Eva Stachniak was born and raised in Poland, but earned her degree at McGill University in Canada. She has taught at both University of Wroclaw in Poland, and Sheridan College in Montreal, Canada. Her latest book, THE WINTER PALACE, is her second novel. Here she talks about how she learned English by reading.
Books were always the best presents. Under the Christmas tree they appeared wrapped in thick brown packing paper, the only kind available in my post-war Polish childhood. I would gauge them with my index finger, their thickness a promise of long hours of pleasure. I would anticipate the adventures they would take me on, the worlds they would let me explore.
I started reading when I was four years old and I read everything I could get my hands on and understand. The world I was born into may have been deprived of many comforts, but books were plentiful. My parents bought them all the time --- avoiding all they deemed to be communist propaganda, they snapped up cheap state sponsored editions of classics, or pre-war editions of books sold at the many flea-markets that mushroomed all over Poland. Many of them were children’s books. Fairy-tales, myths and legends were my favorite, as well as tales of children growing up in far away places I knew I couldn’t see. My parents often referred to post-war Poland as a prison-camp, and I knew that borders were guarded by soldiers with guns and fierce dogs. Beyond these borders were cities like London and Paris, and countries like America and Canada. There Winnie-the Pooh and his friends gathered to pay a visit to grumpy old Eeyore, Peter Pan flew to Neverland, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn explored caves and sailed a raft on the Mississippi River and Ann of Green Gables gushed over the beauty of the Lake of Shining Waters. Books knew no borders and feared no guards. Each transported me into a new and exciting world, far away from the ruins I could still see outside of my window, the evidence of the big and cruel war that had ended just a few years before.
I must’ve been seven when I picked this Christmas gift. I could feel that it was a book, but it was also disappointingly thin and this did not bode well. Was it a picture book, I thought, wondering if Santa made a mistake and slipped me a gift meant for my baby brother who could not yet read?
When I unwrapped the present, I saw a splash of color unlike anything I have seen before. My beloved books may have told engrossing stories, but they were mostly plain, printed on rough paper which yellowed fast and crumbled on the edges. This book had a dark blue spine with shiny little stars on them. The pictures on the thick glossy cover shone with clean strong colors: reds, blues, greens, yellows. I still remember a luscious red apple, a green leaf still clinging to the stem, a toy ship with a black chimney, an Indian dancer with two feathers in his black shiny hair, a rooster with a bushy tail. It felt as if an exotic bird had landed on the carpet by our Christmas tree. A foreign bird, which, unlike the characters of all my beloved books, did not speak Polish. For all these pictures were accompanied by letters which made no sense when I tried to put them together: A-P-P-L-E, R-O-O-S-T-E-R, S-H-I-P.
My mother was looking at me so I opened the book gingerly. Inside there were more pictures and more incomprehensible words beside them.
“What do you think?” my mother asked.
I didn’t know what to think. The book was beautiful and yet I couldn’t read it. Perhaps, I thought, I could do what I used to before I penetrated the mystery of black printed squiggles? Imagine my own stories about all these wondrous objects, some of them familiar, but other --- like a man with a pumpkin head and a carved grin --- like nothing I’ve seen before?
But my mother had another surprise up her sleeve. The book, she said, was a dictionary, and I would need it soon because I would start learning English. Not at school --- where the only foreign language I learned was Russian --- but with a private teacher. English, my mother also said, was the true language of Winnie the Pooh and Tom Sawyer. What I had been reading so far were mere translations.
“A year from now,” she said, pointing at My Little Golden Dictionary she must’ve bought at the black market for far more that she should’ve spent,“You’ll know what all these words mean and read them to me.”
I nodded, still unsure, but already sensing that the book I held in my hands could take me far beyond what even I could imagine.
Read more about Eva on her website www.evastachniak.com