Skip to content
Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.
from the March 2019 issue

Who Dreams of Us?: New Swedish-Language Writing

This issue started with a question that sharpened to a point in the autumn of 2017, when a neo-Nazi organization was given a permit for a protest that would begin outside the annual Göteborg Book Fair. Leading up to this moment was the Book Fair’s controversial decision to yet again allow Nya Tider (New Times), a far-right extremist publication, to exhibit on the convention center floor. Debates raged for months and months in Sweden, as well as in Finland, the 2017 guest of honor at the fair. And among the questions raised, the most prominent became: Whose story gets to be told?

Watching the events around the Göteborg Book Fair unfold—the discussion of the limits of free speech and humanist values; the authors making the decision to attend the fair or boycott it and what either action meant in terms of resisting anti-democratic forces; the sudden emergence of independent book fairs organized in protest of the Book Fair’s decision and in hopes the Fair would change its mind—prompted me to evaluate my practices as a translator. 

Taking a line from Kira Josefsson’s essay in the Women in Translation Tumblr, “What Does it Mean to Choose to Translate Women?”: As a reader, I read to see the world. As an author, I write about aspects of the world that I want people to see. My debut novel, Permission, published this spring by Coach House Books and Dialogue Books, tells a story about Los Angeles and BDSM that I haven’t found elsewhere. It’s about grief and healing, community and care. You can also just read Permission as a love story about a failed young actress set on the L.A. coast, but along with other questions, the desire to illuminate and explore an often misrepresented part of society fueled this project. As a translator, I have mostly translated literature by women, among them Lina Wolff, Karolina Ramqvist, Lena Andersson, and Katrine Marcal. These authors question the shape of society and the assumptions we make, with a particular interest in sex and gender, language, economics, and power. Until Göteborg 2017, I felt content with the contribution I was making as a translator: being part of addressing the gender imbalance in publishing, expanding the reach of contemporary voices who are doing important work with regard to feminism and economic inequality. After Göteborg 2017, it felt necessary to expand my reading, with a view toward expanding the scope of the authors I champion when I talk about Swedish-language literature in the Anglosphere. Taking stock of the currents and concerns running through Swedish-language literature in Sweden and Finland—two countries often idealized when viewed from abroad—felt urgent. This issue offers vital dispatches from parts of those societies. This is a glimpse at the realities behind the idealized image, colored by moral fortitude, being forerunners in gender equality and environmental matters, not to mention the idea of a welfare state that catches people before they have a chance to fall. There are great pleasures to be found by escaping into a fantasy of endless forests, red summer cottages, sparkling lakes, and archipelagos, but it’s not the full picture. For some, this fantasy may resemble reality, but my aim here is to broaden the view.

A personal inquiry has shaped this project, as well. Two generations of Vogel women have immigrated to Sweden: my mother as a young woman from Austria, then my sister and me from California, where we were both born and raised, Swedish passports in hand. We have no family in the North in a traditional sense, but this is a place we call home. And yet, it never felt self-evident to call myself Swedish. I’m still unsure why. It has something to do with moving to Sweden as an awkward, naive teen, but I know there’s a more complex answer, one I’m still trying to figure out. In part, the Sweden my family returned to wasn’t like the one my mother had first encountered in the Sixties. Her stories had quite resembled the fantasy idea of Sweden, and added to that fantasy, the place she described was full of people from around the world who had found a home there. Some had come as refugees, others, like her, had simply fallen for the North. I think I assumed that I would arrive in Sweden like a new tile ready to be added to the mosaic. Instead, I felt like a foreign object, always on the outside. Until I began working as a translator in 2013, belonging never seemed like an option for me. I moved away, hoping to find a place where I felt like my presence made sense. 

Translation was an inroad to Swedish culture and society, turning my position as someone who sits between cultures into an asset. In carrying literature across borders, some sense of “Swedishness” became available to me. Via the relationship I’m building with Sweden through my work (as well as other factors, such as age and experience), I’m finding ways to feel like the word “citizen” is available to me as well. I think back to my Swedish-as-a-Second-Language classes in ninth grade and remember how dismissive the teacher was of a boy in the class when we were talking about folklore in our countries of origin. She shared stories of trolls in Sweden, accepted my tale of blood-sucking chupacabras with a sort of bemused nod. When a Gambian classmate shared a story about voodoo, told with great seriousness and eyes full of fear, she responded with a scoff. In that moment he seemed to shrink, and was never quite the same in that class. The difference in how the teacher received our stories revealed to my teenage self a cleft in Swedish society, which became more apparent as time went by. If it was this difficult for me to imagine myself as part of that society, what was it like for my classmate?

