from Everything I Find in You I Will Find in Myself
by Malin Ekman
introduced and translated by Paul Norlen
Malin Ekman (b. 1987) is a new voice in Swedish fiction. Her debut novel, Allt jag finner i er ska jag finna i mig (Everything I Find in You I Will Find in Myself) was published by Bonniers in 2022.
Anna, an observant and introspective first-person narrator, recalls her childhood with an impulsive single mother and younger brother. In restrained but lyrical prose, the reader shares her perspective on the people and things around her: a suburban apartment, her mother’s strained relationship with her grandmother, a new ‘dad’, puzzling events in the outside world.
The novel unfolds in three parts, starting with a prologue with a grown-up Anna moving into a new apartment. Parts 1 and 2 follow elementary school-age Anna until her grandmother’s attempted suicide. In Part 3 the adult Anna returns to her childhood surroundings and her newly divorced mother.
Ekman is currently the U.S. correspondent for Svenska Dagbladet. The excerpt that follows is from the prologue and first part of the book.
from Everything I Find in You I Will Find in Myself
Mom knocks on the door with twenty red tulips and praises my new home. I say that it’s all thanks to her. It’s going to be fine, she says. Her perfume collides with the everydayness of the studio apartment. This was what I always wanted. To be free to shape something of my own. Mom sits down on my only piece of furniture, the stool that was here when I moved in. She pulls out a pad and pencil from her handbag. I sit down on the floor and open the freezer, set a saucepan of hot water inside. The former owner’s leftovers are frozen solid in its innards. You should complain about that, Mom says. I scrape tomato sauce from the wall of the freezer and scold her for talking about banalities. Water drips into the saucepan. She hands me her handwritten list. S.O.S. pads, curtain rod, smoke alarm, white paint, household cleaner, final cleaning (complain!), flower vase, vacuum cleaner, scrub the closet, change of address, mop, home insurance (ASAP), soap, detergent. The tulips shine red as lipstick. She cuts them for me and places them in a drinking glass on the windowsill. The daylight shines through the leaves like through the windows of a church. Stomach acid irritates my throat. I turn away to spare Mom the sight of my nausea. Say thanks for the flowers. She says that it’s going to work out, you were never happy with him anyway. I want to say that she’s lying. Mom places her hand on my shoulder and stands by me. Her regard scares me. Everything dismissive in her eyes is gone. Her hand squeezes my shoulder and she places herself behind me. Massages my neck and speaks soothingly. You don’t need to know everything now, she says. She promises me that one day I’ll find the meaning in everything I can’t see at the moment. Her nearness makes me tense. I can’t accept it and hate myself for that. My chance is now. The door is cracked open and will soon be closed. My neck tightens. Mom’s fingers knead it like dough. The subcutaneous fat is raised and lowered under my skin. I tell her not to dig in so hard. She says that it’s good if it hurts a little. Please, I say. The tone exposes me and offends Mom. She lets go and tells me to exert myself a little. She has travelled far, devoted her whole weekend to me. I say that I’ve exerted myself for her my whole life. She says that I remember what I want to remember and I answer that it isn’t true. I remember what I remember. She says what she always says. You have to look ahead. She doesn’t understand that I talk about the past because I want to move on.
The street we live on slopes in an arc and ends in a turnaround at the edge of a forest clearing that Mom says we may not be alone in. Once a man exposed himself to her there and the memory of that incident has soiled the whole forest. We only get to play where Mom can see us from the window. All ground her gaze encompasses is safe. So we stick to the slide and the swings and wave to her when we see her looking at us. Sometimes we disappear from her field of vision, and then she calls our names from the balcony.
The building we live in rises above the forest and the city. If you’re lucky and wait long enough in the evening, the sky burns pink or red like a dome over everything. The spruce trees look lovely and innocuous as the sun strikes them before it capsizes on the horizon and our building glistens in the reddish-pink light. In daylight it doesn’t look like much. Green balconies clinging to a gray block. When we moved in there were two apartments for sale. Mom says that her worry that a fire engine wouldn’t be able to make it over the rock that extends under the concrete on the other side made her choose the apartment on the side that became ours. She lives in two worlds simultaneously: the comprehensible world that goes on predictably day after day and the world of catastrophe that only exists inside her but is just as foreseeable in its closely impending chaos. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong, it says to her. It doesn’t show on her that she thinks that way. She shines like the sun and everyone around her is struck by the light. Sometimes people turn their heads after Mom on the street but I don’t think she notices that. She just keeps going. Mom’s eyes are light blue and look almost otherworldly against her red hair. Her hands have visible green veins. They look like snakes slithering under her skin. My hands are small and shapeless. Pale, chubby globs. My body is soft and my posture is poor even though I go to ballet. I’m a head shorter than the other girls in the group. Their long hair decorated with rosettes rises with the movements. My hair is short and lackluster. I cut the bangs myself. In front of the mirror in my grandmother’s bathroom I was seized by an impulse. Compelled to increase my distance to the world. Make myself even homelier. Presumably I lack personality. I don’t feel real even when I pinch myself on the arm. I wonder where I come from. Everything around me is foreign. My brother and mother are of a different sort: blended beings connected with the world and the people in it. Mom says that they resemble each other, she and Alexander, and I can see that’s true.
