Beginning with an ouch and some altogether unrelated non-literary news (which, however, will excuse to some extent my complete awol from the blogosphere): My hand is f*%& up from doing work at my father’s farm weeding in his potatoe fields – maaaan it hurts. My wrist crackles and fizzles! Fascinating on one side, and completely turning on my gagreflex on the other. I have enclosed photographic evidence to corroborate this little tale and as proof that it is pretty hard to write with this thing on my arm, and it hurts if I strain my wrist too much. No snide comments a-thank-you-very-much!
So, I have been at home on the Faroes for two weeks now and I am kind of surprised at how good the weather has behaved – usually I can use rain and storm as an excuse to sit up in my room and read all day, but when the sun is shining I get my productive on! Which means I have not read that much. But my bread-making skills have been amped quite a bit (another ouch point for my wrist).
One of my favorite things to do when I’m home is going to my mother’s bookshelves – it’s like therapy to me. 5 days into my trip on the Faroes I was already rummaging through my mother’s bookshelf about three times a day. One morning I found a collection of class struggle songs, including of course “The Internationale” and just about every theme under the sun, whether it’s women’s lib or an alternative tune to celebrate Christmas. Some of the songs are quite funny and others are downright disturbing, but as a whole we could do with a lot more united singing to build morale these days when the right/liberal/conservative political power is rising to disturbingly new hights every day.
But back to literature:
After a long brake from Herta Müller‘s “Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt” I started reading it again on the plane home. It’s harder than I thought picking up the nuances of literature when it is in German (or maybe it’s just Herta’s style), but then again it is also a totally different reading experience – paying a lot more attention to the language, and looking up words along the way, having to reread the senctences and going back to passages that need further clarification – where I normally gob up pages. The poetic language takes precedence in this case, and the textual layering is beautiful – I could spend hours at passages reading and rereading to find new meanings and hints open up in the language. I would really like to read it in other languages to see what the translators do with this text.
The German-minority family Windisch in Romania are waiting for an exit permit to the West. It is 1980s Ceaușescu-land and Herr Windisch is dreading the stagnation of time and mind. The Romanian proverb ‘Man is a great pheasant in the world’ transmits the awkwardness of the broken-winged bird wildlife to human clumsiness and evil. And there is plenty evil and baseness in this short but brimmed novel. And I am in awe over how weightily Müller uses literary techniques with seemingly straightforward (but not pretentious) ease. And she approaches very tough and far-reaching tematics through this strong hold on the poetry of language, using it as respectively a light and a sword to enlight and cut through the experiences and actions of her characters. One of my favorite passages is called “Die Grassuppe” and is about Mrs. Windisch, Katharina and her time in a Russian work camp. It’s composition is reminiscent of a fairy tale albeit a grotesque postmodern one. I won’t recount it here, only note that the repetitive style in language is complementing the issue of intense survival instinct.
The political implications and how they are conveyed through literature is totally different to someone like say, Sofi Oksanen. Oksanen’s approach seems more with emphasis on the storyline, expressing the anger in the dialogue and thought processes and having characters acting counter to the events – whether it be detremental to themselves or others. And her narratives are also beautifully executed.
But Müller’s characters and setting in “Der Mensch ist…” are a product of this stagnant, cynical aura that destroys human’s from the inside out and betray’s sides of humanity we in good times try so hard to avoid to talk about and surpress with fervor. Makes you think what we could accomplish if we utilized this passion to positive change, instead of ending with yet another tale of ideology turned sour and dictatorical – are we really that thick that we to this day still lack the level of abstraction that can change this cycle of a history doomed to repeat itself in different shades and locations? I will end with a quote from “Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt”.
Der Nachtwächter hat Windisch erzählt, daß der Pfarrer in der Sakristei ein Eisenbett stehen hat. In diesem Bett sucht er mit den Frauen die Taufscheine. “Wenn’s gutgeht,” hat der Nachtwächter gesagt, “sucht er die Taufscheine fünfmal. Wenn er gründliche Arbeit leistet, sucht er sie zehnmal. Der Milizmann verliert und verlegt bei manchen Familien siebenmal die Gesuche und die Stempelmarken. Er sucht sie mit den Frauen, die auswandern wollen, im Lagerraum der Post, auf der Matratze.” Der Nachtwächter hat gelacht. “Deine Frau”, hat er zu Windisch gesagt “ist zu ihm zu alt. Deine Kathi läßt er in Ruh. Aber deine Tochter kommt auch noch dran. Der Pfarrer mach sie katolisch, und der Milizmann macht sie staatenlos. Die Postfrau gibt dem Milizmann den Schlüssel, wenn er im Lagerraum Arbeit hat.
