Read Interview with BE Andre, whose Engaging Novel “With Blood and Scars” Paints a Portrait of Life Growing up as Pole in Post-War Britain – Pt. 2

British Pole B.E. Andre (pictured) is the author of the well-received novel With Blood and Scars, a coming of age tale that paints a vivid, sympathetic and engaging portrait of a Polish community in the UK in the generation after the Second World War. The author spoke to about being Polish in the UK, and what With Blood and Scars means to her.

Poland_books_with blood and What motivated you to write With Blood and Scars?

BE Andre: In the first instance, With Blood and Scars is most definitely an homage to my parents, grandparents, and the generation that settled outside Poland after the war.

It seemed to me that a huge part of Polish history was unknown in the UK. While British children have always been taught about the Second World War, it’s generally been from the perspective that there was one enemy, namely Nazi Germany. When I was growing up I am sure my English friends’ parents had no idea why so many Poles lived in their neighbourhood. They wouldn’t have known that their journey to the UK began when Stalin also invaded Poland, or about the horrors those Poles experienced when deported to the slave labour camps in Siberia, or that they had spent several years in refugee camps either in India or Africa, for example.

Additionally, I’m a great fan of books that treat the setting as a character in itself. Those that come to mind are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, Andrzej Stasiuk’s Nine, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. I wanted to show two specific sides to Manchester – the Polish community I loved and the wider immigrant community – and how they both fitted into the Mancunian landscape.

IP: Some elements of the plot are (one would imagine) purely fictional. But to what extent is With Blood and Scars autobiographical?

BEA: Many of the elements are autobiographical inasmuch as all the places existed and the characters were composites of people in the Manchester Polish community. The vast majority of children born to Poles in exile led the kind of life I describe in With Blood and Scars – it was our normal: Polish church, Polish Saturday school, the ex-servicemen’s club, cubs and brownies followed by scouts and guides, cuisine, Easter and Christmas traditions.

It started off as a very different book, however – as an MA dissertation. On the day I handed in the bound copy, my father, who had been most helpful when I was writing the dissertation, having provided me with documents and articles he’d saved, collapsed. He passed away three months later. The book was shelved – I had no appetite for it. For a while, it felt pointless – after all, I had been writing it for him. Looking back, I know that was grief.  A year later, I picked myself up somewhat and returned to it. A dear Portuguese friend allowed me to stay in her empty apartment for a couple of months to get away from it all and focus on the writing. Still, it was hard going. One day while I was sitting on the balcony, my laptop in front of me, the doubts returned. Why I am doing this? Why do I need to do this? How will I pull all this together? How can I get all that Polish history in the story without the novel sounding like an encyclopaedia? How can I explain what it feels like to be deprived of the homeland? It was a real “I’m defeated, feeling-sorry-for yourself” whinge fest. As I sat and stared into the distance, my face resting in my hands, I felt something on my back, a pressure. I’m fully aware of how ridiculous this sounds, but I knew it was my father pushing me on, and in some way, giving me permission to draw on the last few days of his life.

IP: The Polish community you portray in the 1960s sections of the book is incredibly close-knit. Do you think this is true of Poles in the UK today?

BEA: That’s an interesting question. The Polish community of the 1960s was bound by shared journeys and ideals unlike many of the post-2004 Poles in the UK today. My parents’ generation also faced similar struggles as each other in acclimatising to the UK, while longing to go home to a place that no longer existed.  I suspect the current communities aren’t as close-knit, if only because they have the option of visiting their families in Poland any time they want. They don’t need to make the person they shared a mud hut with in Koja camp or in Valivade in India into an uncle or aunt. I attended a wedding recently of one of the children of my parents’ friends. On my table were people of my Polish generation; 50 years on we are still “family” even though none of us are blood relations.

IP: You include a fair amount of Polish words and phrases in the story (together with a translation and pronunciation guide at the start of the book). Why did you choose to do this?

BEA: I spent a lot of time wondering how to achieve authenticity. I could have used all English words, but that didn’t really give me the flavour of the dual life the children of post war Poles experienced. We were caught between two cultures. To this day amongst ourselves many of us speak a hybrid of pre-1939 Polish and English. In recent years, I’ve been able to travel to Poland more often and watch Polish TV on satellite, consequently my Polish skills are slightly more 21st century.  I’ve certainly acquired more swear words!

Also, I wanted readers to enter into that Polish refugee/immigrant life as much as possible to taste it for themselves. I tried to keep the number of Polish words manageable for an English readership, giving an indication of the meaning within the narrative without translating word for word which could take the reader out of the story.  The full glossary is there for anybody who may prefer an exact translation.

IP: Your character Ania seems, in childhood, to have a bleak impression of a Poland she has never visited. How close is that to your own childhood impressions?

BEA: For the purpose of the narrative I exaggerated Ania’s childhood notions – she’s a rather unreliable narrator. Having said that, how Ania visualised Poland in the 60s is identical to the perceptions of many English people, it seems to me, until quite recently.

