Skip to main content

Agata was born and raised in Poland. She came to the U.S. as an MFA student and graduated with a Ph.D. in English from the University of South Carolina. Her publications include a forthcoming memoir, The Hunger Book, scholarly books on 20th-century literature, as well as essays and short stories in Guernica, Black Warrior Review, Contrary Magazine, River Poets Journal, Entropy, Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities, and Wabash Magazine. She is the winner of the 2022 Gournay Prize and the 2019 Black Warrior Review Nonfiction Prize. Agata lives in Indiana, where she teaches at Wabash College and volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. She is the founder and chair of Immigrant Allies.

Interviewed by Alyssa Kang

Inscape Journal: When did your writing journey begin? You mentioned how writing became an escape from the challenges you were experiencing. Was there a moment or period of time early on that influenced your path toward writing?

Agata Izabela Brewer: I wrote bad poetry as a kid and adolescent, in Polish. Then I became too self-conscious and self-critical to write creatively and, instead, I read voraciously and started writing literary criticism. I think I had to mature to being open again to the trials and mistakes of creative work. Perhaps seeing my kids engage freely in all kinds of artistic endeavors helped me realize it’s okay to do art, even badly. I’m not sure, but watching them draw chalk rainbows and misshapen dinosaurs reminded me that perfection is the enemy of creativity and that the process itself is what matters. I began writing The Hunger Book without thinking much about the end goal. I just wanted to record what I witnessed and try to understand it.

Inscape: This book explores the idea of hunger in many unique ways. Could you share some additional insights behind the creation of the book’s title? Did the title come to you right away, or did it take time?

AB: The title came to me quite early, which is unusual for me. I often struggle with titles for my scholarly books and essays. Here, I understood early that what I was meditating on was hunger understood in many ways: the hunger for food during and after World War II that my grandparents experienced, the hunger for a warm meal my brother and I sometimes felt when Mother was drunk, and the more metaphorical hunger: for love and affection from a parent who was too far gone into the drink to notice that need in me and my brother. While the subtitle of the book was my publisher’s idea, the first part, The Hunger Book, had been on my mind as I wrote the essays.

Inscape: Throughout the book, you share much of your culture with the reader through traditions, food, and nature. What was it like compiling different traditional Polish recipes and customs and exploring the memories associated with them?

AB: I love doing research and connecting seemingly unrelated things, playing with these connections, testing their limits. So traveling to archives, digging through boxes filled with sepia-colored photos, interviewing people—-all this was a fun exercise for me, even though the subject matter itself was not always fun. But at one point I realized that the research became a form of escapism, a distraction from the hard practice of writing, and I had to tell myself, “Stop!” So there is a lot of unused material on my computer that I made myself abandon in favor of the creative process. I hope to go back to some of these interviews and photos when I have time to devote to another creative project.

Inscape: You share how sometimes your family wouldn’t try certain foods that you grew up with, or that your son preferred to go by the American version of his name. When coming to America, what was it like experiencing that cultural distance or isolation while trying to hold onto that part of who you are?

AB: When I came to the U.S. as a graduate student, I thought I knew the country because I had been immersed in the American culture. I had read Steinbeck and Faulkner, Morrison and Dickinson, Poe and King, and I watched American TV shows, and so I thought I was not going to be surprised by much. But, of course, I was wrong. I knew one or two of many complex versions of this country.
    As for isolation, neither South Carolina, where I went to grad school, nor Indiana, where I live now are known for large Polish populations. It’s true that I miss speaking and hearing my native language, tasting traditional Polish foods, having immediate access to all the new books and magazines and films coming out of Poland. And yet I understand that I tend to idealize my native country, perhaps due to the distance, and I tend to forget the things I wanted to escape when I applied for scholarships to distant countries: the parochialism, the religious adherence to the past, the unquestioning attachment to traditions even if they harm living, breathing human beings. In other words, my attitude toward my home country is complicated.

Inscape: In the book, you talked about how you initially wrote to understand your mother’s past actions, which led to a deeper exploration of your country’s history and extended family relations. Do you feel that your past is clearer to you after writing this book, or do you find yourself left with more questions?

AB: What writing this book helped me realize is that there is more to my mother’s alcohol use disorder and lack of warmth than I had initially thought, that there is epigenetic trauma behind her aggression, that the political and historical context behind her own childhood and early adulthood played a significant role in shaping her as a grown woman, mother, and wife. I also realized that hiding trauma and suppressing unsightly emotions perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors and patterns. I don’t know whether I sufficiently answered the questions I was asking at the beginning of the writing process, but I do know that writing helped me ask the right questions and accept ambiguous and incomplete answers.

Inscape: You mentioned how coming to write this story was challenging for you and there were difficult obstacles you faced. How did you overcome those barriers? Do you have any advice for writers who might be struggling to write about their own difficult pasts?

AB: I do have advice: Don’t push it. Be kind to yourself. Whenever I wanted to continue writing despite obvious signals that my body was reacting to unearthing childhood trauma, I ended up paralyzed by fear and panic. I wish I had been gentler with myself. It was my amazing therapist who said that I needed to give myself permission to stop writing, even for longer stretches of time. I learned techniques that helped me ride the waves of panic attacks, which I experienced for the first time while revisiting traumatic moments in order to write about them. To recreate a scene, a writer often wants to remember the specific sensory elements of that scene because that’s how scene building generally works. But those same elements that make writing tick can make the writer herself ill all over again. If I associate a particular smell or color or whatever with finding my mother after one of her suicide attempts, I relive that moment all over again, as if I were a small girl. This is why access to mental health specialists and a strong support network are important for memoir writers. 

Inscape: What is something you hope your readers can take away from your memoir?

AB: Well, unlike my scholarly books and essays, which have a thesis, my memoir doesn’t have one big claim or a didactic element, or at least I did not write it to teach readers a lesson about anything. It’s an offering of sorts. Here is my life. I hope I turned it into art that you, [the] reader, can be immersed in for some time, be moved by it one way or another, and if you do take something away from it, I’m fine with that, of course. If you see yourself in some of these pages, or if you learn about a life previously alien to you, you’ve engaged in the text, and that’s what matters.