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Emerging Voices in Swedish Literature: Diversity and Difference

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Issue number: 2020:1-2


Emerging Voices in Swedish Literature: Diversity and Difference

by Anja Tröger

The five authors whom this current issue of Swedish Book Review introduces have all recently published their first novel, and, as the headline ‘diversity and difference’ suggests, their literary voices add something different to the Swedish canon of literature, diversifying this very canon. But what do we actually mean when we talk about diversity in Swedish literature? In an attempt to address this question in a productive way, I began by looking up the term ‘diversity’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it states that it can be understood as ‘the condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied; difference, unlikeness’. When, according to this definition, diversity is about difference, it immediately raises the question: difference in relation to what? Are we talking about authors and/or fictional characters who are different from a predominantly white, hetero-normative majority? And, when we identify a norm as such, and recognise difference in relation to this norm, the next question would be: so what? Or, to put it less flippantly: when we recognise someone as being different from this norm, what does this kind of differentiation do?

Pooneh Rohi, Kayo Mpoyi, Adrian Perera, Balsam Karam and Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz
Pooneh Rohi, Kayo Mpoyi, Adrian Perera, Balsam Karam and Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz. Images: Linda Gren, Kajsa Göransson, Niklas Sandström, Magnus Liam Karlsson and Göran Segeholm


To illustrate what I mean with this question, I would like to draw on an example from Swedish politics, which most Swedish readers are probably familiar with: the REVA project. This project ran between 2008 and 2014 and was initiated by the government with the aim of expediting the deportation of undocumented immigrants from Sweden. It granted the police the legal means to question people on the suspicion that they might not have the necessary documents to prove their rightful residence in the country. On the streets of Stockholm, on the metro system and in shopping centres, the police mainly questioned people on the basis of appearance; because they looked ‘different’. This soon led to a heated public debate about the lawfulness of the project, and whether or not the police were actually conducting racial profiling. In defence of the project, the Minister for Justice at the time, Beatrice Ask, dismissed accusations of reinforcing institutional racism, and stated in a radio interview that instead, the issue was of a personal nature. As she said, ‘One’s experience of “why someone has questioned me” can of course be very personal.’

Jonas Hassen Khemiri famously reacted to Ask’s statement with an open letter, first published in Dagens Nyheter on 13 March 2013. (An English translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles was published in Asymptote.) Subsequently, this letter went viral on social media, and achieved record numbers in clicks, likes, shares and retweets. It is safe to say that almost every Swede who uses Twitter or Facebook has at least seen its headline, ‘Bästa Beatrice’ (Dear Beatrice). In this letter, Khemiri makes Ask an offer: ‘I want us to trade our skins and our experiences. Come on.’ Through this body swap, Khemiri would have the chance to find out what it’s like to be a woman in the patriarchal world of politics, and Ask would be able to experience what it’s like when every policeman in the street, the shopping centre or on the metro has ‘the right to approach you and ask you to prove your innocence’. As Khemiri goes on to say, this atmosphere of suspicion ‘brings back memories. Other abuses, other uniforms, other looks.’ Despite the fact that he was born in Sweden, Khemiri feels excluded from society because he looks ‘different’, and, as he says, this exclusion complicates his sense of belonging to Sweden and Swedish society: ‘It is impossible to be part of a community when Power continually assumes that you are an Other.’

In his polemic open letter, Khemiri describes accurately how differentiation on the basis of ethnic difference, when it is used in an exclusionary manner, can lead to immutable boundaries between individuals. Then, ostensible difference is used to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In addition, Khemiri points out how problematic the underlying power relations are, when politics sanction these forms of inequity, racism and exclusion, and when difference becomes instrumentalised to pave the way for hostility and injustice. While Khemiri talks about racialised boundaries, we could just as easily look towards differences of sexuality, age, gender, class, religion or culture, and would probably find similar dynamics of marginalisation and exclusion. However, when difference can become a marker for hierarchy and oppression, it could also turn into a marker for egalitarianism: when difference is met with openness and curiosity, it can help to forge understanding and solidarity with someone who, potentially, is radically different from ourselves.

Why do I mention Khemiri’s letter here, when it is an answer to a particular political constellation in Sweden at a particular time, and when the aim of this article is to reflect upon diversity in Swedish literature? The reason for this is that literature offers us precisely the kind of body swap Khemiri proposes to Ask: for the duration of the reading experience, we are invited to feel what it’s like in the skin of someone who might be different from ourselves, and to see the world from their point of view. In this respect, the reading of fiction requires that we slip out of our own skin and into that of a fictional character, and we are faced with the difficult challenge of having to convert letters on a page into emotional and intellectual meaning. Seen this way, reading becomes an act of the imagination through which we are granted an alternative perspective on the world.

