Lend Me Your Language
Inspired Reflections on Jila Mossaed’s Swedish Poetry
by Bradley Harmon
Medan mardrömmar mörknade
i detta hus utan tak
stirrade rummet på mig
utan att blinka
utan att andas
Sakerna såg allt, hörde allt
Mitt inres dörr var öppen
och tingen var där
för att bevittna
När jag vaknade
ville ingen erkänna
Ingen ville vittna
Alltid i tystnad
Fortfarande är mina mödrars mörka nätter
kvar i deras tystnade strupe
As nightmares darkened
in this house without a roof
my room stared at me
Its objects saw all, heard all
The door to my inner self was open
and the things were there
to bear witness
When I awoke
no one wanted to admit
No one wanted to witness
Forever in silence
The dark nights of my mothers remain
still in their silenced throats
When listening to Jila Mossaed (ژیلا مساعد) read her poems aloud, whether in Swedish or Persian, one can tell it’s the same voice. This is perhaps predictable. The prosody of the given language may be different, the words unfamiliar, but the voice is the same, as is the rhythm of the poet’s breath, the cadence of her speech. To listen to the breath of a poet, and therefore to listen to her corporeality, is an intimate experience, even through a recording. It can even feel invasive, to attune to the breath in between her words, as if you’re entering a private realm. One need not tune in to the performance of a poet to register the relational nature of breathing, to realize and reflect on the fact that all breathing is breathing with. No matter the distance one keeps from any other, the air we breathe is shared, a breathscape diffused across and around all organisms who require the inhalation of oxygen to survive. Even if two bodies proximate to each other are not in physical contact, they share the same air, for breathing is an inter-active and inter-corporeal process. In and out. This is not to say breathscapes are not existentially risky—our longstanding knowledge of airborne diseases and our new era of face masks have clearly demonstrated that. But even through the medium of a recording, while it may not bear the same physical weight of sharing air in physical space and time, breath carries meaning. Breath is not merely the aural equivalent of the blank space surrounding words on a page, for even that non-linguistic place signifies something. Like silence, breath is not the lack of meaning. Even if it is present, describable, or representable, it is always on the threshold of language, and thus hovering in the realm of signification. In the way that air is the dwelling space of the spoken voice, the empty space of the written text is the domain of the written word, where language breathes beyond the text.
That breath and the ability to breathe are also closely associated with freedom and life borders on cliché. Yet being one who breathes is a fundamentally vulnerable state, there’s always the possibility that we’re just one breath away from death. The phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ isn’t just figurative, it’s all too often a phrase uttered at the threshold of life and death, or a chronic, baseline mode of existence. The metaphorical codification of getting a breath of fresh air as a rejuvenating experience derives from the restorative power that conscious breathing can have on the mind and body, beyond the unconscious respiration that our bodies do on their own. This sense of breath as freedom is illustrated by the multi-hyphenate Swedish-German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs. When giving her acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, Sachs spoke of her arrival in exile to Sweden. She did not yet know the Swedish language and she hardly knew another person. Despite the anxiety, fear and terror she must have felt, what she ostensibly recalls most strongly upon setting foot on Swedish soil is the breath of freedom, as she specifically speaks of inhaling or breathing in (einatmen) that freedom: ‘Without understanding the language, or knowing a single person, we breathed in the air of freedom’ (Ohne die Sprache zu verstehen, oder einen Menschen zu kennen, atmeten wir die Freiheit ein). Sachs’s speech ended with a recitation of her poem ‘In Flight’ (In der Flucht), the last two lines of which are as follows:
An Stelle von Heimat
halte ich die Verwandlungen der Welt –
In place of home
I hold the metamorphoses of the world –
Sachs and Mossaed both migrated to and settled down in Sweden in exile, fleeing persecution. They both write of breathing frequently in their poems. To do so is hardly a novel metaphor in poetry, or in language in general, for indeed throughout history to write of breath was also to write of the soul. By the same token, to write of breathlessness is still to write about the soul, albeit in a different mode, for breathlessness is not the absence of or negation of breath, as the word would initially imply. One can be breathless while still being alive; indeed, many people around the world must adjust to a breathless form of life, many people cannot experience a full breath, whether due to ecological, political, biological, or other oppressive conditions. In Sachs’s poem, what may initially appear as a mere metaphor for freedom can also evoke another, more fundamental layer that permeates through every layer of being: the patient, sharp clarity of a deep breath after a period—or a lifetime—of suffocation. All too often, that suffocation is equated with silence, and vice versa. To the extent that speaking is a sign and symbol of life, that breathing is the rhythm that supports and punctuates it, Mossaed—in the poem above and all her others, whether in Persian or in Swedish—chooses language over silence, freedom over oppression, breath over asphyxiation, life over death. Many have not been afforded the same chance to choose, Mossaed knows this. Among other readers, she writes for them.
This breath of freedom (and its discontents) resonates in many poems by Mossaed, which often explore not only the different meanings and manifestations of freedom, but its relationality and directionality via a variety of prepositions. For example, a freedom from oppression, a freedom to speak a new language, or a freedom of speech. Many of her poems can be easily deemed autobiographical, for indeed many are written with a first-person poetic subject. Take, for example, this poem from her Swedish debut in 1997:
Jag skriver för mina barn
som blev stumma efter den här resan
för mig själv
eftersom glömskan erövrade mitt minne
och för dem
som stannade kvar och dog.
Hela dagen försöker jag
damma spegeln fri från grå bilder
hela dagen vill jag komma ihåg
ett ord som kan värma
mina barns kalla och hemska nätter
hela dagen drömmar jag
om gamla nätter
men ordens själ har försvunnit,
mina barn väntar på mig
med sina öppna ögon
men jag och världen kan inte minnas.
I write for my children
who went quiet after this journey
because forgetting conquered my memory
and for those
who stayed behind and died.
All day long I try
to dust the mirror free from grey images
All day long I want to remember
a word that can warm
my children’s cold and awful nights
all day long I dream
of old nights
but the soul of words has disappeared,
my children wait for me
with their open eyes
but I and the world cannot remember.
This poem’s title stands in subtle contrast with its topic, for its opening line can read as a response to the archetypical question posed to every author, why do you write? But in the lines that bring the first stanza to a close, we see the union of writing and refuge, and the alliance of language and survival. If the first part of the poem answers the question why write?, then the second part depicts the reciprocal struggle of writing and surviving. The challenge to clean a murky mirror, to find a language that can warm the mind and therefore perhaps also the body of a sleepless child, to vitalize the soul through language. The final line of the poem leaves the reader with a taste of grief—no doubt about it—but also the wonder that the poem exists at all despite this grief. The poem, like all poems, like life, is but one attempt at understanding. No single attempt at survival will suffice, no single poem can incarnate the essence of existence. Both are merely stages on life’s way. The first half of the poem identifies the speaker’s will to live; the second half of the poem details the struggle. Two stanzas, two sentences, two realities.
(The key word in this poem is the same as Sachs’s poem above, Swedish flykt and German Flucht. On one etymological branch, they share the denotations of flight and escape, with verb forms meaning to flee and to seek refuge and adjectival forms such as fleeting, fugitive, volatile, and elusive. But the German word has another etymology that is lexically opposite but semantically specific. It can either refer to a line, alignment, or collection of building elements, such as rooms or windows, or a flock of birds. I’ll stop the philological sidebar here, suffice it to say that it’s a curious anecdote that from a certain angle this word carries both one meaning and its opposite: a precarious moving away (ostensibly from disorder) and an intentional organization into order.)
In his book Poetry as Survival, Gregory Orr writes that when a poet writes about a disturbing or disordering experience it is risky, it inherently involves instability. At the same time the poem risks this disorder, the fact the poem arrives at all is evidence of some level of stability. Not only that, but ‘every encounter with disorder of any sort that results in a poem is a successful encounter in the most basic sense we can mean it—namely, the poet survived.’ In our era of overstimulated minds and overextended bodies, unintentional ambivalence has quietly become an automatic if unconscious (non-)reaction to the violence of the world, as the world’s atrocities blur together into a quotidian white noise, all the more so in our chronic atmospheres of ambivalence. What was once unthinkable or unimaginable has become merely unexamined or willfully ignored, fading out into such a low frequency that it is as good as silent.
But, for the individual, silence is not immediately adverse. We often think of silence in negative terms, as a lack of language, as something to be broken or resulting from being broken, as something destructive, disintegrating or even disturbing, to the point where silence is equated with death (much as sound is equated with life). Orr writes, ‘In the silence of shame, we imagine that if others knew our story they would recoil in disgust or disapproval.’ This might be true, but in the same way that speech can be used as a tool for survival, so too can silence. It may be the case, as Orr states, that ‘to suffer in silence, like grieving in silence, is destructive of the self, since it means walling off aspects of experience and the emotions connected with them’ and thus this kind of silence ‘makes us the victim of our experience, not the master.’ Orr’s claim is that we must break (through) silence and transform it into speech in order to be able to share our selves with the selves of others and overcome the many experiences that plunge us into silence. Many things can send us into a ‘destructive or isolating’ silence, but unlike those things, silence is the one thing that, Orr believes, can be changed. On the one hand, Orr is right: it is a signal of strength to speak out and speak for. But it can also be a measure of strength to be strategically silent, whether as a form of political resistance or self-preservation. When someone chooses to go or stay silent, we (might) have to attend to other ways that might be meaning or signifying (this is what J. Logan Smilges argues in Queer Silence: Disability and Rhetorical Absence). This also makes it all the more powerful when the person who chose to stay silent chooses to speak.
To be fair, Orr is advocating for the transformation of silence into the work of poetry, of channeling creativity as a means to abate trauma and even save oneself. He is centering the therapeutic potential of poetry for the writer (but this is also valid for the reader). For example, as the epigraph for his chapter on ways of survival, Orr cites Muriel Rukeyser:
‘I don’t believe poetry can save the world. I do believe that the forces in us wish to share something of our experience by turning it into something and giving it to somebody: that is poetry. That is some kind of saving thing, and as far as my life is concerned, poetry has saved me again and again.’
I have to admit that I disagree with the claim in the first sentence, not only because it immediately and unreasonably ascribes an ethical imperative to poetry (and art, for that matter) which implores it to have value only insofar as, and to the extent that, it can save the world, but also because we tend to confuse what we mean by ‘the world.’ There is a pervasive conflation of the words ‘earth’ and ‘world,’ where the former technically refers to the physical planet and the latter to a broader array of conceptual meanings, ranging from the world as the collective everything on earth or in the universe (the Swedish word världsalltet, meaning ‘universe; everything that exists,’ is literally rendered as ‘the world’s all’) to my world as I experience it or my worldview that is based on said experience. So while I can concede that poetry may not be able to save the World (in whatever definition), it does have the capacity to change an individual’s world; for every person is a world, with their own perspective, understanding, point of view and relation to the wider World that constitutes our existence, which is inherently shared. Poetry does not, and should not, have to save the world for it to be meaningful. That a poem succeeds as a poem—that it exists at all—is meaningful enough.
Mossaed arrived in Sweden in 1996; her first collection in Swedish was published in 1997. In the intervening time, between when she entered the world of Swedish and when she made her own world through Swedish, she had buried herself in a deep feeling of muteness (stumhet), as she describes in her pamphlet essay in verse, To Breathe Words in the Forest (Att andas orden i skogen). Neither this freedom nor its manifestation in language are to be taken for granted. To be silent is not inherently to be unfree. Likewise, one can be forced into speaking; thus, speech is not innately or entirely a form of freedom. The freedom lies in the ability to choose speech or to choose to remain silent. Does freedom not walk hand in hand with possibility, if not metaphysically then at least metaphorically?
Many a philosopher has argued that the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world, or that we make our world through language. By the same token, many a poet has expressed the notion of language as a home. For example, again, Nelly Sachs, who maintained an affinity for the spatial, domestic dimensions of language, conceiving the text of a poem in such terms as ‘Weltall der Worte’ or ‘Landschaft aus Schreien’ or ‘So rann ich aus dem Wort’ (‘cosmos of words’; ‘landscape of screams’; ‘Thus I ran out of the word’). This refuge was not entirely secure, neither for Sachs, nor her correspondent, friend, and ‘brother’ survivor Paul Celan, whose relationship to German was famously fraught. Both poets continued to write in their mother tongues in a foreign land, Sachs in Sweden and Celan in France, conflicted about the inability to escape German like they escaped Germany.
