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The Lullaby of Polish Girls Reader’s Guide

By Dagmara Dominczyk

The Lullaby of Polish Girls by Dagmara Dominczyk


The Lullaby of Polish Girls
Dagmara Dominczyk

A  Reader’s Guide

On Fiction, Friendship, and the F Word: An Interview with Dagmara Dominczyk by Adriana Trigiani and Christine Onorati

Adriana Trigiani is an award-winning playwright, television writer, and documentary filmmaker. Her books include the New York Times bestseller The Shoemaker’s Wife, the Big Stone Gap series, Very Valentine, Lucia, Lucia, and the bestselling memoir Don’t Sing at the Table. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Christine Onorati is the owner of WORD, an independent bookstore  in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that has recently opened a second location in Jersey City. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and son.

DAGMARA DOMINCZYK: When Random House asked me to come up with an interview as part of the Reader’s Guide, I immediately asked both Adriana and Christine if they would take part. Adriana Trigiani, aside from being a bestselling novelist, has become a writing mentor to me and without her encouragement I might have never finished The Lullaby of Polish Girls. Christine Onorati is not only the owner of WORD, one of the best independent bookstores in the country, but she also happens to be a very close friend. These two women have been there for me throughout my entire writing/publishing process. Since all three of us are mothers with little time to spare for lengthy phone conversations, we exchanged a series of thought-provoking and insightful emails over the course of a few days.

ADRIANA TRIGIANI: I’m always fascinated by why a person becomes a writer. What was the first story you wrote?

DD: I don’t remember the first story, but I do remember a poem I wrote in the sixth grade about a sad little Christmas tree. It was a kind of ballad, told from the tree’s point of view, and I believe it rhymed, which was quite a feat for an eleven-year-old. Anyway, I remember that one because the teacher loved it and made me read it in front of the class. I liked how the words sounded spoken in my funny Brookly-Polish -accent, which all of a sudden resounded with a newfound strength. That was the first time my words, shared with an audience, gave me a backbone.

Writing, to me, has always been a means of survival and sustenance. I came to the United States when I was seven years old, with parents who didn’t speak a word of English, and from our very first day in New York City, it was sink or swim. Immigrant children learn to fend for themselves because there is no other option. What my parents couldn’t teach me or help me with, I learned from books. Reading led me to writing; reading was my gateway to learning a new language and a new way of life, an American one. I basically lived in my local library. My first bout with “serious” writing was when I was ten and I started a diary. That diary was the beginning of a countless string of journals, spanning my whole childhood and adolescence. For a while I mostly wrote poetry and then I graduated to writing folklorish stories about people I knew: character profiles with a bit of magical realism thrown in. One of my stories, called “Shell,” about a depressed father who one day moves into a giant eggshell that appears in the living room, was published in my high school literary magazine, which was beyond thrilling. Even early on, I liked giving a voice to characters that seemed to have no voice in real life. As a writer, I was innately drawn to the underdog.

AT: What do you remember about your immigration experience, and how did that help you when you sat down to write Lullaby?

DD: I remember an immeasurable sense of loss. Loss of home, familiarity, language. I saw that loss and longing on my parents’ faces, though they never spoke about their own feelings of alienation. All I knew was that my parents constantly fumbled for words, cleaned houses for cash, drove taxis, and rarely ventured from our public housing apartment complex in Brooklyn. However, underneath the sadness that I saw in the daily toil of their life in America, there was a sense of possibility and adventure that my sisters and I felt. I stood out, for sure—my lunchbox was full of lard and bacon sandwiches or salted cucumbers, and my clothes were bought by the pound from a second-hand warehouse called Domsey’s. In school, my last name was ridiculous and clunky next to all the melodious Italian and Irish ones. I felt like an outsider but I didn’t let my existence end there. My American friends were drawn to my otherness because I embraced it. I was never ashamed of my roots, of my Polishness. It was so easy to tap into that Slavic pride when I started writing Lullaby. I knew these Polish girls. I knew their broken, bent hearts. I knew the things they were brave enough to say, and imagined all the things they were too afraid to utter. And I purposefully left some Polish words in the book, unexplained, with not a hint of translation. I suppose I wanted English-speaking readers to viscerally know what it felt like not to understand, to have to go running to a dictionary, like my parents and I’d done for so much of our lives.