In researching this issue, I read with Swedish literature as my starting point, with a view of complicating what that meant. First that question led me to certain authors and stories, then it led me to works in the Swedish language, which is also one of the national languages of Finland. Fenno-Swedish literature deserves a close look of its own with a focus on its particular social, cultural, and political context, and here we only have a taste. As a translator, it felt important to acknowledge that when we speak of Swedish-language literature, we are not only speaking of literature from the country of Sweden. Including Finland-Swedish writers is also a nod to how political borders shift, how language and culture moves, and the complex human history of migration that disrupts any notion of a stable and self-evident idea of a “nation,” providing a counterpoint to the exclusive visions of the far-right.

“Belonging” is a theme that the writer Johannes Anyuru has explored throughout his work, and it is in his most recent novel They Will Drown (which I am translating for Two Lines and will be published in fall 2019) that I have found the title for this introduction and the common thread of the issue: “Who Dreams of Us?” In They Will Drown, which examines the run-up to and aftermath of a terrorist attack in Göteborg, one of Anyuru’s characters recounts a conversation between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde.

“James Baldwin and Audre Lorde were in conversation once,” she said. “Baldwin said something about the American Dream, that both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had believed in it, in spite of everything. Something like that. Then Audre Lorde said that no one had dreamt of her ever, not once. No one dreamed about the black woman except to figure out how to eradicate her. (…) I wondered if that’s what it was like for Muslims in Sweden today.”        

The question “Who dreams of us?” is another side of the question of whose story gets to be told. It rises from feeling unseen, unheard, unwelcome, of trying, in the words of the American activist Rachel Cargle, to exist in a world that was not built to support or acknowledge you. With this issue, I hope to encourage readers to expand their ideas of Swedish-language literature, and beyond this body of work, ask themselves how inclusive their dreams of this world are.

The eight writers in this issues—Johannes Anyuru, Linnea Axelsson, Balsam Karam, Mara Lee, Nino Mick, Adrian Perera, Mathias Rosenlund, and Andrzej Tichý—will give you a taste of some of the currents running through contemporary Swedish-language literature and will hopefully inspire further reading. Many of the writers’ concerns overlap with themes that have been at the forefront in the US and UK: inclusivity, poverty, identity, representation and stereotypes in literature. I’m grateful to the writers for allowing us to share their work.

Words Without Borders was an important platform for the early development of my career in translation, and it felt natural to seek out translators who were early in their own. Some of the translators are like me: a few books and a few years in. I like to think what unites Christian Gullette, Kira Josefsson, Alice E. Olsson, and Nichola Smalley is a thread of activism. They approach translation as an art, craft, and career that sits at the intersection of politics, storytelling, and language. Olsson’s work as an academic and translator has a particular focus on human rights; Gullette examines intersections of categories of race, masculinity, and sexuality in contemporary Swedish literature and is also a poet; Smalley has turned a comparatist’s eye to contemporary urban vernaculars in Sweden and the UK; and Josefsson’s writing bridges American and Swedish contemporary political-cultural landscapes as she keenly examines how language can shrink and stretch, and what it can hold. They were a dream team of translators. I’m grateful to them for these fine translations and their dedication to this project.

As far as the pieces in the issue, allow me to begin with what I have been searching for since I started working as a translator in 2013: a story about the Sami, the indigenous people who live in the northern parts of Fennoscandia. When this story finally came across my desk, it was in an unexpected package: a seven-hundred-page epic minimalist poem. Linnea Axelsson’s Aednan (2018, here in my translation) is a multi-generational saga about a Sami family, reindeer herders by tradition, that explores the legacy of Swedish eugenics and colonialism and the plundering of the land. It is exceptional and reads like a novel. 

Balsam Karam first caught my attention on an episode of Hysteria, writer and critic Sara Abdollahi’s podcast about women and creativity, when she discussed the aesthetics of solidarity, Marxist feminism, and menstruation in literature. Her 2018 debut Event Horizon (jointly translated by Alice E. Olsson and me) was a critical success that announced the arrival of an extraordinary talent. In "the Outskirts," a community of undocumented mothers and children, a young rebel leads an uprising, is captured and tortured, and chooses martyrdom in space over execution on earth. Like many other Kurds, Karam's family was deported from Iraq to Iran in the early 1980s; they fled during the war and settled in Sweden when she was seven. 

Johannes Anyuru is the exception to one of my organizing principles for the issue: he has previously been published in English. When translator Kira Josefsson brought me his lyrical essay “Alhambra” (which is interspersed with letters from Sara Nelson to her dying mother), I had to relax my rule. First published in the literary magazine Glänta, it is essential reading for our time. Moving from the Stockholm subway to jazz to the Alhambra, Anyuru explores Muslim identity. You can read his 2012 novel, A Storm Blew in from Paradise (World Editions 2015), in Rachel Willson-Broyles’s translation. 