Mossaed offers her own perspective on writing in exile, in a new language. Mossaed’s poetry was once censored, and is now banned, in Iran. When she writes in Persian, it’s published abroad. In To Breathe Words in the Forest, Mossaed opens with this first line: ‘Every language that gives me the freedom to express myself against injustice is the language of my heart.’ [Varje språk som ger mig frihet att uttrycka mig mot orättvisan är mitt hjärtas språk.] Throughout the essay (as well as in her speech upon induction into the Swedish Academy), she recounts her journey into Sweden and into the Swedish language. A few years after her arrival, she realized that the North would be her ‘grave.’ It was then she decided to buy curtains for her windows, and decided to answer in Swedish rather than English. Fabric is a frequent symbol in her poems. In this instance, in the same piece, Mossaed admits that in the journey into Swedish her poetic language had to become simpler, had to ‘change clothes,’ thus catalyzing exponential possibilities in her poetic world through the fusion of the spirit of her poetry as part of a tradition inherited from and shared with poets such as Hafez, Rumi and Forugh Farrokhzad, and the garb of Swedish.
Mossaed’s poetry is infused with the possibility of language, rather than its limitations. Yet there is a thread running through her poetry, of the bumping into or being distressed by the limits of language. Not the speculative limits entertained and explored by intellectuals of all stripes, but the quotidian, even banal, limitations that every language learner, indeed many non-native speakers of a language, encounter regularly. Wittgenstein was right, sort of: the limits of my language may indeed be the limits of my world, but what of my second language, or my third or fourth? Does not being a native Swedish speaker inherently limit my world? It depends on what we mean by world. Wittgenstein, so it seems, was speaking of the language faculty, the fact that we have language at all, regardless of which language it might be. If anything, it gives me access to a world, whether I make it my own our not. The difficulty of this growth runs throughout Mossaed’s work in Swedish, such as this stanza from the collection How I was missed here (2018; Vad jag saknades här):
Jag är försvunnen
på stadens gator
Kan inget alfabet
I have disappeared
onto the city streets
Knowing no alphabet
Or this couplet from one her early poems, where the speaker recounts the pathos of breaking down into tears, finding respite against a tree whose name is unknown to her:
Jag gråter vid ett träd
som jag inte ens kan namnet på
I am crying against a tree
that I don’t even know the name of
Mossaed ranks among a growing number of ‘exophonic’ writers, authors who write in a language that this not their own. Think, for example, of Samuel Beckett, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Joseph Brodsky, Don Mee Choi, Ilya Kaminsky, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vladimir Nabokov, Yoko Tawada and (at one time) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. These writers, Skrikanth Reddy writes in his introduction to a special issue of Poetry Magazine on Exophony, featuring a poem by Mossaed, ‘project their own cultural histories into a new language, as writers always have done, and will always do. They are translators of themselves.’ But we have to be careful not to conflate modes and methods of translation. Mossaed herself states her position: ‘To be able to write directly in Swedish was my goal from the beginning. I didn’t want to translate my poems into Swedish.’ (Att kunna skriva direkt på svenska var mitt mål från början. Jag ville inte översätta mina dikter till svenska). Mossaed doesn’t translate her words from one to another language; that is what I have done. She translates her experience into words, whether Persian or Swedish; that is not what I do. I only have access to her experiences through her words, which when read through my English, take on a shade of my understanding, which is then passed on to the reader.
The experience of exile gives a new contour, if not an entirely new foundation, to the meaning of survival. I myself cannot speak from a place of exile as it is traditionally understood, not in the way that Mossaed, Sachs, or Celan experienced it. I can only approach it second hand. Mossaed gives us a sense in To Breathe Words in the Forest: ‘To live in exile means that you have to dare to find replacements for everything you wish you had from before.’ [Att leva i exil innebär att du måste våga hitta ersättningar för allt som du önskar att du hade kvar från förr.] For Mossaed, exile is a total and complete existential shift. The many replacements that one will have to seek out and accept are too numerous to count, but there are several throughout Mossaed’s poetry. One is language, another is landscape.
Mossaed writes starkly and directly about the natural world, and of her and humanity’s relationship to it, often employing a rich, poignant imagery that echoes the lucidity that made Tranströmer so successful and therefore translatable (or vice versa). I would venture to say that Mossaed has inherited Tranströmer’s status as the Swedish purveyor par excellence of simple, crystalline images. For example, this stanza from How I was missed here, which recalls for me Tranströmer’s poem ‘Den halvfärdiga himlen‘ (‘The Half-Finished Heaven‘):
Jorden har svårt att andas
Rinnande floder av klorofyll
The earth has trouble breathing
through the asphalt
Flowing rivers of chlorophyl
When Tomas Tranströmer was awarded 1990 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, he spoke of two ways at looking at a poem. One way was to see it as impossible to carry over from its original language into another. The other, contrary, view is to understand
the poem as it is presented is a manifestation of another, invisible poem, written in a language behind the common languages. Thus, even the original version is a translation. A transfer into English or Malayalam is merely the invisible poem’s new attempt to come into being. The important thing is what happens between the text and the reader. Does a committed reader ask if the written version he reads is the original or a translation?
A poem, then, is always a translation of experience into words, which through writing are themselves first and foremost of act of memory, a resistance to the ephemeral. Poetry itself is a translation of silence, one that inhales nothingness and exhales life and language. In a sense, all understanding is a form of translation. Or at least, the mechanics function similarly, bound both to time and to the unknown or the unfamiliar.
Låna mig ditt språk
Lär mig ordens rötter
låt mig leka med dina ord
låt mig skapa
nya konstiga meningar med dem
låt mig ge orden
låna mig ditt språk
låt mig ta dem med på en äventyrlig resa.
Lend Me Your Language
Teach me the word-roots
let me play with your words
let me create
new strange sentences with them
let me give the words
lend me your language
let me take them on an adventure.
Mossaed wears her heart on her sleeve, and its blood infuses her poetry. If I were to describe her poetry in one word, at this moment, it would be palpable. If I were to describe her poetic voice in one word, at this moment, it would be earnest.
But what is it, then, the breath of a poem? Where does it occur, and how? This essay began with a gesture to the (recorded) breath of the poet, but the breath of the poem is of another kind. I’m reasonably sure that there are no lungs concealed between a book’s binding and its spine. I’m reasonably sure that its pages do not respire, even if the trees from which they were produced did. No, the breath of the poem is no material process, no biological rhythm. Nor is it merely a matter of metaphorical rhetoric or imaginative figuration. The breath of the poem is rather akin to the spirit of the poem, inspired by the poet, exhaled by her and inhaled by the reader. Like the real air that is shared by those that breathe, the poem is a shared space, even if it is temporally disjointed, indeterminably delayed on its journey from writer to reader.
Ibland kommer orden till mig helt döda
som hårstrån eller naglar
De andas inte på pappret
Sometimes the words come to me entirely dead
like a strand of hair or nails
They do not breathe on the paper
So begins one of the opening poems in Mossaed’s latest collection Delayed Words (Orden är försenade). Here, as elsewhere, in every poem, the poem is a meeting place, a breathscape, whose inhabitants are prepositionally related towards one another, however temporarily, however separated by time and space. In that same poem, she writes that even though it ‘takes time to breathe life into them’ [Det tar tid att blåsa liv i dem], that eventually ‘the paper accepts them / one at a time’ [Pappret tar emot dem / ett efter ett]. Though Mossaed may write of words dead on arrival, it is the work and wonder of poetry to animate them.
We are grateful to Jila Mossaed for granting permission to include translations of her poems in this essay.
The references in this essay are found the following books:
Jila Mossaed: Månen och den eviga kon (1997); Sju vilda oceaner (2000); Att andas orden i skogen (2018); Vad jag saknades här (2018); Ljusets alfabet: En triologi (2019); Orden är försenade (2022)
Jennifer M. Hoyer: ’The Space of Words’: Exile and Diaspora in the Works of Nelly Sachs (2017)
Gregory Orr: Poetry as Survival (2002)
J. Logan Smilges: Queer Silence: Disability and Rhetorical Absence (2022)
Other sources found via associated hyperlinks.
Bradley Harmon is a writer, translator, and scholar of Scandinavian and German literature, philosophy, and film, currently a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. His translations of Jila Mossaed’s writings have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Lyrikline, Loch Raven Review, and Swedish Book Review.
by Kayo Mpoyi
illustrated by Linn Grebäck
reviewed by Fiona Graham
Little Kitoko’s father tries to instil hope in them both, as if reciting a prayer: they have hope, he says, they’ll find hope, and hope is with them. Yet father and daughter have had to move more than once since Kitoko’s mother left, and hope can sometimes seem in short supply – especially on those days when her father lies under his quilt with the curtains drawn, murmuring, ‘Not just now, not just now.’
Being eminently practical and enterprising, Kitoko searches their flat for the hope that has gone missing – in vain. But then she recalls that she can slip into her own inner world just by closing her eyes. She joins her train-driver friend Connal in his locomotive for a magical journey into an enchanted country where memories hover over the ground like shining bubbles. She relives the time she and her father tried out one comb after the other, to find the one that was best for her hair, and the moment when they found just the right place to live. And so Kitoko restores her father’s spirits: as long as they are together and share happy memories, there will always be hope.
Kitoko’s name, which means ‘beautiful’ in the central African language Lingala, is a fitting title for this touching tale of the love between father and child, and of the healing power of imagination and memory. The illustrations, too, are a joy. The book should have widespread appeal for young children (up to the age of six or so) in many countries, including the UK.
Rabén & Sjögren, 2022, 32 pages
Foreign rights: Norstedts Agency
Kayo Mpoyi’s first novel, Mai betyder vatten (Mai Means Water), published in 2019, won the Katapult prize for Sweden’s best debut in 2020. It has appeared in Finnish, German and French translation, and is shortlisted for the French Prix du premier roman étranger. It was reviewed by Joanna Flower in SBR 2020 1-2. An extract translated by Alex Fleming appeared in the same edition. Mpoyi’s second novel, En övning i revolution (An Exercise in Revolution) came out in August 2022.
Linn Grebäck is an illustrator, animator and graphic designer based in Stockholm. Kitoko is her debut as an illustrator.
Herrens år 1400
(The year of Our Lord, 1400)
by Dick Harrison
reviewed by James Walker
Herrens år 1400 is the third in a series of thrillers by author and historian Dick Harrison. Like the first two, Herrens år 1398 (The Year of Our Lord, 1398) and Herrens år 1399 (The Year of Our Lord, 1399), the third instalment is set on the island of Gotland and more specifically in its main town, Visby. In this period, at the end of the 1390s, Teutonic knights have banished lawless sailors from the island and restored peace and stability once more.
Enter Thierry of Liège, a squire who came to Gotland with the Teutonic knights and has (in the first two novels) established a reputation as a ‘bloodhound’.
Some Russians from Novgorod have come to Gotland, seemingly to dispose of assets held there from an earlier period, including their Russian church. Accompanying them, Thierry learns are ‘Russian whores’ (actually Tatar), most of whom have been sold off to wealthy buyers.
A fire occurs in a remote corner of Visby where they are housed. Unable to flee the flames, the one remaining woman and all but one of the Russians are burnt to death.
The Teutonic knight and bailiff in Visby, Johann av Techwitz, gives the task of investigating the cause of the fire to Thierry, who upon visiting the blaze site thinks that the fire may have been started deliberately. He also thinks that the victims of the blaze had no chance of escaping as the exits may have been blocked to prevent this.
Clues are thin on the ground but in the woman’s house they find a mantel brooch, a dagger and some money. These are locked in a chest in the knights’ refectory for safekeeping.
On being questioned by Thierry, the Russian survivor, Boris Tverdislavitz, claims that he survived as he had left the building to relieve himself and when the fire caught he was still outside. He is nonetheless a suspect and is sent off to spend the night in the Russian church.
Early next day, Thierry visits the church to continue his investigation and finds Boris dead on the floor from a vicious blow to the head. Boris must have let his killer in and so must have known and trusted whoever did it.
The investigation is underway and requires all of Thierry’s cunning and bloodhound instinct.
Thierry is confronted with an ever more intriguing pursuit of the truth, as some items of evidence are stolen, whilst others are planted in unlikely places in order to try and throw him off the scent. The motive however remains a mystery. There is one theory that the Russians have come to Gotland to set up a network of influential local informants. But why?
Gradually, Thierry is able to whittle down the number of suspects by a clever process of elimination until he is finally left with but a few likely candidates. However, he has to tread extremely carefully in order to solve the crimes. He has already been assaulted by a mob which left him injured and having to use a crutch, which severely restricts his mobility. An inconvenience, however, but one he puts up with.
Compared to thrillers set in the present, Herrens år seems to be slow moving, but once the reader settles into the pace at which the crimes are uncovered and solved, this in itself adds to the suspense and the reader’s overall enjoyment.
The author, familiar with the period thanks to his ‘day-job,’ as a historian, uses rich language punctuated with archaic phrasing and a wonderful vocabulary that roots the reader in the period and in the events that have led up to the situation in Visby in the year of our Lord 1400.
