College of LAS « Illinois


Creating a Surrogate Home in Language

During the many years when the people of Poland were forced to speak the language of its enemy occupiers, exiled writers preserved the language and the nation’s cultural touchstones.

Polish emigrant

The free flow of a native language is taken for granted until war or other upheavals disrupt that exchange. No one feels that more keenly than the writer, whose job it is to keep alive those words that in the aftermath of disaster have evolved from the commonplace to the sacred.

George Gasyna, LAS assistant professor of Polish literature and comparative literature, says language is “a sign of identity. It’s a primal signifier of identity, and when that is threatened, identity is also.”

“Transnational” is the term Gasyna uses to describe Polish writers who penned their writings outside of their native land. That term certainly applies to iconic Polish poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz, who once wrote in a poem, “My faithful language, / I have served you. / Every night I have set before you little bowls with color / .... You were my homeland because the other one had gone missing.”

Gasyna teaches classes aimed at “heritage speakers,” students who have parents or grandparents of Polish ethnicity and who want to connect to that familial history.

He can certainly relate to those students’ goals. His native Poland, where he lived until the age of 12 before his family immigrated to Canada, is a country whose recent history is marked by brutal occupation and the subsequent suppression of its language. The need for “exilic” or “émigré literature” began for Poland at the end of the 18th century, when the nation was conquered on three fronts by neighboring Germany, Russia, and Austria. The trend continued through the “Russification” years in the 19th century, through the brutal Nazi occupation in the last century, and finally ending with the fall of Communism.

George Gasyna

During those periods, Gasyna says that Polish was outlawed, the media suppressed, and intellectuals muzzled. Much of the activity of publishing and creativity moved outside of Poland to France and later to the United States.

“Once you have to speak the language of who is occupying your land, there’s an unconscious submission to their language. It’s the language of the other, who is occupying you and, of course, there’s the surveillance aspect of it. You can’t be clandestine about anything when you have to use a public language. That reduces the possibility of opposition.

“Language is certainly a weapon because it is such a key correlative to identity. It has an emotional valence that the same word spoken in the language of the occupier would not have. When you wipe that out it is easier to control that population.”

The exiled keepers of the Polish language were also preserving the nation’s cultural touchstones. “Initially, art was smuggled out, then a lot of publication activity that was thwarted would be reestablished by the same publishers and the same writers who would publish abroad,” says Gasyna.

Gasyna is amazed at how the Polish language has survived intact despite its many disruptions. “In the everyday sense, the language of the host country does creep in but, I do find that writers and publishers do find a way to somehow separate themselves from that in their work. There’s a purity there that really is quite puzzling and extraordinary given that the temporal distance is amplified by being away from the cultural center. If you read the writing of Witold Gombrowicz or Milosz, their Polish is unfettered by any kind of styling or borrowings. It’s a very pure Polish.”

Purity perhaps overstates what Gasyna wants to teach his students. Most importantly, he would like to feed their ancestral curiosity and to show them that language is precious and should never be taken for granted.

“Their Polish may be less than perfect, but they’re interested in taking the courses here because they want to understand better where their parents or grandparents came from or what the country that their relatives left was like. There’s a curiosity there that has to do not only with physical geography but also with the mental maps of places.”

By Stephen J. Lyons
Winter 2008