“Fuck your feelings,” author Gabriel Krauze told the audience of a panel discussion at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. He’d been discussing his 2020 Booker longlisted debut novel Who They Was – a visceral piece of autofiction chronicling his life at its most turbulent, between the ages of 18 and 24, and immortalising the stories of those around him. In South Kilburn his only escape from the propulsion of robberies, trapping and violence is a skunk-induced inertia. In East London he’s studying for an English literature degree. Between those two contrasting worlds floats his family home, and parents he’s becoming increasingly disconnected from. It’s a blood-soaked exploration of brotherhood and morality that poses more questions than it gives answers, with only the slightest glimmer of redemption for its main protagonist.
“When it comes to creating art, feelings are irrelevant. Art has to exist in its own space,” Gabriel tells me, as we sit across from each other in a West London café, his mouth full of immaculate gold. He’s recently returned from Ukraine, where he’d spent a month bearing witness to the realities of war, absorbing the testimony of young men defending their homeland and assisting Hospitallers with evacuations from the frontline.
We are here to discuss our fathers. I was struck by Gabriel’s depictions of his dad in Who They Was, a Polish graphic artist who sought asylum in the UK with Gabriel’s mother after fleeing the communist regime in their homeland. He seemed to be the one person amongst the chaos and disorder who could crack through the shield of indifference Gabriel had built around himself and elicit some tenderness from him.
Huck: What’s your earliest memory of your dad?
Gabriel Krauze: We were living in this tiny flat in Fulham. It was so small that my parents used to sleep on a mattress in the kitchen and then put it away in the morning, so me and my twin brother could have our own bedroom. I must've been two years old, I remember waking up and I threw up on my pillow. My dad came into our bedroom in a t-shirt and some shorts and gave me this plate of apple slices. I remember thinking I was gonna be alright straight away, even though I’d just thrown up everywhere. That memory is crystallised in my mind.
My earliest memory is being driven to the hospital to see my little brother after he was born. I was two. I remember my dad rushing us down this corridor and picking me up, and I was looking at his arms, thinking they’re so big and brown and hairy. I was obsessed with his arms.
There is that thing when you’re a kid, where you look at your dad and you can’t conceive that you’ll ever be that size yourself. I remember my dad always used to carry everything, in this superhuman way. But there wasn’t any pretension of him being ‘a man’s man’. Just this natural thing that you accept – that he’s strong and able to do everything.
The passage in Who They Was about you wanting to rub the furrows from your dad’s brow really moved me. He seemed to be the one to elicit those rare moments of tenderness from you.
As a kid, I’d always rub his forehead when he picked me up because I thought the furrows meant that he was sad. And I thought the lines were the cause of it, so if you smooth them out, the sadness will go away.
How emotionally available and open was your dad? Like did he demonstrate a spectrum of emotions to you, and did you feel like you could do the same?
I definitely felt loved and looked after. Me and my dad were mad tight. Nothing would make me happier than when he’d take me to work with him on Sundays. At the time he was an illustrator for the Guardian, init. He’d take me to their offices when I was a little kid. It felt so exciting. I’d just sit and do drawings on scraps of paper while he was doing his work. So I remember this closeness, but I don’t remember a specific emotional openness. It wasn’t something I felt there was a need for, or that was lacking. When I got older and tried to talk to my dad about certain things, like relationships, he’d just smile and laugh it off. I realised that he wasn’t open to having these discussions with me. I think we have to think about some things culturally and generationally. It’s only a recent concept, this incredible emotional openness where parents try and put themselves on the level of their kids. Like they want their kids to be their best friends. I’m not even sure if I would do that with my kids. I’ve got my best friends – they're my boys, init.
My dad wasn’t necessarily emotionally available either, but I always felt like me and him had this emotional bridge, and it was watching Man United together on the television. That’s what made me feel most connected to him.
One of the greatest moments for me and him, that we completely shared in our household, something special that was just for us, because my twin was a Chelsea supporter and my mum wasn’t interested in football, was when United won the treble. Specifically that Champions League run. When we came back against Juventus in the semi-final, there was this eruption in the living room, me and my dad. And the way we’d talk at random moments about the final and Solskjaer and Sheringham’s goals, it was this powerful thing. You’re jumping out of your chair and roaring because they’ve scored a goal at the same time as your dad, and you’re this mini version of him, there’s this mad electric current flowing between the two of you. It’s not explicit, it’s something unspoken.
