speech delivered during the award ceremony of the City of Gdańsk Literary Award European Poet of Freedom (19/04/2024)

Where are we? We have discovered extrasolar planets, we are working on nuclear fusion to give us stellar energy, we have been observing the universe almost since the Big Bang and know its thirteen-billion-years-long history, we are observing the formation of the first galaxies, our phones and computers are constantly connecting us with each other and relaying information to us, we ask questions to CHAT GPT and he/she/it writes and translates for us. Ten years ago, all this seemed impossible.

At least 1,139 people were killed in the Hamas attack on Israel. At the same time, more than 30,000 people have already been killed in Gaza to date. More than 12,000 children have been killed in Gaza. Friends tell me that on 19 April 2024, Mercury is in retrograde. 828 million people are starving. 400 women have been murdered in Croatia over the past two decades. The war in Ukraine has been going on for three years. During this war, in the middle of Europe, hundreds of children have been killed and thousands kidnapped. More than 10,000 civilians have lost their lives, half a million soldiers have been killed or seriously wounded. In Croatia, one woman experiences violence every fifteen minutes. Abortion is illegal in Poland. Since 2014, the International Organisation for Migration has recorded 48,231 refugee deaths, meaning that at least 16 people die every day. The Mediterranean Sea has become a vast tomb, our rivers have become tombs because Europe has closed its borders.

In December 2021, Rahime, a 10-year-old refugee girl, drowned in the Dragonja River. Her mother could not save her because she was holding two other children besides her in the overflowing river. She had to make a decision. She decided to hold on tighter to the other two, smaller children who had no chance. Rahime never fell madly in love, never had time to decide whether she wanted to become a doctor or a poet, never partied until early in the morning, with her furious mother waiting for her at home, never got drunk, never went on a trip without a purpose, never had time to feel the madness of adolescence, to mature, to discover who she really was and who she could become.

In the book If This Is a Man, Primo Levi describes a dream that shook him more than the horrors he experienced in the concentration camps. In this dream, he tries to talk to his family, but no one hears him, no one listens to him or believes him. It is this inability to be heard, to communicate one’s truth, that brings pain which may cause even more severe wounds than those inflicted on our bodies and imprinted in our memories. Today, on 19 April 2024 – can we hear?

Events we cannot turn into stories do not become memories. This is what happens when we are quite young and cannot yet tell what we experience or when we experience powerful traumas. Our individual and collective history depends on whether and how we tell our stories. This is an enormous power. He who speaks, he who writes, creates and builds anew. Who we are and who we will be in the future, as well as what we once were, is the story we tell ourselves. There is no event that two people will tell the same story about.

My mother Mara gave birth to me on 19 October 1990, at the beginning of the war. We grew up without a place to call home, in poverty and exile, wandering for most of my childhood. Those years were marked by deprivation, but my mother, resourceful and rebellious, unknowingly taught me the power of women. In these inhuman conditions, she managed to raise four children, all of whom became independent, honest, just, good people. This is my mother’s greatest success, far more important than the fact we have achieved far more in our careers than she could have dreamed of. My parents did not have books, I’m a child from the countryside, from the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Mum hasn’t bought herself any new clothes in thirty years. She has finished eight grades of primary school and can barely read. Last year I took her to the seaside for the first time in almost thirty years. I was one of those children who theoretically didn’t have a chance, so I stand here before you today as an exception, privileged in comparison to the children and young people who are starving in war zones, who are in refugee camps on the borders, experiencing poverty. 333 million children live in absolute poverty. The problem of poverty and class disparity is still one of the most pressing issues; so many poets, painters and brilliant mathematicians will never have a chance. That is why, for me, poetry is not silence. For me, poetry and literature are a place of change, of defiance and questioning. A place where I can believe in tenderness as the primary language of the world, in compassion as its driving force that can give us a better future. Poetry doesn’t have to be the truth, but it does have to be honest. To connect the outer world with our inner worlds, to unite what is intellectual and emotional in us – to constantly challenge our desire to remain in our comfort zone.

Poetry is my bike, it’s the trees I like to hug, my friends, the occasional drunkenness, partying until dawn, my children, all my loves, the things that hurt me, the things I’ve overcome, my mum. Poetry is the people who believe in me and in whom I believe, who have become my home and family. I wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t for my friends. Poetry is about believing in community, because we are not alone and should not accept loneliness. Poetry is about finding the human in each person. Poetry is about not accepting indifference, every day.

And since we are talking about poetry, Europe and freedom, today, on 19 April 2024, I ask you to feel. To empathise. To hug our friends and loved ones, those we consider family. To say every day that we love. To declare that we are anti-fascists and feminists. Fight for women’s rights and equality. Fight for LGBT rights. Condemn chauvinism and xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Condemn racism. Condemn the Hamas attack in Israel. Condemn every kind of terrorism. Know that one evil never justifies another. Condemn the killing of civilians in Gaza and the violence that Israel is now using against Palestine. To continue to stand with the people of Ukraine, to be on the side of the people of Gaza. To stand on the side of all people who are different and suffer persecution because of this, because of their sexuality, religion or skin colour. To condemn the violence at Europe’s borders against refugees, because of which people are dying and dying every day. I do not believe in a god or gods, but I still believe in humankind. Let us not turn our heads. Let us not be silent.