AT: It seems that Anna, Kamila, and Justyna dramatize different aspects of the American dream. What does the American dream mean to each of them?

DD: That’s an interesting observation. Anna is the most obvious vehicle in that regard; her American dream is a long time coming and the most typical. Her dream actually does come true, at least for a while. She has her brush with fame and fortune, and it both eggs her on and fills her with an odd guilt tied to her family and friends back in Poland. I think for Anna, America represents the future. A future in which anything is up for grabs. America is about doing everything you can today to ensure a better tomorrow. I mean, that’s the nuts and bolts of it. Americans thrive on individuality and independence. This appeals to Anna on many levels. Also, there’s that nagging voice inside a child of immigrants: we must succeed in this country so that our parents’ upheaval was good for something. In that respect, America is payback.

For Kamila, America means escape. It is a place where one can shed her old skin, find a new one, and wear it boldly out in public. You come to America not to make a new life per se, but to forget your old one. The most obvious way this plays out is when Kamila goes to that bar in Detroit and assumes another name, a different back-story, and ends up in bed with a strange American man. It is only after this encounter, where for a moment she became the woman she always dreamed of—sexy, sensual, and fearless—that she finds the courage to go back home to Poland and face her problems. America, then, shows her the possibility of another self.

Justyna is another story; her America is a fantasy, the stuff of movies; there’s nothing real about it. The concept of America, in her case, implies a new beginning, being a total stranger in strange surroundings, and none of that holds any appeal to someone like her. In an earlier draft I had a whole section describing how Justyna never envied Anna’s life in New York City, never wanted to leave Kielce, let alone Poland. She was a homegrown girl and was perfectly satisfied with that. I don’t even know what would have become of Justyna had she ended up in the States. I think she would have moved to Greenpoint and gone to Klub Europa every Saturday. She might have never gone into Manhattan.

AT: Explain the concept of tęsknota. Is there an American equivalent for it?

DD: When Anna returns to Poland that first time, in 1989, she falls in love with the place and the people right away. It’s a reawakening for her; suddenly she is flooded with memories and feelings that lay dormant for six years. When she has to leave again, after three short days, she’s not even past Kielce’s outskirts and already the desire to go back overcomes her. This is tęsknota: an intense longing for something that one wasn’t aware existed, a longing for something you can’t ever have again. The best English equivalent would be nostalgia. I always thought that aside from the three main characters, there was a fourth one in the book and that was Poland itself—or if I were to go further, the idea of home. All three girls feel tęsknota: Anna for her youth, Kamila for self-esteem, and Justyna for her dead husband. Tęsknota brings back that lost love and that feeling of belonging. And sometimes this yearning bears down on you so hard that you are forced to go looking for the very thing that no longer exists. For Anna it means hopping on a plane, for Kamila it means confronting Emil, and for Justyna it means justice for Pawel’s murder. All three girls are haunted by tęsknota. They dream of a past where everything seemed perfect.

AT: What is your writing routine? And how do you stick to it, as a mother of young sons?

DD: Well, I have to say that you, dear Adriana, gave me my first ever official deadline to finish the Lullaby manuscript, and it turns out this was the best thing for me. I was a day late, I remember, but I did it. In the midst of the daily chaos of running after kids, it helps to have a structure to my writing, a schedule, as mercurial as it gets. I write in the mornings after I drop the kids off at school. I can write for two, three hours and then in the evenings, after the kids have gone to sleep, I edit what I wrote that day. This is a basic routine. It helps of course to have a wonderfully supportive husband who lets me slink off to my office and shut the door. It helps to have a mother who visits often, and a part–time nanny. It helps to have amazing friends who will take time out of their hectic days to read ever-changing drafts (thank you, Christine). But even on the days when it’s just me and the boys, I find a moment to sneak off. There are lapses in my writing, of course; life gets in the way of many things we as women long to do, and this includes finishing that damn chapter. But it’s important to carve out time, and it can be done. Plus, after years spent on sets and onstage, it’s nice to have a solitary means of expression, no one looking over my shoulder telling me I’m not hitting my mark. In this way writing has become a beloved respite from the madness of being of an actor, and also from the wonderful bedlam of being a mother. Adriana, you said it best: “I want you to worry about sentence structure, not cheekbone structure.” It was a freeing moment, and I took it and ran. And here I am now, almost done with a second novel, which, just FYI, doesn’t even have the word Poland in it.