Do you ever feel like getting out of your chair, walking out the door, climbing the next tree you see and shout existential, nihilistic quotes at people who have not seen the light – or rather, who have yet to realise that action is pointless, that living is futile?
Are you still in your chair?
Pierre Anthon climbs up a tree and like the town crier he scolds and spurts one-liners at the adolescents who walk under the plum-tree on their way to school to learn how to become proper citizens. In the first week of 7th grade he is already fed up with the world and its inhabitants. And in the quiet little town of Tæring (Danish for corrosion, also a popular saying, “at sætte tæring efter næring”, which basically means to live within one’s means) his actions sets off a sequence of events of surreal proportions. The kids are upset and adamant that he will not persuade them to join his ‘dark side’. But he gnaws at their insecurity one by one, and the frustration grows.
“If you live to be eighty years old you will have slept thirty years, gone to school and done homework for nine and worked for about fourteen years. Since you already have spent more than six years being children and playing and you’ll need at least twelve years to cook, clean and take care of children you have nine years at the most to really live… And then you choose to pretend like you are succesful at playing a game that means nothing when you could be enjoying those nine years right away.”
So what do they do? What children in novels tend to do; they form a secret club with the sole purpose of finding a way to show Pierre Anthon that there are things of importance in this world. Each member will give up the most important thing that really means something to them, and as the kids go down the line the suggestions go from sweet to painful to surreal to down right nasty. There is a long way from Agnes having to give up her green summer sandals to Sofie and her virginity, and things rapidly spiral out of control. What starts as a joint bond between class mates who seek the opposite of nothingness to show Pierre Anthon evolves into a spiteful contest that reeks of payback and ignores all societal boundaries, both morally and legally.
Janne Teller’s ‘Intet’ (English ‘Nothing‘) received the Ministry of Culture’s Children’s Book Award in 2001 and its content caused an outcry both domestically and internationally. Adults were worried that the book would spur on suicide amongst adolescents, some schools banned it from entering the curriculum and book shops refused to sell it. In that sense the book’s topic has awoken a fear in people – the same fear that is seen over and over when literature is debated. Where does one draw the line? How much power can we grant a book before things get out of hand? We all know how scared people are of ‘Mein Kampf’ – the book is a continuous embodiment of all the evil in this world and its words are like something extraterrestrial; if you read it you will grow evil.
Now, before you get your knickers in a bind, I would like to explain. Words are powerful – like the character Max in Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ writes in his story for Liesel, you can rule the world with words and make them into iconic symbols of good and evil. And so some people are scared of the power of these words by the force of the value they put in them and choose to silence it by bans and regulations. Not realising that in doing so, they are co-affirming this power, making it more than it needs to be.
Teller’s novel is morbid and gross and plays with human fears – what we are capable of when we cooperate is not always for good. And as far as children’s or young adult books go, she joins those in a relatively new literary trend that doesn’t want to tell children how to live their life through exemplary fiction and fantasies of adventures in far of places (reminiscent of the Famous Five), but rather question them and those around them in settings they know; their home, their school, around their peers. Adult fiction authors have sought to push boundaries just about everywhere they can, and it should come as no surprise that children’s authors would want to push their very own boundaries. But unlike authors of adult fiction, children’s books authors still have a very limited space to go wild in if they want their stories to be published and sold – children’s and young-adult fiction is supported by strict notions of what children can and cannot stomach, much of which originates in romantic illusions and has not been up to par with the reality of children’s lives today. The rearing of children has undergone several changes in a very short amount of time and there are many who believe that children are tougher than we give them credit for. I suspect that what people are really afraid of is themselves. Following the logic that there are two sides of everything, no reading should go unchallenged. Even so, reading has evolved into a very solitude activity, and in the case of children and their limited time spent on earth experiencing and dealing with situations unknown to them, a good discussion about the books they read with peers and adults might just open up new doors of reasoning and critical positions. Which means time away from your navel-gazing important grown-up stuff.
Maybe that’s also something ‘Intet’ tries to convey – the complete lack of adult inclusion is worrying. Adults are authoritarian figures, those who must not know what children are up to because they are practically the enemy, stopping everyone in their tracks. Which means that the children can only reason with what limited experience they’ve got and with no one to bounce off of.
