Explorers, writers and other creative strangers

In homage to Lech Paszkowski and all creative strangers

IN THE IMMIGRATION office in Paris, I had one chance to convince the person in charge why I should be allowed to stay. Someone in the waiting room cried as he was handed his deportation papers. People of all nationalities, and their children, waited their turn. When it was my turn to face the immigration officer, I was determined to show that all was fine, that I was worthy of staying, that I was non-threatening. But something betrayed me to the woman in charge. She looked at me with professional suspicion.

"Why are you here? We have enough people from your country, from every possible country, staying here illegally. You have no money, I suppose?"

"But yes, I do. A little. Just enough," I whispered.

"Just enough for what? And how have you earned your money without a working visa?"

How could I explain to her that I dreamed of a fuller life? This was inexplicable within the confines of her world. That people worked illegally because they could not work otherwise. That I walked the streets of Paris whispering verses from Baudelaire wanting to breathe the air that Modigliani and de Beau-voir had breathed. In her eyes, I was an Eastern "barbarian" at the gates of Paris, who came to deceive and take other people's jobs. My imagination ran wild. Was it the stamping of Cossacks' horses on the Eastern steps that she heard when I was answering her questions? Did she disapprove of the freezing winters drowned in glasses of vodkas drunk by my ancestors? Was it something about my Eastern European face? Eyes too big to be fully civilised? Or was it the "red curse" that worried her?

Under any other circumstances, I would not identify myself with these symbols, but then I wanted to throw them back at her to mock her suspicion and rejection. To mock the system that categorises people, a system too restrictive to define anything of significance about another person except as an "intruder" with low economic assets. How could the questions on an immigration form encompass the qualities of Slavic vitality I love, or the writers who created the cultural narrative in which I grew up, or the adventurers and revolutionaries who shaped my imagination?

Similar incidents happened in North America. There, people put me into the category of vodka and sausages when they tried to be friendly. My American friend with a degree from Berkeley was surprised that there was "Polish literature" despite Czeslaw Milosz, a Pole and the 1980 Nobel Prize winner for literature, teaching at her university for decades.

An ironic reversal of roles took place some years later in Southeast Asia, where I suddenly became a "rich Westerner". My young, soft-spoken guide took me to remote temples in Cambodia and confessed on the last day of my trip how angry he was about "serving rich Westerners" like me. He believed (wrongly) that I had enough money to smuggle him out of the country to find a better life in the West. I understood his dreams. Like myself years earlier, he too religiously studied French and English. He wanted to see the world and be a writer.

I knew that feeling. After the incident in Paris, I knew that there was a very long and treacherous bridge that a stranger and a foreigner must cross. A bridge crowded by rigid rules of "rich" and "poor", of desirable and not. I knew that the bridge led to another side of being, an open-ended and creatively intuited belonging unfolding in front of me. This thought exhilarated me.

I wanted to explore other possibilities of being and belonging.


SOME QUESTIONS, HOWEVER, still needed to be answered because how does one describe an experience as diverse as belonging without reference to the traditional notions of "sameness" of territory, language and history? These are not only intellectual questions; they are, rather, natural promptings as one experiences belonging beyond bureaucratic formulas and social expectations.

Twenty years, four continents and three passports after my Parisian experience, I came across a historical account of Polish adventurers and artists in Australia before World War II. I learned that, since its very beginnings, Polish immigration to Australia was different to that in North America – or anywhere else for that matter. I discovered this – the wonderful gift of another writer, Lech Paszkowski – in a book he wrote – Poles in Australia and Oceania 1790-1940 (ANU Press, 1987). I found this book by sheer chance as I was researching my PhD. And, through Paszkowski's book, I found the roots of my nomadic belonging. Paszkowski claims that Australia has always attracted the most adventurous spirits. This was welcome news. I felt at home with them here. The Poles he wrote about came, stayed or left, but always left a mark with their lives, with their unorthodox choices, and with their indefinable forms of being and belonging. Often misunderstood, they sometimes became Australian icons, such as Paul Strzelecki, known for his explorations of Gippsland and Tasmania as well as for naming the highest mountain in Australia after a Polish patriot, Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

