The Hard Work of Remembering: An Interview with Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough by Frankie Alford

Ewa Yarbrough PhotoEwa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough is a native of Poland. Her essays were published in journals such as Agni, Ploughshares, The American Scholar, The Threepenny Review, and TriQuarterly. One of her pieces, “Objects of Affection,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2012; five others were listed among Notable Essays for 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. Her debut book of essays, Objects of Affection, was published in 2018 by Braddock Avenue Books and was named winner of the Waclaw Lednicki Award in Humanities from the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America. She divides her time between Boston and Kraków. 

Frankie Alford: Objects of Affection is a collection of essays exploring topics such as identity and immigration that draw from the experiences of your own life. Several of them were previously published in places like The Missouri Review and The Threepenny Review. When did you begin to feel like you had a book on your hands?

Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough: I knew I’d have to wait until I had a certain number of pages for a book, but it took me a while to see that these varied essays—on subjects as different as my clandestine childhood reading practices, my attachment to objects, my grandmother’s feminism, tea-drinking habits in Poland, and even my fraught relationship with my own name after I came to the United States—exhibit thematic cohesion. When that happened, I realized I had a book.

FA: You share a lot of your family history and personal stories in Objects. “My War Zone” describes your grandmother’s harrowing escape from German police during the occupation of Poland, for instance. Has writing them down for a wider audience changed your perspective at all on the stories of your childhood?

EH-Y: I heard numerous stories as a child. To retell them I had to return to what I remembered and then stitch the fragments into a narrative. “My War Zone,” the essay you mention, let me create for myself the story of my grandmother’s life, which until then was a series of snippets. Shaping what was amorphous made me see my family history and my own experiences in a somewhat different way. It also made me realize how unreliable our memory is—how it’s full of poorly remembered incidents, of memories that may not even be our own, and how hard the work of remembering is.

FA: Your love of reading and literature permeates the collection. The opening chapter’s title is an allusion to Milan Kundera. What role did books play in helping you adjust to life in America?

EH-Y: I came to the United States with an MA in English, so I was familiar with the country’s literature, although my familiarity with contemporary American writers didn’t extend beyond Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Sylvia Plath. Based on the books I read in Poland, I had a certain vision of America which on my arrival here started to undergo a correction. Since books augment our world by introducing us to different ways of thinking and different people, readers in general may be better prepared to face otherness and to deal with it.

Ewa bookFA: Has the American literary tradition affected your identity and how you see yourself?

EH-Y: Living in another language and culture cannot fail to affect who we are. I still have my Polish habits and leanings, but I’m not the person I would have been if I still lived in my native country. I’m not a full-fledged American, either. My identity is located somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, neither here nor there. Maybe the word transnational would offer the closest depiction of how I see myself.

FA: There is a contentious debate surrounding immigration in America right now. What do you think your book has to contribute to that conversation?

EH-Y: To the best of my knowledge, there are no literary nonfiction books that focus on the experience of someone from Eastern Europe, who arrived in the United States holding a university degree and knowing English, and who often ponders living at the cusp of two different realities, usually through the lens of private experience. Though my book is based on my own history and biography, it raises questions that most immigrants can relate to. It shows the intricacies of adaptation to a new language and culture and may fill the gap in readers’ knowledge of an immigrant’s life in the aftermath of moving to the United States.

FA: What’s next?

EH-Y: Since I found my most congenial form in the essay, I’ll continue with the essay.

Frankie Alford is a recent graduate of the English Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

 

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