Magda opusby Verity Johnson
Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read
The Australian comedian used to clam up about her Polish family’s traumatic past – there wasn’t much to laugh about. But with age came the need to tell a serious story.
This is what’s strange about Magda Szubanski. In person she is charming and commanding but in her shiny new memoir, Reckoning, she’s insecure and frantic: an introvert trapped in an extrovert’s life.
How is it that Australia’s favourite “second best friend”, from the TV shows Kath & Kim and Fast Forward and as Esme Hoggett in the beloved film Babe, can still feel like an outsider? She routinely tops polls for the most appealing Australian. She has been nominated for Most Popular Comedy Personality at the Logie awards since 1991. She has more than 78,000 followers on Twitter. Australians love her more than Vegemite or casual racism.
At least she knows it’s bizarre. “I’ve had this absolutely mainstream career – but I’ve always felt like the Dark Continent, really obscure with specific unrelatable experiences.”
When celebrities say they had a “difficult upbringing”, it normally means they failed maths in school. Szubanski’s past is less orthodox. She was born in the posh part of Liverpool in 1961. When she was four, the family moved to Australia. She grew up a suburban lesbian, troubled by weight for much of her life, and living in the shadow of the Holocaust as a second-generation Polish migrant with an “assassin” for a father. She has never really talked about all this before.
“I didn’t speak about the Polish side, it was very unrelatable for people. And so, like my father, I just clammed up about it. If you sense people aren’t getting it, then there’s no point in saying it.”
Instead, she spent the first half of her life “hiding and running from serious stuff and always being on the surface and always making jokes”.
Middle age came, as it tends to, and she suddenly realised the enormity of her family story. “You’re kind of getting by until your fifties … then you get to your fifties and you stop and look back and think, what the f--- went down? Something really major has happened here.”
She could have dealt with the angst of ageing by buying a Porsche and dating a younger woman. Instead, she wrote a book. No, she was “tasked with” it. It feels as though she sees it as a family duty.
The Poles, as Szubanski explains in her book, “had the honour of being the first nation to experience Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. Her father, Peter, then 15, his childhood “smashed apart”, witnessed slaughter on a massive scale and endured one of the most brutal occupations in Europe. At 19, he became a non-commissioned officer in the Polish execution squad, Unit 993/W Revenge Company. During those years of Nazi occupation of Warsaw, he and his comrades assassinated Gestapo officers and Polish collaborators. “[They] were not snipers. In a city crawling with Gestapo they shot at close range. Close enough to see, touch, smell. My father participated in 12 such aktions.”
When the Warsaw Uprising began on August 1, 1944 – her father’s 20th birthday – he was in the thick of it. The Poles never stood a chance, she writes. “An estimated 200,000 lives were lost. Polish civilians, including hospital staff and patients, were raped, tortured, burnt. Women were used as human shields in front of tanks. My father fought on until it was clear all was lost then, along with much of the rest of the Resistance, he escaped through a sewer.”
Caught, her father was part of the notorious Lamsdorf Death March. He escaped but was never to see his parents again. Nearly one in five Polish citizens had been slaughtered by war’s end. Almost the entire Jewish population of more than three million had been annihilated.
During the war, the Szubanski family risked execution to shelter Jews from the Nazis. Szubanski’s grandmother slept with a Polish flag and a pistol under her pillow.
“It was not just for use on the Nazis,” Szubanski says evenly. “Had it come to the crunch, then it would have been for her children and for herself.”
She’s emphatically proud. “The fact that my grandparents were prepared to sacrifice the lives of their children for strangers … it’s no small thing. I think that affected my father.” Her gaze is firm. “But, when I look at it … I would still rather that they did what they did.”
She’s asked herself many times, would she have been able to do that? She knows what her father would have done.
For most of us, the worst we ever have to accept about our fathers is that they still wear Speedos. Szubanski’s father told her his greatest fear was that she would grow up to be a traitor. She eventually realised this meant he was afraid she and her brothers would be weak-willed and this terrified him. As she explains in Reckoning: “He tried to make me strong so there was no risk that, should the situation arise, I would line up on the side of weakness, of betrayal … become a collaborator. They were the ones with no mental toughness – the chokers. He understood history … that it repeats. He tried to make us strong like him because if we succumbed there was only one possible course of action. He would have to do his duty. He would have to kill us.”
Szubanski explains her father’s past with a painful ferocity. “Just that he even had to ask himself that question. Just to think that. That’s what war does to you.”
He was left with a lifelong “moral trauma”. “Most of us are really f---ing facile and think we’re good people because we give a bit of money to charity.”
She’s becoming animated. “He had to really question whether he was a good person.” She needs us to understand him to understand her. Suddenly she’s talking about the forgotten second-generation Polish experience. “What the experience [of WWII] has meant for the Poles has not really been explored.
“It’s very unmapped,” she says. “What it was like for the Polish Catholics who were hiding Jews, or who were witnessing the Holocaust or who were themselves in concentration camps.”
But this is still a celebrity memoir, a genre not known for searing historical analysis. Talking about her family’s experience of the war is one thing. But isn’t explaining the legacy of a nation’s post-Holocaust trauma a little, well, ambitious? She looks shrewd then grins. “I keep thinking, oh f---! I’m a lightweight comedian and I’ve been handed this incredibly intense history and story.”
She spreads her hands, “It’s f---ing scary … I’ve tried to be as respectful as possible but I’m sure there are things people will take exception to.”
