Andrew J. Borkowski’s short story collection Copernicus Avenue, set in Toronto’s post-war Polish community, won the 2012 Toronto Book Award and was shortlisted for the 2012 Danuta Gleed Literary Award for short fiction. His journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Forum, Quill & Quire, TV Guide, and the Los Angeles Times. He sent us this dispatch from a strange land familiar to many writers: the time between books.
From the Corner of Copernicus and Sweeney
My upcoming gig at the Brockton Writers’ Series finds me at an interesting juncture in my writing career. For the past three years, I’ve been dining out on Copernicus Avenue, my debut story collection which got great reviews and won the Toronto Book Award in 2012. I went deep into my personal roots on that book. The stories were inspired by my youth in Toronto’s Polish community on Roncesvalles Avenue. For that reason, it’s been a hard book to leave behind.
A degree of literary success raises creative issues that don’t even occur to you when you’re labouring in an obscurity that, with hindsight, can seem a little blissful once the “business” of writing gets its hooks into you. Copernicus Avenue drew comparisons with Mordecai Richler’s work, Roncesvalles being my counterpart to his St. Urbain. The Globe and Mail even suggested it did for the neighbourhood what James Joyce’s Dubliners did for that city—heady stuff which, of course, tickled me greatly.
People want to know if there’s a son or daughter of Copernicus on the way, and it has given me pause. Am I betraying my “brand” if I stray from the literary “turf” I’ve “staked out” for myself?
I can rationalize all I want on the business side, but in the end it’s the work that has the final say. The novel I’m working on now was well underway when Copernicus Avenue was published, and it insists on being written. It explores the other half of my heritage. While the “s-k-i” at the end of my surname has staked me to my Polish heritage for most of my life, I’m actually half English; my mum was born in Weston to parents hailing from West Yorkshire.
Being crusty Yorkshire folk who’d toiled in the mills from the age of twelve, my grandparents looked on their Englishness with a jaundiced eye, and my mum identified as a proud Canadian. It wasn’t until I lived in the U.K. at the height of the Thatcher era that I realized just how English I really was—with my taste for stodgy food, warm beer, dry humour, and eccentric behaviour. Watching Thatcherite realpolitik play out in streets, in the pubs, and at nightclubs and festivals, I witnessed the devastating effects of three hundred years of class-based thinking. I was startled to recognize how, a continent away and two generations later, that history had infiltrated my own psyche. And I still need to make sense of the 1980s, the decade in which the world I hoped to inherit went horribly askew. So The Frenzy of Mad Sweeney, as I’m calling my novel-in-progress, must have its say.
The reading at Brockton finds me straddling two worlds. I’ll be offering readers a glimpse up both thoroughfares and into the weird cultural conjunction that is my literary lot in life.
Andrew J. Borkowski visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, January 7, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Lee Maracle and Andrea Thompson. The event begins with a special guest talk by Jack Illingworth, Literary Officer at the Ontario Arts Council, about applying for the writing grants the organization provides.