Life is a Beach!
- article by Anna Borys-Karwacka for "The Varsovian"
The self-discovery genre comes to Poland. So, will Agnieszka Walczak-Chojecka’s debut novel seduce Polish readers? We investigate.
Flashy posters advertising a new chick-lit novel dominated Warsaw’s billboards just before Christmas. An intriguing title, A girl from Ajutthai, and a recommendation by Manuela Gretkowska, one of Poland’s most recognized writers, can’t go unnoticed.
“This colourful story proves that there is life outside the corporation,” promises Gretkowska. But will this illumination sell in Warsaw?
By turns, clever and funny, the book tells the story of Joanna, a successful, 34-year-old woman, suddenly losing her lucrative, rat-race job as marketing director. A nicely observed study of the awkward relations between a “rat” thrown overboard and those still running, the book breathes new life into an otherwise clichéd area of literature.
Consumed by confusion, Joanna joins a group of friends on a journey to Thailand, leaving behind her stilettos to rediscover what she believes is authentic life. Simultaneously, she develops a relationship with an old colleague and friend, Krzysztof, who after his ‘almost-heart-attack’ at a company meeting, ditched his job to chase dreams about flying and became an airline steward (a true story). In this exotic environment, and inspired by a mysterious sculpture from Ajutthai, Joanna asks herself important questions about destiny, hers and others.
Another rounded, and arguably the most interesting character, is Iza: a 30+ year-old freelance PR specialist, mother-of-two and stuck in a toxic relationship with her despotic and not-very-faithful husband. She also joins the self-discovery mission, but Thailand doesn’t solve her deeper problems. The struggle of the seemingly self-confident women is where Walczak-Chojecka excels.
There are bits of autobiography in every novel , of course, and Joanna is pretty visible in Agnieszka Walczak-Chojecka herself, who worked for 20 years in management for global corporations until she quit to pick up on old dreams.
We meet at Agnieszka’s house in Konstancin-Jeziorna. Unlike the traditional living room, the kitchen we sit in is modern. In her early forties, tall, confident, energetic, with red hair and pale skin, Agnieszka is every inch the ‘Surrey mother,’ as the English say. Even more so when she insists on feeding me before we talk.
She talks about her father, Grzegorz Walczak – writer, poet, playwright – and about reading her childhood poems at his soirees, and about moving to Belgrade where he lectured in Polish language. She had always wanted to be an artist, but in fact went on to study Serbian at Warsaw University. And this in turn would open the door to the corporate world, odd as that may sound.
Agnieszka smiles recalling the bizarre – but quite typical for that time in Poland – way in which she got her first job, at Zepter, a multinational exclusive goods company (super-expensive pots and casserole dishes).
“The owner, an eccentric Serbian multimillionaire, liked to hire Serbian speakers, so my university friend called me up,” Agnieszka starts. “Without any experience I became a Marketing Manager and one of the five people launching the company in Poland.“
She liked her new incarnation, organizing fancy events, managing her growing team, meeting extraordinary people, even presenting Pope John Paul II with a company saucepan (photographed and filed!).
After 10 years she jumped ship to another corporation, but climbing the corporate ladder had become slippery. “Spending time in ego-exchange meetings, and not working creatively, I felt increasingly lonely,” she says. And her daughter needed her more. When on a business trip to Paris she saw mothers on a school run and felt she was in the wrong place. “At some point, like the girl from Ajutthai, you find yourself unknowingly entangled in some invisible ivy,” she says.
She left the business world, but literature is not business-free. “I had to became my own manager to negotiate with publishers, then my own marketing and PR department,” she says. “I realise how all this is meticulously planned. Intensive outdoor advertising, internet promotion. My marketing skills are very useful at this stage to help with promotion of the book,” she smiles.
So, is self-discovery an option for those who can’t afford extravagant travel? Walczak-Chojecka emphasizes that Thailand is a symbol of the inner journey, but certainly her book is targeted at a particular group. “I know people who managed to stop, reflect on their lives and change. Even during the book’s promotion I met three women who told me ‘This is my story.’ I wanted to encourage people not to give up their dreams. Even after years you can come back to them.”
She doesn’t cringe when I ask the provocative corpo-question about her five-year plan. “Five books, at least one best-seller,” she smiles. She has finished her second and is starting the third one.
Not an easy plan. Poles tend to prefer books by foreign authors than those by home-grown talents. Or maybe talented Polish writers are less skilled in marketing their products than their Western colleagues? But not this time, it seems. Agnieszka’s novel has just entered the bestsellers lists.