This Saturday has been all about fan-fiction and children’s literature for me. I have been researching and reading and canvassing every line on the web for participatory readers and online sharing communities – anticipated thesis fever is hitting me after the summer vacation and I am knee-deep in theories and literature, it is so exciting (for future reference remember this joyous occasion, this positive attitude might not prevail over the hair-pulling and nail-biting when it is crunch time). Anyone out there with some inside knowledge of online fan-fiction is welcome to my comment field.
Next up: children’s literature.
Harders, our local Nørrebro bookshop, had arranged a reading with Manu Sareen that I thought sounded incredibly interesting. For those of you who do not know his works, he is the author of the series on “Iqbal Farooq” – the humorous story of an immigrant family living in the heart of Nørrebro – and has just published two stories (seen in picture above) in a series loosely based on some of H.C. Andersen‘s fairy tales.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to this event was because Sareen is one of Denmark’s contemporary authors (without distinguishing adult from children’s authors) who uses his background as an Indian immigrant as a starting-point for his stories. He explains early on that he started writing because of political motives, stating that there was a gap in literature for and about ethnic minorities in this country. Another reason was because at that time the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Brian Mikkelsen, had just launched a culture canon to profile Danish values – values Sareen says he shared, such as democracy and free speech, but unfortunately values that also ended up being used as a lifted finger against ‘the foreigners’ in the country, dividing inhabitants even more. A “this is what it means to be Danish – a.k.a. not You”.
So he created Iqbal in order to send a message. Not only to the ethnic Danes, but especially to the immigrants. Sareen claims that often literature written by minorities ends up reaffirming the negative discourse, whereas he would rather give the ethnic groups some pride back, something that could unite and identify them as part of the community.
The next thing he said shook me somewhat. I must admit, although I am not oblivious to the culture clashes in this country, I had not really thought fully about this: he said that he encountered many ethnic kids on his readings that were ashamed of the things that set them apart from the ethnic Dane, amongst other things their parents dialect when speaking Danish. And that faith in future achievements was depressingly low. Immigrants, he said, could drive taxi’s and make pizza’s: not grow up to write children’s books; which is an attitude he encounters when young minorities come up to him at readings in schools and ask him who really wrote the book he is reciting. This is a disillusionment Sareen wants to stand against. He says his goal is to make readers laugh with each other rather than at each other.
Sareen then proceeded to explain how his characters are based on real persons, to the great joy of a little kid in the room who said “I knew it”, which in return put an even broader smile on Sareen’s face. At that time it was clear that the adults in the room were mere shadows in the setting.
When he read from one of the Iqbal books (Iqbal Farooq and the Indian Superchip) I noticed how Sareen’s books use humor, preconceived notions of the ‘Other’ and stereotypes to form a narrative that touches upon some, at times, very disturbing and tough subjects in an approachable way, making these topics easier to talk about rather than avoiding them.
Being that he gets inspiration from his surroundings, his books are filled with multi-cultures and political figures – which adds to the fun for those who know these characters.
Whereas the Iqbal character was loosely based on his own person and characters of that universe of those around him, Sareen chose to go outside his own surroundings in “Hvad fætter gør er altid det rigtige”, saying proudly that this has been his best book so far. It is also a book that is, in his words, “semi-controversial”, joining a trend in Western children’s literature of using unorthodox characters and settings. “Hvad fætter gør er altid det rigtige” includes homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts surrounding the Copenhagen quarter of Vesterbro. As many children’s authors who chose, what some would call extreme figures, to portray in the books, he justifies it by saying that this is what the world looks like – teaching children that it’s out there can prove to have a positive effect.
I asked him if he drew his inspiration to write from any external sources outside of Denmark, seeing as he claims that ethnic minorities were not writing to/about ethnic relations in Denmark. But instead he said he drew his inspiration from Olsen banden (classic Danish comedy) and Bjarne Reuter, stuff he, as well as the rest of Denmark, grew up with – only he had one foot in each culture at all times.
Setting aside that these books are classified children’s literature I would think that many adults could benefit from reading one or two of his books, maybe we could all loosen up a bit for a change.
I have a very soft spot for spoken word poetry. And so I won’t write much in this post other than I recommend that you listen to and see this Ted Talk featuring Sarah Kay. Her poetry balances with extraordinary curiousness on the borderline between confidence and vulnerability that is fascinating to me. I’m not even sure there is a border between those two anymore.
Friday to Sunday you absolutely must come (if you are not restricted geographically or otherwise) to THE literary conference at KUA. The topic is “Literature in the Expanded Field” and there is lots to talk about. Look, read, and come!
(oh and by the way: I am one of the contributors to the student panels – so be there Friday at 9, if you want my pearls of wisdom).
