An Interview with Danuta Hinc

The novelist talks siblings, radicalization, and writing in her native Polish.

By Haley Huchler

This article was originally published in Washington Independent Review of Books, here.

Author Danuta Hinc grew up in the suburbs of Wejherowo, a small town near the Baltic Sea, before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Conversations at her family’s dinner table centered on history and politics, making Hinc acutely aware of the world outside her native Poland — one that promised freedom and prosperity.

This deep insight into the way politics shapes our everyday lives may well have influenced Hinc’s new novel, When We Were Twins, a story of Egyptian siblings Taher and Aisha, whose lives diverge when Taher becomes radicalized, abandons their shared plans to study medicine in Europe, and signs on as a medic for the Mujahideen when the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan.

Did you always know you wanted to be a novelist?

Becoming a novelist happened very gradually for me, almost accidentally, when the subject I wanted to write about was too broad for a short story, too political for a non-fictional piece, and too “out of the scope of my own experience.”

Is When We Were Twins a companion to your first novel, To Kill the Other?

When We Were Twins is a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of To Kill the Other, which was published in 2011 and went out of print four years later when the publisher closed its doors. When Plamen Press expressed interest in re-publishing the novel, I seized the opportunity and decided to put out a “new version,” a term coined by my friend Ross Angelella, director of the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland. Apart from rewriting the entire novel from the past tense to the present tense, I deleted many chapters and added new ones. I reimagined the subject and shifted the main focus to different characters, mainly women and children.

What led you to write a book about an Egyptian man who becomes radicalized in his devotion to Islam?

The initial inspiration came from the tragic events of 9/11, when thousands of innocent lives were lost in an unspeakable and unprecedented act of premeditated and synchronized terrorist attacks. I wanted to understand why someone becomes radicalized. I wanted to explore [the question]: Is it possible to see humanity in a person who commits an unspeakable act of terror? It was difficult for me to say yes, and that was my challenge — to construct a character that makes us see his humanity despite his actions. Maybe then we can see the missing link, the moment in life that turns someone into an extremist, a radicalized person.

When We Were Twins was inspired by 9/11, but it is also a story about the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting, Charleston church shooting, Charlottesville car attack, January 6th U.S. Capitol attack, and any other terrorist attack in history, because each is linked by the same idea, in which one grants herself or himself the right to kill others in the name of extreme ideas based in religion or politics. It’s a story about the vicious cycle in human history that radicalizes people and turns them into terrorists.

What so interested you in the connection between twins that you made Taher and Aisha’s relationship central to the novel?

It was the divergence and the question [of] when and why it happens. I was interested in examining two lives that start in the same womb, heartbeat next to heartbeat, and how they become the polar opposites in their lives despite remaining very close. The bond between Taher and Aisha is mystically profound. They stay very close even when their ideals change and diverge drastically. The twins are also a symbol for all humans as brothers and sisters, all born as innocent and turning out differently despite the innate innocence that is initial in everyone’s life.

You wrote To Kill the Other in Polish and then translated it into English. Was that also your method with When We Were Twins?

When I immigrated to the States in my late 20s, I didn’t speak English. I was fluent in Russian, I spoke decent French and German, and I had a good grasp of Latin. English, however, was a language I had to learn. I fell in love with English while translating To Kill the Other, and at the same time, I started writing in English, kind of bypassing my first language. Graduating from Bennington College with an MFA in literature and writing solidified my process even more, and now I write exclusively in English. I wrote When We Were Twins in English, but strangely, I was thinking about translating it into Polish. Because of time constraints, mostly my full-time job teaching writing at the University of Maryland, I don’t think it will happen for now.

Which writers have had the greatest impact on your work?

It would be difficult if not impossible to name all the writers I read and admire. I admire writers whose mastery of the English language is unparalleled. I believe Freud would say that English is the love I am still striving to conquer and make my own. Perhaps I would agree with this.

[Editor’s note: This article was written with support from the DC Arts Writing Fellowship, a project of the nonprofit Day Eight.]

Haley Huchler is a writer from Virginia. She has written for publications including Northern Virginia Magazine and Prince William Living Magazine. She has a B.A. in English and journalism from James Madison University, where she was editor-in-chief of Iris, an undergraduate literary magazine.

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