Herrens År 1400
Ordfront förlag, Stockholm, 2022
Foreign Rights: Ordfront förlag
Dick Harrison is a professor of history at the University of Lund who has written numerous fiction and non-fiction works. His non-fiction work Ett stort lidande har kommit över oss. Historien om trettioåriga kriget (A Great Suffering Has Befallen Us. The Story of the Thirty Years War) was reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2015: 1.
from Bread and Milk
by Karolina Ramqvist
translated by Saskia Vogel
Over the past twenty-five years, Karolina Ramqvist has established herself as a leading writer of her generation, with deeply personal works that probe a number of contemporary issues. In her latest text, Bröd och mjölk (Bread and Milk), she explores the complex, highly evocative topic of food. Seamlessly blending essay and memoir, Ramqvist traces a childhood filled with smells, colours and tastes, depicting the ways in which we are shaped by what we cook, share and consume, and how food is linked to how we love.
Written in Ramqvist's precise, elegant prose, the book is at once a personal account of a woman’s complicated relationship with food, a rich family chronicle, and a document of a changing society.
This extract is taken from the start of the book. An English edition (in Saskia Vogel's translation) is forthcoming from Manilla Press in the UK, and Coach House Books in Canada.
from Bread and Milk
Food is love. People say so all the time, I hear it ever more often nowadays, and know it to be true. But to me it has also meant that love was food.
A former anorexic once said this to me, many years ago, when I had invited her and some other friends over for a meal. My large white dining room table was set with mis-matched china and old cutlery of a kind that I had spent a long time searching for. The table was standing in the middle of the one-room apartment I lived in back then, and she walked over and let her eyes wander across it and everything I had laid out. A thick wedge of Parmesan cheese, a bowl of French string beans, a plate of young green leaves and thinly shaved fennel, roasted artichokes in my mother’s white soufflé dish from the 1980s, steamed broccolini with garlic and lemon, and in the middle of it all a deep ceramic dish into which I was about to pour a steaming pot of spaghetti arrabiata with fresh basil and chunks of half-melted buffalo mozzarella.
I had opened two bottles of wine and set out two carafes of water, along with the bread I had baked in the gas oven that morning, cut into thick slices, so the guests could tear bits off to eat with olive oil and flaked salt as they settled in at the table.
She took it all in and smiled.
You show your love through food, she said.
I fell silent and dropped my gaze. I couldn’t look her in the eye as those words struck me, but I looked at all the food sitting there, feeling stupid that this had never occurred to me. On some level, of course, it had, but I’d never put the thought into words the way she had, as if she were free to say anything she liked. I for one had never talked to a single person about my relationship with food and had never articulated it to myself, and I felt ashamed that it could be so obvious to another person.
Thinking about it now, I realize that she may have been simply pointing out our differences when it came to what is called the language of love, that is, how we show the people we love that we love them.
But it’s also possible that she understood.
I imagine that she did, because she knew a thing or two about what food can be and how it can be used, and I think her words were what allowed me to see myself so clearly not long thereafter, when I made that rice pudding for my daughter and was confronted with myself, in all my lack and ineptitude.
Everything I couldn’t do or say.
I used to think it was right after this event that I began seeking out others with problems similar to my own, in order to solicit help. But in reality it took much longer. After all, memory is deceptive. It’s hard to remember one’s life. It’s hard to remember in the right order, and as for this matter of food, I don’t know how it all began or why.
Those I sought out said it might begin with the very first sustenance. The milk that is so rich and sweet, that satisfies and soothes the newborn child and relieves its pain. It could be that we wish for a return, to once more be allowed to drink it while lying in someone’s arms. One might think it would be easy to speak in terms of 'we,' because we all must eat in order to survive. But people are so different. I see the love of food everywhere, simple and full of pleasure, and I wonder if there aren’t others like me after all.
They told me that I must tell my story, because it is the only way to be freed from this. And it’s not that my story is special, it’s what they’d say to anyone. It’s one of their guiding principles; they sound like sober alcoholics when they speak and indeed many of them are—alcoholics and drug addicts who stopped drinking and doing drugs and started on food instead.
But I don’t know how to tell the story of what food has meant to me. I’m frightened that I might not have a language for it. I don’t believe this story will set me free in the way that they insist they have been set free and I don’t want to spin this into 'a good story.'
Do it anyway, they say.
So I try.
I see before me a tangerine.
That is the beginning. The tangerines. It was winter, citrus season, I think I was three years old. It was the middle of the day and bright outside and the fruits had been set out on the big white table. There may have been thirteen of them, maybe more, but thirteen is the number I haven’t been able to get out of my head ever since, and they were bright orange and luminous amidst all the white in our kitchen.
I was alone in there, on the floor by the table, and it was quiet in the apartment. My mother was in her room, working as usual, as she would do on weekends unless one of her friends came over for a coffee or a walk around the nearby lake. I remember that I climbed onto one of the chairs and leaned across the white table top, reached out and grabbed hold of a tangerine, then picked it up and held it in my hand.
I pressed my nose to it and inhaled the scent, letting the tip of my tongue slip out and over its smooth rind. The bitterness made my tongue withdraw, like a small animal retreating to its den. Then I dug my nails into the rind and felt the release of a tangy mist.
I poked a small hole in the rind so I could touch the bare, juicy fruit beneath, then tore off a long strip. Then another and another. When all the peel was discarded, I removed two segments. I thought about how they reminded me of my lips when pressed together. I spread them, scraped away the soft net-like pith, put one segment between my teeth and bit down. Juice gushed out, cool and fresh and quenching. And its sweetness filled more than my mouth, it filled the whole of me and the kitchen in which I sat.
I chewed and swallowed and stuffed the other segment in and bit into it as well, felt the fibers in the flesh with my tongue, probed the membranes with its tip for what was still to be had and sucked it into me before I took another segment, doing the same with it and then one more. I was taking the time to chew, but still the juice caught on the way down and it made me cough and clear my throat, but I was undeterred and once I’d finished the first tangerine I reached across the big white table for another.
Something new and unknown was racing through me, trembling and burning. I ate one after the next and when all the tangerines were gone, the sensation vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and it was as if something colorless and slack came over me. I stared at the table, which looked so different now with that untidy heap of rind in place of what had moments ago been plump fruit, full of promise. My fingers were sticky and vibrant citrus notes rose up around me. I was still alone in the kitchen. I had taken a tangerine and tasted it, and then I had eaten them all up at once. I had done this, me, and yet I could hardly believe it had happened.
On the other side of the apartment, I could hear the door to my mother’s room opening. I gathered up the peels as quickly as I could and climbed down from the chair to try and dispose of them. She had looked so happy coming home with her bag of groceries. She’d said that tangerines were part of winter, and she was sure that I’d like them. A scrap of a rind hit the floor and when I turned around I saw that others had fallen from my hands. They were too small to hold everything.
Mom came into the kitchen with her mug of tea. She always drank tea when she was at home. What have you done? she asked. I didn’t know what to say, I was just trying to get rid of the tangerine peel that lay like a trail behind me on the floor. Have you eaten all the tangerines?
I couldn’t respond.
She looked at me and when I didn’t speak, she bent down and picked up the peels, threw them in the trash, and then took her mug to the teapot on the counter to freshen her tea.
I left the kitchen and went into my room to play with my tea tins. If you opened the lids and stuck in your nose, they still contained the aroma of the leaves: jasmine, lemon, muscatel, and osmanthus. She had taught me all the scents and words and this was something she seemed to enjoy, but I also noticed that she didn’t like that I could smell certain things so clearly and the effect they had on me, how a smell that didn’t bother anyone else could cause me to despair.
I put the tea tins in a row on the floor, picked them back up and built a wall and then a tower. After a while I started to feel itchy. My legs, my inner thighs, prickled and stung and when I pulled off my thick tights to get at it, I saw that big reddish blotches had spread across my skin. My nails left long white scratch marks. Scratching felt good, but the more I scratched the worse it got; I felt it on my neck too, my forearms and hands.
I pulled off my shirt so I was just sitting in my underpants, I kept scratching and the itch got worse. When I couldn’t stand it anymore and didn’t know what else to do, I ran into the corridor, through the hall, to my mother’s room, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to bother her. I walked across the thick white carpet to the other side of the room. She was hunched over her desk, the typewriter and all of her papers next to a plate, empty but for a few rusk crumbs, and the mug, its interior dark with tea. Mama, I said, and she hemmed in reply without looking up from her work. I stood in front of her and started crying, or just let the tears come, to get her attention and to make clear that I had a reason for disturbing her writing time.
She spun around on the chair and looked at me, horrified at the sight of the rash, and then she stood up. Her special scent and heat enfolded me as she lifted me onto her bed and sat down beside me. I loved her every smell. They were most exquisite in winter, when mixed with the cold. I longed for them always—leather, cigarette smoke, the perfume clinging to her wolf fur when she came to pick me up, and the smells of skin and body around her when she was just at home, sitting still or walking around. I looked at the two of us in the mirror beside the desk, like she looked at herself each time she was going out. What is this, she asked, her voice different, unsteady and a touch shrill rather than deep and soft. What have you done? She stared at the rash and I remember thinking that I was leaving my body, that I too was looking at myself from the outside, just like she was.
She felt my forehead and said I had a fever and then she picked the large, heavy phone up off the floor, and as she placed it on her lap it emitted a soft metallic ping. She took one of the phone books from the pile under her nightstand, put it next to her on the bed, flipped to a number and dialed. Then she sat next to me with the receiver in her hand, the phone in her lap, and the long cord winding down her bare legs, her warm, freckled skin and her scent, which was like a room of its own that I wanted to find my way into and never leave. She had been working all morning in the big t-shirt she usually slept in, not having managed to get dressed properly. She had another job too, what she did on the weekends was a side hustle. A 'bread job,' she’d call it.
I squirmed in the bed sheets while she spoke with the person on the other end of the line who was asking questions and of whom she was asking questions in return: how had it happened, was it dangerous, what could be done. When she’d hung up, she went to the kitchen to fetch a tube of ointment that she said was in the medicine drawer in the broom closet. She came back with it in hand and squeezed some out and after she had smeared it into my itchy patches, she stroked my hair and sang to me until I fell asleep.
Thinking about it now, I can’t remember her being mad at me for eating all the tangerines and bringing hives and an allergic reaction upon myself. What I do remember is the taste, the sweetness in my mouth and how it overtook me. I think it was the first time something I ate transformed me, but I can’t say for sure. This is only a memory, the first that arises when I try to look back. And I know memories are not reliable. They belong only to you, and they are only memories, like flashes and echoes through time, images and scenes that further distort each time we call them up.
Bröd och Mjölk
Norstedts, 2022, 332 pages
Foreign rights: Christine Edhäll, Ahlander Agency.
We are grateful to Karolina Ramqvist, Ahlander Agency and Manilla Press for permission to publish this translated extract.
Karolina Ramqvist made her literary debut in 1997. She has published a number of novels, including the critically acclaimed The White City, and in 2015 was awarded the prestigious P.O. Enquist Literary Prize. She has also written short stories, film scripts, non-fiction and essays, and was formerly Editor of Arena magazine. Bread and Milk is forthcoming in Saskia Vogel's English translation from Manilla Press in the UK, and Coach House Books in Canada.
Saskia Vogel is an author and translator from Los Angeles, currently living in Berlin. She was a 2021 PEN Translation Prize finalist and Princeton University’s Fall 2022 Translator in Residence. Her debut novel, Permission, was published in five languages, and she was awarded the 2021 Berlin Senate Grant for Non-German language Literature for her writing.
‘My Ukrainian publisher’s son said he wasn’t frightened – but the war changed him’
by Sara Stridsberg
translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
Before the war the Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg had never had any contact with her Ukrainian publisher. When Russia invaded Ukraine she sent an email. Here she writes about the exchange that followed, the family that was forced to flee, and the place of literature in the ongoing war.
This article was originally published in Dagens Nyheter,10 June 2022.
Svetlana Alexievich has described Russian culture as her homeland, or one of them. Her first homeland is Belarus, the country where her father was born and where she lives and writes her books today. The second is Ukraine, the country her mother comes from. And the third is Russian culture.
There is a glimmer of light in the idea of culture as a home in this time of homelessness, rootlessness and flight, of literature as a dwelling you can take with you anywhere in the world, one that moves silently across national borders. For many, Svetlana Alexievich’s books have been a means to understanding what war is, beyond grand history with its conflicts and battles and its sovereigns with their swelling peers, and beyond all the peace treaties which appear to sow the seeds of the next war, and the next. War – and so too the history of war – is grandiose and greedy. Svetlana Alexievich seeks instead the little tremor that exists inside everyone, ‘the tremor of eternity’, as she calls it. This little tremor that reflects grand history like a broken mirror.