CHRISTINE ONORATI: Knowing you as well as I do and how you’ve written consistently since you were able to pick up a pen, I can’t help but feel like some of the book comes directly from your personal journals. One particular passage that sticks out to me is the letter that Kamila writes to Anna after Anna has visited Kielce for the first time and Kamila is just torn up that she missed her. I can see you writing that letter, word for word, to some faraway pen pal in your childhood. You and I share a good portion of our most personal thoughts with each other through text messages. Talk to me about why writing down your thoughts to a friend can be somehow more liberating and freeing than talking to them in person. Did you feel connected to your pen-pal Polish friends in a different way than your American friends who you saw every day?

DD: Look, we’re even doing this interview through emails and texts.

When I was growing up in New York, my parents worked all year to give my sisters and me summer vacations in my hometown of Kielce, Poland. Those summers, starting from when I was twelve until midway through college, were elemental in my becoming the person I am today. Even at thirty-seven, I miss those summers like one would miss an old friend. During two months, I became the best-imagined version of myself: confident, outgoing, inspired, inspiring. When September rolled around, I cried and wept with as much despair as a very dramatic, sentimental sixteen-year-old was capable of. Back in Flatbush, I would sit in my room and listen to mix tapes of the popular songs from that summer, and I would write letters to the dozens and dozens of Polish kids I’d left behind. And they wrote back. In those letters I saw bits of their shielded hearts, sheepishly yet openly displayed like never before. Writing letters is an intimate, almost scared, way to reveal oneself, mostly because it frees the writer from immediate judgment. You can’t see the faces of the people who are reading what you wrote. You don’t see their eyes roll, or their mouths turn down. You wait weeks for their response. And also, you aren’t writing for show, or to get a reaction. You are writing simply to reveal yourself, in increments you control. My American friends and I had much more open conversations face-to-face—emotional, loud, and bold. But for some reason I never felt as close to them I as did to my Polish pen pals. Of course, we’re talking teenage years now. While penning Lullaby I made sure not to dig up those old letters, which I kept. Rereading them or using their content would have been highway robbery, in my opinion. But in the first draft, there were many more letters between the girls. I wanted to show sides to them that they couldn’t reveal to one another in person. Writing letters, emails, etc., always feels less hurried and more revelatory. But my husband still doesn’t understand why I never just pick up the phone and call you, Christine.

CO: Most of the friendships in your book are fraught. With distance, with jealousy, with circumstances. As a bookseller, I find that people are always asking how they can like a book if they don’t love the main characters, and you did not seem to make likability a top priority for these three girls. Did you worry that the reader would doubt their bond because of these obstacles in their friendships? Have the years of distance from you as an adolescent girl to you as a wife, mother, and adult left you with different ideas about friendship that you might not have had as a child?

DD: There’s been a lot of discourse recently about characters in novels and their likability quotient. I think it’s kind of silly. First, the popular bunch never interested me, either in books, cinema, or real life. I was always pulled toward The Other. Second, Polish women, in general, are tough. This can mean intimidating, hotheaded, or coarse. The characters I created are each different, with varying degrees of romanticism, longing, hardness—-and none of them is easy to like. This doesn’t mean I set out to create abrasive, awful heroines. I set out to create something real and gritty, but underneath the grit and grime, there is beauty and heart. You just have to dig a little deeper. Girls in their mid-twenties go through a sort of existential crisis, and for the most part the world revolves entirely around their whims and desires, and this is because they are still struggling to find their place in the world. These particular girls, their friendship is based on memories of an idyllic, simple time and place: their adolescent summers. When those summers fade, and reality sets in, that is what causes cracks in the pavement, so to speak. Things are also very black-and-white when you are sixteen or seventeen. Moments matter, the little parts matter, and no one thinks about the sum. We only give away bits of ourselves at that age, but it’s those bits that need validation, the bits that seek approval. And there is always strength in numbers. We want so much to be liked by as many people as possible. This is how I felt, at least. With age, marriage, and children comes internal strength. We no longer seek friends to feel better about ourselves. We seek friends who accept our entire selves, and we have little time or tolerance for any bullshit within those parameters. The upside is that real friendships endure and our threshold for forgiveness deepens.

