Book Review: OBJECTS OF AFFECTION by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough

Objects of Affection 
by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough
Braddock Avenue Books, 2018

Polish-born Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has made a life out of translating, that fraught, “imperfect art which depends on what Czesław Miłosz called ‘the conscious acceptance of imperfect solutions.’” It’s the leveling of two languages and two cultures on ground foreign to each, at minimum a compromise and at most a deliberate marriage of the two. One might understand her debut collection of essays Objects of Affection as a reckoning or a theory of translation— a translation that extends far beyond the written word and into the realms of identity, memory, and what it means to be an immigrant. Through eighteen essays, the focuses of which span favorite authors, childhood memories, Poland’s history of war and communism, family, transforming nationalities, swimming, and even hairstyles, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough presents the reader with a lovely, complex reflection on what it means to bridge worlds.

One of Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s greatest strength is undoubtedly her ability to weave many threads subtly through the varying subjects of each essay. In “Afloat,” for example, which is ostensibly about swimming, the author reflects on the lakes and pools of her childhood in Poland before transitioning to the Massachusetts pond where she now swims. With all the artistry of a poet (which Hryniewicz-Yarbrough repeatedly assures us she is not), she explains that “no other activity makes us enter an alien element the way swimming does,” echoing back her earlier meditations on immigration, on immersing herself in an environment unfamiliar to her and adopting unfamiliar language and customs in the process.

Objects of Affection is salient not only because it represents the oft-demonized perspective of an immigrant at this particular moment in history, but also because Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s biographical essays function simultaneously as an invaluable firsthand account of Polish history. The reader gains so much insight from these pages about what it means to grow up in a country defined by its past of war, one where the threat of future turmoil lingers even during the calm. Echoes of the author’s upbringing among Polish communism and war-paranoia are unavoidably present in each essay. In “My War Zone,” Hryniewicz-Yarbrough recalls childhood games parodying Nazi invasions, and her youthful imaginings of America and Australia as impervious safe-spaces, which later transforms into a reflection on the effects of 9/11. Other essays—“In Zbigniew Herbert’s Garden,” “Objects of Affection,” “Our Daily Drink”—utilize a favorite childhood writer, the author’s love of antiques, and a discussion of beverages she used to drink in Poland to analyze her personal experiences of freedom and choice after moving from a communist country to a free market economy.

Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has lived always in the crossroads and the in-betweens of communism and capitalism, of the “old” and “new” Europe divided by the fall of the Iron Curtain, of Poland and America. Interpreting her beloved author Zbigniew Herbert, she writes of “otherness as something positive that allows the traveler to notice what natives can no longer see. … Otherness has two senses: [immigrants/travelers] are obviously ‘the other,’ but the world we encounter is also ‘the other.’” The author credits her “outsider” position—one that never fully goes away, no matter how long she has lived in the United States, no matter how long she has stood at the axis between English and Polish—for rendering her as uniquely external to all of the things about which she writes. This vantage point grants her the ability to evaluate them at a distance that those of more singular identities are unable to. In Objects of Affection, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough transposes that balancing act between seemingly contradictory identities and experiences into the written word, into a collection that is as treasured for its beauty in prose as for its insights. She has achieved, then, a most glorious act of translation, a reconciliation of complexities that speaks many mouths into one voice.


Filed under: Book Review, Prose