In the Fall 2022 issue of the Slavic and East European Journal (66:3), Assistant Professor Łukasz Wodzyński published an analysis of Lovetown (Lubiewo in the original Polish), the breakthrough novel of the contemporary queer Polish author Michał Witkowski. We interviewed Professor Wodzyński to find out more about his article.
What drew you to analyze Witkowski and to Lovetown in particular?
I discovered Witkowski through audiobooks. It was at a time when juggling administrative, teaching, and familial responsibilities made it difficult for me to follow the latest developments in contemporary Polish literature. Audiobooks were an exploding market in Poland, so finding the latest novels in audio format was relatively easy. Listening to audiobooks during commutes became my strategy for staying afloat. Interestingly, Witkowski reads his own books. He is not very good at it, but his diction fits his prose so well that even when I ultimately switched to reading his texts, I kept hearing his voice in my head (there is an essay waiting to be written about this form of engagement with the work and its author). Witkowski’s language is infectious. He is intelligent, funny, and irreverent, constantly oscillating between self-deprecation and narcissism. Also, his prose reflects on the dynamics of contemporary Polish society in exciting ways. We all have “our” authors: those who flare up our critical imagination whenever we return to them. Witkowski has become that kind of figure for me.
Do you teach Witkowski in any of your courses? How do students react to the reading?
Yes, I do. Lovetown is a major work of contemporary Polish fiction: it offers a window into several important themes, from queer identities to post-communist nostalgia and post-transformation era class divisions in modern Poland. However, it is not an easy text to teach. Although the English translation is excellent, it loses some of the vibrancy and humor of the original. More importantly, Witkowski’s portrayal of the queen community in socialist Poland is intentionally provocative, campy, and borderline homophobic (Witkowski himself is homosexual, but he rejects what he calls the media-friendly label “gay” and is generally drawn to marginalized and abject modes of sexuality). Polish literature is rather prudish, which makes his transgressive approach so enjoyable. Yet, students have a hard time understanding this approach. As is so often the case, it’s a challenge but also a teaching opportunity: each semester, I experiment with introducing him to my students, searching for a successful formula for conveying the book’s impact on Polish culture.
How would you characterize the cultural space Witkowski occupies in contemporary Poland?
As critics point out, Witkowski was not the first to write about LGBTQ+ communities in Poland. However, his genuine literary talent and penchant for self-promotion enabled him to break into the mainstream, quickly turning him into a celebrity. The broader public knows him primarily thanks to his publicity stunts and controversial opinions. However, I think his acting as a lightning rod for public discussions about the rights of LGBTQ+ groups in Poland not only enlivened the debate but also carved out a space in mainstream culture for this topic. Today, even under a hardline conservative government that is hell-bent on vilifying sexual minorities, it becomes increasingly common to see artists openly engage with this subject matter, even in popular culture. Films like the Netflix-produced Operation ‘Hyacinth’ or All Our Fears (showered with awards at the Gdynia Film Festival) are a good indication of that trend. I do not want to imply that it is all thanks to Witkowski, but I think he did a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to introducing queer sensibilities to the Polish social imaginary.
Given that the theme of adventure is the focal point of your article on Lovetown, will Witkowski figure in your planned second book on adventure in the post-Communist space?
Absolutely. Witkowski is one of the reasons why I began to think about the role of adventure in Polish literature after 1989 in the first place. On that note, I have to say that although I work with other authors, his literary production constantly threatens to hijack this project. My SEEJ article, for instance, started as an examination of various ways in which Witkowski utilizes the ideology and cultural representations of adventure in his novels in general but became a study of just his literary debut. There was too much relevant material there to skip over. Last year, I presented on another of his novels, recently translated into English as Eleven-Inch (you can guess what the title refers to), as a model representative of what I called a “post-communist picaresque.” And new ideas keep coming to me, so who knows? He is undoubtedly one of the contemporary Polish authors who deserve a full monograph.