I first visited Poland aged eleven when Ania’s childhood story finishes. My earliest memory is of crossing the border from East Germany at Świecko where, on the Polish side, we were greeted by white-blond, tanned children begging for chewing gum. My father had returned to Poland several times before then, and he came prepared with plentiful Wrigley’s supplies.

As with all Polish communities in the UK, my parents and grandparents sent regular parcels of food, medicines, clothing and fabric to our family in Warsaw and Wroclaw. Crimplene was all the rage at one point. And when we were in Poland, there would be trips to the Pewex shop in Warsaw to buy western goods that weren’t freely available in Poland.

To be honest, as a visitor, I never experienced or even saw any of the privations my Polish family underwent. It was only when I became an adult that I realised that my Ciocia Basia and Ciocia Danusia must have been dashing around, hither and yon, at the crack of dawn in order to buy or załatwić the products needed to share and demonstrate that famous Polish hospitality.

It came as a bit of shock when we travelled with our Polish family to Krościenko for a holiday. It was almost impossible to buy meals in restaurants. We children wondered why anybody bothered with menus since whatever you asked for, going down the list one by one, the reply was invariably “Nie ma.”

It was on that trip that I first visited Auschwitz. My father considered this an important part of my education. Back in those days it was very different to how it is now. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I recall very few people being there apart from our family group. It may be that I was so caught up in looking at the artefacts and photographs of the victims, imagining them as my family or friends, that I was unaware of what was going on around me. I don’t know.

Although Auschwitz had a profound effect on me, Birkenau was even worse. I experienced the full visceral horror there. In retrospect, I think my father made a mistake in taking me there at such a young age. The knowledge of this dreadful time in history haunted my teens.

On the whole, apart from Auschwitz-Birkenau, my impressions of Poland even as a child were positive and, in that space where memory and fiction blend, the sun always shone in Poland.  I loved wandering round around every Cepelia I could find, eating as many rurki greckie as my Babcia would buy, and I still long for those little stands on Warsaw streets where you could buy a glass of juice.

IP: Staying with Ania, she comes across as a child who is a little uncertain about her own identity as Polish or English. Did you experience the same when growing up?

BEA: That’s such a difficult question to answer because it varied with age.  I was brought up in a very patriotic household. Earlier you asked how much of the novel is autobiographical – well, I can tell you that when my mother read With Blood and Scars, she was adamant that the scene where Ania doesn’t want to go to Polish Saturday school was entirely me at that age. I would much rather have had a lie in at the weekends and I was never fond of homework of any kind.

However, from about the age of eleven, I began to value my Polishness much more. When English girls were struggling with languages at school, I found them relatively easy. Another advantage was that other nationalities’ foibles, never fazed me. Neither did their cuisine. After all, when you’ve eaten flaczki or zimne nóżki all your life, goat stew is a breeze.

I was grateful I had such a varied life independent of my parents which was only possible because I joined Polish youth organisations that arranged trips to other towns in the UK or abroad. I felt lucky. The downside, of course, was that Polish parents were, on the whole, stricter. I had to negotiate far longer if I wanted to go out anywhere with my English friends. My parents didn’t object to them in any way, but they needed the security of knowing that if something happened, the news would get back to them via the extremely effective Polish grapevine.

IP: Do you think that growing up in a Polish community in the UK gave you a different outlook than if you had grown up in Warsaw or Kraków?

BEA: I’m sure it has. You’ll have noticed that Ania’s childhood milieu was multi-cultural; her gang of friends come from very different backgrounds and her neighbours are Ghanaian and Jamaican. Manchester has been home to waves of immigrants since well before the Industrial Revolution. We co-existed quite happily. People went to their own places of worship, followed their own traditions, brought back little bits of their homelands to Manchester. And they learned from each other.

You may recall that in With Blood and Scars, the houses of the children are described. A Jamaican home looked different to a Greek home which looked different to an Irish home. All Polish homes looked the same with the ornaments and straw pictures from Cepelia, pot plants, lace doilies, crystalware, and as Ania complains, photos of uniformed old men with moustaches.

Most people who grew up in Warsaw or Kraków at the same time as I did, I would venture, wouldn’t know the benefits and joys of having such variety just down their street.

IP: Poles are incredibly curious about what the rest of the world thinks (and writes) about them, so a Polish translation of With Blood and Scars is likely to be well-received. How likely is it that this will happen?

Naturally, I would love for that to happen. I spoke with a few Polish publishers at the London Book Fair recently, sent them the English manuscript and two chapters translated into Polish. The wheels grind slowly in publishing both in the UK and Poland, but I am ever hopeful.

IP: Do you plan to write another novel? If so, can you reveal what the subject matter will be?

BEA: I’ve just spent two months in Poland writing a first draft. I won’t reveal the subject matter if you don’t mind, but I can tell you the themes evolving seem to be the absence of freedom, sanity versus madness, the conquering of the self. I guess it sounds pretty grim put like that… However, as With Blood and Scars, humour will play a key role. I find it impossible to write without humour.

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Poland_books_with blood and scars BE Andre With Blood and ScarsAvailable now in print or paperback.Order from Amazon in the UK here.

Order from Amazon in the US here.