15 February 2023
“All the strength I muster to live” – queer voices from Poland
In November 2022 one of the main Polish newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza, published a list of ten best books of the past year chosen by their journalists. In a country where simply coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community can be a radical act, number four on the list went to a thick tome presenting 79 autobiographical stories of queer persons living in Poland. The book was a result of a contest organised by the Institute of Applied Social Sciences of the University of Warsaw.
Front cover of Cała siła jaką czerpię na życie (Kraków 2022; awaiting shelfmark)
Titled Cała siła jaką czerpię na życie (‘All the strength I muster to live’), the anthology is a grim but necessary read. In the words of Polish writer Renata Lis, the compilation is an indictment against Poland for violence and humiliation suffered by members of the queer community.
A page from m.a.c.’s diary in Cała siła jaką czerpię na życie featuring a quote from a Polish Romantic poet C.K. Norwid: “Polishness is a bitter bread”.
“When I was sixteen, I was not afraid of walking the streets of Warsaw holding hands with my girlfriend. I would proudly go to parades waving a flag that for me and many others became a symbol of our freedom. … Today they burn our flags and turn us into animals. These are the same people I shared a desk with at history lessons and learned about concentration camps” writes ‘Alekto’.
The title of the collection is taken from Paweł Bednarek’s story. ‘All the strength I muster to live has always come from within me,’ Paweł states, reflecting on his youth. The diaries testify to oppression, but also show extraordinary resilience of people who had to fight against prejudice on a daily basis.
A page from one of diaries featured in Cała siła jaką czerpię na życie
This tenacity and desire to express an identity without complying with suffocating constrictions of societal judgment, to show yourself for who you are, is equally evident in stories of Polish drag queens and kings. Jakub Wojtaszczyk paints a fascinating and colourful picture of Polish drag scene in Cudowne przegięcie. Reportaż o polskim dragu (‘Wonderful Campness: a Reportage on Polish Drag’). The journalist, who himself identifies as non-heteronormative, sketches sensitive and dynamic portraits of characters who proudly walk or dance through life’s stage.
Cover of Cudowne przegięcie. Reportaż o polskim dragu (Kraków 2022; awaiting shelfmark) featuring a photo of Twoja Stara by Krystian Lipiec. ‘Twoja Stara’ (Your Old Lady) is a drag name of Piotr Buśko.
The haunting and sometimes beautiful experience of queer memory of Central and Eastern Europe is also explored by a Polish artist Karol Radziszewski as shown in The Power of Secrets. The book is a montage of fictional and archival materials formulating “new ways of understanding history, memory, or legislation”. Radziszewski employs various strategies to reconstruct cis-gendered mainstream narrative by interrogating and contesting its heteronormativity.
Cover of The Power of Secrets. Karol Radiszewski (Warsaw, 2021) m22/.10361.
The creator’s projects such as Poczet (the word means a gallery or succession of rulers) question the representation of historical and contemporary figures of prominence – writers, artists, musicians, academics – in Polish culture. By using a traditional medium of painting Radziszewski challenges a conventional assumption of what Poczet should be. The term is most often associated with a pompous representation of people in power, aimed at establishing a symbolical continuity of dynasties and legitimising rulers. Such legitimisation was usually done in European tradition by means of dynastical, heterosexual marriages. Poczet substitutes the grandeur of royalty with cultural icons whose lives, by today’s standards, we would consider non-heteronormative such as Maria Komornicka, Karol Szymanowski, Józef Czapski, Jan Lechoń, Witold Gombrowicz, Jerzy Andrzejewski or Maria Janion. Poczet found its permanent home at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.
Images from Poczet series by Karol Radiszewski in The Power of Secrets.
The Power of Secrets is a potent project that reveals as much about the Queer Archive Institute’s creator as about the cultural background that the Polish queer community comes from. The very background that can motivate one to transgress outdated social expectations in order to freely express yourself or cut your wings.
Olga Topol, Curator East European Collections