outsider but I didn’t let my existence end there. My American friends were drawn to my otherness because I embraced it. I was never ashamed of my roots, of my Polishness. It was so easy to tap into that Slavic pride when I started writing Lullaby. I knew these Polish girls. I knew their broken, bent hearts. I knew the things they were brave enough to say, and imagined all the things they were too afraid to utter. And I purposefully left some Polish words in the book, unexplained, with not a hint of translation. I suppose I wanted English–speaking readers to viscerally know what it felt like not to understand, to have to go running to a dictionary, like my parents and I’d done for so much of our lives.

AT: It seems that Anna, Kamila, and Justyna dramatize different aspects of the American dream. What does the American dream mean to each of them?
DD: That’s an interesting observation. Anna is the most obvious vehicle in that regard; her American dream is a long time coming and the most typical. Her dream actually does come true, at least for a while. She has her brush with fame and fortune, and it both eggs her on and fills her with an odd guilt tied to her family and friends back in Poland. I think for Anna, America represents the future. A future in which anything is up for grabs. America is about doing everything you can today to ensure a better tomorrow. I mean, that’s the nuts and bolts of it. Americans thrive on individuality and independence. This appeals to Anna on many levels. Also, there’s that nagging voice inside a child of immigrants: we must succeed in this country so that our parents’ upheaval was good for something. In that respect, America is payback.

For Kamila, America means escape. It is a place where one can shed her old skin, find a new one, and wear it boldly out in public. You come to America not to make a new life per se, but to forget your old one. The most obvious way this plays out is when Kamila goes to that bar in Detroit and assumes another name, a different back-story, and ends up in bed with a strange American man. It is only after this encounter, where for a moment she became the woman she always dreamed of—sexy, sensual, and fearless—that she finds the courage to go back home to Poland and face her problems. America, then, shows her the possibility of another self.

Justyna is another story; her America is a fantasy, the stuff of movies; there’s nothing real about it. The concept of America, in her case, implies a new beginning, being a total stranger in strange surroundings, and none of that holds any appeal to someone like her. In an earlier draft I had a whole section describing how Justyna never envied Anna’s life in New York City, never wanted to leave Kielce, let alone Poland. She was a homegrown girl and was perfectly satisfied with that. I don’t even know what would have become of Justyna had she ended up in the States. I think she would have moved to Greenpoint and gone to Klub Europa every Saturday. She might have never gone into Manhattan.

AT: Explain the concept of te˛sknota. Is there an American equivalent
for it?

DD: When Anna returns to Poland that first time, in 1989, she falls in love with the place and the people right away. It’s a reawakening for her; suddenly she is flooded with memories and feelings that lay dormant for six years. When she has to leave again, after three short days, she’s not even past Kielce’s outskirts and already the desire to go back overcomes her. This is te˛sknota: an intense longing for something that one wasn’t aware existed, a longing for something you can’t ever have again. The best English equivalent would be nostalgia. I always thought that aside from the three main characters, there was a fourth one in the book and that was Poland itself—-or if I were to go further, the idea of home. All three girls feel te˛sknota: Anna for her youth, Kamila for self–esteem, and Justyna for her dead husband. Te˛sknota brings back that lost love and that feeling of belonging. And sometimes this yearning bears down on you so hard that you are forced to go looking for the very thing that no longer exists. For Anna it means hopping on a plane, for Kamila it means confronting Emil, and for Justyna it means justice for Paweł’s murder. All three girls are haunted by te˛sknota. They dream of a past where everything seemed perfect.

AT: What is your writing routine? And how do you stick to it, as a mother of young sons?

DD: Well, I have to say that you, dear Adriana, gave me my first ever official deadline to finish the Lullaby manuscript, and it turns out this was the best thing for me. I was a day late, I remember, but I did it. In the midst of the daily chaos of running after kids, it helps to have a structure to my writing, a schedule, as mercurial as it gets. I write in the mornings after I drop the kids off at school. I can write for two, three hours and then in the evenings, after the kids have gone to sleep, I edit what I wrote that day. This is a basic routine. It helps of course to have a wonderfully supportive husband who lets me slink off to my office and shut the door. It helps to have a mother who visits often, and a part-time nanny. It helps to have amazing friends who will take time out of their hectic days to read ever-changing drafts (thank you, Christine). But even on the days when it’s just me and the boys, I find a moment to sneak off. There are lapses in my writing, of course; life gets in the way of many things we as women long to do, and this includes finishing that damn chapter. But it’s important to carve out time, and it can be done. Plus, after years spent on sets and onstage, it’s nice to have a solitary means of expression, no one looking over my shoulder telling me I’m not hitting my mark. In this way writing has become a beloved respite from the madness of being of an actor, and also from the wonderful bedlam of being a mother. Adriana, you said it best: “I want you to worry about sentence structure, not cheekbone structure.” It was a freeing moment, and I took it and ran. And here I am now, almost done with a second novel, which, just FYI, doesn’t even have the word Poland in it.

For more of the interview and additional material check out the trade paperback of THE LULLABY OF POLISH GIRLS.

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