Beatrice Speaks to Paulina Wyrzykowski, Author of The Year of Numbers
I'm a very emotionally intense person, and writing is one way I cope with that intensity.
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First published: May 4, 2009
The Year of Numbers
ISBN 0-9808879-3-3 / 978-0-9808879-3-8
$19.95 Cdn / $19.95 US, Paper
5.5 x 8.5, 236 p.
Working with an NGO gathering personal war-horror stories from Cairo's besieged and undocumented refugee communities, Genevieve, a young Canadian, discovers uncertainties too dangerous to share, especially between lovers.
"Paulina Wyrzykowski has written a remarkable and poignant novel, a story of love and memory set among Cairo's African asylum seekers, deftly blending her narrative with the crosscurrents and horror of modern refugee life. It is hard to put down."
Biographer and author of Human Cargo
"Wyrzykowski's unexpected page-turner ventures into the painful silences that arise when two people cross boundaries and become refugees – from their countries, from their upbringing... and from conventional expectations. A must read."
Chris Dolan, PhD,
Director of Refugee Law Project,
238 Emerald Street North
Hamilton, ON L8L 5K8
Paulina Wyrzykowski was born in Warsaw, Poland, and immigrated to Canada with her family at the age of ten. After completing a Bachelor in Psychology she went on to obtain a joint Law and Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Toronto. Paulina has lived in Kampala, Uganda, since fall of 2007, and currently works in the field of transitional justice and forced migration. The Year of Numbers is her first novel and is based on her experiences working with the African refugee community in Cairo.
Beatrice Lamwaka interviews Paulina Wyrzykowski.
Beatrice: Caroline Moorehead has described your first novel as 'a remarkable and poignant novel'. How does it feel having your work described that way by such a great writer?
Pauline: To be honest, it was tremendously reassuring. She was the first published writer besides my editor I showed my work to, and I had very little sense of how it would be received. Also, Caroline was in Cairo at the same time I was, working with the same refugee community, so I knew if I got the atmosphere wrong, if things rang false, she could call me on it. In her book "Human Cargo", Caroline writes about some of the same people who inspired the characters in my novel, and that was very poignant for me as well, knowing there was now a double record of this community I cared so much about - non-fiction in her book, and fictionalized in mine.
What part of writing The Year of Numbers did you enjoy most?
I enjoyed writing a lot of the descriptions of Cairo just because it made me remember what an amazing place Egypt is and what it felt like to live there. Cairo is an incredibly sophisticated and complex city and when you write about it you can feel yourself moving between the layers - modern sensibilities piled upon thousands of years of history, a kind of resilient vivaciousness coupled with a lot of poverty and repressed anger. I also got a rush from writing the very intensely emotional scenes between Alpha and Genevieve, although I don't know if I would say I enjoyed it as such. Those scenes left me feeling drained, but they are also the ones I am proudest of.
For many writers, a novel is not yet complete until there is something in the manuscript they have written about. At what point did you realize that you had completed your novel?
I'm not sure I ever did realize it, up until the date when it was accepted for publication, and even after that I kept arguing with the publisher because I felt the manuscript needed work. I didn't really think of myself as a writer - I just knew there were things I needed to write about, partly to get them out of my system and partly so I wouldn't forget how I felt about that particular place and time. I didn't even formally submit the manuscript for publication - I only sent it out to one publisher whose contact I happened to have, asking for her comments. I had gotten to a point in my writing where I couldn't tell whether it needed more editing, or even whether it was any good at all - I was just too close to it. I sent it to the publisher asking her to let me know if she thought there was enough worthwhile content in the manuscript that I should keep working on it or not. Instead after two weeks I got a publishing offer.
How long did it take you to write The Year of Numbers?
Two and a half years, more or less, but there were several periods during which I found I couldn't write at all for several months at a time.
Are there similarities between you and Genevieve, your main character?
It's funny you ask that. Some of the people have commented that she sounds a lot like me, that we share a number of character traits. I think there's a saying to the effect that all first novels are in some sense autobiographical. In the book Genevieve struggles with a lot of the same issues I faced when I first began to do human rights work. She has a lot of the same anger and guilt that I had. At the same time Genevieve is a much younger person emotionally than I was when I wrote the book, less mature in some ways but maybe more outwardly independent and confident. I did that in part because I wanted to put some distance between us, I didn't want this to be a book about my life.