Mom is slender but looks strong. Like a runner in a track meet on TV, although she doesn’t run except when she’s in a hurry. I’ve never seen her play sports but I often see her smile. Her teeth are white and straight. Strong like a horse’s. And the green snakes that wriggle under the skin, I can’t stop looking at them. They creep down toward her hand on the back of which they stand out from the skin. I want to have hands like that too. On her fingers Mom wears a battery of silver and gold rings, except on her index finger, which is encompassed by one that I made of beads and steel. She is wearing jeans and a leather jacket. A uniform of rebellion, she has taught me. She wore it even as a teenager in protest against Grandmother’s ideal of a good girl. One who speaks with lower-case letters and wears a cardigan and a side part. Mom will never look like that. She will never look like an old lady, she’s told me. Mom is always going to be young. Yesterday she turned thirty-one. She is sitting on the kitchen floor talking on the phone. The receiver is squeezed between shoulder and cheek and her back leans against the refrigerator. The telephone cord is taut across her body and her neck is bent over a spiral notebook on her lap. I look down at it from the doorway. She is drawing flowers, circles, letters. No, she says into the receiver. NO, she writes in the notebook. When she is silent and listens to the person she is talking with she fills in the words. The letters swell to inky blue figures. I want to come close but stay where I am.
‘Mmm,’ Mom says, dragging the pen across the paper.
‘What are you saying?’
‘I see, I didn’t know that.’
‘There you go.’
‘No, what are you saying?’
She has her leather jacket on indoors. Outside the trees are rustling in the wind. Shrieks from the playground break into the room. I want to say that she looks nice in the jacket but mustn’t interrupt her now. My presence mustn’t frighten her. She doesn’t see me even though I’m standing right next to her.
‘That was the . . .’
‘No, you don’t mean that.’
‘So what does she say?’
The murmur penetrates through the windowpane. Happy shrieks. I must go out, interrupt her after all.
‘Mom . . . May I go out and play?’
She looks at me without seeing me.
‘Just make sure I can see you.’
On the playground the birds are singing and Alexander keeps me company. We compete on swinging the highest. I win and feel sorry for him. Give him a chance for revenge but win again. The third time he wins. His eyes sparkle like Mom’s. Above the trees we hear her voice. We look up and she looks back from the balcony.
‘Hello darlings. I just want to be sure that I can see you.’
In the evening all three of us sit on my bed. Mom tailor-fashion, with us right next to her. She has a weapon, a magic phrase.
‘If all the children in the world were lined up,’ she says. ‘Then I would choose you and you.’
Her index finger drills into our stomachs. First in Alexander’s, then in mine. I feel mesmerized. It doesn’t matter that I’m too much like my dad. My yellow hair, my nondescript face, my gaze that doesn’t invite in but observes instead, my attitude; I’m theoretical, like I’ve heard that he was, and I think too much, stay too often in my own world and too rarely in the real one, the one that Mom and Alexander live in. I’m the wrong sort of being, turned inward toward myself. But when Mom speaks the magic phrase a sense of belonging arises. Then it’s the three of us against the world.
Mom wakens me with the news that a ferry has sunk. A glow from the street breaks into the room when she rolls up the blind. it settles like a carpet across the floor. She switches on the radio that sits on my desk and turns up the volume.
The news announcer reports about the accident with space between the words. I shudder under the blanket. Bodies are sinking toward the seabed. People are drowning in the middle of the radio report. I stay in bed and close my eyes, follow the bodies down into the depths. Mom stands by the side of the bed and we listen together. The report is over and she says good morning. The floor chills the soles of my feet as I get out of bed and the radio drowns out the room when Mom disappears from it. Slowly the day draws me out of my stupor.
The engine coughs when Mom starts the car. She turns on the car radio and digs out a lipstick from her purse. Helicopters are on their way to the Baltic Sea, the news announcer reports in the same tone as earlier. Mom looks in the rearview mirror and applies lipstick while she drives out of the parking lot. Presses her upper lip against her lower to even out the color.
‘My God,’ she mumbles. ‘This is as big as the Titanic.’
The lipstick is reddish brown like the color of the brick buildings outside the car. People on their way out of them sweep past the window. I press my forehead against the cold pane. Dew lingers on the lawns along the street.
‘When are you two done today?’ asks Mom.
