“What’s the point of going home if nobody is there?” Agata Izabela Brewer asks in the opening pages of her memoir, The Hunger Book: A Memoir from Communist Poland. She’s narrating a dream of dreadful abandonment, in which she holds hands with her brother, mushroom hunting while her family disappears behind them leaving them alone in the dark forest, but the sentiment refers to many of the book’s main themes: Poland’s difficult history, her mother’s absence through alcohol addiction and suicidal depression, and the author’s emigration to escape her mother’s toxic grip, only to learn she cannot be left behind. But the memoir is nevertheless a homecoming—not of the nostalgic, joyful kind, but the type that involves clearing out an apartment and its basement after someone’s death or a decision to end a relationship: a tidying up with the hope of understanding and forgiving.
As she narrates the childhood in communist Poland, teen years in its crumbling political system and the wild west of post-communism, Britain and the US, Brewer describes a coming of age in fear of addiction, teetering on its edge. The deeply moving narrative fuses the personal and the critical—the author is now an English professor in Indiana—and layers meditations on mothering and motherly autonomy, nurturing and food allergies, embodied and intergenerational trauma with traditional Polish recipes, literary and cinematic inspirations, research on wartime nutrition and post-war hunger, availability of food and drink historically, and especially during late twentieth century. There are photos of the author as a baby in Mother’s embrace or as a big-eyed child with her younger brother she mothered in Mother’s stead. The wealth of references does not overwhelm but melds seamlessly with a meditation on home, family and belonging because our vocabulary for food is so deeply metaphorical: root vegetables and family and cultural roots, blood sausage and blood connecting families. Even the toxicity of the toadstool—a fanciful late Middle English name for the poisonous mushroom known as fly agaric, which in Polish translates into fly killer—which returns like a refrain in this narrative, allows for a reflection on the complex power of our closest relationships.
For someone who lived in Poland in the late 1980s, the book evokes viscerally remembered historical moments, including the Martial Law and food shortages, bread lines and the Chernobyl disaster with its iodine shot, music and songs, books and cartoons, foods, and smells. This powerful appeal to the senses is one the memoir’s greatest strengths. The clearing out happens also in the body with the harrowing process of therapy and healing from trauma of a neglectful and violent Mother, the antagonist. As the dirty hand holding a toadstool on the book cover suggests, there is much digging in the ground here, weeding, foraging for mushrooms, and this getting dirty mirrors the relationship to the body and what it remembers.
The recipes for chicken liver, potato dumplings, lard spread, fermented rye soup, or fish aspic take the reader to the core of Polish cuisine, but while the memoir focuses on food, it also is a book about drink: the staggering statistics of alcohol addiction in the communist and post-communist Poland, the language created around the realities of underground alcohol sellers and producers, the smuggled alcohol from the East. Perhaps it’s alcohol that’s the metaphorical fly killer in the narrative as it promises connection and relief from reality but leads to alienation and a lonely death in a melina. Imagining Mother’s last moments comes as one of the book’s emotional crescendos, especially interspersed with the intake notes from psychiatric hospitals after her suicide attempts. “I assessed my situation as meaningless,” Mother is reported to state in one.
If memoir writing is about making meaning out of memories, and good nonfiction is about living in someone else’s head for the spell of a narrative, you will be glad you spent time in the thoughtful, insightful mind of Agata Izabela Brewer, digging for meaning.
The Hunger Book: A Memoir from Communist Poland
By Agata Izabela Brewer
Ohio State University Press
Published September 29, 2023
Ania Spyra is an immigrant writer and educator. She grew up in a trilingual home in Polish Upper Silesia, studied in Stockholm and Iowa City, and now lives in Indianapolis where she is Demia Butler Chair in English at Butler University. Her recent nonfiction and visual poetry can be found in, among others, Colorado Review, Indianapolis Review, Critical Read, and Guernica. Find her at www.aniaspyra.com.