CO: THE CURSING. Watching you promote this book and seeing you read (and sometimes respond!) to your reviews I know that you are very sensitive to people turning away from the book because of the language. This is probably one of the many reasons we are so close, because I too have a potty mouth and feel like sometimes nothing works as well as a good four-letter scream. But you chose to include the cursing and you stand by your decision. How do you feel about that in real life, when you meet a woman who feels it’s impolite or unfeminine to curse? Could you ever become close friends with someone like that? How do you think cursing really helped define the characters in your book as women, in ways that wouldn’t have worked if they spoke with a totally clean tongue?

DD: First of all, I would never, ever judge a woman who wasn’t inclined to curse; I just probably wouldn’t take her out for a drink. The cursing thing makes me scratch my head. I feel like there is a bit of a double standard here—perhaps if I were a male writer, this wouldn’t be such an issue. But some audiences can’t compute that a seemingly well–spoken, college–educated woman author has no qualms about dropping the f bomb with such abandon and candor. The characters I wrote—and not all of them are potty mouths, although Justyna certainly swears by the f word (pun intended)—come from working class, blue-collar families who have no time or desire for pretense of any nature. Dialogue is important to me, maybe more so because I am an actress and nothing sounds worse to me than banal, contrived dialogue. And all the fucks came out organically, I can assure you. Nothing was for show, or to rattle people, or to come off brazen. In my mind and heart, this was how Justyna spoke, how Anna said things. Kielce is a pretty hardscrabble town, but one good thing was there was no class segregation back in the nineties. You could be living next to door to a very rich person, or to a janitor. People from different stations in life rubbed shoulders, and the language was alive and in your face, whether you liked it or not. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from one of my blog posts, in response to a woman who had been particularly appalled by the “foul” language in the book.

And now, a word on the f word. A lot of people in the world use expletives. A lot of people in the world love to say fuck, because, for a start, it’s a really good–sounding word. It makes a statement, in one syllable. A lot of people curse because they enjoy it. And a lot of people curse because they lack the skill or the means to search for a new word, a more precise word, to voice their anger, their fear, indifference, their lust, or even their joy. But this in no way makes them less “intelligent.” It all depends on one’s particular definition of the word intelligent, anyway. Sometimes intelligent means smart, and sometimes it’s a coded way of saying educated, or wealthy. Personally, my idea of an intelligent person is one who is constantly out to further familiarize herself with the outside world, with its far reaching corners. An intelligent person might not use the word fuck, but they know why the word exists. So, I won’t apologize for not making my girls forerunners of propriety. Perhaps this reader has been to Poland and toured the gorgeous countryside and eaten at nice restaurants and met some nice, refined Poles. But she sure as hell didn’t spend a July in my hometown, passing a bottle of sour wine around, talking about the good old days. It’s such a banal argument anyway—this whole business of “foul” language.

CO: Speaking of your blog, it’s taken on a life of its own. Obviously writing down your thoughts and dreams and regrets is not something new to you, but how has your blogging changed the way you write, now that you know there are so many fans waiting for the next blog post? As your best friend, I like to read each entry as if you wrote it just for me, so that I don’t feel any sort of outside pressure on understanding what you’re saying. That’s my thing, but do you have a similar thought before you hit the PUBLISH button?

DD: Well, first thing I do before I hit publish is let my husband read it. He’s a very private person, and it goes beyond the fact that he is a recognizable actor. He grew up in a Southern family where one simply didn’t air the dirty laundry. The laundry was pristine and crisp and nice to look at. We had a conversation, early on, about what it was I was trying to accomplish by blogging so intimately about my coming of age, my family, etc. I think my desire to open up, especially with regards to “the ugly truth,” comes from my own experience as a young reader. I was always drawn to the memoir, everything from Mommie Dearest to The Glass Castle and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, from Angela’s Ashes to Elie Wiesel’s Night. Something drew to me to the inherent boldness of these writers and their willingness to put their lives out on the table, with all the mess, brutality, and joy that encompass a great memoir. Their stories helped me understand my own story and, ultimately, helped me find the courage to chronicle my life, whether it was in a journal when I was ten or on this little blog of mine now. I cast out a story and hope someone finds it and that it helps them feel less alone. We read and we write to feel a part of something bigger, to belong. But mostly I write them for you, Christine.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The Lullaby of Polish Girls explores issues of identity in many different ways. In what ways do Anna, Justyna, and Kamila struggle to define themselves? What events in their individual lives throw those definitions into question?

