Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Agata Izabela Brewer

Image is the book cover for THE HUNGER BOOK by Agata Izabela Brewer; title card for the new interview with Jodie Sadowsky.


In The Hunger Book: A Memoir from Communist Poland, Agata Izabela Brewer probes potent memories and delicacies from her Polish childhood in a home of maternal neglect and alcohol abuse. Expertly written and researched, with historical threads of Communism and the Chernobyl disaster, Brewer includes ten chapters themed around food and hunger (among them: “Mushrooms,” “Lard,” “Bread,” “Blood,” “Carp,” “Vodka”) to tell the story of her youth, which was “dust on empty shelves in grocery shops, queues for butter and meat in frost-sprinkled mornings, drunks sleeping in staircases of [her] cement Stalinist-style tower blocks, and civilians disappearing from [her] streets into unmarked vans.” Amid this bleak insecurity, Brewer endures devastating loneliness and deprivation as the fallout of her mother’s destructive addiction yet is warmly nourished by earnest grandparents who become her de facto caretakers. Brewer humbly weaves together the moments, morsels, and morels that helped her forge her unlikely path from instability to a tenured professorship in English at Indiana’s Wabash College, one of three remaining all-men’s liberal arts colleges in the US.

Winner of the 2022 Gournay Prize, The Hunger Book is part of a book series of 21st Century Essays by The Ohio State Press’s Mad Creek Books, described as a “vehicle to discover, publish, and promote some of the most daring, ingenious, and artistic nonfiction.”

I met Brewer virtually in a memoir course and connected with her drive to understand the impact of familial trauma and her willingness to explore forgiveness of a “broken yet beautiful” parent. We conducted this interview over e-mail.

—Jodie Sadowsky


Jodie Sadowsky: In The Hunger Book, we learn about your journey from Poland to a PhD program at the University of South Carolina. Your decision to study in the US was obviously an academic decision, but you also describe leaving Poland as an effort to escape your mother and save yourself, as you write to get “away from vodka on her breath, in her sweat, in her eyes.… Away from picking her up from sidewalks as neighbors’ kitchen curtains part and close.… Away from the prospect of one day being picked up from the gutter by my own child.” Can you tell us more about the evolution of both your scholarly work and creative writing?

Agata Izabela Brewer: It’s nearly impossible for me to say how much of my decision to study abroad was the result of my academic interests, which I had been developing for years by then, and how much this decision was driven by my desire to escape my toxic relationship with my mother. Both are true, really. I remember arriving at the tiny Columbia, South Carolina, airport in August 2002, walking on the steaming tarmac, and—despite the heat—feeling like I could breathe free, feeling my muscles unclench, my eyes open. I believe the physical distance between my mother and me opened something up in me, a previously locked-up inner chamber, and it felt like toxic vapors escaped my body. I filled that free space with reading literature, writing, teaching, and building relationships that turned out later to be long-lasting and meaningful.

As for my writing, I came to the US as an MFA student in fiction, but I soon switched to the PhD program in literature, with a minor in creative writing. Working on my doctoral thesis and then scholarly publications was intense, and I put creative writing on the back burner for a while. I missed it, though. Tenure gave me the privileged position to finally choose what my heart wanted to express rather than what my career path would benefit from. I returned to creative writing, though I never fully abandoned scholarship. But there was this nagging voice inside me, a feeling that I needed to explore things on the page that had nothing to do with James Joyce or postcolonial theory, especially after my mother died. So I listened to the voice and started writing The Hunger Book.


JS: You compassionately search for glimpses of your mother’s humanity: her love for animals, her sensitivity, and her creativity. She taught high school English in Poland during your childhood. Do you credit her for your interest in studying and teaching literature and/or your gift with language?

AIB: I do. She had so much tenderness for dogs, cats, rats, and bugs, so much creative energy that she expressed in her piano practice, her sewing, her conversations about books with other adults. She also taught me my very first words in English, though later on, as I refused to sit down with her for grammar drills, she signed me up for English lessons in a private language school. Since she paid for the lessons, I felt like I had no choice but to study. The plan to teach came later, sometime in college, and I guess that my grandpa’s and mother’s teaching careers were an influence here as well.


JS: The fragmented form of your memoir seems to reflect your life experience in piecing together memories, research, and personal reflection. How did your writing evolve into a memoir-in-essays with chapters themed around food, rather than a more conventional chronological telling? 

AIB: The book started as an essay. I didn’t think at first that I wanted to write a book about food and motherhood. I was working on a couple of scholarly projects, and at that time I thought I needed to focus on meeting the tenure requirements of my institution. But the subject called to me again and again, and I finally gave in. So initially, I thought I’d just write an essay and return to James Joyce and J. M. Coetzee. But with each sentence, it became clearer that to say all I wanted to say and to explore all the nuances of addiction and the horrors of living with an unstable mother, I would need more space than twenty pages. I was struggling with complex grief after my mother’s death—a kind of longing for a mother I never had, shame that I felt relief when she was gone, desire to uncover the crumbs of happiness that she gave me. I wrote another essay. Then another. And at some point, I knew they would form a book.

As for naming the chapters with food items, I needed a container for the fragmented memories I was exploring, a glue. My grandma’s food was already quite prominent in these essays, as was foraging for mushrooms, so I decided to treat the meals that gave me joy and sustenance when I was a child as form-giving metaphors.