In her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, which came out in 1985, she writes about women in the Red Army. ‘A human being is most visible and open in war, and also maybe in love. To the depths, to the subcutaneous layers. In the face of death all ideas pale, and inconceivable eternity opens up, for which no one is prepared.’ 
I don’t always have contact with the publishers who bring out my books abroad – I have close contact with a few, and occasional or sporadic contact with some others. I had never been in touch with Petro Matskevych, my Ukrainian publisher. We started to write to one another at the beginning of March this year, when he was still at home in Kyiv, where he runs the Calvaria Publishing House and PR-Prime Company. When the bombs began falling on Ukraine I wrote and asked him if there was any way in which I could help.
By then millions had already left their homes, just as the 100 million currently escaping other wars and disasters all over the world have done. After a few days Petro replied, writing that the situation was horrendous, and that almost every day he and his wife Kseniya and their child Luka had to hide in a bomb shelter from Russian air raids. He said that publishing activity had all but ceased and it was no longer possible to sell books, and that the only thing that could be hoped for now was that the war would lead to European publishing houses taking more interest in contemporary Ukrainian literature. He asked me for help in making contact with European publishers. ‘I daren’t ask you for anything more,’ he wrote.
He attached two photos of Luka, nine years old, both pictures taken one day at the end of February. In one, Luka is in a park surrounded by flowers, wearing a little red padded gilet. He has that classic pudding-basin haircut that all boys sport at a certain age, my son did too. He is wearing blue trainers and smiling shyly at the camera. In the second picture he is holding a white kitten in his arms. The cat has its eyes closed, Luka is beaming. It is taken in the bomb shelter where they used to hide.
Then everything goes quiet from Kyiv and Petro. I write, but there is no reply. I contact publishers in Sweden and other countries and try to put them in touch with Petro. After ten days he writes again – he, Kseniya and Luka have left Kyiv and travelled to Poland. By the time they leave, two thirds of the apartments in their building are empty. Now they are in Katowice, near the border with Hungary and Czechia.
Petro: ‘Dear Sara, I’m sorry our correspondence has been interrupted for so long. My wife, my son and I left Ukraine more than a week ago. (It was extremely difficult.) I didn’t want to go, but we were forced to. Russian bombs were already falling close to our house, I’m too old for the army (66), and my son was very frightened and couldn’t sleep at night. On the way here we had no access to the internet. Now we’re in Poland. We’ll solve all our problems with the help of our Polish friends. In a few days I hope I’ll have access to our database too and follow up with the publishers you have put me in touch with. Apologies again for my long silence.’
I get in touch with Petro’s wife Kseniya, who was the one who discovered my novel The Gravity of Love, a story based in Beckomberga mental hospital. ‘There’s so much light and hope in your novel,’ she writes. My thoughts turn to the German-Swedish poet Nelly Sachs – all ideas about war and sickness sooner or later lead to her – who wrote that a refugee carries her homeland in her arms like an orphan and deep inside only seeks a grave for this lonely child. The old persecutors and executioners in Nazi Germany from whom she had fled had continued to live inside her as demons and hallucinations long after the Third Reich had fallen, and in Beckomberga she could find a temporary refuge of sorts.
I ask Petro and Kseniya what they were doing on the last day before the bombing started. ‘Do you remember?’
Petro: ‘February 23rd was a normal working day. We received a new order from a chain of bookshops, we liaised with a bookseller over technical issues, we discussed a manuscript by an author we were considering publishing.’
Kseniya: ‘That day I had a discussion about future plans for the office with our team working on social projects. We were pleased to see each other, because Covid restrictions had meant we hadn’t had many opportunities to meet face-to-face up to then. But the next live meeting would turn out to be postponed indefinitely.’
Petro: ‘The only thing that distinguished that day from any other was how Luka was in the evening. He was really anxious at bedtime and didn’t fall asleep until very late.’
Just before 5am (4am in Sweden) Vladimir Putin announces that Russia is invading Ukraine. The Russian military reach the outskirts of Kharkiv in the morning and Kyiv is also attacked with armoured tanks, ground forces and missile strikes. After that night Petro, Kseniya and Luka spend much of the time in an air-raid shelter.
Petro: ‘Actually there isn’t an air-raid shelter in our house, it’s a building with only 50 apartments. So in fact we had nowhere to hide. When the shelling got more intense and came nearer, or when something exploded, we went out into the space between the apartments. It’s the safest place, with load-bearing walls on both sides. Each time, Luka took his rucksack and a folding chair with him, but we made a special little bed so he didn’t have to sit on a camping seat the whole time and he could lie down and rest. Originally it wasn’t our intention to leave. We learned that Kyiv, the heart of the country and the nation, would be protected. And yet our situation was still so difficult. Every day, but most often at night, the bomb attacks came, the explosions when Russian missiles hit somewhere, and the sound from our air force trying to stop them. Almost nothing was working, the shops that were open closed very early and the range of goods was meagre. In some parts of the city there was a problem with water and getting hold of bread, and the air-raid sirens were going day and night. Things like computers and the internet didn’t work. You couldn’t get hold of normal medication. But if it hadn’t been for Luka, we would have stayed.’
Kseniya: ‘The biggest problem was Luka. The lack of activity unsettled him. Being on the internet was never a substitute for live communication for him. He loves communicating. And he was so anxious about the shooting and explosions around us that at night we had to go out into our ‘bunker’ between the apartments. He said he wasn’t frightened, that the Russians couldn’t scare him, but we saw him change. In the end he started sucking his fingers – two, three, four at the same time. He didn’t even do that when he was small. It was harder for him to concentrate in online lessons and when we played games at home, even though usually he likes chess. My mother rang every day and wanted us to take Luka away. As for her, she refused to leave.’
Petro: ‘In the end even working on publishing house business was pointless. The little we could do, we could do from a distance.’
There have been no novels from Ukraine published in Sweden since 2014, when Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex and Zerhiy Zhadan’s Depeche Mode came out. It is easy to imagine that the new political situation after Russia’s annexation of Crimea must also have created a new kind of novel in the midst of the transformation in Ukraine. One of the great poets, Boris Khersonsky, writes in a special issue on Ukraine in the Swedish journal 20Tal in 2014:
‘Europe is dead. The beautiful gravestones are so close together that the full-moon nights are darker than the moonless. But the towns empty long before dark. Judas kisses Christ. They thereby declare themselves dear friends. The Red Army soldiers laugh – they have passed Perekop. Russia caught sight of Crimea, and – splat! – like swatting a fly with your hand.’ (Originally translated into Swedish from Russian by Mikael Nydahl.)
Petro and Kseniya have had their papers ready since 2014 in case they had to leave, but neither of them believed that what did eventually come about would ever happen. We keep writing. They tell me about their life in Poland, about Luka at school, about the white kitten. We observe late one night that we are writing under the light of the same full moon.
Petro: ‘The kitten’s owner fled on the 24 February and left the kitten in her apartment. When she arrived in Lviv she started looking for someone who was still back there who could look after it for a while. And that was us. Then when we left Kyiv we went via Lviv so we could give it back to her. And now we’re here, in Katowice . . . I speak fluent Polish and Kseniya can read and understand. We’re tremendously grateful to our Polish colleagues for taking us in, helping us sort out our papers and finding somewhere to live, and with everything else.’
Kseniya: ‘As long as you have enough money, you can always find a way to manage, just the same as everywhere else. We used up a lot of money in Ukraine, helping people and getting ourselves here to live, so now it’s more difficult. It all takes a long time trying to pick up work again.’
Small movements in the world can give an author the sudden feeling of writing in melting snow, that the world we are writing for won’t still be there when the story reaches its end, or that this new world will be so radically changed that our words no longer have meaning.
The sale of books in Ukraine stopped almost entirely for two months. Bookshop chains closed, printing works shut down or were destroyed, and book stocks were obliterated. Above all, writers, designers, translators and editors found themselves in dire circumstances, often without any means of communication, and in total panic. Up until the 24 February Russian publishers had often bought the rights to Calvaria’s titles, but they’ve gone quiet since then, Petro says. I ask if they knew where their authors had gone. Was anyone still writing?
Petro: ‘We’ve managed to keep in touch with our authors, translators and designers, but not on a daily basis. Some have joined the army, some are in the home guard, and a number are now working as volunteers. Most of the book trade, 60-70 per cent, is in Kyiv and Kharkiv, and these cities were bombed and under attack from day one. But today (27 April) Yakaboo, Ukraine’s largest platform for e-books and audio books has started operating again. Though production itself is still very difficult. We’re looking for printing possibilities in Europe. Now there’s a demand for Ukrainian literature the world over, because of the war.’
The seeds of full-scale war exist in peacetime in all civilisations, a thin surface of peace over cruelty and barbarity, but love and caring exist too. We are frequently told that this war began in 2014, but perhaps it began long before that? Kseniya has spent time in eastern Ukraine with her social projects – including children, health and literacy – and has often been to Donetsk, Luhansk and the Kharkiv region.
Kseniya: ‘We’ve been supporting refugees from eastern Ukraine since 2014, with books and so on, but also providing psychological support. And a huge amount has changed there. The thrust of Russian ideology has always been to regard Ukraine as a vassal state.’
Petro: ‘We have friends in Bucha, Irpin, Vorzel, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol. Most of them are still alive, but some are dead. Some have lost their homes, all have lost their businesses. A number of them have found safety now, some of the others we haven’t heard from for a month.’
One night I dream that bombs are dropping on the other side of the water, above the silhouettes of buildings on the little island in the centre of Stockholm. The sky is rumbling, crashing, the sound of explosions so loud and metallic it feels as though the whole world is gone, that we are the only ones left. In the morning Kseniya and I write about another kind of dream. ‘What are you dreaming about now?’
Kseniya: ‘We dream of victory and a bright future for our son. We also dream about travelling, but not as refugees. And we dream about publishing fantastic books and about seeing people smile again. But none of that can happen for a very long time.’
Svetlana Alexievich writes about women fighting in the Red Army. ‘Now I understand the solitude of the human being who comes back from there. As if from another planet or from the other world. This human being has a knowledge which others do not have, which can be obtained only there, close to death.’
We are still writing to each other, Kseniya, Petro and I. Sometimes I receive photographs of Luka. In the latest photo he is holding a chess piece in one hand and a book about chess in the other. On the desk next to him is a freshly picked rose in a vase. On 7 May he celebrated his tenth birthday in Katowice. He feels slightly better now, but when he hears a loud noise he often thinks it’s the air raid siren. Their hometown Kyiv was bombed again a few days ago, but their building is still standing. They keep in touch with the other tenants in a chat group.
Their plan is to stay in Katowice at least until the summer, when Luka’s school term ends. ‘Then we’ll have to see what happens next.’
- 1: Svetlana Alexievich. The Unwomanly Face of War. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Penguin, 2017.
- 2: Ibid.
We are grateful to Sara Stridsberg, Dagens Nyheter and RCW Literary Agency for permission to publish this translated article.
Contact: Laurence Laluyaux, RCW Literary Agency.
Sara Stridsberg is an award-winning novelist and dramatist. Her novel The Faculty of Dreams, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (MacLehose Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2019. Her latest book is a collection of short stories, to be published in English translation by MacLehose Press in 2023.
Deborah Bragan-Turner is a translator working from Swedish to English. Her published translations include works by Per Olov Enquist, Mikael Niemi, Sara Stridsberg and Anne Swärd.
from Children of the Holocaust
by Margit Silberstein
introduced and translated by Karin Filipsson
‘Two remnants from the war, my parents, were starting over. From where? From scratch? How can you do that? With only a blank page, a family tree with only the trunk left, all the branches brutally cut off?’
Förintelsens Barn (Children of the Holocaust) tells the story of Swedish journalist and writer Margit Silberstein’s parents’ escape from the Holocaust, woven together with Silberstein’s own experience of navigating her Jewish heritage while growing up in postwar Sweden. It is a beautifully written memoir that uses detailed precision and a simple, yet emotionally rich, language to convey the particular experience of inheriting a mixed bag of love, hope, survivor’s guilt and despair.
Using excerpts from their love letters, Silberstein recounts the poetic love story of her parents, who were forced apart during the war, alongside her own story as the child of refugees who wanted nothing more than for their children to fit into Swedish society while simultaneously cherishing their heritage: ‘My brother and I became their salvation, we gave their lives meaning and they loved us beyond everything. Is being the object of this sort of encompassing love always a good thing? It might give you self-esteem, but it comes with a devastating sense of guilt.’
Silberstein’s fine-tuned narrative conveys her parents’ wondrous love story, which shines through even in the depictions of horrific despair and paralyzing fear. It’s a story about two remnants of humans who are shaped by their destiny, a destiny which carries on to the next generation. Furthermore, it is a story about belonging and not belonging, believing and not believing, hoping when there is no hope, but still carrying on.
