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Wioletta Greg reflects on her life and RLF grant experience

Author Wioletta Greg and the cover of her 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel, Swallowing Mercur
  • 20 May, 2024
  • Wioletta Greg

Wioletta Greg – author of the 2017 Booker International Prize-longlisted Swallowing Mercury – was born in 1974. She grew up in a small village on the edge of the Jurassic Upland in the south of what was then Communist Poland, before moving to the UK in 2006. Of her childhood, she says:

My family was very poor. My mum was a manual worker, and my father was a taxidermist – he stuffed birds and worked at the nearest papermill. My grandparents farmed. We didn’t even have a bathroom at the time. We carried water from the well. We lived on a small farm; we had a cow, chickens, ducks, rabbits and a goat. I took care of the animals, but I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to leave my village. I read a lot of books.

Fast forward a few years, and Wioletta arrived on the Isle of Wight with her then-ten-year-old son. She initially spoke no English and life was challenging. In Poland, she had worked in a bookshop and had several volumes of poetry published, but in the UK finding a job was hard, money was tight, and making time to write was almost impossible. So after her second child, a daughter, was born in the Isle of Wight’s capital town of Newport, Wioletta began working at a local McDonalds to support her family.

“In Poland, I used to write poetry. But there I was: frying fries, wiping dust from cabinets, and mopping the floor,” Wioletta says. “As an immigrant writer, I knew I needed to find a new genre.”

So, Wioletta wrote something new: a novella, Swallowing Mercury, inspired by her rural childhood during the last years of Communist Poland. Originally written in Polish, Swallowing Mercury was translated by Eliza Marciniak and released in 2017, when it was longlisted for the Booker International Prize.

But despite this success, Wioletta felt isolated. Another move – this time from the Isle of Wight to the UK mainland – might, she thought, be the answer.

“It was early in the spring of 2020. I was preparing to travel with my daughter, dog and cat, to begin this new chapter in my life. But the world was just at the beginning of a quickly-spreading global pandemic, Covid-19. I managed to get onto the last ferry to Southampton,” she says.

The timing of this move started a series of events that culminated in Wioletta applying for a Royal Literary Fund hardship grant.

“I arrived in Hastings and found the flat I had planned to rent wasn’t available. I didn’t know where to go, and I was on my own with my daughter. I ended up in a women’s shelter. We spent nearly a year there. It was a difficult time,” Wioletta says.

Wioletta’s grant application was accepted, and with the money she received she was able to improve her circumstances.

“I now live in a flat in Lewes, East Sussex,” she tells us. “As soon as I got off at the train station holding my suitcase, I knew I belonged here by the River Ouse, and the money I received from the RLF has helped me make my home. I’ve been able to improve the conditions of my life, take better care of my health, and pay my bills, which has also given me time to write and finish a new novel.”

“The RLF grant helped raised my self-confidence as a writer and an immigrant. I feel even more connected to the United Kingdom thanks to this grant.”

With thanks to Wioletta Greg for sharing her experiences. You can find out more about Wioletta on her website.

If you are a writer facing financial hardship, you can apply for an RLF grant here.

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