In one way or another, the authors presented in this issue offer us such alternative perspectives, as their novels portray characters who are different from a predominantly white, native, hetero-sexual society, and who negotiate difference in direct relation to the society they live in. I would like to have a closer look at one of these novels, Pooneh Rohi’s Araben (The Arab), to demonstrate the ways in which the reading of literature can add to our understanding of difference, and foster diversity. In Araben, Rohi weaves together two storylines: that of an elderly man, only called the Arab, who travels through Stockholm on trains and the underground on a snowy Tuesday some time before Christmas, seemingly without an aim or a purpose; the second storyline is that of Yasaman, a young woman in the process of applying for a PhD who, as it turns out, is the Arab’s daughter.

The novel begins by introducing the Arab:

The Arab, who is probably a Turk or a Kurd or a Persian, is like a waste product. A margin of error included in the calculations … he thinks to himself while sitting on his seat … He is a failure, a something that never came to anything, a howler or a magnificent flop. … He smiles to himself at the thought. He hasn’t seen it like that before.

When we look at the ways in which Rohi’s novel negotiates difference, we see a complex and intricate entanglement of self-attributions and ascriptions by others. At first, we might think that the Arab considers himself a failure, but then he finds this thought ridiculous, and distances himself from this perception. It is much more likely that the Arab engages with the way he assumes himself to be perceived from the outside. This outside world, as it is presented through the Arab’s eyes, sees him not only as a failure, a piece of garbage even, but also as one of many: he is seen as a man without a name and an identity, he is one of an undifferentiated mass of ‘Arabs’. Paradoxically, the Arab is made anonymous by his surroundings, and, at the same time, he is singled out for being ‘different’. And, in addition, he is acutely aware of being othered in this way.

Araben by Pooneh Rohi

Later on in the novel, the Arab engages again with the outside world and its view of him, represented by a woman he calls Lisa Persson, and who sits opposite him on the train: ‘Lisa Persson’s gaze catches him over the top of her newspaper: a potential wife-beater and rapist who also quite possibly talks too loudly in the library and probably brings his own packed lunch to the café and is likely to be a scrounging benefits recipient.’ The Arab assumes that because of his outward ‘difference’, Lisa Persson takes him for someone who doesn’t know the rules, exploits the Swedish welfare state and is potentially a criminal. Once again, racialised difference is used to draw boundaries and to exclude. When the Arab thinks that he is stereotyped in this derogatory manner, he stereotypes back:

These people who haven’t seen dictatorships, imprisoned teenagers and endless corridors lined with isolation cells, or heard the screams of tortured students, those who are unfamiliar with corrupt politicians and dysfunctional authorities, those who instead have seen welfare states and pensions, stood in queues without any pushing, filled in forms and waited their turn and been confident that the system is watertight. Had faith and felt safe. Is this reality?

Here, the Arab directly compares his violent past in Iran with a contemporary Swedish reality. This comparison highlights that his reality deviates to a great extent from what he thinks a typical native Swedish one looks like. The Arab’s reality in Sweden and his past in Iran remain denied because they are not recognised, and when he, instead of being seen, is stereotyped in a derogatory and racist way because he looks different from the Swedes around him, he becomes marginalised, and excluded from the society in which he has chosen to live. 

However, towards the end of the novel – spoiler alert ­– the Arab comes to terms with his life in Sweden when he does not compare himself to the Swedes around him, but thinks of other migrants who were less lucky than he was, those ‘who travelled by truck at night and are still travelling today and are gasping for air and live in some hole in this cold country.’ At first, the Arab feels guilty about his privileges, but this guilt soon yields to a feeling of gratitude, and he deeply connects with the Swedish reality around him: ‘it is so wonderful to look at the snow and love it … The cold seeps in unnoticed. … He feels how it takes over his whole body.’ When the typical wintry cold is seen as a symbol for the whole of Sweden, the Arab’s metaphorical fusion with the cold could mean that he is reconciled with his life in Sweden; a notion which is supported by the novel’s ending when we learn that, ‘In this moment, he is a grateful man.’

To probe whether the Arab’s experiences are particular to Sweden, or can be found, in similar form, in novels from elsewhere in Scandinavia, I would like to compare Rohi’s novel with a Norwegian one, Zeshan Shakar’s Tante Ulrikkes vei (Our Street), which is also a debut novel, and published in 2017. The novel is presented as a research project, in which the senior researcher Lars Bakken of the NOVA group sets out to chart the daily life of young people with a migrant background in Grorud Valley. Jamal and Mo (short for Mohammed) are two of the participants, and they both live in the same housing block in Stovner on the outskirts of Oslo. Mo’s contributions to the project are rendered as emails to Lars Bakken, written in the Bokmål standard of Norwegian. Jamal does not feel comfortable with writing, and, using a multi-ethnolect typical for young people from this area, he speaks into a Dictaphone. His contributions are transcripts from these recordings.

