Olga Tokarczuk

Polish writer and activist

Olga Nawoja Tokarczuk (born 29 January 1962) is a Polish writer, activist and public intellectual. She is one of the most critically acclaimed and successful authors of her generation in Poland; in 2019, she was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Polish female prose writer. For her novel Flights, Tokarczuk has been awarded the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.

Olga Tokarczuk in 2018


  • The first thing is that we don’t trust reality as much as you do. Reading English novels, I always adore the ability to write without fear about inner psychological things that are so delicate. In such a form you can develop a story in a very linear way, but we don’t have this patience. We feel that in every moment something must be wrong because our own story wasn’t linear. Another difference is that you are rooted in psychoanalysis while we’re still thinking in a mythical, religious way.
  • The books were very present in our house. I saw from the beginning how my parents are discussing books, reading books, buying books and I could spend a lot of time with my father in the library which I remember very good. What I remember very good, and like here we have a shelf and the most interesting books for me were always close to the ground. So, I explored those shelfs very intensively and I think that was the way I really discovered books as a world, as an alternative world.
  • I liked my school but rather from social reasons because of my friends and the time spending together. But I was a type of child who rather preferred self-education, so I had many hobbies, many fascinating subjects like astronomy for instance. So, I really spent a lot of time studying for my pleasure.
  • So, I remember myself dreaming about to be a part of a cosmic expedition and work in science checking how the human body is relating with cosmic space, it was a very fantastic idea. Of course, I think that I overestimated the time of development of science. Now I can realise that this is the same subject in my books – thank you for this question.
  • I think the one, the most important one that there is every single human being is the source of a novel, it’s a source of many stories. So, we are living in a world that like, more or less, five billion of stories, novels, in potential state existing still around us.
  • I think, this moment I decided to move to the countryside and then … because I grew up as a child in the countryside, then after big cities and this kind of chaotic life, I came back to the nature. And then I discovered a kind of different state of mind which was very good for my writing and gave me a kind of concentration, silence, inner silence.
  • I think that most funny and mysterious thing is creating characters. It looks, in the beginning, that I’m really inventing because I need a character, a personality to the story, to my story. But in fact, it looks rather like those characters are coming from outside to my story, so, they are already existing somewhere and there are the first step is that they look rather shapely, only cloudy, not in a physical way, but there is another step of this process when I can hear what they are talking between each other or when they are talking to me. So, this is the best moment in my writing. It must be special, very deep and special connection, relationship between me as a narrator, me as an author and my characters and for sure they are taking from me many things, but I’m also, I’ve learned from them. Sometimes they surprise me because of somethings I didn’t know about them, so, it’s really very mysterious. I’m going to write about it. And of course, there are many dimensions of writing because first of all you need to make a research or even to invent an entire story, to support yourself by another books, other ideas, to talk with people, to make some notes. And then there is a beginning of writing and sculpturing the entire story. So, it’s so many dimensions that it’s never boring really, and they like it. This is my only one profession, I cannot do anything else, so.
