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North Melbourne Books: Swimming in the Dark is set in 1980, Poland. Two youths, Ludwik and Janusz, meet at an agricultural camp and begin a passionate affair which they must keep secret. Tensions arise for the two young men as Ludwik resists the hypocrisies of the Communist regime, while Janusz believes in working within the corrupt system to gain advantage. It's a deeply melancholy story. What made you decide to write about this part of Poland's history?
Tomasz Jedrowski: When I began to write the novel I was working as a solicitor in London and feeling quite lost. Ludwik’s and Janusz’s story was a way for me to reconnect with my country and its past, and to explore the historical and social context into which I was born. The whole process really confirmed the old adage that you cannot move on with your life if you haven’t faced what came before you.
NMB: The novel neatly ties in the personal with the political. Ludwik wants to live an authentic life, one which the state frowns upon, even persecutes. While Janusz is willing to suppress and hide his sexuality, even jeopardising his relationship, in order to avoid trouble. What do you see as the book's main themes?
TJ: To me it’s a book about personal integrity. I’m fascinated by the ways we construct our lives and the stories we tell ourselves to justify our choices. Everyone has a uniquely different past, and so we cannot judge or truly change others. Although of course that doesn’t stop us from trying.
NMB: There's a section in the novel where Ludwik faces blackmail because of his sexuality, with some truly horrible consequences. How bad was Poland for gay people in the 1980s under Communist rule?
TJ: Since I did not live through these times, and experience is ultimately subjective, I can only speculate. My feeling is that the most painful and humiliating aspect of life as a queer person back then was self-censorship, caused by society’s contempt for anyone not conforming to sexual norms. Homosexuality was not illegal but it was considered so abnormal and shameful that most queer people lived all their lives in the shadows, believing themselves to be somehow less worthy. Though there has been considerable progress in Poland and elsewhere, internalised homophobia continues to be a major problem, and one which we’ll be facing for generations to come.
NMB: The story's historical setting is highly believable, yet is not written from your memory of the time. How did you go about researching and constructing the novel?
TJ: I knew I had to move to Poland in order to do the story justice, so that’s what I did. I trawled through libraries and archives to find what I could on the topic (mostly scraps), and spoke to as many people as I could find (not many) in order to reconstruct the era. But in the end I found that being in Poland and allowing my intuition to roam free was just as important as actual research. In a strange way it felt like the story was already inside me and didn’t need too many facts.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
TJ: Since I’m in the process of writing, I’m having trouble concentrating on novels. So I’m dipping in and out of poetry (Walt Whitman, Czesław Miłosz) and non-fiction books such as Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels or Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own. And I just finished Amy Schumer’s autobiography The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo!
Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99