When Jamal introduces himself to Lars Bakken, he states his belonging to a particular ethnic, religious and local group which is distinct from white Norwegian society: ‘But ok, I’m Jamal. A black guy, Muslim, from Stovner.’ When we compare Jamal’s approach with that of the Arab in Rohi’s novel, Jamal has a completely different strategy to deal with marginalisation and racist othering. He calls himself a black guy and a Muslim, categories which, in derogatory discourses, are meant to stigmatise and exclude him. But Jamal reclaims these categories with defiance and pride, and turns their supposedly negative attributions on their head, reinterpreting them as positive values. In addition, Jamal is keenly aware that the whole area of Stovner is stigmatised in the public eye, and he complains about the ‘crackpots … [who] go on TV and talk shit and then they’ve never even been to Stovner or shook hands with a black guy.’ Here, Jamal identifies ignorance as a common source for racism, and in the same way that he is proud of who he is, Jamal defends his area with pride: ‘But we here, we are like, fuck them who talk shit, you know? … Forget them other people in this country here. We don’t need them. We have this here, know what I mean? … Like, don’t let them get you down and think you are bad. No way. You are cool man.’ With the stigma of the ghetto, boundaries are drawn around Stovner from the outside; but Jamal reverses these mechanisms and confirms these boundaries from the inside: he clarifies that his belonging is to Stovner and not to Norway, because his fellow Norwegians don’t want him anyway.

Although the Arab’s and Jamal’s strategies differ, both Rohi’s Araben and Shakar’s Tante Ulrikkes vei make visible the boundaries created because of ostensible differences and the way they are politically or socially reinforced. In this sense, the novels’ characters, instead of celebrating diversity, negotiate its limits. Through these negotiations, both novels grant us a view into the characters’ minds and invite us to assess them and their conflicts on their own terms. At the same time, the characters’ personal experiences offer us windows into those mechanisms that marginalise them and cause their struggles. In this respect, Araben and Tante Ulrikkes vei can be seen as critiquing the processes that hinder diversity. When we see what these processes of marginalisation and othering do to the novels’ characters and how it makes them feel excluded, we can reflect critically on precisely these processes. In this sense, these novels foster an understanding of difference for its own sake, and cultivate more inclusive attitudes than those Araben and Tante Ulrikkes vei address.  

I am well aware that I am making some grand claims here about the power of literature to change our views on difference, or diversity. But when we look at literary prizes, it seems that there is an increasing public interest in novels that address diversity and its limits, not only in Sweden or Scandinavia, but also, for example, in Germany. I have only selected two examples from many, including the Swedish poet and novelist Johannes Anyuru and the German writer Olga Grjasnowa. Both authors have been showered with prizes and recognition, and, in addition, Anyuru’s novels have been translated into thirteen languages and Grjasnowa’s into fourteen. This suggests that the interest in themes related to diversity goes far beyond the language areas in which these novels were originally written, and that there is an increasing demand for them to be translated.

Nevertheless, the question remains: how can the reading of literature change the ways in which we think about diversity? My claim about the power of literature seems even more preposterous when we consider that novel-reading grants us the freedom to reflect on, and react to, characters and themes in different ways than we do in real life, because we don’t have to change anything in our own world. Even when we read to be emotionally engaged, or moved, these emotional transactions between book and reader can very easily remain without consequence, and it is in the hands of every individual reader to determine to what extent they allow a novel to change their view on their own reality. Seen this way, the political or ethical reach of the novels that I have had a closer look at here (or any of the novels presented in this issue for that matter) can only be seen as an invitation for us to take up their impulses and translate them into our own social environments. My claim about the power of literature still sounds speculative at best, but maybe we’ll remember our reading experiences, and that we felt with characters who may be different from ourselves, in those discussions where the limits of diversity remain unchallenged. In this sense, I am ending on the hopeful note that the impulses we take from the reading of the novels introduced here may feed into conversations and inspire greater openness and understanding of difference, and therefore foster diversity; because, as Zygmunt Bauman has it, ‘Whatever the obstacles, and however immense they might seem, conversation will remain the royal road to agreement and so to peaceful and mutually beneficial, cooperative and solidary coexistence.’

Public transport. Photograph: Helena Wahlman
Public Transport. Photograph: Helena Wahlman

All translated quotations in the text are the author’s own, with the assistance of Ian Giles and Kari Dickson.

Pooneh Rohi’s novel Araben was a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant recipient.

An extract from Pooneh Rohi’s Araben translated by Kira Josefsson is published in this issue.

A separate extract translated by Kira Josefsson was published in Granta,

Anja Tröger teaches Norwegian language and Scandinavian literature at the University of Edinburgh. Her current research focuses on contemporary Scandinavian and German literature that negotiates and imagines experiences of migration.