I am currently looking for a publisher for my translation of Children of the Holocaust. The following extract is the second chapter of the memoir, and describes Margit’s early life in Norrköping.
from Children of the Holocaust
A Precocious Girl
Bratca, May 7th, 1947
My beloved Ili,
I am writing to you about something that I know you don’t want to hear of. But I am telling you again; it is selfish and frivolous to bring a child into this world just for our own sake. We would only bring them sorrow, despair and pain much like our own lives have been full of. But if we as Jews don’t have children, then we have solved the Jewish problem ourselves.
Eventually, there were children. My Dad had begun longing for a child, he imagined a little girl named Eva.
Surely she will look just like you?
There was a girl named Margit, and I do look like my mother. I have three names; Margit, Asta, Elizabeth. Margit is after my aunt who was murdered, my mom’s closest sister; they had a special bond. Margit. I carry her name, and when my mom looked into my eyes she saw the mirror image of her sister. Margit is a common Hungarian name. For example, the well-known green island in the river Donau between Buda and Pest is called Margitziget. To me, the name is a symbol of my Jewish identity. The name Asta was given to me because my misplaced parents thought it was a typical Swedish name. Their reasoning behind this was simply that the daughter of my parents’ first friends in Norrköping, aunt Aina and uncle Einar, was called Asta. I have never been fond of the name. In Swedish, Asta rhymes with kasta, which means to toss something. The kids at school didn’t exactly bully me for the name, but I was teased about it often enough. I actually don’t know why my parents gave me the name Elizabeth. My identity consists of the two names Asta and Margit; they are intertwined and create the person I am. Sometimes Asta has been the dominating persona, and at other times Margit has been more prevalent. Mom and dad wanted my brother and me to be both Jews and Swedes. However, their guidance was often irrational and at times confusing. They were terrified that we would forget where we came from and not care enough about our Jewish heritage.
I met Lorika. She told me that she had seen you in Auschwitz. At first she didn’t recognize you. You asked her if you looked awful. She said no, but it was a lie.
My mom survived hell on earth twice, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She wasn’t supposed to get out of there alive. She did, but only as a shadow of life. Sometimes people will ask me, out of everyone, why did your mother make it? To which there is no answer. Or, the most accurate answer is probably chance. It was by chance that a few people were not gassed to death, not starved to death, not tortured to death in the monstrous machinery. Some ended their own lives by throwing themselves against the singing thread. A singing thread; it sounds almost poetic, but that was what the prisoners called the electric wire fence, because its vibrations sounded like singing. I understand why people ask this question, but still, I find it provoking. As if there was a strategy for how to survive Auschwitz. My mom was not a survivor, she was a surviving exception to the rule. The rest of her family was murdered. The fact that Mom’s tattered body managed to create life is a miracle to me, a triumph. Hitler did not fully succeed in his attempt at annihilation.
My dad got through almost two years of imprisonment in Siberia. Every one of his closest family members were killed in the Nazis’ concentration camps. He never found out exactly who. My dad never uttered one word to me or my brother about his pain or his loss. Were we, the children of the Holocaust, going to betray our heritage? After all the persecution, the killing, the degradation, everything our parents had to submit to—because they were Jews? That was the dramatic rhetorical question that lingered over my childhood. Even if no one expressed it out loud, the question was everywhere, in every little corner of my world; a world in which I tried to create some order, which I tried to make sense of. Certainly, it wasn’t pedagogically sensible, and it wasn’t intended as a childrearing method, but it was just there.
Never have I felt like I wanted to be anybody but Margit Asta; one human being, part of two worlds. If I feel like I am too much of one, I change swiftly into the other one. Tony Judt, the Jewish historian who died in 2010, described himself as a border-resident. He explained that he felt at home in spaces between places—political, ethnic and geographical.
When Mom and Dad were torn apart in 1944 and Mom was sent to Auschwitz while Dad was incarcerated as a working soldier, neither of them knew what had happened to the other. They found each other in the chaos after the war thanks to the Red Cross and by putting ads in newspapers, particularly in the United States. That was how many people found their lost ones again. When my mother and father were reunited at the Central train station in Norrköping in the early spring of 1948, everything had happened. Everything was gone. Everybody was dead. They were alone in the world. No Margit, no Irma—Dad’s dear little sister; no one from their families.
Two remnants from the war, my parents, were starting over. From where? From scratch? How can you do that? With only a blank page, a family tree with only the trunk left, all the branches brutally cut off? Never again would they feel the sense of togetherness with their parents and all their siblings during Friday night Sabbath, when the candles were about to be lit. Gathering with friends and wretched beggars, who in accordance with old Jewish tradition were invited to the Sabbath—this world was no more. Now there was just the two of them, alone on the planet. But somehow they would build a new life, although on fragile ground. My brother and I became their salvation, we gave their lives meaning and they loved us beyond everything. Is being the object of this sort of encompassing love always a good thing? It might give you self-esteem, but it comes with a devastating sense of guilt.
Swedish class society could have been captured in a snapshot from the block where I spent my early childhood. We lived in a two-room apartment without hot running water on Generalsgatan in downtown Norrköping. The bathroom was in an outhouse in the backyard. On Saturday mornings, Mom and I would listen to Rasmus, Pontus and Toker from our thick, brown Radiola radio. Dad would be at work, and my brother was still too young to listen to radio shows. ‘By gum, you’re dumb!’ Rasmus would say to his sister on the show, and this expression was on everybody’s lips, since back then we didn’t have TV, so the radio was the campfire.
My classmate Eva lived across the street from us, in a house which had an indoor bathroom. Eva’s mom worked in the downstairs bakery, from which the most wonderful smell of freshly baked goods trickled out. Every morning, Eva’s family had fresh buns for breakfast. I can almost still recall the smell of fresh bread and nostalgia. I was jealous of both the buns and the bathroom. A bit further down the road from us was the nice street, where some of my classmates lived in apartments with high ceilings and rooms of their own, something I could only dream of, and I did. Those kids were not allowed to call their parents by their first names, which seemed very strange to me. Life in these beautiful homes was a tantalizing fantasy in my mind. To be sure, I felt more comfortable in houses similar to my own, but I was also breathlessly astonished by the inaccessible nature of a world which was not mine. At home, in our small apartment, my brother Willy and I slept on a fold-out couch in the living room, and my parents slept in the kitchen.
Our building was exactly like the ones you can see in Swedish movies from that time. I still remember Fru Carlsson, who would scream out loud in the middle of the night and walk outside wearing only her nightgown. We all knew that she was sick, and we felt sorry for her. Fröken Andersson was a friendly lady, but once she got annoyed with me. She would walk up and down the stairs from her apartment down to the food cellar, carrying jars of jam that she had presumably preserved herself. Every time I saw her I would curtsey and say Goddag, and eventually she got sick of it and asked with a frown why I had to keep doing that. I didn’t understand, I had been taught to greet grown-ups this way, so I did. I even curtseyed when the phone rang and it was a grown up on the line. Three-six-four-eight. Good day. And curtsey.
There was a small arbor of lilacs in our backyard. If you were lucky, the friendly women in the building would be sitting there and they would offer you sweet saft to drink and cinnamon buns to eat. There was a girl named Siv, who was a few years older than me. She would come over to our yard from one of the other houses, and she had her own corner where she would let both boys and girls kiss her on the mouth. The yard was also the arena for my bicycle practice. I had been given a two-wheeler and I was learning how to brake. I was a slow learner; it was difficult to use the brakes correctly. Again and again, I biked straight into a fence at the far end of the yard. It was absolutely forbidden to leave the fenced-in yard around our building. I was not to sneak out through the iron gate, and I was told to watch out for strange men. Once, I snuck out into the street anyway, and Dad was very angry when he found me. I remember how he picked me up by the suspenders of my red overalls and carried me inside. But is that really my own memory? I was only four or five years old after all. Perhaps the incident is part of a story someone told me.
I was a serious child, precocious and very neat. I always placed the clothes I was going to wear the next day in kindergarten neatly folded on a stool, after I had said my prayers and asked God to bless Mom, Dad, Willy and myself. Sometimes I included Kristina in my nightly prayers. She was a classmate of mine who lived in Saltängen, a poverty-ridden neighborhood where the Swedish illustrator Albert Engström supposedly got the inspiration for his figures. I always considered Kristina to be poor, I believed that I could spot poverty when I saw it, and Kristina’s despair was deeper and harder than my family’s struggles. I visited her house a few times, and it was a messy and crowded home with many children. She had few friends but she was always invited to all the birthday parties because she would always bring the nicest and most expensive gifts. For example, a precious perfume bottle which smelled sweetly of lilies of the valley. I thought she was buying herself friendship. She also brought bags of candy to school and shared them generously during recess.
Dad worked at the wool factory, YFA, and Mom stayed home and did embroidery, patterns and initials on sheets, pillowcases and tablecloths for customers; it was important to keep a nice and neat linen closet. My friends enjoyed our house, maybe because it was a little louder and more easy-going than they were used to. I think they also felt that Mom and Dad were happy to have their daughter’s friends over. The fact that our home was livelier and louder than most families’ was of course equally good and bad for me, since children often want things to be the same as everywhere else. Mom and Dad spoke louder than most people when we were taking the yellow streetcar in Norrköping. Embarrassing. Sometimes they would speak Hungarian at the same loud volume. This was a fate worse than death to me, the child sitting next to them. Especially since back then Sweden was a homogenous country without many foreigners.
My parents plodded along, there was no excess, but everything was clean and neat, my mom was especially particular about hygiene. I remember her sweeping the kitchen floor methodically, tiny piles, not a crumb left behind. Or peeling potatoes in a grey steel tub. Neatly, everything had to be done properly. Neatly, nicely, perfectly. Dad was no worse; he enjoyed wiping the surfaces until they sparkled, was proud to get them to shine. I don’t know if they pondered how they were expected to behave to become assimilated in this new country. They were grateful to Sweden for taking them in and they did their best to show their gratitude and be good Swedish citizens, which they eventually became. I created my own manual for childish and inconsistent integration, based on my parents’ instructions: don’t stand out, but don’t forget who you are either.
Many Jewish children did not participate in the teaching of Christianity at school, which probably consisted of more indoctrination than it does today. I did participate, and I was fascinated by the story about Jesus, even though I knew that I wasn’t supposed to like him too much. He was not the Messiah, not my savior. I sang the hymns but I tried to avoid praising Jesus by just moving my lips. Hypocrisy? I prefer to call it a strategy. The ten commandments on the other hand were without complications; they were meant for all of us. When I told my best friend that I was Jewish she came back the next day, concerned, and told me that her dad had said that I was of a different race. That seemed strange to me. Ingrid and I were like two peas in a pod. Did I belong to another race, another kind?
I loved my teacher, Mr. Lindén, the way children do when they assign their teacher a place on a pedestal, next to their mother and father. Mr. Lindén was one reason I felt as if my Jewishness was exciting and interesting. He made me grow and he even cared about my parents; sometimes he would call them just to check in and see how they were doing. I have forgiven him for reading out loud in class the note where I had written the name of a boy I liked. My friend who was sitting at the desk next to mine had asked me which boy I had a crush on. I don’t know whose face was most red, mine or Carl-Henrik’s. In my diary I wrote about Mr. Lindén, proudly describing how I sat next to him during lunch:
After everyone had left and it was just Mr. Lindén and me there, he asked me which books I had been reading. I said that I had just finished The Diary of Anne Frank and a book about Joan of Arc. He said that I ought to read Exodus. I know that Dad has read it. I think it is a difficult book, but Mr. Lindén said that I was mature enough to read it. I ran home and told Mom what had happened.
Exodus is about the creation of the state of Israel. The Diary of Anne Frank was my constant reading companion for a long time. I was devastated when Mr. Lindén left Norrköping. One year after he had gone, I wrote in my diary:
There’s something I have to tell you. Saturday April 26th, 1962, I received a letter from Mr. Lindén. Can you believe it? This was a happy day in my life as a twelve-year old.
I liked school and was a meticulous student. But I disliked Mondays, they made me anxious. That was the day when the teacher always asked us about what we had done over the weekend. Often, my classmates had visited their grandparents, maybe seen their cousins. I was envious of them.
My best friend Ingrid and I created a world full of secrets. Often, we would go down to the stream, Motala Ström, near today’s Museum of Work, where we would stick small paper notes into the bark of the trees. After school, we went back to check whether or not our notes were still there. I don’t remember exactly what we wrote, but it was probably about the fact that we were best friends and how much we liked each other. If we ever parted as anything but friends, our moms had to call and beg us to be friends again. Those were strong emotions. When Ingrid moved to Stockholm, I think it was when we were twelve, I was very unhappy. No Ingrid, No Mr. Lindén. But I got to travel to Drömstigen in Bromma, Stockholm, to visit her during weekends and school breaks. Once we snuck into the cinema which was showing Dear John with Christina Schollin and Jarl Kulle. It was my first time watching a movie that was not intended for children. Years went by and Ingrid and I lost touch. We met once as adults, but the magic was gone.