It is not clear why Strzelecki left Poland, but theories suggest his involvement in one of the splendid, but disastrous, uprisings in which Poles seem to specialise. Another version is that he was a restless spirit, in romantic and financial trouble in Poland. Indeed, Strzelecki had a romantic interest in Poland: a young woman called Adyna who patiently – if naively – waited for him as he voyaged the world, measured and mapped blank spaces on all continents, accepted honours from the Royal Geographical Society in London and published acclaimed books about his geographical discoveries in Australia. Until her death, he wrote her "dashing" letters, and I suspect that she enjoyed the vicarious pleasures of travel and adventure from his letters.

Then there is the wonderful, nomadic Bronislaw Malinowski, an anthropologist and ethnologist who travelled from Poland to Australia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico and Africa. His most important works were written about his research in Australasia in the early twentieth century. On a prolonged stay in Melbourne, he romanced and married Elsie Masson, the daughter of a "local professor" – as he wrote in a letter to his relatives in Poland. They went off together to the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea, to conduct the first anthropological study of the islanders. It was a prolific time – Malinowski wrote about intimate aspects of the lives of the islanders, including the classic Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Coral Gardens and their Magic, Myth in Primitive Society as well as two detailed and illustrated books on sexual life of the islanders.

Paszkowski's book revealed smaller "stars": tiny jewels of stories about Polish adventurers in Australia, such as the colourful Sygurd Wisniowski and Joseph Sabatowski.

Wisniowski was an incorrigible globetrotter. During the 1860s and '70s, he travelled incessantly to North and South Americas, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia. Australia was his favourite destination, and he made a fortune in the goldfields near Ravenswood. As the story goes, he soon lost it in a shipwreck, and again devoted himself to travelling and writing. His memoir, Ten Years in Australia, was published upon his brief return to Poland, and his novella about Maori communities in New Zealand (Tikera or Children of the Queen of Oceania) was translated into English and published in Auckland in 1972, nearly a century after it was written.

Sabatowski, on the other hand, was more a patriot and a revolutionary than a globetrotter. I like the story of his life because of his puzzling end and obsessive commitment to fight Polish oppressors at that time: Russia and Prussia. He left Poland after the failure of the January Uprising against Russia in 1863-64 only to join the Turkish army to continue fighting Russia, then the Austrian army to fight Prussia and then the French army to also fight Prussia. Freud would no doubt have a theory about him, as after years of fighting wars and uprisings, Sabatowski eventually settled in Sydney and became a gynaecologist.


LONG BEFORE I read Paszkowski's book, I already had my favourite explorer: Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), writer and sailor – my teenage idol. His beginnings carry the drama of adventure. He was born Jozef Korzeniowski, his parents exiled by the Tsarist Russian government for their political activities as Polish patriots, so his uncle, Stefan, a nobleman with lands in the Ukraine, became his father-figure. Young Korzeniowski dreamed of exotic travels and wanted to be a sailor – an unusual choice for a young Polish nobleman. His uncle, however, agreed to send him to a school in southern France to follow his dream.

In France, Korzeniowski got involved in shipping guns for a revolutionary cause, fell in love with an unsuitably mysterious and revolutionary woman, went into debt and attempted suicide. His uncle saved him from his financial – if not romantic – trouble, and Korzeniowski went on to London where he gradually progressed from first officer to captain, and became a British subject. He sailed the seas of South-east Asia (the geographic setting of many of his books) and South America (Nostromo), as well as the Congo River in Africa (Heart of Darkness). By his own admission, he was hot-tempered, swore in Polish while riding horses, and spoke with a thick accent: a bizarre mixture of his native Polish and a dialect of southern French. For me, as a teenage girl in communist Poland, he was an irresistible combination of the adventurous and creative aspects of a life lived passionately.

