Everyone was from Somewhere Else: An Interview with Martyna Majok
When Martyna Majok won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year for Cost of Living, she quickly became known as a playwright who spotlights perspectives not often seen on American stages. But the Polish-born writer has long been telling stories about immigrants, women, the working class, and people with disabilities; to her, these stories are more than just that of marginalized voices, they are the experiences of her friends and family.
We first met Martyna last year, when the Vilcek Foundation supported a production of her most recent play, Queens, at Lincoln Center Theater. Recently, we spoke to her over email about growing up in New Jersey, writing in “broken” English, and how immigrants measure time. Read her interview below, and visit TCG Books for a copy of her award-winning play!
Photo courtesy of Tess Mayer.
Tell us about your own immigration story.
I was born in Bytom, Poland — an urban, industrial coal-mining region in the south of the country. When I was young, my mother left for America and I lived with my grandparents in Poland until she returned and moved us to New Jersey. My mother worked in factories and cleaned houses. My stepfather worked in construction. My half-sister was born in Newark, the first person in our family to be born in America. All of the rest of my family lives in Poland.
We grew up in a multicultural neighborhood in Jersey, a bridge or tunnel away from New York City. We were mostly immigrants or the kids of immigrants. English was spoken at school, and other languages were spoken at home. This was my understanding of America — everyone was from somewhere else.
How has that understanding of the U.S. factored into your playwriting?
I think my immigrant background will always influence my writing. Because of money, my mother and I weren’t able to go back to Poland as often as we would have liked when I was growing up. Some of my family would come over to America to work temporarily — there was often an uncle or an aunt or a friend from Poland on our couch, working construction or cleaning houses to bring money home. But it was difficult to make trips back. I was lucky to go to university and grad school on scholarship, but I chose to pursue playwriting, and the income I was making was only enough to survive on.
A number of years went by like that, and then family members who I was once very close to passed away. I wasn’t able to go to their funerals, and I realized that I had, by default, made a choice to pursue a career instead of seeing my family. I feel terrible about this. When I won the Playwrights of New York (PoNY) Fellowship in 2015, the first thing I did was buy tickets to go to Poland. And when I got there, I saw how life had gone on without me. A lot was too late. The connections had frayed. My family and I had grown apart. I love them very much and we keep in contact. But I can’t get those years back. I think of all of the adults I grew up with who left their home countries to resettle in America. I think of the things they had given up. I think about what my mother gave up. I think my past few plays have been wondering about this too. I find myself most drawn to stories that question and pursue home and belonging. Maybe it will be the thing I’m always somewhat in conversation with.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Rader.
What about its influence on the language of your plays? The dialogue for many of your immigrant characters is a very nuanced and precise version of English.
I see beauty and potential in what others might consider “broken” language. English was a second language for many of the families I grew up with. The parents needed to get right to work once they arrived in America and learned English through living and working (or at home, from us kids who were sent to public school). Sometimes a person’s particular way of seeing the world felt like it translated more truthfully, directly, and poetically than maybe if it were spoken with perfect “proper” English.
Another influence is the sense of humor I grew up around in a working-class, multicultural immigrant neighborhood. I think humor is one of the best tools we have to disarm each other and welcome others into an experience of life they might not think they relate to — or might even resist. I always think about that in writing. I learned early on — in life and in writing — that if I wanted people to listen, I had to make them laugh.
Some of your plays include big jumps in time; is time an important aspect in telling immigrant stories?
I suspect many immigrants measure time in place. When I was here. When I was there. Even the construction of those sentences. When I was Here. When I was There. When I was. I was. I think I organize my past in places. When I’m taking stock, I look at the scenes of my life from The There and The Then in juxtaposition with The Here and The Now. Who Then and Who Now and How. And how to hold it all in one person.
I think whenever you’ve left someplace, you live with “what ifs.” I wonder what this different version of Martyna Majok might have been if she’d never left Poland. (I wonder this especially when things aren’t going well for me in America.) What might she be doing with her life? Would she be a playwright? I think about her like a separate person. Would she have moved somewhere else as an adult? Would she have stayed in Poland? If I were born a little later, would my mother have gone to Britain instead of America after Poland joined the EU? Would she be Polish-British now? I am who I am because of my specific experiences and I wouldn’t change them. … I wouldn’t change most of them. But I do wonder. Then I wonder why I wonder and whether whatever I’m yearning after is still something I can achieve right now, as the person I am, in the country I’m living.
Photo courtesy of Erin Baiano.
How did it feel to win the Pulitzer Prize for Cost of Living?
It was a complete surprise. I was supposed to be at jury duty but I postponed it to do my taxes, which were due the next day. I was an hour or so into gathering my 1099s when my agent called. There was screaming on the other end of the phone. “Martyna! You won the Pulitzer!” I thought he was joking. I actually got mad at him because I genuinely thought he was messing with me. Then as soon as I hung up, I saw I had 12 texts — the first being from Stephen Adly Guirgis — and I knew it was for real. I called my agent right back to lovingly apologize and ask where we were drinking — after my husband and I filed for an extension on our taxes.
I highly recommend winning a Pulitzer Prize. It felt amazing. It was an incredible otherworldly, emotional explosion of joy — and also quite strange. Because many things changed, but also nothing changed at all. I have my same doubts and hopes. I’m beyond grateful and happy about the award, but what I write about and how I write hasn’t necessarily changed. I celebrated and got back to work. Where I feel especially great pride and joy is in the validation of working-class narratives — among other narratives — in Cost of Living. I hope the award encourages theatres to seek out and produce more plays like this. And for audiences to recognize the worth of these kinds of stories. And lives.
What is it like to be an immigrant playwright during these times?
It manifests strongest in an awareness of the many people who are not afforded a platform to speak right now.
But it’s also been hopeful. And what I hope is that, in some small way, these plays can contribute to the widening of a lens. I hope people can be seen and made to feel seen — specifically in their experiences and universally as humans striving for the best possible versions of their lives. When I began writing plays, it was other people who first told me I was writing about immigrants (and the low-income and women, etc). But, to me, I was writing about my friends and family. To me, these were always personal stories. They’re the stories of a large group of varied people about whom a small fraction of this country is making policy or writing headlines. As someone who has lived and witnessed a version of this experience, it motivates me to contribute to the stories being told.
Photo courtesy of Erin Baiano.
What’s next for you? Are you working on any new projects?
I’m writing the book and lyrics for an original musical about Chernobyl (it’s been a passion project of mine for a long time), as well as the book for another musical. I’m preparing for my next play, Sanctuary City, which will be produced at New York Theatre Workshop. I have two projects in TV and one in film. And I’m hoping to start a new play in June. And, hopefully, to spend some time with the people I love.
2019 Vilcek Prizewinners
Congratulations to the remarkable biomedical scientists and culinary artists who have been awarded the 2019 Vilcek Foundation Prizes! Learn more about their incredible accomplishments.