Writing About Immigration and Belonging: Magda Bartkowska, Creative NonFiction Runner-Up

Sunday, March 22, 2020
I'm very excited about this interview below with Magda Bartkowska. She writes about her childhood coming from Poland to America, and the difficulties of navigating BOTH places. In her essay, "Returning," and in this interview below, she brings out points that only an immigrant with her experiences could make us think about. However, we can all relate in some way to her themes about belonging and family. Check out Magda's bio and interview below and her runner-up essay, "Returning," here.

Magda is a Polish-American writer who was born in GdaƄsk and immigrated to the United States at the age of seven. Although she’s been writing since childhood, professionally she is a teacher. For five years she taught third grade and absolutely loved it, but left in order to be a stay-at-home mom. Magda also taught an ESL course for adults and loved that as well—especially being an immigrant herself.

Home for Magda is western Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and their three rambunctious boys. She is currently working on a memoir about the search for connection and belonging as an immigrant caught between two worlds—that is, when she’s not breaking up sibling arguments or trying to get through the enormous pile of TBR books she has on her shelf. Magda’s first published essay, titled “On the Wrong Side of the Ocean,” appears in the October 2019 issue of The Tishman Review. To see more of her work and follow her on social media, please visit www.magdalenabartkowska.com.

WOW: Congratulations, Magda, in placing in the top ten of our Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest with your essay, "Returning." "Returning" is an essay about when you were an adolescent and returned to Poland after immigrating to the U.S. four years earlier. What made you want to write about this time in your life?

Magda: Thank you so much! You know, the topic of my immigration is one I've been writing about since grade school, and I'm compelled to keep returning to it because it's defined my life; it's made me who I am. That first trip back to Poland was an especially pivotal moment for me. Even though I spoke perfect English by then, I still couldn't help feeling out of place in the U.S. I hadn't had an American childhood like my friends, and so even the simple fact that I'd never watched Sesame Street or read Dr. Seuss books in preschool made me feel like I wasn't a part of American culture in the same way that they were. This is why I was so excited to return to Poland. I didn't think I'd have to worry about being an outsider there. Unfortunately, at that point I already had an American accent when speaking Polish, and so this set me apart as an outsider in the country of my birth as well.

WOW: How difficult. And I don't think that is something we think about much if we haven't had the experience--being an outsider in your birth country. One thing that is very apparent about this essay is the specific details you used to set the time and place. Plus the details really exemplify the differences between living in Poland and living in the U.S., such as mentions of  "The Baby-Sitters Club" or Paula Abdul or hot dogs. You really show us the differences as opposed to telling us. What made you write the essay in this way?

Magda: I love coming across details like that when I read books because it makes me feel this ping of connection to the writer, and it makes the setting feel more real to me. When I was writing this essay, including such details was also a way to show how much my cultural knowledge had shifted during the four years I'd lived in the U.S. I knew American sitcoms and singers and authors, but I had no idea what my peers on the other side of the ocean were into. Despite feeling out of place here, I had inevitably become Americanized.

WOW: Your answer reminds me of how important it is to read other writers and learn from them! What themes are you exploring in your essay?

Magda: I explore themes of cultural identity, and what it means to grow up in that in-between space of two cultures. Where is home when you don't quite belong to either place?

WOW: Yes, those themes deinitely come out in your writing. Let's switch gears a bit to talk about some of the info in your bio! It's clear that you are very busy and juggling motherhood and writing. How do you fit the writing in to your life? Any tips you can share with other busy mama writers?

Magda: It's definitely a constant struggle to try to fit the writing in! It doesn't always happen every day, and often I feel frustrated because I wish I did have more time to write. Sometimes I write when my youngest is napping. Sometimes my husband will take all the kids to the library on Saturday morning, and I'll stay home to write. I try to write in the evenings sometimes; but usually, I'm too fried after the whole day! Probably the best thing I did for my writing life was last summer, when I set aside four hours every day during the week to write. I hired a babysitter for one of the days, and I'm lucky enough to have my parents close by, so they helped with childcare, as well. My advice for other busy mama writers would be to allow yourself to make writing a priority. Make space for it in your life. Set aside specific times to write and then show up, even if all you end up writing that day is garbage.

WOW: Great advice. Thank you! You recently had your first published essay, titled “On the Wrong Side of the Ocean,” in the October 2019 issue of The Tishman Review. Tell us a little about this essay and how that felt to see your first publication!

Magda: Oh, it felt absolutely amazing! I've been dreaming about publishing my writing since I was a kid, so I was beyond thrilled when I found out that the essay had been accepted. In fact, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I got the acceptance email from The Tishman Review, and it was all I could do to stop myself from jumping up and down and hugging strangers!

The essay is about breaking my mother's heart when I told her, five years after we immigrated to the U.S., that I wanted to move back to Poland. I was obsessed with the idea at the time. And in my self-centered teenage way, I did not take into account how my parents would feel, having given up so much and having struggled to create a better life, only to have me say, "No thanks, I don't want it."

WOW: What an interesting angle you took. I would be interested to read that essay. And it's clear that being an immigrant and finding belonging somewhere is important to you. Thank you, Magda, for your time today. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Magda: Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts with readers! I'd like to add that both of my published essays are adapted from my immigration memoir, No More Red Geraniums, which is currently undergoing yet another round of revisions. If anyone is interested in receiving updates about this book's journey out into the world, they can sign up for my newsletter at www.magdalenabartkowska.com.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Thanks for doing this interview and for giving us a link to Magda's essay.

Magda--Congratulations! Your essay made me think about what it IS to be an American. It also makes me think that many people can relate, as there are many immigrants here, trying to make this new place their home.

When I was in high school, we had a French foreign exchange student live with us for a year. Virginie knew she had "arrived" as an American months into her stay, when she dreamed one night, and her dream was in English and not French.

Good luck with your revising your memoir. (Memoir is my favorite genre to read.) Also, congratulations on finding out ways to write, even though you have some two-legged darling "challenges." Too often (I think), young mothers decide they don't have time to write because they have little ones at home. You are proof that it can be done.

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