Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s debut essay collection, Objects of Affection, might be a departure in form from her translations of Polish poetry for English-speaking audiences, but it is aligned with them in spirit. In eighteen elegantly spare personal essays, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough does the work of translating her own experiences immigrating to the US from Poland. This insightful collection grapples with hard questions about home, dislocation, and exile—from one’s land, language, and the “we” of family and friends who didn’t emigrate. While these themes are familiar ground in books that talk about migration, what’s unique in Objects of Affection is the professional translator’s perspective that Hryniewicz-Yarbrough brings to them.
Objects of Affection is an intimate, nuanced exploration of language’s shifting role in the translator-writer’s life, and it guides the reader through physical geographies as varied as Cold War Poland and modern-day California. It is life through the translator’s lens, in which translation, with its constant connection between the mother tongue and the adopted tongue, helps Hryniewicz-Yarbrough to connect the “before and after” of her immigration to the US. “Any immigrant,” Hryniewicz-Yarbrough writes, “will attest that her life is a life of and in translation. The original Latin meaning of translatus as ‘carried across’ fittingly depicts the situation of those who find themselves in a foreign environment.” Hryniewicz-Yarbrough writes of the early difficulties working through that translation: how she resisted learning Russian but warmed quickly to English; how she felt for a long time that she was an imperfectly translated version of herself in English, even as her mother tongue began to recede. Yet for the translator, language is a kind of home, and the new language is a house that “may never have all the intimacies and comforts of the old home, but it’s a home just the same.” She describes a tension between engaging with the new language and keeping the old one alive, for a time keeping one journal in Polish and one in English to try to keep both languages sharp.
Yet it was the daily work of literary translation that kept her mother tongue from dying. If literature is what still lives inside the old house, the work of literary translation is what allows Hryniewicz-Yarbrough to let herself inside, even though she is immersed daily in English. Several essays talk about the immigration and language stories of great writers. Milan Kundera, Czesław Miłosz, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and others haunt many of these pieces; Hryniewicz-Yarbrough herself is an insightful reader of these writers, and how they navigated living and working in other languages. One of the pleasures of the book is this deep and knowledgeable engagement with writing from what she calls the Iron Curtain’s “wrong side.” In fact, fans of Eastern European literature will find lots to admire in these essays, since Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has so many observations about the specific kind of loss a mother tongue represents for a writer in exile—and how, for many, working in an entirely new tongue can unlock something in them, as it did for her.
For Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, language provides a stronger connection with the past than nationality alone. The communist country she left only slightly resembles modern-day Poland, where on visits she finds she is “no longer part of ‘we.’” But Hryniewicz-Yarbrough also has a wonderful way of translating history to the reader, both her own personal past and Poland’s political history. Words and literary works are some of the ‘objects of affection’ connecting her to the past—but there are also actual objects that lead her deep into memory, and family stories told on the backdrop of World War II and the Cold War. Each object kicks off a conversation with a complex political history. Her own “disproportionate attachment to things that was caused by scarcity” lends books, movies, women’s clothing, drinks, and even urban spaces much larger meanings. Her grandmother’s survival during and after World War II is expressed by way of her hairstyle in “The Politics of Hair.” Poland’s communist past and capitalist present is told via a cup of tea in “Our Daily Drink.” These essays are evocative, a little bit experimental, and keep an eye on history—and they were some of the strongest in this wonderful collection.
While Hryniewicz-Yarbrough explores the discomfort of dislocation and exile from language, she also writes about the gift that came from it: a bilingual proficiency that made her a creative writer in English. “The change I underwent,” she writes, “was prompted by the change in my external circumstances, but the outward conditions ultimately led me to who I may have been all along.” It isn’t exactly returning home that she describes, but a reinvention born from being at home in two languages. Though some of the exiled writers she discusses mourn the self they left behind in their native tongue, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s personal take is rooted not in the new language’s limitations, but in its capacity to expand the sense of herself in translation.