Magdalena Miecznicka
in conversation with Jad Adams

Polish author Magdalena Miecznicka has scored a notable success with her first play in English, Nineteen Gardens, which she entered under the ‘open submissions’ programme of Hampstead Theatre.

She sent in the play for the programme, which receives some 2000 entries, and had largely forgotten about it when she received the call in February.  By November it was in production at the Hampstead Downstairs.

I met Magdalena in the Hampstead Theatre after a Saturday matinee of Nineteen Gardens.  I was interested in the freshness brought to the stage by a writer for whom English is not their first language.

She has written short stories in English but is now switching to writing full time in her adopted language.  As a child she was educated partly in Canada and later had a scholarship to the US where she studied in Kalamazoo, Michigan for a year.  She therefore spoke good English when she came to the UK six years ago, but says learning the language was not sufficient, she had to learn the place.  She said her voyage of discovery took her to ‘learn a whole new country through expressions, idioms, the way people speak.  I had to learn the connotations of words, expressions like “leafy neighbourhood”, you think that means a place with trees but now I know it means a posh neighbourhood in London.  In my first years I would go along to central London and I felt I was on an incredible adventure, I was always discovering things, it was a heightened sensibility.  It was like a love affair, discovering new things about a place, my love affair with London. It is very rejuvenating going to a new country, you feel like a child taking it all in.’

Already an accomplished novelist and playwright in Poland, she has been adapting one of her Polish plays into English. The One Who is Dying, about a political killing in Poland in the 1980s, was shortlisted for the Prix Europa.  She has been working on it in English under the title The Cruelty of the Living. 

Nineteen Gardens deals with the inequality of the immigrant experience in Britain, featuring the aftermath of a sexual relationship between a rich British man and a Polish hotel cleaner.   Madalena wants to stay with these experiences and is working on a play titled Remittances which is about the relationship between a mother and her daughter after the mother has spent her life working abroad and sending money back.  Magdalena is interested in what immigration and acclimatisation to another culture does to personal relationships in the mother country.  To this end she has been doing research with Polish cleaners and other immigrants she has met first on Facebook, then in person.  Even the terms for immigration are equivocal, she says, ‘If you are from a poor country you go down in social class when you emigrate.  If you are British you are an expat abroad, if you are a Swiss person in Britain you are an expat, but if you are East European you are an immigrant.  You become declassé.’

We talked a little about people who became successful in languages other than their native tongue such as Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett and Joseph Conrad.  The last is particularly pertinent because he was Polish.  Magdalena now intends to switch to writing in English completely.  She says, ‘I write in a different style when I write in English.  You are a different person when you write in a different language.  I have written poetry in English when I would not in Polish, it would have been too revealing and even shameful, in English it’s more detached.’