2. What does Anna originally find so alluring about Ben and their potential as a couple? Why do you think her hopes and possibilities for their relationship ultimately fall short, and how does this relate to her internal struggles throughout the novel?

3. Anna’s first trip back to Poland gives her life a new focus. What seems at first to be a dramatic teenage decision to return—-“She’ll work after school and buy her own airplane ticket if she has to. . . . If her parents don’t let her come back next year, she will probably kill herself.”—-turns out to be a solemn vow. Why do you think her short, unexpected trip has such a profound effect on Anna’s life? How do her Polish family and friends play a role in that shift? What needs does her Polish life fulfill that her American life doesn’t, and vice versa?

4. Why do you think Anna is drawn to acting, and what about her personality and circumstances make her especially successful? During a lunch meeting with her agent, Anna seems to realize that things are different for her now and that, for the time being, she is no longer willing to make the sacrifices she would have to in order to put her acting career back on course. Why has Anna’s attitude changed, and do you think she will ever be able to view acting—-and the industry surrounding it—-though the rose–colored glasses she had at the beginning of her career?

5. At first blush, Justyna appears to be a character that follows her own rules and does exactly as she pleases, regardless of her reputation or public opinion. But there are several moments in the novel when Justyna is unable to act on her desires. For instance, the passage after Paweł’s funeral, when Elwira tells Justyna that she plans to move out (p. 63):

For a second, Justyna wants to get down on her hands and knees and beg her sister to stay. To confess that she can’t face these four walls alone haunted by the past. . . . “Do what you wanna do, -Elwira,” Justyna says quietly. “Just don’t leave me alone tonight. Please.”

Why does Justyna have trouble acting in this emotional situation? What are some other important moments in the novel where Justyna is unable to act on her desires or ask for help?

6. Anna, Justyna, and Kamila have a complex friendship. They fight, talk behind one another’s backs, and go without communicating for several years. Yet when Justyna endures a devastating loss, Anna and Kamila are immediately thrown into emotional turmoil, and Justyna is shocked at how much she cares whether or not her friends send wreaths to the funeral. Why do you think these women share such a surprisingly strong connection, and return to each other in times of crisis? Do you think this is a realistic depiction of friendship?

7. Dominczyk certainly does not shy away from hard subjects or dirty language. All three of the girls talk tough and experiment with sex and intimacy throughout the novel, yet the scene at the Te˛cza Basen belies a certain amount of innocence behind their bravado. How does that naïveté come into play later in the chapter when Lolek rapes Anna, and what lasting effect does that moment have on both Anna and Justyna?

8. Arguably, Kamila is the character most devoted to molding herself into her ideal persona. What drastic measures does she take to control the way others see her and, when she is forced to realize that Emil is gay, what beyond her failed marriage is Kamila forced to acknowledge?

9. When Anna’s mother had her fortune read, she was told, “Things will break apart and it will always be your job to put them back together.” There are countless instances of things falling apart in The Lullaby of Polish Girls; consider some of these moments from the novel. Who shoulders the burden of putting things back together and how successful are they? Is patching things up always the best choice the characters can make?

10. Anna, Justyna, and Kamila have very different relationships with their parents. In what ways do each of the girls’ parents influence the women that they become? How does each girl’s perception of her parents change throughout the course of the novel?

11. The title, The Lullaby of Polish Girls, suggests that Polish girls require a different type of soothing. How does that idea resonate in this story?

12. The novel ends mid–scene, as the clock strikes twelve and the three women are on the brink of making decisions about how to rebuild their lives. What do you think each character is likely to do? Do you think this moment actually marks a sea change in each of their lives? Each has been stripped of her armor over the course of the novel. What identity is each woman left with?

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