I’m particularly excited to have the chance to publish Finland-Swedish writers Mathias Rosenlund and Adrian Perera. Rosenlund popped up on my radar after a 2015 Helsinki edition of Literary Death Match, and I’ve been following his writing ever since. In this extract from his 2013 memoir Kopparbergsvägen 20, Rosenlund lays bare the realities of class, poverty in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and being a writer against the odds, while grappling with the sense in his pursuit of the writing life. 

Adrian Perera’s essay about living “in a city that tolerates people who want me to die,” attending 2017 Göteborg Book Fair, and the desire to flee your own skin, published in Hufvudstadsbladet, the highest-circulation Swedish-language newspaper in Finland, brought his poetry to my attention. White Monkey (2017, in Christian Gullette’s translation) is a searing narrative collection about growing up in Finland with a Sri Lankan mother and a Finnish father, dealing with everyday racism and “well-meaning” comments. The moment in this extract that strikes me the most—perhaps because I want to believe we are past such thinking—is when the “I” of the poem meets with a publisher who says, in effect, that certain Danish and Swedish poets have already filled the box that they can imagine him in, specifically referencing the celebrated Swedish-Iranian poet Athena Farrokhzad (White Blight, trans. Jennifer Hayashida, Argos Books, 2015). This passage, as Perera has pointed out, shows the publisher operating on the assumption that the general public "will only read the poet as someone who writes about racism, and that market is limited." In a biting twist, when the poet asks what else people are writing about—what’s new?—the publisher responds with three stereotypical themes in literature from Finland: the archipelago, the Winter War, and alcoholism. These lines speak to how the imagination of another can be so flat, whereas the imagination of self can effortlessly contain multitudes. And we should not forget: how we imagine the market shapes the market.

In Twenty-five Thousand Miles of Nerves (2018, extract also translated by Gullette) Nino Mick echoes this theme of contending with ready-made boxes. In their autobiographical poem about their visits to the Gender Identity Clinic, Mick (who uses the nonbinary singular pronoun) skewers the absurdity of bureaucracy in matters of identity. Are these categories even relevant anymore? Can we embrace complexity? How can we support each other? 

Finally, we arrive at Andrzej Tichý and Mara Lee. Lee is one of Sweden’s finest intellectuals and writers on desire. In this extract from the lyrical poem Love and Hate (2018), Lee depicts, with touches of Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson, a run-in with neo-Nazis on the beach in Sweden in the 1980s, and how the fact of having been identified as “other,” and the corresponding fear that triggers, find their way into an encounter with a lover later in life. In 2017, I read Tichý’s expansive, splintered novel Kairos, which moves between critical moments of crisis in history to explore migration and how history is rewritten, and was overcome by his technical virtuosity. When I began researching this issue, I found that Tichý’s Wretchedness (first published in Sweden in 2016) was forthcoming from And Other Stories, with Nichola Smalley’s translation capturing the extraordinary music of his prose. It is a raging novel about the flood of memories unleashed by a cellist’s encounter with a young homeless man that looks at the people contemporary Swedish society has disavowed. I’m thrilled to be able to share an excerpt from his debut English-language publication.

Over a year has passed since I started working on this project, and much has happened since. Aednan won the 2018 August Prize for Fiction, one of Sweden’s most prestigious awards for literature, typically awarded to novels. Two Lines decided to publish Anyuru’s August Prize-winning novel They Will Drown. The Spanish rights to Karam’s novel Event Horizon have been sold. 

The 2018 Göteborg Book Fair has come and gone. In the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, the Fair’s new director, Frida Edman, was shown in a reflective mood, having emerged from the crisis of 2017 with a promise that Nya Tider would not be allowed to exhibit again, and a commitment to keeping the focus of the Fair on literature, education, and reading. Two of the independent fairs reappeared. Scener & Samtal (Stages & Conversation), an outspokenly political nonprofit event, returned independent of the Book Fair to the World Culture Museum for a day of programming. In 2017 “Bokmassan,” (a play on the Bokmässan, Swedish for “book fair,” that turns the word for “fair” into “the masses”) organized by publishers ETC and Leopard, drew 10,000 visitors to a tent in Göteborg, and in 2018 it returned to the show floor with a program of talks themed “Hope.” Shortly before it was to be held, the city of Göteborg cited security concerns and stopped the Alternativ Bomässan (the Alternative Book Fair), whose main sponsor was Nya Tider, from being held. 

The events around the Göteborg Book Fair were a welcome reminder of the power of protest as a tool of change—and a reminder that our voices matter, the stories we tell matter—but the questions raised around the Book Fair in 2017 are far from resolved. The tensions it laid bare are still running high. The 2018 Swedish elections gave us more to untangle, not least in the increase in far-right representation in government.

The ache that runs through the Baldwin passage cited earlier is reflected in each text here. It’s a sense that these authors are writing inside of and to a world that is not built to support the lives in the stories they tell, a world that refuses to see them or hear them, or that doesn’t know how. I hope this issue offers new ways of seeing and listening, and in doing that, expands the dream of “us.”

© 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.