5 Things I Learned From Reading “Copernicus Avenue” by Andrew J. Borkowski

I grew up on the fringe of post World War Two Polish immigrant experience in Toronto. My family wasn’t Polish, they were Ukrainian. But my father grew up in Eastern Europe in Kasperivtsi, a village that was part of Malopolska, or ‘Little Poland’ between the two world wars. He was schooled in Polish and spoke it fluently. We had family friends who were Polish or ‘became Polish’ by marrying a Pole. 

So when my friend Mary E. McIntyre recommended the Giller Prize-nominated  book “Copernicus Avenue” to me, I read it with interest. Borkowski, in 16 linked short stories, gives us the urban Toronto Polish immigrant’s post-war experience along with the heartbreaking backstory of the Katyn and Baranica massacres. I learned five things reading the book.

  1. 1. I learned or re-learned the power of landscape and memory when telling a story. Borkowski creates a fictitious street in the heart of the old Roncesvalles neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end. It could have been any Polish neighbourhood in any city, but for me it brought back memories of visiting friends in Parkdale and Roncesvalles as a child. In fact, the house on the cover looks exactly like the house some Polish friends lived in on Macdonnell Avenue, the eastern boundary of the Roncesvalles neighbourhood. On Saturdays my Dad would sometimes take us down to visit these friends and also to buy fresh Kielbasa and Paska or Kolach for the holidays. I can still remember the smell of the garlic sausage mixed with the aroma of sawdust scattered on the floor of the butcher shop. Borkowski evokes this neighbourhood through sensual details about bakeries, butcher shops, churches and statues, street life and the characters that inhabited the neighbourhood. I felt like I was back there with my Dad.
  2. I learned that memoir can be fiction and fiction can be memoir. In other words, the writer can choose the stories to tell and how to tell them. Life-based stories can be presented as fiction when the writer feels he doesn’t remember enough to make it a memoir, but he can still base the stories on his life and memories. Which is better? Neither. It depends what the writer wishes to achieve and how well he remembers his life.
  3. I learned that linked stories together can be like a memoir or a novel. Grouped together with the same characters and time and place, these stories form a coherent whole. Each story can stand on its own and might even be published individually, as in Borkowski’s case with his story ‘Twelve Versions of Lech’. An emerging writer can increase his chances of finding a book publisher by having already published some stories.
  4. I learned or I was reminded that I never really understood  the Polish World War Two experience, though I'd met people who’d survived it. The problem was: no adult wanted to explain in detail to a curious child what had happened. Why was a Polish friend flying for the British Air Force? Shouldn’t he be in the Polish Air Force? Oh, wait a minute, Poland was invaded and disappeared from the map for  a while. This book reveals the hidden wounds and resulting behaviors of these immigrant characters, all of which seem terribly familiar to me. I learned about the horrors of Polish deportation to Siberia from Jane/Janina Boruszewski and I’m still learning subtle details of survival.
  5. I learned how historical details (backstory) can be woven into the story in description, character, plot and dialogue, without weighing down the flow of the story. Now to figure out how to do that myself!

Backstory versus Front Story

A helpful article from the Plot Whisperer:

Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers: Backstory versus Front Story: "Watch your delivery of backstory ~ the story of what, in the past, made the character who they are today (in story time).

Writers want ..."

Copyright © 2011, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

The Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award

A few months ago I received The Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award from my friend and writing colleague, Mary E. McIntyre. Due to a hectic schedule around that time, I failed to respond and fulfill the obligations of the award. These are: to thank the person, tell 7 things about myself and pass the award on to other new bloggers. So here goes.

Thank you, Mary, for nominating me for the award. I appreciate the honour and I appreciate you! I first met Mary in one of Allyson Latta’s online memoir writing courses in 2007 and from my first impression I knew Mary was intelligent, sensitive and friendly. She was also a sensational writer and able to give helpful feedback. We met in person in 2010 and shortly after formed our writing support group  Life Writers Ink, along with Cheryl Andrews and Anahita Printer Nepton.

Seven things About Myself
  1. I worked on several archaeology digs in Ontario.
  2. I travelled to Mexico by myself.
  3. I worked for the British Museum of Natural History measuring Bronze Age Skulls.
  4. I love chocolate.
  5. I have 4 children and 7 grandchildren.
  6. I love flowers.
  7. I live on a farm.
And an 8th one might be: I hate writing about myself!

Pass It On

I would like to pass this award on to the following bloggers:
  1. Gabriele Wills The Obsessed Writer
  2. Kathleen Pooler Write On!
  3. Dan Curtis
  4. Lori Thatcher Memoir, Poetry, Short Story, Musings
and give special mention to the following veteran bloggers:
  1. Kristin den Hartog and her daughter http://www.blogofgreengables.blogspot.com/
  2. Elizabeth Young http://www.thegardengate.blogspot.com/
  3. Linda Hoye http://lindahoye.com/