We answer at the same time.
‘Grandma will pick you up. I’m tired of her, but what should I do? You can’t take care of yourselves.’
‘It’ll be fine. I like it when Grandma . . .’
Mom’s eyes wander in the rearview mirror. Say that this isn’t the time to talk about Grandma now. I stop myself. Mom gets there first, reads my thoughts.
‘What were you going to say, Anna? Don’t make me irritated now, please. Your grandmother . . .’
A blue car drives out from a cross road.
Mom brakes sharply.
Then: ‘Did you see that, kids?’
Alexander turns toward her.
‘He came from the right, Mom. He had the right of way.’
I know where he got that from. Grandpa recently taught us the right-hand rule.
‘For God’s sake. He could have looked first.’
She presses the gas pedal down so that the buildings and trees and people vanish from the car window. Mom almost always drives a little too fast. On the street that leads out from us and is joined with new ones, on the expressway that connects the city with the suburb where Grandma and Grandpa live, on the freeway away from it all, but never outside schools because she says that she would never forgive herself if she ran over a child. Then my life would be over too, she says.
We are approaching the school. Mom shifts into a lower gear and lets the car glide forward. Next to the schoolyard she brakes and turns toward us in the backseat.
‘Do you have everything you need with you?’
On the wall of the school there’s a clock that shows that we’re late. Mom gestures to us to get out of the car and calls, ‘I love you. Don’t forget that!’
I turn around. Her light-blue eyes are locked in mine. I take Alexander by the hand. The dew also covers the grass next to the school. I hate the air this time of year. Something has started and something else has come to an end. A jolt runs through my body when I breathe in. Alexander’s hand lets go of mine when we reach the schoolyard.
The school is a fortress of concrete and gleaming wood. It’s been there for ages. I wait until Alexander disappears into his classroom before I make my way to mine. Breathe in again and fear the moment I know is imminent, when everyone’s eyes are turned toward me and I have nowhere to go. I open the door.
‘A pupil in second grade ought to be able to tell time,’ the teacher says as I close the door behind me.
She turns toward the pupils.
‘But because Anna is always late, it may have been the case that she wasn’t present when the rest of you learned that.’
A giggle breaks out in the rows of desks.
I sit down next to Fanny.
‘“Can’t tell time,” She’s pretty funny sometimes,’ she says.
Sometimes Fanny rescues me by interjecting something in my place. She’s older than me. Born in the sign of Aries, like Mom. The similarity between them consists of something else that I can’t put words to, but which makes me feel foreign to Fanny even though she’s my best friend. She and Mom have something that binds them together. I see similarities between others around me all the time. How they fit together, reflect something in each other. They move away from me without knowing it. I don’t belong to anyone, especially not Mom. I know that she wants me to be more like Fanny or one of the girls at ballet but I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to be someone else. Like Mom, Fanny is beautiful. She’s taller than me, at least ten centimeters, and slender. Her body looks like a dancer’s even though she doesn’t dance. She has high cheekbones and a sweet nose. Her skin is brown and she has brown eyes that glisten when she laughs. Mom always talks about how beautiful Fanny is. Even to her friends she praises Fanny’s beauty: There’s a girl in Anna’s class who’s just so abnormally beautiful. Fanny is her name. I’m a friend of her mother’s. I nod if I happen to be within sight. There’s nothing worse than covetousness, says Mom. I don’t know exactly what that word means, but it has to do with not saying anything bad about someone. It happens that Mom does that anyway, but I don’t know if she notices it.
Fanny turns toward me.
‘Will you go home with me after school?’
‘I can’t today, Grandma is picking us up.’
The teacher looks toward us and interrupts.
‘Not only can Anna not tell time. Evidently she can’t keep quiet either.’
New laughter breaks out in the classroom.
The teacher’s name is Inger. Her face is rough and made-up. Cherry-pink lips frame yellow teeth. Her hair is wine-red and dyed, not natural like Mom’s. Inger’s desk is her throne. I go up to it and sharpen my pencil. Turn it clockwise and just fast enough. Inger inspects me. The pencil sharpener creaks while her presence grows beside me. I must be quick and my hand steady. I implore the pencil: Please, don’t crack. If the point breaks or the lead falls out it will take longer. I take the pencil out of the sharpener and inspect the point. Think about the ferry and the bodies. Wonder how many reached bottom. The point will have to be sharp enough. If I put it in again it may break.
Allt jag finner i er ska jag finna i mig
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2022, 200 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Malin Ekman for permission to publish this translated extract.
Malin Ekman is a journalist, currently the U.S. correspondent for Svenska Dagbladet. Allt jag finner i er ska jag finna i mig is her literary debut.
Paul Norlen is a freelance translator and editor. He is currently President of STiNA (Swedish Translators in North America).