Whenever I went home with my classmates after school, I had to wait in a separate room until they finished their dinner with their family. Looking back, I have often wondered about this and thought it strange that I wasn’t offered a seat at their table. At my house, we did it differently and I preferred it our way. We always invited anyone who was at our house to sit down for dinner with us. It was a natural thing. Our food was a little bit different than the food at my friends’ houses. Chicken, game hen, paprika and spicy food were served more often at our house.
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2020, 192 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Margit Silberstein and Albert Bonniers förlag for permission to publish this translated extract.
A review of Förintelsens barn was published in SBR 2022:1.
Margit Silberstein is a Swedish journalist and political commentator. The memoir Förintelsens barn is her second book.
Karin Filipsson is a literary translator working between English and Swedish.
from She Doesn’t Remember
by Jonas Brun
introduced and translated by Andy Turner
My review of Hon minns inte (She Doesn’t Remember) by Jonas Brun, which first appeared in SBR 2022:1, outlines the writer’s honest and searching account of his mother’s final years up to her death with dementia and how, as such, the work constitutes a marked departure from his earlier award-winning novels and poetry collections.
Spanning the years 2018-2010 the book is written in reverse, starting where it all ends, as one dark Stockholm December night Brun hears that his mother has taken her last breath and he and his father are subsequently told they have eight calendar days to clear her room at the care home. The extract I have chosen here takes us from that point, coming right at the very start of the book.
Described as a memoir on the cover page, the book is however much more than a simple collection of retrospective poignant vignettes. Through the power of Brun’s language, we are transported beyond the lyrical encapsulation of a mother loved, mourned and lost as we learn of Catarina’s vibrancy and achievements of a life well lived.
Writing about dementia is a loaded task. Whether we fear the disease, or already have experience of it, the threat of it remains all too real. In her recent book, What Dementia Teaches Us about Love, Nicci Gerrard meditates that dementia ‘is all around us, in our families and in our genes; perhaps in our own futures… If it’s not you or me, it’s someone we love.’ Universal indeed.
from She Doesn't Remember
She doesn’t remember I promised her I’d be back on Thursday.
That is what I have to tell myself when Thursday comes around and I don’t make the journey to see her. It is a very slow job trying to explain to Dad why I just can’t. The words don’t come out right. I have to start my sentences all over again, even though what I want to say is simple: I am so very tired.
And maybe there is no rush to visit her. Perhaps there is more time than we thought. Maybe I can allow myself to rest for a while. After all, she has been like this for more than a month. It might be another month yet. Or even more, no one knows. The only certain thing is that this is the final stage and time is running out. But no one can calculate in advance how long there is exactly.
This particular Thursday it isn’t just a question of going down to the metro and travelling all the way out to the care home. It isn’t just a question of alighting at the right station and walking the last stretch, tapping in the entry code, going up three floors in the lift, tapping the code in again by the door to the unit, following the corridor to her room. Even though I have done it hundreds of times, it is easier said than done.
Late morning, the swimming pool is almost empty. For a moment, the sun beats sharply through the glass wall looking out to the waters of Årstaviken, forcing me to squint. Long, slow movements, a few lengths. Afterwards I take a sauna. Muscle fatigue and the heat help my back to relax, relieving the pain that radiates up my neck and down my thighs. Some friends are coming over for dinner. D is cooking. I merely say she is worse, wanting us to talk about something else.
I hold D tightly before I fall asleep. It is midwinter now. No snow yet. Just the cold, black darkness that retreats for a few hours in the middle of the day.
Sitting at her side, Dad informs me that her condition is stable. I say I’ll go there on Sunday. I’ll be more up for it then, for a while at least. But when she dies, I’m not there. Neither is Dad. It doesn’t take long. When the nurse gets to us, it is already the end. A nursing assistant on nights is holding her hand. Her breathing is getting heavier and heavier. At 00.20 it stops completely. Her eyes have remained closed the whole time. A new day has just begun, the 16th of December, my birthday.
Snow is finally falling across the bare trees and the empty streets, across the leaden waters. I’m sitting in a taxi, talking to the driver and I don’t remember what I say. The bridges of Stockholm rise up to the sky and then sink back down to earth. For a moment, right at the crown of the Tranebergsbron bridge, the sky and the earth are one and the same, a oneness of pale grey with no horizon.
Dad is waiting for me outside the doors to the unit. Together, we go to her bedside. She is dressed in the summer dress with the small flowers on it. The sheets are new, white, the duvet pulled up across her chest. Dad is crying, he is crying in a way I have never seen him cry before.
Her forehead is clean, fair and cool. I touch her brow. I touch her hand. They look like her hand and her forehead, but no longer feel like either her hand or her forehead. They are so stone-still and so strange.
Her body is carried away. We are given eight calendar days to clear her room.
She doesn’t remember her direct line number was 08-620-1842.
Of course, it has been a long while since she remembered any telephone number. I pick up the phone and dial the number on the spur of the moment, I was actually going to open my diary to plan which days to visit her at the home and which days I would have off. I don’t give any thought to tapping the numbers in, they are impressed on my fingertips. Telia customer information – this number is not recognised, speaks an automated voice.
When I visit her, she often makes sounds, sighs, grunts, vowels and syllables. But no words anymore. I had hoped her recorded voice message would still be there, that I would get to hear her speak.
This hasn’t been her number for eight years. The place she used to work has now closed down, its premises vacated, the employees scattered all over, and it is highly unlikely that her voice would still be waiting down the other end. I call anyway, trying to call backwards in time.
Later that day, I unload the dishwasher. It is the afternoon and I’m the only one at home. The radio is on. I’m not listening too closely. One sentence jumps out, a single one becomes evident amid the clatter. A woman who says: all I want is for him to come and hug me again.
I stop, dead in my tracks, a plate still in my hand. It is a wish so impossible that I have pushed it away from me. Someone else has to articulate it for me to understand that this is what I long for most of all. I want to have her back. Turned towards me, arms outstretched.
I say it right out there and then: come back. I say it again: come back. I carry on: I miss you. Don’t leave me. Through my streaming snotty tears, I say: I will see you again. The way you were. I just have to.
I grew up without God. What I’m saying relates to heaven. The hope of the afterlife. She liked to tell me about how they put massive tents up, for an audience of hundreds, how they stood right in front of the pulpit, making a noise and speaking in tongues. It had mass appeal, people came from far and wide to listen.
She told me, as an amusing detail from her past, about the celebrity ministers of the Pentecostal church, who would tour the country during her childhood. She told me, in the same way, that once upon a time you would go to school on Saturdays, and were given time off to help with the potato harvest, and that girls were expected to be housewives. What really made her sceptical about all religion and the intentions of religious people was not its spiritual gloss or the speech-like sounds, but the time when Jehovah’s Witnesses called at the white house, where the family were living, to save them, the day after her dad died. Like vultures, she said.
She told me about the money box at Sunday school that took the form of a little African boy in nothing but a loincloth, who bowed when you dropped a coin inside. A symbol of a barbaric time in the past, now cleansed through the shining light of the common good. My parents never had me baptised.
I light candles in church and I don’t dare to ask her to come back. I dare only to ask for her not to suffer. But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.’
The hope I lack in this world, I lay beyond this world. The hope that there will be another chamber behind this chamber, a chamber that the living can know nothing about as long as we are living.
Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, ‘Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.’ If that is to be believed. Then I believe now. Her illness has transformed me into someone who places their hope beyond the limit of life. I wasn’t that person before. Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat.
She doesn’t remember wanting nice pictures of herself.
She asked for the number of a photographer who had taken publicity shots of me. This was one of the good years, just before her illness, when she seemed contented with herself.
Throughout the time I was growing up, she was dissatisfied with her appearance, sighing when she looked in the mirror. In the seventies, a doctor prescribed her slimming pills containing amphetamine. She hadn’t gone to the doctor because of her weight, but for reasons that were completely different. She never did collect the pills.
I remember us having a bath when I was a child. Her breasts kind of floated out, like balls of white bun dough, her brown nipples right there in the middle. She told me (a little proudly?) that they ruptured the machine at the maternity wing that was supposed to get the milk flowing so she could breastfeed me.
When I was about nine, I was given an essay to write for homework on the theme of ‘My Family’. It contained the sentence: My Mum is kind and slightly round in shape. She repeated it to friends, laughing. I was a child. I was still to know that shame can be hidden by laughter. I didn’t know that shame over one’s own body is a particularly toxic shame.
In one photograph from the late eighties, she is sitting beside a colleague. Mum often told me about this particular colleague; she was a former beauty queen of some kind. The beauty queen smiles into the camera, the light falling elegantly on her cheekbones and ensemble, bright and perfect. Mum is beside her in a baggy oversized sweater, she is hiding herself inside it, the way she hides in loose-fitting clothes in all photos from back then. She is leaning over a paper plate of food, her hair hanging down.
I think that was how she saw herself: someone who could never compete in the same environment as the beauty queens, and who therefore might just as well give up all but the most elementary of matters when it came to her own appearance.
Her older sister was known locally as a beauty. Being the one who came after a beauty may have had something to do with it. She liked to tell me about those beauties, the beautiful women. Very rarely about the beautiful men. The beautiful women weren’t just interesting, but vulnerable. Often they bore a secret tragedy and their stories ended with an extra something that darkened the image, such as: her husband was such a nasty piece of work, he hit her about.
The stories about the beauty queens were similar to Grandma’s tragic tales about people for whom fortune once smiled, but who had now lost everything. The lives of the beauty queens weren’t actually real. They were like a soap opera, like Falcon Crest, infinitely distant from our own existence.
Her transformation began when she was about to turn sixty. She lost weight. She had her ears pierced. She had her hair tinted. Got a new wardrobe. Maybe she thought this was her last chance? I don’t know, I can only acknowledge the difference with the benefit of hindsight. She wanted it documented. The CD with the pictures the photographer sent her is gone, of course, lost in the confusion of carrier bags.
I email S, the photographer. She replies that she doesn’t recall this job, but promises to get back when she has looked into the matter further. She has photographed thousands of people. Even so, this surprises me. How can S have forgotten my mum? It makes me wonder if the pictures exist at all. Did I ever see them? Or did she just talk about them as something she wanted, but never had done? Has my memory been playing tricks on me?
Then S gets in touch. She has no record of any files, but she has found an email with the pictures that she sent to Mum. She forwards the email to me. Not the best resolution. But there they are. The photos. So much like herself. In her favourite muted colours, red and purple. With her smile, the expression in her eyes.
At the dementia care home they use a sling hoist to lift her out of bed. They haven’t managed to get her to walk any more by herself since her fall, except once after her operation. Not even with support. The hoist is attached to a ceiling track and makes me think of an industrial robot, something that wouldn’t look out of place in car manufacturing. She only manages to sit up in her wheelchair for a few hours a day, at meal times. The staff feed her. But she eats far too little anyway, nurse C tells me. Quietly and gently she tells me this.
I wet Mum’s lips with the large cotton swab when I’m there, just how I’ve learned. I rub her dry forehead with some moisturising skin cream. I make sure to visit her when she isn’t in her wheelchair, I can’t stand seeing her in that. The bed rails are always up. She opens and closes her mouth, but no sounds pass her lips.
At home I show the photos to D and we look at them for a long time. Then I cry and ask, not D, but myself: why didn’t I record her voice? Now that she has stopped speaking altogether and it is too late, is what I find myself asking. Even though she was inevitably heading there, to the expiry of her words, I haven’t been able to imagine that it would actually happen. It would have been easy to ask her to say a few sentences into her phone’s voice recorder.
Does she remember my voice? Does it soothe her when I talk to her in her torpor? Or is it one voice among other voices, uttering words that are incomprehensible to her? Maybe it isn’t that at all, but just a sound, like a fan whirring or water running out of a tap. Anyway, I keep talking to her. Her eyes move behind her eyelids, a narrow chink opens and closes again.
Mum, I’ll be back on Thursday. That is the last thing I say to her before I leave for the day.
She doesn’t remember that the skin on the arm of a dehydrated person returns very slowly to its usual position when you lightly pinch it with your fingers, whereas the skin on the arm of an adequately hydrated person springs back quickly to its normal position after a similar pinch.