In the book she says she and her father were “tugboats in the river of history … pulling in opposite directions: he needed to forget. I need to remember … For me the key lies buried in the past. The only way forward is back.”
But she grew up in middle-class Australia – does she even understand this? She leans in. “I have Polish Catholic friends who were in concentration camps. Part of my experience, as a second-generation Pole, is working out what my relationship to the Holocaust is. I’m involved in Polish Jewish dialogue here in Melbourne. We’re trying to build bridges, hopefully we’re making some headway, but there are very difficult emotions and moral dilemmas.” She sighs, “F--- me – it’s full on!”
GOOF AND GLITTER
The book became a form of therapy: “I feel more zen since writing it.” But she doesn’t know if it will make a difference. She lay awake asking, “What does it matter if I write this book?” She tails off then swerves back into reality. “Maybe it is my contribution to say that I am the descendant of a family that cared, who were appalled at the treatment of Jews and tried to do something about it.”
She could have just written about a batty aunt or an ecstasy habit and we would have considered it an intimate memoir. But this is bold – even by Australian standards. She’s worried people will judge her father. But the rest of her family love it. Except, cue the ‘straya drawl, her “blokey bloke” brother. Reading isn’t his cup of tea.
When she explains how she researched the book, it’s clear she has a fierce, tenacious brain. “I did research, in my own flaky way,” she says with a comic’s self-deprecation. Nothing about her is flaky. She completed an arts/law degree, captained her school team on TV quiz show That’s Academic and ruminates on the likes of good and evil, story and reality. She explains the procedural memory of collie dogs. She reels off the findings of army psychologists on the nature of courage. Her book originally included her essays on altruism. She hoovers up psychological theory the way some celebrities do coke.
There have been too many years of goof and glitter. She’s relishing the interview as a chance to talk about these dilemmas.
“All my life, I’ve felt bored, or partially bored. That’s why I enjoyed writing this – I find these questions so interesting.”
Just how incessantly does she consider these questions? “I worried about these things like a dog with a bone. To the extent that I had to be medicated.”
Medicated? What happened? “I just had to stop it. I had to step back.”
Szubanski’s struggle with her weight wouldn’t have eased her sense of isolation. Her Great Hunger started in year 9 with nocturnal biscuit sessions. “Fat and food … they became my go-to things.” Overweight since age 11, Szubanski gained mass press attention with her Jenny Craig weight loss in 2009. But she wrote that as she got sexier, she lost her sense of humour. It gets close to sounding as if she thinks attractive women can’t be funny. “No! There definitely can be conventionally attractive women who are hilarious.”
So, why did she find it difficult? “It’s like John Cleese using his silly stick-insect body and suddenly he puts on a whole lot of weight and then he couldn’t do that gangly shtick.” Fat is her shtick.
“Suddenly I felt like I didn’t have the tools of my trade.”
We’ve seen enough troubled artists to know humour is a defence mechanism. And given that, in addition to everything else, she was growing up gay in 70s Australia, you understand why she became funny. What was it like? “It was terrifying.” Szubanski didn’t come out to her parents until 1992. A tactful journalist had tried to get her to drunkenly divulge her sexuality for a women’s glossy. Terrified of exposure, she told her parents. They didn’t care. It was only in 2012 that Szubanski publicly came out, describing herself carefully as “gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-a-little-bit-not-gay-gay-gay-gay”. She still didn’t quite fit in, even into a gay identity.
Szubanski has slept with men. Was this a problem for a generation in which gay and straight were divided with Stalinist rigour? Oh yes. Admitting any form of heterosexual attraction was seen as breaking the line. “The world was much more against us then,” she says. “You had to know who was on your side.”
Sexual fluidity didn’t exist as a concept and bisexuality “wasn’t really trusted”. Not that she’s bisexual, just a bit fluid. (“I’m not 100% lesbian.”)
This separation was partially behind her delayed coming out. She waited until now because “things have much more nuance”. People understand her self-labelling. “That’s the truth of me. If I’d said I was a lesbian, and something happened and I had a fling with a man … well, I didn’t want to be in that weird position of undermining that.”
Since coming out, she’s felt happier, although writing the book and “years and years” of therapy might also have something to do with it.
She seems relaxed now she’s middle-aged. (“I was a nitwit when I was young!”) She must know she’s one of the most-loved women in Australia? “Yeah. I know. Isn’t that weird!” Can she still feel like an outsider? She pauses. “Less so.”
The story of “the outsider” is a little stereotypical. But so is she. She’s an overweight, lesbian feminist comedian – in a leather jacket. She has the Western white woman’s fondness for Buddhism and is something of an archetypal Byronic artist.
“Yeah,” she laughs. “I always fought the tortured-clown stereotype. Until I realised that I was one … don’t fight the cliché of who you are.”
RECKONING, by Magda Szubanski (Text Publishing, $55).
Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.
Julien Albe and Matthieu Gosset's new venture Ambler has been a long time coming.Read more
The rape and murder of a young comedian in Melbourne this week sparked outrage - fuelled by police telling women to "stay safe".Read more
If Jacinda Ardern was hoping for an easy slide into maternity leave, her main coalition partner wasn't helping her.Read more
As many as 100,000 New Zealanders, many of them undiagnosed, are afflicted by coeliac disease.Read more
The PM can happily go off on maternity leave knowing there is a cast of colourful and capable people to fill the gap — most notably Winston Peters.Read more
This year marks a century since a flu pandemic killed 9000 NZers. Three more such plagues have swept the world since then – and another is inevitable.Read more