There are authors that given the chance they would re-write their published books. Is there something in your first book that you wish you could change?
There are a couple of sections where the scenes don't flow as well as they should. Also (and I'm pretty sure this happens to all writers), I know exactly where I got sloppy - where I couldn't be bothered coming up with the exact right turn of phrase, where I was too eager to rush on to the next scene. It irritates me to re-read those scenes.
How has your work as a human rights and refugee layer influenced you as a person?
I think that question could just as easily be turned on its head to say that the kind of person I am, influences the kind of work I do. I'm not very good at separating myself from my work, which can be both good and bad. I find it difficult sometimes to deal with my anger over how very unfair the world is and with my own sense of complicity and privilege. I think this would be the case whether I was a human rights lawyer or not, but working in this particular field you do get your nose rubbed in human suffering on a fairly regular basis. I think this work has increasingly drawn my attention to the systemic component of injustice, to the ways in which broader social, political, and economic systems perpetuate individual suffering.
What keeps you motivated to write?
I'm a very emotionally intense person, and writing is one way I cope with that intensity. I made a decision at some point in my life not to try to dampen or minimize my emotions, in part because I was afraid of going completely numb. I've seen people crash in really bad ways, and it usually happens when they lose the capacity to notice their own distress in time. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm feeling and trying to verbalize it either in writing or in conversations with friends. Often those ideas come out in stories, and writing fiction lets me put some distance between whatever is happening in my life and my emotional reactions to it.
Are there days when you wake up and you are like... I don't want to write anymore?
I go for long stretches where I can't really write. I can sit at the screen for a half an hour, but I just won't be able to get anything done. This happens particularly when I'm overwhelmed with work or with everyday life. During those times I might edit a bit, go over sections I'd written already, but mostly I just try not to worry about it - I tell myself that the need to write will come back eventually, as it always has in the past. It can be very anxiety provoking, though, to have all these ideas in your head and not be sure if you'll ever be able to get them out.
There are many writers who first write using pen and paper then computer. Do you write your stories straight onto the computer?
I work best on a computer, although I also try to carry around a notebook where I can jot down images and observations when they come into my head. There was a point with the first novel where I felt I just wanted to get it done - I went away for a month to Turkey and finished the manuscript. That was really the first time I managed to write substantive amounts on paper, rather than typing. But in general I prefer having the freedom to edit as I go along, to play around with words and sentences, which is much easier to do on computer.
Who do you look up to in terms of writing skills?
I love to read. Characterization has always been very important to me - I have to believe the people I'm reading about are real, in a psychological sense, to want to continue. As I've gotten older I've also become increasingly attracted to really good use of language. I tend to like writers who are also poets, who can paint pictures with words. Some of my favorite books are The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Brick Lane by Monica Ali and Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels.
Is there something that has fascinated you in Uganda and you are like... my next will be set in Uganda?
That's a tricky question. The truth is I really like it here. I've lived in many different parts of the world, but this has been the easiest country for me to settle into. The tricky part is that I'm not completely sure why that is, and it's difficult for me to talk about without falling prey to all the usual stereotypes about Africa. The best I can do is to say there is something that feels very real and very raw about this place, there is a sense in which people wrestle with bigger issues of injustice, spirituality and morality in a way that is not so obvious in other countries. This is also a society that has experienced a lot of turmoil, and that too feels very familiar to me - I was born and partly grew up in Poland, which has a long history of war and various forms of oppression. And yes, the novel I am working on now is set partly in Uganda.
Many thanks and all the best in your writing.
You are welcome. Good luck.
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First published: May 4, 2009
Beatrice Lamwaka is finalist for the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award 2009. She is the author of Anena's Vicory, one of Fountain Junior HIV/AIDS Series, a supplementary reader in primary schools in Uganda. Her published short stories have appeared in Gowanus Books, Women's World website, WordWrite-FEMRITE Literary Journal, as well as anthologies such as Words From a Granary, Today You will Understand, Aloud: Illuminating Creative Voices, Michael's Eyes; The War against the Ugandan Child FEMRITE publications. She was one of the pioneers of a British Council writing scheme that links Ugandan writers with established writers in the UK, and she is a member of Uganda Women Writers' Association (FEMRITE). She is currently working on her first novel and a number of short stories.