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Eva Stachniak: 'We live in a country that embodies the essence of the 21st century'

Eva Stachniak

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Eva Stachniak's novels include The Winter Palace, Empress of the Night and Garden of Venus. Born and raised in Poland, Stachniak has lived in Canada since 1981, and currently calls Toronto home. Her fifth novel, The Chosen Maiden, was recently published by Doubleday Canada.

Why did you write your new book?

The Chosen Maiden was born out of my fascination with Ballets Russes, a Russian dance company which, in the summer of 1909, took Paris by storm, and fundamentally transformed Western notions of modern art. I wrote it because, after over 30 years in Canada, I'm still exploring the encounters between East and West, their exhilarating possibilities and illuminating setbacks. My heroine, Bronislava (Bronia) Nijinska, the intended Chosen Maiden from the 1913 production of The Rite of Spring choreographed by her famous brother Vaslav, was a brilliant dancer and a ground-breaking choreographer. The tantalizing relationship between Bronia and Vaslav is one of the novel's main themes. Another is a life fuelled by a passion for art and lived in between cultures, languages and ideologies, against the backdrop of bloody political upheavals – two world wars and the Russian Revolution. With the Nijinsky men gone – by choice or tragic fate – it's the women who pick up the pieces. For me this makes The Chosen Maiden both personal and universal. Personal for it evokes the spirit of the Polish women who raised me, brave and nurturing, determined to wrench the slightest sliver of happiness from the hardest of times. Universal, for I see the very same spirit anywhere where women know that the survival of their families depends on them.

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Which country produces literature that you wish more people read?

Canada. We live in a country that embodies the essence of the 21st century. We are grappling with important moral choices: how to reconcile the sins of our colonial past with the desire to build a just society, how to bridge cultures and languages without losing our identity, how to prosper without destroying our soul. Wave after wave of immigrants and refugees come to live among us, with their stories and their points of view, making us examine and then re-examine who we are and who we want to become. We are relevant. We should be more widely read.

Who's your favourite villain in literature?

Mister Kurtz, who inhabits the heart of darkness in Joseph Conrad's timeless novel. Favourite because he is a chilling reminder of how thin a line is between a scholar with a charming fiancée and a man who surrounds himself with impaled heads. And how apparent virtues – the singleness of purpose, the drive to succeed – can make us shake hands with the devil.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Working on The Chosen Maiden made me reread Tolstoy, Vaslav Nijinsky's favourite writer, so – for now – Natasha Rostova from War and Peace is a character I wish I had written. We, readers, may recognize in her the force of life or the essence of Tolstoy's Russia, but she is never an abstraction. And what a marvelous dancer she is. Not just in the fashionable Imperial ballroom, but also in a peasant's hut where she instinctively performs a folk dance she has never seen before.

Is there a book you consider a guilty pleasure?

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Anne of Green Gables for every time I open it, it transports me right into my Polish childhood when I didn't even know that Lucy Maud Montgomery was a Canadian author. This is pure nostalgia reading. The image it evokes is of the desolate postwar Poland of ruins and communist propaganda while I am in Prince Edward Island, where the earth is the colour of rust and where my best friend, a red-haired orphan, assures me that imagination can transform any life, including mine.

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