  • And of course, literature is a very specific way of understanding the world and very specific and very raffinated, special, sophisticated way of communication. So, I would like, in my writing, I would like to try just a kind of general ideas of instruction, how to deal with those very dangerous things connected with climate changes. So, please understand that I am not an activist. This is what I’m going to say. I’m going to write about it in my own language, in using my imagination to make our consciousness broader.
  • I know that there are many kinds of studying, called creative writing for instance and the people then trying to learn how to write, how to live in writing, because for me, writing is rather a psychological process, not just the process of writing on a paper, even not inventing a story, but something which is very deeply connected with our psychological side. So, I think that there is only one advice, to read, to read. I think read and read, and for every single one written page it is always one thousand pages which should be read.
  • I wrote a lot of short stories. I’m still interested in this form and I collect ideas for stories on an ongoing basis, even though I’ve recently developed as a novelist. But my fascination with storytelling doesn’t end. I believe it is a highly sublime, very difficult literary form. Few writers can write a good short story. Sometimes I think it’s easier to write a novel than a short story with a good solid ending. I appreciate this form very much as a reader, too; I’ve loved collections, anthologies of stories since I was a child.
  • Nobody grows people for meat. It’s not about tormenting and harassing, it’s about treating animals like things... There are very strong mechanisms that make it possible to torture animals and to be so-called “decent” people, good neighbors, to never hit anyone, but to abuse animals or be part of it by consuming meat produced through industrial breeding. Today we know that there is no reason for people to eat meat.
  • Reportage is the prince of Polish literature. Love for reportage is a request from the readers: Tell us how it is in the world, what the truth is, don’t make anything up. I’m very concerned about this resistance to literary imagination. People lose the ability to understand metaphors, transposition, all other stylistic literary devices used to date.
  • In my opinion, the right to rebellion, to rage, is very important in any person’s psychological development. If you grow and live without the opportunity to stamp your foot, you die inside. This rebellion doesn’t need to take obvious forms like murder, but that remains a potential. The possibility of rebellion makes us free.
  • I’m afraid nobody nowadays has the courage to speak about what’s going to happen. Predictions never come true. We live in a world of fear of the future. Astrological thinking is based on thinking in cycles. It’s the same in economics. To my mind, the most interesting are the long cycles, which take a few centuries, revealing certain historical truths that aren’t seen when one is reading the world ad hoc through the media. Astrology is an ancient art invented a few thousand years ago, which miraculously continues. A human projects some order on the planetary setting, then their perception of the world is refracted and returned with totally different knowledge. This is fascinating. I had always been interested in astrology, but only had basic knowledge about it. the imagination. Sometimes I regret that contemporary people distance themselves so much from such old, beautiful ways for pondering reality.
  • In a way, we need charismatic leaders. I mean, situation in Poland, so many peoples, 38 million is waiting for charismatic leader who will have a position to recognize what is good and what is bad and just to lead us somewhere to the better times. But for the other side, I don't know, really.
  • I started to think more about just jumping from one point to the other. It’s like opening the windows on your computer, you have so many spaces. Or it’s like turning on your television–there’s another metaphor–you can jump from one channel to another. And that was the effect, the outcome of my thinking about the novel. Of course it was shocking for some readers. But I think that I was right.