I have taken the liberty to copy the program as it stands in Facebook Events – feel free to rsvp, share, invite, be inspired and spread the word.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE LIMITS OF LITERATURE ARE
Q U E S T I O N E D? C H A L L E N G E D? E X P A N D E D?
FIND OUT MAY 6th-8th, LOK. 21.5.54, KAREN BLIXENS VEJ 1 INSTITUTE OF ARTS AND CULTURAL STUDIES
S T U D E N T P A N E L S
book covers, uncreative writing, sms literature, pattern poetry, street art, authorial originality, textual transformations, conceptual writing etc. …
K E Y N O T E S
Martin Glaz Serup
Marianne Ping Huang
P O E T R Y R E A D I N G S
at Gyldendals Forlag,
Ursula Andkjær Olsen
FRIDAY MAY 6 -Students’ conference and Readings by Students from The Danish Academy of Creative Writing.
9.00-10.30 Textual Transformations
The challenges of literature today: Revolution, evolution or deconstructionof the literary traditions?
Amanda Egebo “What is a text? – Towards new theories of narratological understanding.”
Marie Louise Poulsen “Novel transformations. A historical approach to the possibilities of the novel genre in the digital.”
Charlotte Kirketerp “From author to writer – destructive stategies”
Jenny Johannessen “Reading the reader reading the text: Exploring the role of the reader in the transitional phase from print to digital text.”
10.45-11.15: Readings by Daniel Dalgaard, Hanne Viemose.
11.20-12.50 When Literature and Image Meet
Mikkel Damkjær Paaske ”Judging a Book by its Cover.”
Shekufe Tadayoni Heiberg ” Pattern Poetry.”
Marie Nedergaard-Larsen ”Textual and Visual Interplay in Children’s Picture Books.”
Charlotte Sørup Lorenzen ”Picture Books and Avant-Garde.”
13.45-15.25 Sound Literature and Orality
Ditte Pradsgaard Holm “Tactility as Poetic Meaning?”
Jane Rud Pedersen “Orality in Hans Sydow’s Sagnsymfoni [Symphony of Myths].”
Alexander Vesterlund “The Poetics of Orality in “Vi sidder bare her [We’re just sitting here]”.”
15.30-16.30: Readings by Bjørn Rasmussen, Ursula Scavenius, Caroline Minor og Zoltan Ará.
SATURDAY MAY 7 – Students’ Conference and International Conference
9.00-10.45 Reaching out Democratic (im)possibilties of literature in the expanded field
Naja Kirstine Kjærgård Laursen “Word on the street.”
Ulla Ewald Stigel “Homeless readings – the literary debate redistributed.”
Ragnild Lome “Literary expressions on Faceook.”
Signe Nordgaard Andersen “Literature to Go – sms literature”
Anna Eistrup “Reflections on Linguistic Consequences of an Expanded Notion of Literature in the Light of Cultural Politics.”
11.05-12.45 From the Original Author to the Programmed Machine
Niels Udby Sørensen “The Restrictive Demands of Originality.”
Lærke Rydal Jørgensen ”The Art of Borrowing or the Crime of Stealing.”
Peter Eske Vinum ”Postproduction, Uncreative writing, and the Conceptual Author.”
Nicolai Koch, ”Conceptual Writing.”
13:45-13.55 Welcome and introduction/ Tania Ørum
13.55-14.25 Charles Lock ”Anne Blonstein: words and letters / the measure of space.”
14.25-14.55 Tania Ørum ”Danish Writers in the Expanded Field”
15.30-16.30 Charles Bernstein, “The Present of the Word”
READINGS Gyldendal, Klareboderne 3, København K.
Welcome / Tania Ørum
Ursula Andkjær Olsen
SUNDAY MAY 8 – International Conference.
12:00-12.05 – Welcome and introduction/ Tania Ørum
12.10-12.40 – Martin Glaz Serup “Documentary and pseudo-documentary in contemporary postproductive witness literature”
12.40-13.10 – Marianne Ping Huang Radiophonic space/place inprint/voice: on Charles Bernstein’s “I’m speaking to you from Princetown, Massachusetts” and Pia Juul’s Radioteatret (2010)
13.10-13.30 – Martin Larsen “Zoom into the Butterfly Valley – Notes on the Sigma
13.30-14.00 – BREAK
14.00-15.00 – Caroline Bergvall “G/hosting practices: excavations, encounters, the role of writing today”
15.00-16.00 – Christian Bök “The Xenotext” presentation of ongoing work with genetically engineered poem