Who They Was captures a period of your life when you were entrenched in violence. Were there ever occasions when you saw your dad be violent?
I never saw my dad in a fight or anything like that, nah. But when I think about my own relationship with violence, when I got exposed to certain acts of violence, I understood that this is just something that happens sometimes in the world. I’d grown up in a household where I wasn’t protected from the concept of the world being a dark place, because of where my parents had come from and the history of Poland. I’d hear things in their conversations with Polish friends that were tinged with this history of war and regimes that you had to flee from. I couldn’t quite conceptualise everything in my head, but I understood life wasn’t this beautiful, wonderful, perfect thing.
My dad loved to reminisce with me about fights that he’d had, and he loved violent films. He always seemed quite enamoured by violence.
It’s interesting that you say that about films, because my first real exposure to the concept of Mafia culture was when I was 13. My dad made me watch The Godfather, part one and two. He was like ‘this is the greatest film ever’ and to me, when I watched that I was like ‘yeah I wanna be a gangster’ – but I know he definitely didn’t think that’s what I’d take from it. Now when I reminisce, I know why he loves that film – because it’s about family and loyalty. So there was an exposure to violent things in films and art, but what I’d add to that is he’s responsible for making me love cinema and understand the art of cinema. Imagine this, you’re a teenager and your bredrin’s idea of a good film is Batman Forever but your dad is showing you Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Seven Samurai. You’re being shown real art, but it’s got everything a boy wants. It’s important to think about masculinity in this, and I think about my own sense of masculinity. These films have something that instinctively draws in some boys who want to see the epic, the men falling in battle, the understanding of mortality and of danger, the glory of death on the battlefield. For some reason, some boys get into that stuff. But I was getting into it through great art.
Do you think those experiences, and your dad himself, influenced you as an artist?
Without any self-conscious acknowledgment of it, my dad is a huge influence on me artistically. Because so much of my dad’s art had been censored in communist Poland, from a young age I understood that radicalism in art is something important. When you’re young, and you frame it in more simplistic language, it was that it’s fucking cool to be an artist who is such a radical that all his work was censored and he didn’t make a penny. It’s heroic, it’s glorious and there’s a tragedy to it. And you feel like I’d rather be doomed and glorious than fucking rich with a dad who’s a banker.
So like art as an act of resistance?
Exactly that, an act of resistance. And of provocation. It’s an exploration of darkness as well. A lot of my dad’s work has a real darkness to it. I remember one of his illustrations for The Guardian – it was a woman with hollow eyes and a skull-like face, cradling a baby and weeping. But the baby is a bomb.
In Who They Was, your dad felt like the emotional anchor amidst all the turbulence that was going on in your life. Like I said earlier, he seemed to be able to elicit emotions in you that others weren’t. The passage about painting Easter eggs made me cry.
He was the anchor to my sense of family, of which family I belonged to ultimately. My boys on road, the gang, all that shit – they were my other family but those moments of deep connection would anchor me. That bit about the Easter eggs was so significant because it didn’t just anchor me to him and that sense of family, but it anchored me to our heritage, our culture. It anchored me to the fact that I’m not English, I’m Polish. It anchored me to my roots, my ancestors, his family and their traditions. I didn’t know that country on an intimate level. I knew Britain, England, London. I’m a product of that. Poland was almost like this mythical place preserved in the memories of my parents, their stories. So that tradition of painting Easter eggs was the anchor to my family, and the anchor to something much greater and more powerful.
When you realised that you’ve missed the painting of the eggs, it hurt you.
I was emotionally disconnected from my family as a whole, those bits would crack me and I didn’t like them because I didn’t like feeling in such a profound way. I had learnt to protect myself emotionally, from everything, from violence. I was numb to violence. I think people who are hugely affected by violence in an emotional way are people who have never experienced violence. They’re suddenly surprised by it. But if at 13 you see someone get stabbed, and then a few weeks later you see someone else get stabbed, and then you get robbed, then you rob someone, it just becomes this language you understand.
How did your dad come to terms with the emotional disconnection you felt, and the violent life you were living? Did he try to intervene?
