BackStory: Five Questions with Slawka G. Scarso
Author of 54.7754° N, 31.7890° E, April of 1940
What inspired you to write ‘54.7754° N, 31.7890° E, April of 1940’?
This piece was inspired by the massacre of Katyn, which took place between April and May 1940. During this period, around 22,000 officers and other members of the Polish intelligentsia were killed by the Soviets in Katyn but also in Kharkov and Kalinin (the largest mass graves were however in Katyn, hence the choice of the name). My great grandfather, Żurakowski, was killed on that occasion. My grandfather Jozef Czok instead (who would later marry Jadwiga Żurakowska, Stanisław’s daughter) was among a few hundred prisoners who were spared for unknown reasons. Back in 2017 I visited the Katyn Museum in Warsaw with my mother. Among other things, the museum has displays of all the things the prisoners had with them at the time – anything from prayer books, photographs, tiny sets of chess. I remember stopping in front of a large display of keys, and asking the researcher who was guiding us what they were. He was the one who told me that they found all these keys and that they believed it shows they thought they would be going home.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I’ve been researching the family history and that of Katyn for many years, through essays and other texts. But it was seeing the keys displayed in the Katyn Museum that struck me. I remember thinking at the time that I had to write a poem about it. I’m glad in the end I wrote this flash piece instead.
If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
I’ve always been fascinated by history and have many periods that interest me, from the early 20th century – I love Art Deco – to the Middle Ages. However, as a woman with very strong views about equality, I don’t think I would have had an easy life. I can see myself getting easily into big trouble for speaking my mind.
How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?
I think it depends on the historic fact. Some events require more historical accuracy than others. On the other hand, I was recently reading a book from Lucian of Samosata called A True Story which was meant to be a parody of ancient historians’ works (like Herodotus and Thucydides). In fact it was one of the first fantasy novels ever written. In other words, we have proof that magical realism has always existed in people’s hearts, so why not write a magical realism version of history?
Can you tell us why you chose this title?
I chose on purpose not to mention the word Katyn in the title because this event was so debated. Instead, I preferred to use the GPS location. If you Google the title, it will send you straight to the Katyn Memorial centre. Because for decades the Soviets claimed it had been the Germans who had committed this massacre, providing fake proofs that it took place in 1941 (when Germans controlled the area), instead of 1940, it was important for me to mention the date but also to leave a sense of mystery about where this all took place. Sadly, Great Britain and the United States during the war and even later preferred to close an eye on the episode, despite the abundance of proof that it had been the Soviets, and it was only after the 1990s that official documents were gradually disclosed.
Based in Italy, Slawka G. Scarso has published flash and micros in numerous anthologies and magazines. Her debut novella in flash “All Their Favourite Stories” was commended in the 2022 Bath Novella in Flash Award and is available from Ad Hoc Fiction. More words on Twitter as @nanopausa and www.nanopausa.com.
‘Antique Keys’ by Simon Greig via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Colour was removed from the original photograph.