Doctor of Letters, honoris causa (2022)
“Life always managed to elude me. I’d only ever find its tracks, the skin it sloughed off. By the time I had determined its location, it had already gone somewhere else. And all I’d find were signs that it had been there, like those scrawlings on the trunks of trees in parks that merely mark a person’s passing presence.” This passage from Dr Olga Nawoja Tokarczuk’s award-winning novel Flights captures one of her main goals in writing, which is to seize life as it unfolds through incomplete stories and dreamlike tales that show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas. Tokarczuk is noted for the mythical tone of her writing. Trained as a clinical psychologist from the University of Warsaw, she turned instead to become a writer of poems, novels, and shorter prose works.
Today, Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s most celebrated and beloved authors. In 2019, she was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature as the first female Polish prose writer. The Nobel committee praised her novels and short stories for representing “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” Her novel Flights won her the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, as well as her country’s highest literary honour, the Nike Literary Award. In fact, she won the Nike Literary Award twice for her novels Flights and The Books of Jacob in 2008 and 2015 respectively. She also won the Nike Readers’ Choice Award five times, with her novel Primeval and Other Times being the award’s first recipient ever. In 2015, she received the German-Polish Bridge Prize for contribution to the mutual understanding between European nations. And in 2020, Tokarczuk received the title of an Honorary Citizen of Warsaw as a recognition of her literary achievements. In all, she is the author of eight novels and two short story collections, and many of them have been translated into almost 40 languages, making her one of the most translated contemporary Polish writers.
Tokarczuk was born in Sulechów near Zielona Góra in western Poland. A daughter of two teachers, she found her love of literature at a young age through her frequent visit to a school library run by his father. Drawn particularly to fairy tales, she began to read the works of another famous Polish Nobel Laureate, Henryk Sienkiewicz. She also recalled receiving as a child her mother’s poem about swimming in the ocean, about keeping strong in the water. She was always taught to develop an inner source of strength. At the age of 17, Tokarczuk debuted with two short stories published in a youth scouting magazine. A year later, she went on to study clinical psychology at the University of Warsaw. It has been told that Tokarczuk considered herself a disciple of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and cited his important insights in psychology as an inspiration for her literary work. For 10 years from the late 1980s onward, she published poems and reviews in the press alongside her work as a psychotherapist and teacher’s trainer. Eventually, she quit to concentrate on literature and went for literary scholarships in the United States in 1996 and in Germany in 2001/02.
In various interviews, Tokarczuk talked about how writing is a constant act of invention, so “in a way I don’t have any holidays, I don’t have empty days,” she said. Her books are about curiosity, mobility, and people looking for meanings. She refers to her technique as “constellation”, an original form that allows the reader to draw their own lines and form their own pictures. For instance, she termed her 1998 novel House of Day, House of Night a “constellation novel”, a patchwork of loosely connected disparate stories, sketches, and essays about life past and present. Her goal was to make those images, fragments of narrative and motif, merge together only upon entering the reader’s consciousness.
One of Tokarczuk’s translators, Jennifer Croft, regards her books as “compelling and entertaining at the same time, so accessible and inviting, which is Olga’s signature.” Speaking of translation, Tokarczuk has once called her translators “gods”, co-creators who are like gardeners because they take her Polish texts, rework them, and then plant them in the soil of other cultures and languages. In her acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet in December 2019, she paid special homage to her translators in her characteristic sense of humour: “I…owe a great deal to my translators. They will… catch every little inconsistency, and they’ll kick up a fuss about every mistake I make.” Like all great writers, Tokarczuk realises deeply that writers and artists are never individuals unconnected to a community of other creators.
With such a belief, she gives back to the community of other writers, near and far. Since 2015, Tokarczuk has been the co-host of the annual Literary Heights Festival, which has included a rich programme of cultural events taking place in her own village. And in 2019, she donated a portion of her Nobel Prize money to establish the Olga Tokarczuk Foundation for a planned wide range of educational programmes, writing contests and public debates, as well as providing scholarships for young aspiring writers and international writers’ residencies. With the Foundation, she has devoted herself to creating a progressive intellectual and artistic centre in her home country and beyond.
Tokarczuk visited Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) in 2008 through the annual visiting writers’ programme of the International Writers’ Workshop (IWW) organised by the Faculty of Arts. During her month-long residence in Hong Kong, she met the HKBU community of creative writers, literature lovers among the general public, local writers and mainland Chinese students from Shandong University and Beijing Normal University – Hong Kong Baptist University United International College at the IWW events.
Tokarczuk is an avid traveller who has developed the magical form of constellation consciousness to capture life’s fascinating fragments. We return to her novel Flights, where she wrote, “Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realised that—in spite of all the risks involved—a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence.” In recognition of her many esteemed literary achievements, her unique voice that crosses boundaries as a continuously moving form of life, and her passion and commitment to nurture other writers and artists, HKBU is pleased to award Dr Olga Nawoja Tokarczuk with the Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.