I remember this time when I had ten bags [£10,000] stashed under my bed. My dad took me for breakfast, which was a very rare one-off ting because by that time I was missing, I was on the roads all the time. He alluded to it by saying to me, ‘you have more money than I’ve ever had in my bank account in my life,’ and I understood that he’d found the stash. This breakfast took me back to the intimacy of moments like us watching Man United together, or Yojimbo, or going for a walk in Hyde Park and him making me a bow out of a branch. Just father and son. Anyway, when he said this to me about his bank account, he was telling me he’d found the stash without actually telling me, and I was so grateful because it would’ve embarrassed me. He wasn’t trying to confiscate it and punish me. Then he said to me, ‘do you know why Micheal Corleone was the Godfather? Because he never got caught. So if you get caught, you’re an idiot,’ and he looked me straight in the eye. People might interpret that as a lack of his engagement with a moral admonishment. But it wasn’t that. He knew there was only one type of language I could understand at that moment in my life, and it was that. He was warning me that I was on the cusp of throwing my life away, but he was also admonishing me. Because my dad was not a gangster, he was not Don Corleone. He’s a hardworking man who’d sacrificed untold amounts of things for me and his family. It was very powerful.
My boys who are in the book, and who read the book, they all said to me that my dad was the hero of the book. And a lot of them grew up without dads, or without the presence of a dad. I realised that he was the kind of dad they would’ve liked to have had. My dad was always accepting of my boys, non-judgemental. He was always very warm and open to them.
Both of our dads are immigrants. I often think about what the dislocation from home did to my dad. When he left Egypt for Cyprus, he had alopecia totalis, he lost all his hair. He used to tell us he was happy during that time but he can’t have been. How do you think the immigrant experience shaped your dad?
I think it created this complexity within him in terms of identity, in the sense that he’s very proud to be British, but proud in the sense of what this country gave him, how it gave him a new start, how it offered him a new understanding of a certain type of culture. I asked him what his first impression of English people was, and he said the people were really gentle and polite. I realised he was experiencing this in comparison to the society he’d grown up in, where everyone had the shadow of war in their households, everywhere was marked by the destruction of war. And then he experienced the oppression of the communist regime, which erased people, I mean the erasure of the individual and the erasure of potential, the suffocation of the individual in these societies that offer you absolutely nothing. Here, he came to a country where his potential could be realised. Of course, it was fucking hard. But my dad used to tell me ‘life is brutal’ and he’d not say it in a pessimistic way, but this matter-of-fact way, because he understood. So I think the immigrant experience made him appreciate the small things. My parents remember growing up in communist Poland where there was no hope. I ask them what they remember and they say hopelessness, like hopelessness as a physical thing that breaks you. So I think my dad appreciated what this country had to offer in comparison to an experience of a regime that was crushing.
Growing up, my vision of masculinity was largely shaped by my dad. I’d say that in Who They Was, it seems like your personality almost seemed at odds with the man your dad is. How influential was he on your idea of masculinity?
I’d say the only real influence from my dad, in terms of the idea of masculinity, was about looking after family. That as a man, looking after family is important, and you shouldn’t lose your connection with your family. That’s it. We’re very different men. My masculinity is an absorption of external influences and a personal conceptualisation through literature, film, art, my own assessment of men around me and how I think I should exist as a man in society. I think masculinity is varied. I would never look down on a man who is gentle and sensitive and vulnerable, and think that a man who is violent and aggressive is superior. Also, men who are totally wrapped up in violence and aggression are reprehensible because those are just forces of destruction. Those men will never create anything. I always say art is the closest thing to God. You can have destructive energy within you, but if all you are is destruction, then you can’t create, you can’t get close to God.
At the same time, the problem I see right now in the literary scene is there’s only one real version of acceptable masculinity that’s pumped out excessively – it’s this overly sensitive, overly vulnerable, overly gentle, overly beautiful version of masculinity. Fuck that moist shit. That is not the only acceptable version of masculinity. Who decided that? And therefore a book like Who They Was is about toxic masculinity. There are other versions of men, and there are other forms of brotherhood. My book is not about toxic masculinity. People who label it as that just fear the discovery of brotherhood in a dangerous and hostile environment. Of course there are negative and toxic aspects, but there’s brotherhood. And brotherhood is love.
Who They Was is available now.
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