Happy July! This month, we’re reading our first graphic work: Daria Bogdańska’s Wage Slaves! The book is a nonfiction account of the author’s year moving from Poland to Sweden and attempting to make money. Originally published in Swedish in 2016, it’s part memoir, part diatribe about the difficulties of finding work in a new country (with lots of information about unions thrown in, for good measure). It’s a book that is bound to make you angry about injustice and Swedish employment laws, while not sacrificing the more personal story of a woman trying to change course in her life.
We’ll start with an overview of the book and some discussion questions that we’ll come back to as the month progresses. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!
Trying to find a job in a new country isn’t easy. This might not be as obvious in the United States, where people are more likely to move from state to state rather than country to country, but the bureaucratic nightmare of working across country lines is very real. Wage Slaves begins with Bogdańska moving from Poland to Sweden to study comics. When she arrives in Malmö, Sweden, she immediately begins a job search, but quickly gets caught in a trap: she needs a Swedish social security number to get a job, and she needs a job to get a social security number. Her only recourse is getting a job under the table, but she soon realizes she’s being taken advantage of and decides to take action.
Workers’ rights is the main driver of the story, but it’s also about Bogdańska’s other struggles. She’s in a new city and struggling to build a life for herself. She’s in a relationship with a man still living in Poland but only continues seeing him out of a sense of duty to him. It all just gets more complicated when she gets involved with a man in Sweden. These shifts from work life to personal life can feel odd, but it reminds the reader that the stresses of a job are just one factor in a person’s life. The burdens of unstable employment compounds with everything else someone is living through.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1988, Daria Bogdańska is a graphic novelist who has worked a number of odd jobs to get by. Many details of her life are included or alluded to in Wage Slaves, including the fact she has worked as a bike mechanic and now plays in a punk band called Two Wars. This is her first work that has been translated into English.
Hanna Strömberg is an illustrator and graphic designer in her own right, living in Malmö, Sweden. In addition to Wage Slaves, she’s translated Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s Palimpsest and Anneli Furmark’s Red Winter from Swedish into English in the past few years. She has also translated various other works from English, French, Norwegian, Danish and German into Swedish.
Swedish is a language that is pretty confined to its home country. Of the 10.5 million speakers of the language, over 90 percent live in Sweden. That doesn’t mean it’s only useful in Sweden, however, because Swedish is also mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Danish. They sound so similar because they’re all descended from Old Norse, and while they have diverged, you can still understand the others if you know one. Learning any of these three languages, then, is a huge boon when traveling through Scandinavia.
Wage Slaves adds a linguistic layer because this book is at the intersection of a few different languages. Bogdańska is Polish, but never speaks that language during it, and instead speaks mainly English. Ironically, she talks in the book about not speaking Swedish well but improved in time to write this book. To differentiate when she’s speaking English and when she’s speaking Swedish, she uses two different hand-lettered fonts: a neat, all-caps font for Swedish and a messier, mixed-case font for English. The book is presented primarily in a single language (with some instances of Hindi and Swedish sprinkled in), but it really is a multilingual text.
- What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
- How much do you know about workers’ rights where you live? What’s the attitude toward unionizing?
- Have you ever been in a similar bureaucratic Catch-22? What was it?
- How did you feel about the love triangle in the book? Is it worth it to stay with someone out of a sense of gratitude?
- At some points, Bogdańska acknowledged she was privileged over many of the immigrant workers in the country. How do you think the book would change if it were told by someone who wasn’t European?
- What did you think of the stylistic choice to differentiate between when the characters are speaking Swedish and when they’re speaking English? Do you think the graphic medium provides more opportunities to show different languages on a single page?
- How did you feel about the conclusion of the book? Bogdańska managed to get a small “win,” but there’s only so much that she could get done.
Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Swedish language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.