Nobel Prize lecture (7 December 2019) (excerpts)


The Tender Narrator

  • Today our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives that cannot fit the future to imaginaries of the future, no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing, or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.
  • We live in a reality of polyphonic first-person narratives, and we are met from all sides with polyphonic noise. What I mean by first-person is the kind of tale that narrowly orbits the self of a teller who more or less directly just writes about herself and through herself. We have determined that this type of individualized point of view, this voice from the self, is the most natural, human and honest, even if it does abstain from a broader perspective. Narrating in the first person, so conceived, is weaving an absolutely unique pattern, the only one of its kind; it is having a sense of autonomy as an individual, being aware of yourself and your fate. Yet it also means building an opposition between the self and the world, and that opposition can be alienating at times.
  • I think that first-person narration is very characteristic of contemporary optics, in which the individual performs the role of subjective center of the world. Western civilization is to a great extent founded and reliant upon that very discovery of the self, which makes up one of our most important measures of reality. Here man is the lead actor, and his judgment—although it is one among many—is always taken seriously. Stories woven in first person appear to be among the greatest discoveries of human civilization; they are read with reverence, bestowed full confidence. This type of story, when we see the world through the eyes of some self that is unlike any other, builds a special bond with the narrator, who asks his listener to put himself in his unique position.
  • What first-person narratives have done for literature and in general for human civilization cannot be overestimated—they have completely reworked the story of the world, so that it is no longer a place for the operations of heroes and deities upon whom we can have no influence, but rather a place for people just like us, with individual histories. It is easy to identify with people who are just like us, which generates between the story’s narrator and its reader or listener a new variety of emotional understanding based on empathy. And this, by its very nature, brings together and eliminates borders; it is very easy to lose track in a novel of the borders between the narrator’s self and the reader’s self, and a so-called “absorbing novel” actually counts on that border being blurred—on the reader, through empathy, becoming the narrator for a while. Thus literature has become a field for the exchange of experiences, an agora where everyone can tell of their own fate, or give voice to their alter ego.
  • Perhaps in order not to drown in the multiplicity of titles and last names we began to divide literature’s leviathan body into genres, which we treat like the various different categories of sports, with writers as their specially trained players.
  • A dream fulfilled is often disappointing. It has turned out that we are not capable of bearing this enormity of information, which instead of uniting, generalizing and freeing, has differentiated, divided, enclosed in individual little bubbles, creating a multitude of stories that are incompatible with one another or even openly hostile toward each other, mutually antagonizing.
  • I don’t want to sketch an overall vision of crisis in telling stories about the world. But I’m often troubled by the feeling that there is something missing in the world―that by experiencing it through glass screens, and through apps, somehow it becomes unreal, distant, two-dimensional, and strangely non-descript, even though finding any particular piece of information is astoundingly easy.
  • The flood of stupidity, cruelty, hate speech and images of violence are desperately counterbalanced by all sorts of “good news,” but it hasn’t the capacity to rein in the painful impression, which I find hard to verbalize, that there is something wrong with the world. Nowadays this feeling, once the sole preserve of neurotic poets, is like an epidemic of lack of definition, a form of anxiety oozing from all directions.
  • Literature is one of the few spheres that try to keep us close to the hard facts of the world, because by its very nature it is always psychological, because it focuses on the internal reasoning and motives of the characters, reveals their otherwise inaccessible experience to another person, or simply provokes the reader into a psychological interpretation of their conduct. Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.
  • To make it easier for us to cope with this we are given numbers, name tags, cards, crude plastic identities that try to reduce us to using one small part of the whole that we have already ceased to perceive.
  • I keep wondering if these days it’s possible to find the foundations of a new story that’s universal, comprehensive, all-inclusive, rooted in nature, full of contexts and at the same time understandable.
  • So it could be best to tell stories honestly in a way that activates a sense of the whole in the reader’s mind, that sets off the reader’s capacity to unite fragments into a single design, and to discover entire constellations in the small particles of events. To tell a story that makes it clear that everyone and everything is steeped in one common notion, which we painstakingly produce in our minds with every turn of the planet. Literature has the power to do this. We should drop the simplistic categories of highbrow and lowbrow literature, popular and niche, and take the division into genres very lightly. We should drop the definition of “national literatures,” knowing as we do that the universe of literature is a single thing, like the idea of unus mundus, a common psychological reality in which our human experience is united. The Author and the Reader perform equivalent roles, the former by dint of creating, the latter by making a constant interpretation.
  • I write fiction, but it is never pure fabrication. When I write, I have to feel everything inside myself. I have to let all the living beings and objects that appear in the book go through me, everything that is human and beyond human, everything that is living and not endowed with life. I have to take a close look at each thing and person, with the greatest solemnity, and personify them inside myself, personalize them.
  • Tenderness is the most modest form of love. It is the kind of love that does not appear in the scriptures or the gospels, no one swears by it, no one cites it. It has no special emblems or symbols, nor does it lead to crime, or prompt envy.
  • The climate emergency and the political crisis in which we are now trying to find our way, and which we are anxious to oppose by saving the world have not come out of nowhere. We often forget that they are not just the result of a twist of fate or destiny, but of some very specific moves and decisions―economic, social, and to do with world outlook (including religious ones). Greed, failure to respect nature, selfishness, lack of imagination, endless rivalry and lack of responsibility have reduced the world to the status of an object that can be cut into pieces, used up and destroyed.
  • That is why I believe I must tell stories as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part of it.
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