She once knew that the life of a person suffering from severe dehydration is in danger if the condition isn’t corrected quickly. I call Dad. It is early December and the daylight has already come and gone. The canal is shining in the dark, and out on Lake Hammarby the small passenger ferry travels back and forth, back and forth with its lights on. Dad and I talk about what to say when nurses and doctors ask us if they should put her on a drip. We feel differently about it. Dad talks about hope, the hope that she will get stronger, eat by herself again, get out of bed and walk. I say that, to me, she is already gone. It is as if another person is shaping those words. They are true and I don’t want to articulate them, so I let someone else do it. Someone to speak with my mouth, my voice. Someone who knows the truth and won’t be intimidated by it.
A long time ago, she said that this was exactly what she was terrified of: becoming unable to communicate, locked-in, someone who can only eat and breathe, no more. She shouldn’t have to live her horror. Dad says: I know you’re right. And I know it’s not enough for him. He sees certain things with her that I don’t see. Eyes that seek his own, sounds that could be words but for me remain only sounds.
When I was with her at the dementia care home earlier in the day, I touched her face. She was beautiful as she breathed. When I put my hand in hers, she squeezed her hand around mine. The care home nurse said it was an automatic response. You can’t be certain there’s any intention behind the movement.
I was speaking to her, yet she didn’t open her eyes. I was so terribly, so completely and utterly tired that I soon fell silent. I thought: the world is impossible without this human being. I thought: she is inscrutable. I thought: she can’t die, not now, not ever. I thought: I can’t let her down now.
She doesn’t remember wearing three rings.
The rings are in a plastic pocket marked ‘K. Brun 3 rings’ in robust, red marker pen. Staff have placed them at the foot of Mum’s ambulance trolley on her way back to the care home from the hospital. Neither Dad nor I thought to take care of the rings when she was admitted. You are not allowed to wear any jewellery during surgery.
Dad thinks we should keep the rings in the medicine cabinet in her room. C, the care home nurse, advises us against it. She explains that too many people have access to the cabinet to risk storing anything precious in there. Who will take care of the rings? A brief, irritated exchange of words ensues between Dad and me. Everything turns into an issue right now, things flare up, go away, flare up again.
I take the rings home. The diamond ring. The engagement ring. The little bird ring from Portugal. The insides of all three rings are black with a greasy, thick layer of stubborn dirt. I clean them with a toothbrush.
She mutters and pulls her hand towards her as I try to slip the engagement ring onto her ring finger the next time I visit her. It takes a long while. I have to start again several times from the beginning, before the ring is finally back where it belongs. The other two rings can stay in the plastic pocket. I can’t face putting both of those back on her.
She doesn’t remember being in hospital.
It is a Sunday and four days after her operation. The nurse from the orthopaedic ward calls half an hour before the ambulance is due to leave to take her back to the care home: Yes, the catheter is out, your mum has had something to eat and they’ve even managed to help her out of bed and got her to walk a few steps. I call Dad straight after this call with the nurse. He is upset, how can they ring us so soon after? He won’t have time get there and accompany her in the ambulance, will I do it?
I’m standing outside the shop with two heavy bags. The ice-cream melts and the frozen green beans start to thaw as we speak. Where am I supposed to put the food if I call a taxi or rush into the metro? I say it’s only an ambulance ride after all, it’s better if it can take her without us, isn’t it? Dad doesn’t think she should travel alone. The atmosphere is tetchy, ungenerous. We agree to meet at the care home.
She is half-asleep. She has a large bruise on her hand near where the drip goes in. We sit with her, I stroke her hair, then Dad strokes her hair. Every now and then her eyes flicker upwards. She has a fluid input and output chart and a schedule of when the nurses are to turn her over. The nurse has noticed the beginnings of pressure sores on her foot.
As I am about to leave, three of the residents have gathered by the door into the unit. The lady who is a head taller than the others says: there he is, the son of the one who lives at the far end, maybe he can help us? The lady in the wheelchair, the one who always knocks on everyone’s door along the corridor, wheels up to me. Can you do the door, can you hold it open for me? she asks. Yes, you have to open it, says the last lady, whose blouse is done up wrongly. I key in the code, feel those three pairs of eyes on the back of my neck, their expectation. Their fragile hands and white hair. The door opens. I turn around, try on a smile, say that I’m sorry I’ve promised not to let anyone out. I close the door behind me and hear the click of the lock. As I wait for the lift, they continue waving and tapping on the glass to alert me once again that they are there.
Above the keypad lock are four numbers, written on a piece of tape. It is the code to open the door. Since you can’t lock people in just because they have dementia, this is the process you have to follow in order to make sure that dementia patients remain in the units they would otherwise wander away from, and never find their way back to, if the doors remained open. None of the three ladies understands how to key in the code any more, even though it is written right there in front of them.
Although I understand what to do to leave the unit, I too am bound to the place. The unit follows me around like a ball and chain with its smell of piss and detergent, no matter how far away I manage to get. Only death can liberate us from it. In that way, we have something in common, the three ladies and I. And Mum.
Hon minns inte
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2021, 344 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Jonas Brun and Albert Bonniers förlag for permission to publish this translated extract.
Jonas Brun's previous works include collections of poetry and three novels. Brun’s third novel Skuggland (Shadowland) won Swedish Radio Award for Best Novel of the Year in 2013. A review of She Doesn't Remember was published in SBR 2022:1, and a translated extract from his novel Nobody Compared to you was also published in SBR 2019:1-2 (in Andy Turner's translation).
Andy Turner is a literary translator and reviewer. Andy received an MA in Literary Translation from the University of East Anglia in 2017 after more than twenty years as a secondary school teacher in East London, Essex and Suffolk. He was the 2018/19 National Centre for Writing's Emerging Literary Translator in Swedish in a mentorship with Sarah Death.
by Olivia Bergdahl
translated by Linda Schenck
Olivia Bergdahl is a prominent Swedish stage poet and writer. She won the Swedish Slam Poetry championship when she was 17, and has since toured throughout Sweden, Europe and the USA. In addition to her spoken-word poetry, she has published two acclaimed collections of poetry and two works of prose, including 2022's Vård & Omsorg (Health & Care).
We are here delighted to present a translation of Olivia Bergdahl's poem Europa (Europe), a searing interrogation of the concept and legacy of 'Europeanness', in Linda Schenck's translation. A recording of the poet performing this work in Swedish can also be found on her website.
Read a translated excerpt from Olivia Bergdahl's Vård & Omsorg in SBR 2022:2.
You tell me I'm safe
though the wind is wailing
with winter at my back everything’s unwieldy
the cold is deceitful, excuses abound
time heals, time heals, the scars stay around
and I touch it,
I touch it to give it a name
it evades my grasp and is all just the same,
the name is Stockholm, London, Manchester, Copenhagen,
the name is Srebrenica, Dresden and Mariupol,
Guernica and Kharkiv, a strategic military goal
the name is Budapest, Paris, Sarajevo, Prague, Bordeaux
the name is arbeit macht frei and iron curtain also
Isn't that right Europe,
I’ll just try to understand
'cause in the mirror I see
that I own you, Europe
it's etched in my skin
a tattered little continent I've worn very thin
where I’m fairly mobile, can choose where to live
but Europe – you’re supposed to be a place
so why do you act like mother?
Like a blood tie
the relations I never claimed
I touch it I touch it
I want to know to have it named
the name is Congo, Algeria,
the name is Utøya, Berlin
the name is East India Company
the name is racial biology
the name is Brussels, Warsaw, Kyiv,
the name is Nice and Lampedusa
time heals time heals
though we skid
You tell me, Europe,
you say: look where I live
all these beautiful churches, bridges, castles, cities there
Mine, too, my birthright
these borders, these seas
But how can they be mine if they are not mine to share?
Es tut mir Leid, Europe,
rubber rafts, life jackets, holes like a sieve
so we choose our own abuses
and then we choose our shame
the map's not hard to read, but it's tough going just the same
when words become language and languages law
I looked in the mirror and here’s what I saw:
You own me, Europe!
Christen me daughter or son
and no matter how I shout
that is where I am from
so I touch it touch it
'cause I need to know the name
the name is Leopold and Ludwig
the name is Charles and George and Peter
You said never again
You said of course no more walls
No you don't use the word race,
but you say culture
the name is Orbàn,
the name is Putin,
the name is Pegida and Le Pen
like a golden dawn
though you said never ever again
but it is still Jesus always Jesus
it's Columbus and Linnaeus
it’s my body in the looking glass
‘cause since I pass as European
the name is Hitler, the name is Stalin, the name is Franco, Mussolini
the name is Dublin
the name is Schengen,
the name is Bossi-Fini
That is you, Europe,
you who could have been a dream
And I know that you can hear me 'cause your gaze has a soft sheen
So Europe, j'accuse ... I deny you and I know
you give me all the world except generosity
so I christen you Hypocrite
Killer Miller Wild
And then – you shrug your shoulders
as at one you love, your problem child
Since you know that I am safe it feels
you leave these winds to weep
the shield I have is skin and name
time heals time heals
but how can I forgive
that I am in the safe securest place
when I rest in your embrace
from Health & Care
by Olivia Bergdahl
introduced and translated by Linda Schenck
In July 2021, deep into the pandemic and a month from giving birth to her first child, spoken word poet Olivia Bergdahl, then 31, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma that had spread, unbeknownst to her, to her lymphatic system.
In March 2022 her book about this traumatic year, Vård & omsorg (Health & Care), was published. It is a demanding and rewarding read, about the overlap between life and death, and about survival into an unknown future. It is a narrative that grows on the reader as Olivia’s year passes and is transformed from pregnancy pleasure to melanoma anguish.
This story is told in diaristic form with 129 entries and a few connecting texts, as well as a number of italicized ‘interview questions’ to her from her unborn daughter, projected into some distant future, where it is uncertain whether it will be read posthumously. She had begun the diary when her pregnancy was verified, not knowing that her melanoma was also present.
In a way we all live with these existential issues, while in another this text is particular to Olivia and her experience. What follows is a selection of excerpts from the book, numbered using their diary entry numbers.
Read a translation of Olivia Bergdahl's spoken-word poem Europe in SBR 2022:2.
from Health & Care
February (entry 16)
Past the twelve-week mark. The risk of a miscarriage drastically reduced. Sonogram. We got scheduled early, according to the midwife ‘because you’ve had one miscarriage already, so we usually take an extra look so you can relax.’ A throbbing little cloud on the screen. A beating heart. I had to take a deep diaphragmatic breath so as not to fall apart. Astonishing. It is utterly astonishing to see a new life. Completely filled up with it, the astonishment. A single word to hang onto. As with every person who faces the arrival of a new generation, I, too, must summarize. I’ll have to summarize. I’ll dare to summarize now. The story of a person, a childhood, everything involved in becoming a parent. in other words, me.
Who are you?
My name is Olivia and I’m thirty. My work is writing and performing. I can tell myself I am in perfect control of this presentation, although I know this is just how the imagination works, it comes from somewhere. There’s no deciding in advance what you’re going to make up, it is simply the result of a thousand little coincidences you can’t possibly control. It’s difficult to talk about yourself, the self is private, wants attention and validation, which makes it uninteresting. I care a great deal about my relation to the world, but less about myself. The circumstances. They’re easy to talk about. I’ve always been interested in history. Something preceding me, something coming after me. That makes it simpler.
Where did you grow up?
I was a city child, grew up in central Gothenburg, in the outermost row of buildings in Nya Masthugget. You entered from Andra Långgatan 46, which had more porn shops and fewer cafés in those days. And a state liquor store as well. The buildings in Nya Masthugget served as a fortress, impenetrable, with a huge system of interconnecting underground corridors and identical courtyards. I still know my way around Masthugget perfectly. Everyone’s parents worked in the arts, but no one’s parents were well known. We children who hung out together were all girls, all city kids, courtyard kids, when dinner was ready a parent would shout from a balcony: Come on in. Time to eat. Sometimes I tell the story of when we built a playhouse right next to Johannes Church, with its soup kitchen, and how somebody took up residence there. I tell it as an anecdote about what it’s like to grow up in the middle of a city — somebody homeless moved into our playhouse. We’d dragged over some old rug we’d found in the trash room, it was pale pink, I remember that clearly, and an old plastic chair. The next day when we arrived there someone was there, and we backed off in fright. Drunkos were no danger, just creepy, but flashers were scarier. You could see them in the city park or out by the pier at Saltholmen. Everybody knew that, and everybody’d encountered a flasher some time.
Like all children, I was part of an us. Us kids on the courtyard, us kids on the street, …us kids from Masthugget, us kids in class 1-3 A, us kids from Oscar Fredrik School. Later the us was fragmented, as happens, each individual stands alone. Each of us has to stand in that solitude, become an I, become the only individual who is me, in solitude. There’s no getting around it.
