Notes from an Island – The Literary Life of Wioletta Grzegorzewska

Jan 12, 2024

This article first appeared in the March/April 2023 edition of Style of Wight magazine. Words by James Rayner. Photos by Georgina Piper Photography.

The Isle of Wight is becoming part of me. This bit of land, an isle off an island, speaking the many tongues of the world…

These are the words of Polish author and poet Wioletta Grzegorzewska (pronounced: vio-letta gzhe-goh-zhevska) composed during the eleven years that she called the Isle of Wight home. From the moment she first disembarked onto Island soil and unlocked the door to her Wootton Bridge flat, she has transformed from a relatively unknown writer into an award-winning novelist and Man Booker International Prize nominee, with stories translated into languages that include German, Italian, Lithuanian and Catalan.

First meeting Wioletta a few years ago, in the golden, sun-lit interior of a Ryde café, we discussed her first novella – the book that brought her international fame. Entitled ‘Swallowing Mercury’, it tells the story of Wiola, a young girl growing up in rural Poland during the communist Cold War era. In vivid, poetic and quite magical language, we see Wiola collecting matchbox labels and getting lost in her imagination as a harsher adult world gradually encroaches upon her. Initially published in Polish in 2014 under the name ‘Guguły’, it was the English translation by Eliza Marciniuk in 2017 that would lead to awards and nominations from across the globe.

Photo: Georgina Piper Photography

Wioletta herself was born in the southern Polish village of Rzeniszów (at the heart of a rocky region, crisscrossed by valleys, known as the Jurassic Highlands) and much of the book is based on her own experiences growing up. “Swallowing Mercury is about my life in communist Poland. We were very poor. We didn’t have a bathroom and had to carry water from a well. As a child, I had to work on our farm, and in the summer I slept in the attic, where I read books. My father Richard worked in a paper mill and my mother Zofia in a factory producing baskets used for tomatoes”.

A love of books would later take Wioletta from her village to the city of Częstochowa where she studied literature, graduating with a Masters. “As a student I published my first poems. I worked in various professions, even selling windows and running a radio broadcast. The longest job I had was in a bookshop but unfortunately a nine-to-five was not good for my writing. It was only when I left the country for the Isle of Wight in 2006 that I started to write long prose”.

Invited by her ex-husband, Wioletta set off for the Island, knowing nothing more about it than the fact it was a place of beautiful landscapes and hosted a rock festival where Bob Dylan once played. Here her writing career really took off, living first in Wootton and later in Ryde, she completed her second novel ‘Accommodations’, adopted the pen name Wioletta Greg for her English translations and journeyed to literary events in Ukraine, Slovenia and the United States.

A timeline of Wioletta’s books

“The Island inspired me a lot. To this day I can still hear the buzz of car ferries and the hum of catamarans. I wrote many poems about it including Bezsenność w Ryde (Sleepless in Ryde) and a small collection entitled Notatnik z wyspy (Notes from an Island). Almost every Sunday I would go walking with my children, my dog Leo and a Chinese-born friend named Carroll, usually to Quarr Abbey. I remember seeing the red squirrels scampering through the trees – we have them in Poland too. I liked Shanklin Chine for its unusual atmosphere, although at first I didn’t understand what the word “chine” meant. I also used to walk along the shore to beautiful Seaview, coming up with quite a few book excerpts on the way to this village, as I like to write in my head while walking”.

After a decade on the Island, Wioletta decided to relocate to East Tilbury in 2016, before briefly returning to Ryde again in 2019. Today, whizzing through the East Sussex countryside, on a train to Lewes (Wioletta’s current home) there’s a lot to catch up on. Meeting over a Polish lunch she fills us in on her past few (eventful) years. “I had wanted to move to Hastings as I thought it would be easier for me to travel around as a writer, especially after the Booker Prize nomination when I was receiving a lot of invitations. By a strange coincidence, on the day I was supposed to sail to the Mainland the pandemic broke out and they were cancelling the ferries. With the help of my ex-husband I miraculously managed to get to Hastings one night but the apartment for which I had sent payment was not waiting for me. Someone had simply tricked me.”

“After many adventures and living in strange places I became homeless and ended up in a women’s shelter with my daughter. Eventually, I was rescued by Lewes Council, who gave me social housing a year ago for which I am very appreciative. I wrote a new book about these experiences called ‘Wilcza rzeka’ (Wolf River), published in 2021, which won the Majewska Award of the London-based Association of Polish Writers Abroad. I’m currently trying to find a publisher for the English translation”.

Photo: Georgina Piper Photography

Meeting Wioletta again in the characterful surroundings of Lewes, we’re instantly reminded of her remarkable intelligence, perceptiveness and literary talent. As always, she continues to write her poetic, realistic prose, inspired by other writers including Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and the Nobel Prize winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. Even though she’s been battling with the effects of long Covid (which forced her to turn down a literary residency in Baghdad), she has recently finished advising and providing support on a new book by Warsaw-based writer Maciej Hen (who is also now her significant other). Plus, Wioletta hints that she has a new novel of her own on the way very soon, “but for now” she says “let’s leave it as a mystery what my next book will be about”.

The English language version of Wioletta’s book ‘Swallowing Mercury’ is available to buy from Medina Books in Cowes and to order from Babushka Books in Shanklin.