A Polish Artist’s Take on Immigration

Warsaw-born Edinburgh-based artist Monika Szydłowska’s new book “Do You Miss Your Country” is a humorous, insightful and poignant comic book looking at issues of Poles and immigration. Written in both English and Polish, the book examines–through simple water-colour paintings–the Polish emigre experience in Europe since the country joined the European Union in 2004. Sometimes funny, sometimes biting, Monika offers a unique insight in her work. How are Poles treated in the UK, how do Poles treat each other abroad and missing things from home (from food–though it’s widely found in the UK–to humour and common shared experiences) are all themes she explores. I asked her via email where the idea for the book came from and why it seems to have such resonance with the Polish expat community.

Tell me a bit about your background as an artist.

I went to Uni in Poznan. At the time the University of Arts in Poznan was the most contemporary art school in Poland. Students had the freedom of choosing studios. I was studying graphic design but I spent most of the time painting or doing performance art.

How did the idea for the book come about–was it because the blog–Na Emigracji–was so popular? What was it about the Polish experience in the UK (which is sort of universal across Europe) that you thought would be of interest for not only the drawings but the book? 

I don’t exacly remember whose idea it was. People were writing to me things like “if it would be a book I’d buy it“ and things like that. After two years painting these comics I felt I needed to do something with it. It’s like an exhibition for a painter. Moments when you can see your work. It seems to be more real than blog. It’s different seeing the number of likes or shares on your blog compared to a tangible, paper book with your name in the book shop. Or maybe I’m just old fashioned.

comic 2Tell me about the drawings –I found some really funny and spot on (and some that I did not maybe get as much, even though I used to live in Poland and feel pretty tapped into Polish culture). Can you give me some anecdotes as to why you were motivated to do certain ones? Some experiences you may have personally had or heard about from friends? 

All the pictures are based on real stories. Things that happened when I left Poland and came to Scotland. I’m usually writing things I hear at work, in the bus or in a Polish shop.

What audience is this booked aimed for–Poles in the UK, British people in general? 

Mostly Polish people in the UK and in other countries but I’ve tried to make the book as widely accessible as possible. However, I think that almost every Polish person has either first hand or second hand experience with the topic.

What has been the reaction so far? Do you find that many Poles have talked of some of these common shared experiences? 

I’m trying to not read comments. But I had a moments of weakness and I read some about…World War II, Jews etc. On the whole, the response seems to be really positive. I’ve had a number of kind emails from people the comics resonated with, one said that I was “painting their life” It’s really motivating.

As we are coming up to vote whether to stay in the EU (and Polish politics have gotten quite intense as of late turning a bit away from the EU and with rather scary bills being brought to parliament on things like abortion), do Poles still feel an affinity to the EU? And does there feel like prejudices that were pretty universal in the UK for a number of years after EU integration have faded or have they been reigniated over the general immigration issues recently? 

I don’t think I can speak for all Polish people. I know people who are on both sides of the EU argument.

comicDo you think the Polish cleaner or builder stereotype is changing? I had a friend who used to live in London who worked for the Polish embassy who told me there were tens of thousands of Poles who worked in the City of London as bankers, economists, etc but that no one ever seemed to talk of them (this Polish cleaner/builder cliche versus the fact that there are many professionals who have come over as well and started businesses, worked as artists, journalists, lawyers, doctors, etc).

The professions you mention often require a good level of English and a degree of integration within the relevent sector. When there is a Polish employee who uses Polish language a majority of the time (for whatever reasons), wearing a cleaning company uniform, speaking loudly about kotlet on the bus then they are a fair deal more apparent.