From Paszkowski, I learned that Korzeniowski also travelled to Australia and had a few stopovers in the ports of Sydney and Melbourne in 1879, 1888 and 1889. All the stopovers had a literary history. In 1879 the young seaman sailed from London to Sydney, and while waiting there to join another ship heard about the scandal of the steamer Jeddah whose crew abandoned 953 Muslim pilgrims when it seemed the ship was sinking. The news created a great upheaval among officers and seamen and became the theme of his masterpieceLord Jim. He described Sydney Harbour as "most beautiful" in The Mirror of the Sea, and some of the personalities he met in Sydney – including an Australian mate, Charles Born – became characters in his books. In 1888, Korzeniowski returned as the captain of Otago. His name was so horrifically misspelled in Sydney newspapers that by the time Otago reached Melbourne he had changed it to Conrad.

The metaphor of the explorer is not only my personal passion; it has always played powerfully on our collective imagination. Perhaps the first explorer, wanderer and "migrant" of a sort was Homer's Odysseus. His journeys have inspired a kaleidoscope of interpretations throughout the ages. The ancient Greeks saw him as a courageous warrior tested by the gods for his brilliant trickery. To the Romans, he was the epitome of a "deceitful" foreigner who, through his insidious plan, destroyed the city of Troy. After the displacements and tragedies of the World War II, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer thought that Odysseus was the despairing exile who is always out of his cultural context in the world.

My encounters with Jerzy Zubrzycki and George Smolicz, two intellectuals who left Poland during World War II and eventually settled in Australia, suggest yet another interpretation of the "exile". Both Zubrzycki and Smolicz managed to creatively transform the traumatic experiences of war in a way that helped to shape and enrich Australian multiculturalism. Zubrzycki told me that when he arrived in Australia he aimed to correct the errors of pre-war Poland, which had failed to embrace all ethnic and religious groups in the 1930s. He wanted to prevent the same situation being repeated in Australia. Throughout his career at the Australian National University, he worked to implement multiculturalism as an integral part of Australian life.

Smolicz crossed Central Asia and the Middle East, and lived in an endless string of camps for war refugees as a child refugee. His experiences inspired him to reform the Australian educational system in a way that would allow children of all backgrounds to learn about their original culture and language. He envisioned Australia as a country of infinite cultural richness. That is the cultural contribution of explorers.


INDEED, MANY OF the Poles who arrived here more recently, such as award-winning composers of scores for Australian films (Cezary Skubiszewski), poets (Anna Walwicz), designers (Kajetan) or actors (Jacek Koman), call themselves explorers. They belong because of their intellectual and artistic contribution. Their journeys often led to Australia through several other countries, each a space of learning and contribution. They are all interesting strangers who, through their journeys, redefine what it means to belong, whose "souls are about larger belongings" not confined to one land or language.

Bruce Chatwin once said that the appeal of explorers and nomads lies in their "irreverent and timeless vitality". And the most potent image of the explorer is of someone who, with great courage and creativity, responds to the challenges and complexities of life that arise – someone who encompasses the courage, enthusiasm and drive of the adventurer and the reflective and creative qualities of the artist that are eventually integrated into a larger society. The explorer is not a poetic or an exotic term. It is the "newcomer", "migrant", "exile" seen from a different, more complex vantage point, and allowed to participate creatively in their new society.

There is yet another journey to undertake – not only by the "newcomer" but by the host society as well.
That might be even the more challenging exploration. It asks the society to give up prejudice, a presumed and often unconscious sense of superiority and rigidly defined ways of belonging "here". In this version of explorations, Odysseus arrives at a new land knowing that not only he, but the entire population of that land, will share this journey, taking the known and familiar to uncharted shores of new visions and self-discovery.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review