JS: You write that “research cannot fill in the black holes in [your] memory,” but your exceptional research—from the genetics of alcoholism to the effects of Chernobyl to the underground communication of mushrooms—left me convinced you must also have PhDs in psychology, chemistry, and botany. How do you explain your curiosity, and what helped bring you the greatest clarity (and/or healing) about your childhood?

AIB: Curiosity certainly powers research, but so does procrastination. You know, when you dread delving deep into a traumatic memory, research is an escape. It’s a safe space where you can become a semi-expert in epigenetics or nuclear fusion, a space far removed from the pain and uncertainty surrounding your memories. On the one hand, I felt I needed to know more about the disease of alcoholism and about violence and totalitarianism because they were part of the story, and I wanted to present these topics accurately. At some point, though, I realized that research was also an excuse for me to stay away from my own writing. I decided then that I would treat submission deadlines for publications and contests as an incentive to finish the damn writing rather than sit in a cocoon of books and periodicals.


JS: Which essayists or memoirists influenced your creative nonfiction writing, or would you recommend to readers seeking more books like yours?

AIB: I read a wide variety of memoir styles, and I’m not sure which influenced my own writing the most. I feel strongly that writers should immerse themselves in all genres and voices because we never know what will become formative or inspirational. Casting a wide net allows for a kind of serendipity that doesn’t happen when our reading is narrowly confined to just one author or style. Early on, I read a lot of J. M. Coetzee, both fiction and nonfiction. Also, Mary Karr and Leslie Jamison, Alison Bechdel and Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Roxane Gay—the list goes on and on. Fiction by Octavia Butler, N. K. Jemisin, Tana French, Damon Galgut. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Polish fiction and poetry, Senegalese prose in translation. And quilting blogs. Have I already mentioned those?


JS: Do you just read the quilting blogs, or do you also quilt? My goodness. The cooking, the sourdoughing, the writing, the teaching, the parenting. Anything you struggle to make time for? Any guidance for making time for creative endeavors?

AIB: Haha! I haven’t quilted a thing yet, and I don’t even own a sewing machine, but a few years ago I started saving select baby and toddler clothes my kids grew out of, with the idea that one day I would make a quilt out of them. Fast forward to 2024, and I’m still at the stage of seam-ripping, which—by the way—I highly recommend as a meditative, relaxing evening activity. So, for now, I’m just learning from blogs about the quilt-as-you-go technique and preparing the materials. My mind needs a grounding activity and quietness. During the summer, I have my garden, which gives me enough solitude and tactile, repetitive work to bring some balance to my hectic life. In the middle of a frigid spell in my rural Indiana home, though, I find substitutes for weeding, pruning, and watering. After my kids are in bed, I sew by hand (and remember that it was my mother who taught me the basics), bake, or pull out a coloring book. With a stinky, snoring, adorable dog by my side, those evenings help me recharge for the following day.


JS: I loved reading in the chapter titled “Carp” that your grandfather served as a mentor and court advocate for troubled youth. How has this work also become part of your life?

AIB: I volunteer as a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate for children) and as a chair of the Immigrant Allies committee of a local nonprofit, Humans United for Equality. When I first moved to rural Indiana, I thought I’d never belong and never feel welcome here. But I gave it a try. I started volunteering to connect with the people outside of the college gates to get to know my community better. I started Immigrant Allies after Trump’s presidential win in 2016, and after an ICE raid on a local business, after which family members of some immigrants couldn’t find their loved ones. My own experience as an immigrant who, nevertheless, can pass as a local—at least until I open my mouth and my accent betrays me—was the impetus for that work. As for the CASA work, I believe that, subconsciously, my difficult childhood influenced my desire to help kids who had been removed from their homes. I visit the kids, their biological and foster parents, the teachers, social workers, etc., and then I represent the kids’ best interest in court. It is often emotionally draining, but also meaningful and rewarding, especially when I see the kids reunited with their parents or adopted by loving families.


JS: The tenderness you have for your brother in your shared childhood as well as across your independent paths in adulthood is present in every essay, and makes your dedication “for Tomek, whenever you’re ready” quite moving. How did you navigate this difficult part of writing a memoir, what you describe as having to “dig, hunt, and disturb the quiet surface” of your family’s life?

AIB: From the start, I decided that I would never include anything in my book that my brother wouldn’t want in print. Sometimes I made assumptions, and other times I simply asked whether it was okay for me to reveal a detail from our childhood or adolescence that included Tomek. I felt like I was walking on eggshells, though, every time I did ask him, because I knew he wasn’t interested in revisiting these moments himself. It was a difficult balance to achieve: not to disturb him with memories from the past, but also to include him in some decisions.

Before the memoir went to print, I dedicated it to him, my cosurvivor, my confidante, and, eventually, my protector. But I also didn’t want to pressure him into reading the book, worried that it would open old wounds that can be hard to heal without professional help. I did send a copy to him, though. He read it right away. And he’s now encouraging me to find a Polish translator for the book.


AGATA IZABELA BREWER is a winner of the Gournay Prize (2022) and Black Warrior Review’s Creative Nonfiction Prize (2019), as well as author of The Hunger Book: A Memoir from Communist Poland. Agata lives in Indiana, where she teaches at Wabash College and volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. She is the founder and chair of Immigrant Allies. Find her @agatabrewer on Twitter.

JODIE SADOWSKY is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Her writing focuses on her life’s most defining roles: daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, writer, reader. By extension, her work focuses on family, relationships, and books, and has been published at CNN, Business Insider, and The Forward. Find her @lovethemmadly on Twitter and Instagram.