I grew up. Halfway between two church spires, Masthugget Church at the top of the hill and Oscar Fredrik church at the foot. When I couldn’t sleep I’d lie and listen to the church bells ringing, more or less in time, and know I was at home. Not until I got to upper secondary school did I realize that lots of other people don’t grow up living in apartments, and not only the ones who live in single-owner houses with basements and indoor staircases. That a sense of community not only means living in the same way at the same place, with the same kind of parents, clothes and hairdos, but that it is about other, deeper things, like a color inside or muffled music close to the soul, whether the soul is in the stomach or close to the heart.
In any case, I’m a city kid, and cities are where I feel safest. Always some place that’s open, always a light on somewhere, always someone moving around in an apartment across the street. Always part of an anonymous, enormous community. I like it.
In the city you learn to observe people. This is a different gaze than the look that gazes at the natural environment and the changes of the seasons. I’ve always looked at people. At strangers.
I was also a solitary child, didn’t like being a child, couldn’t wait to grow up. Not because childhood was so awful, but because adult life seemed so wonderful. My sister and I grew up surrounded by wildly enthusiastic love. There was a distinct line down the middle of life, between what was family and what was outside. I never doubted that I was loved, I knew it. I was good and clever and used an adult vocabulary. My mother always asked why, asked me to explain and to tell her: why do you think they behave that way? How did that make you feel? Do you think there’s a reason for it? I learned from the outset to think dialogically, was able from an early age to put into words to the thing everyone has to formulate some time — my feelings in the world.
Throughout grammar school I was an outsider. Sometimes invited along, sometimes not, never relaxed. For a long time I said it didn’t bother me, in my childhood I wasn’t interested in other children, I said. When, one afternoon as an adult I returned to my old school, I wept. It took a few minutes for me to sort out the sea of emotions. Then I realized the trigger was every time I passed the spot where I used to hide from the other kids during recess. If you’ve ever been excluded from the community, you carry it around like an ugly scar on your face, that’s what I think. Most of the time life is pretty good anyway, but then there are situations in which you behave peculiarly, as if driven by your angst. I still find it very difficult to know how to behave in relationships that aren’t clearly defined. I stand there at a loss and panicked by the thought that I might do something wrong. That’s how important a sense of community between people feels, I know that for certain.
The first time I was on a stage I was about ten or eleven. I liked it from the get-go, I found it easy then to perform, there were clear rules within which I felt entirely free. I rushed out into the world in an enthusiasm of puberty. I had tremendous self-confidence. At one time I thought any stage was a worse stage if I wasn’t on it. I invented myself in front of the audience at the same time as I invented myself to myself, I thought it was wonderful, I felt omniscient.
I had to eat those words later. I grew older, reduced, I no longer know what I knew then. Exactly what the greatest grief in life was, the greatest joy. What is to come, probably. If you have been young and gifted, you often remain young for a long, long time.
As an adult, I have had an unusual professional life, closely intertwined with my self-image. I have done a great deal of touring. I’ve been just about all over Sweden except for the island of Öland, just by chance. I’ve travelled widely in Europe and the US, I’ve been to a couple of countries in Africa. That’s how I’ve introduced myself. As an itinerant. An observer. A satellite with powerful anchor chains. My best friends are all over the place. Myself, I moved back to Gothenburg, it was primarily a physical sensation, missing my hometown as if it were an amputated body part. Not exactly essential, maybe like a pinkie finger, that was how I felt when I moved back home. I got back my amputated pinkie, things fell into place.
This is where I live now. I live with the man who will be your dad in an apartment from the 1930s. They were referred to as ‘the healthy buildings’ when they were new, with large, bright rooms. From the living room we have a view of the street, from the bedroom a view of a slope where deer sometimes graze. It’s a lovely apartment, we were lucky.
Every person lives a tremendous life. This is what I can say about myself. I’m not interested in being at the center of things, as I’ve had to explain to people. That’s not why I’ve been attracted to the stage, it attracted me as a place where you can recreate yourself. I devote a lot of effort to doing that. To drawing a ring around myself and saying: This far but no farther. You can’t get at me. Within language there is an opening where I have always been free. Here. That which is me. Everything which will be your mother. There’s no getting around it.
The rest of you will also be my mother. There’s no getting around it.
I still haven’t miscarried. Astonishing. Absolutely astonishing.
April (entry 43)
But how to raise a daughter when you know what men do to women? I’m the one asking this question, you know nothing of all this yet. I’m asking the question because I know exactly when it happened the first time the second time the third time the thousandth time, I know exactly, I know exactly, exactly how it feels.
You weep. You love. That’s all. There is no other answer. I did think you might be a boy and not have to know. Know the sound of the streets on the way home in the dark, what it’s like when you travel, what kind of looks you get, what kind of words you hear, how everything you do has to be sifted through it. That’s the only answer. I know. I know too much about it.
What’s going to happen?
You’re going to learn which side of the street to walk on and in which parts of town. You’re going to learn how to talk back and how to ignore anyone who shouts, looks, asks questions, takes things from you, your solitude, your right to it. You’re going to stand at a bar or on a dance floor. They’re going to talk about your clothes in a way that implies something you didn’t mean.
You’re going to be tired and lean against a wall, semi-shut your eyes because you’re falling asleep and somebody will come up and tell you that you look like a whore. You’re going to just have turned twelve when that happens. You’re going to sit alone in a taxi at fifteen, stiff all over and unable to get out.
You’re going to hear how men twice, three times as old as you talk about imagining you naked, this is going to happen in work-related contexts, when you have a chance to do a good job, you’re not going to do a good job because that happened, just because that happened. You’re going to be at restaurants and at parties and on just an ordinary afternoon when you’re boxing things up to move and a neighbor offers to give you a hand, all these times are going to end with somebody groping your breasts. Some of the times you’ll freeze to ice. Other times you’ll be outraged. You’re going to scream at a man, a full restaurant, a neighbor and you’re going to think: they’re dogs. They aren’t people, they’re dogs. You’re going to wish a man were dead. There’s no other way to explain that feeling. Wishing someone were dead, you’re not going to believe you had it in you, you’re going to have to admit it, that it’s there inside you, that it’s what gets deposited there when something else is taken from you, when something that was your absolute right is taken from you, and the freedom in simply being able to exist is taken from you and the freedom in simply being able to exist is exchanged for this, to be able, deadly seriously, to hate.
It makes no difference that you didn’t think you had it in you. You’ll travel all over the world and it will be everywhere. A little less freedom. You’ll long for old age, when there will no longer be such things to take from you. You’re going to find the thought of old age horrifying, because this is what people say, that only youth is worthwhile, that’s what they holler and freedom, freedom, freedom being taken from you at every moment. There will be hands, there will be limits crossed, there will be ruthlessness, there will be an apology afterwards, you’re going to say it’s okay, it’s all right, you’re not going to talk about it, because you don’t talk about that kind of thing, don’t mention it, you just know, you just know, know how it feels not to be able to breathe when somebody’s holding you much too tight, know what it means not to be able to break loose, how it feels to be looked at, now hate is deposited in you, hate not amenable to reason, all this, it will not be mentioned with a single word. Especially not to me. Because how do you tell your mother? How do you tell your mom something like that?
And then at some point in adulthood, you understand. It wells up in you with icy clarity: she knows. She’s known it all along. Mom has always known because the same things have happened to her, and she’s carried it with her. All my life, she’s carried it. So I will be your mom. So I will know. So I will carry.
Then what do you do?
You weep. You love.
July (entry 77)
Life always goes very fast and very slowly. Then the phone rings, everything changes, a moment later: something new.
What did they say on the phone?
They told me I had cancer. Malignant melanoma. Do you want the number to a psychologist or a therapist? Normally we would have called you for an appointment, but it’s like this because of Corona, over the phone. We’ll send you information about sun protection and your treatment plan. That’s what they said.
What did you hear?
Nothing and everything. I heard a voice speaking to me as if I were in a state of panic, I wasn’t in a state of panic then. That came later. I thought I’m glad I’m pregnant. Cancer reduces fertility, I was thinking, I want children. The circumstances are special what with your pregnancy, my contact nurse, who had taken the phone from the doctor whose voice just told me cancer, said now. I liked her very much, my contact nurse. I’m your contact nurse she said, I’ve made you an appointment at the surgery unit in a week’s time. Call any time. Nothing that happens now, no matter what the outcome, will affect the child you’re carrying.
What did you think then?
I stopped thinking. I had no idea I was so good at stopping thinking. I didn’t think for several days. I called my mom and dad. I called my sister and a couple of friends. I practiced. I said I have cancer. Then I didn’t think any more. I painted a chest of drawers. I binge listened to a podcast on the history of country music. I told the man who’s going to be your dad that I wanted to watch movies with absolutely no female characters, didn’t want to know there were women because women are the ones who get pregnant and I’m pregnant and this is me in my body and I didn’t want to think about my body because my body was not only pregnant, it also had cancer. We watched movies with absolutely no female characters. He held me. Tight. I didn’t think. I didn’t write at all. I painted a chest of drawers. I scrubbed it down, washed it, put on two coats of primer and then three topcoats. I was overwhelmed by a peculiar, wild feeling of happiness. There was nothing but the present. I didn’t leave the apartment. Together with me lives the man I love most, as if to fully lean on him, my entire body. This is levitating, and we are expecting a baby together. I didn’t think anything more than that.
Then what happened?
I went to the country, my best friend was there from Copenhagen. There was so much growing there. So many flowers. So much grass. So much life. In the middle of a field. And the trees. I saw all of that, and I didn’t think anything more than that. Then I went back home. […]
The Writer has cancer. She has to recreate herself now, these are words she has written before, that time it was about something else, this time it’s about this: there was life growing inside her, there was death growing insider her. The Writer had a baby, the Writer got cancer. She is very young to have cancer, she has skin cancer, malignant melanoma, the kind Tage Danielsson died of? Yes, the kind Tage Danielsson died of, the kind lots of people have died of, in the old days the survival rate was one in twenty, things have changed a lot since then. The Writer has skin cancer at the right time in relation to how things used to be, research has made progress, modern medical science, the new kind of cancer treatment has revolutionized the world. Not least for melanoma patients. The Writer had no idea.
The Writer gave birth to a baby. A healthy baby in late August, 10 out of 10 on the records, Bergdahl female child, 49 centimeters, 2900 grams. She had never had a baby before, she had no idea about that either, but it all went well, went magnificently, she didn’t get depressed which she had read everywhere that you got, the baby blues they called it, she was overjoyed. Her lovely little baby, her body had given this to her, it felt like a gift. She didn’t give a thought to illness, medication, health & care. Nursing and diaper changing, magical nights of being awake, dawn light. She had no idea about cancer medication. No more than most people know, radiation, chemo, hair loss, the Writer knew about this. The new cancer medications, the current treatment regimen, is completely different. Nurse her as long as you can, soon you’ll be on medication.
The Writer is unable to write about this in anything but the third person. The Writer is pretending it’s about someone else and googles on side effects and survival statistics. A very good form of cancer to have unless you belong to the minority, if it hasn’t had time to spread. The Writer’s cancer has spread.
There are the sick people and the healthy ones. The Writer had no idea. Had no idea, none, about the limits of the body, thought she knew, but that was sheer vanity.
The Writer is facing a death threat. It is for real. It is a real death threat, so what happens? The Writer is now utterly insignificant, since there is nothing to tell here, there is nothing but the present. The Writer is the one reaching forward in time, backward in time, in the face of a death threat there is no forward, no backward. Just the present. Nothing else. The Writer becomes something else. Loving. Beloved.
The loving one has a little child in her arms, a newborn, her child. She knows that nothing she can do can make this child remember her if she ends up dying. She knows that this is the only real betrayal, dying, but it’s the one thing over which she has no control. She can’t stop looking at the photos of the two of them, the only parenthood she can give, a child’s fantasies about how things might have been. Look, this is me with my mom, I don’t remember her, I look like her in this picture.
The loving one fends off the words, refuses to speak, is unable to respond to emails or messages, is unable to write anything down, not the words for it, anything but the words for it, the loving one does not want to speak them. She fumbles for the pictures. The terror. The fear, a lit corridor. There goes her beloved, her child, there they go without her. The sheer terror of it, of a slow death. Knowing that the most evil thing you can do is the only thing over which you have no control, because it’s completely arbitrary, it’s good luck or bad luck, and no one knows the answer: will I recover?
A special gaze strictly for crises. The crisis gaze, the clear-eyed gaze, the gaze of terror and a sense of detail. I’m drawing a circle around myself just here and this is me. I am. But not forever. That knowledge.
December (entry 104)
You think you’re telling a story, that you have something to say, that you’re in control. Then this happens. All I wanted to do was to write down everything I knew. But life intervened with its drama, here it came and changed everything.
We went to the same high school, the man who’s going to be your dad and me. Not at the same time, but we had the same teachers. He imitates the voice, he’s doing it now, of our math teacher, he was always saying, our math teacher: But is this reasonable?
When everything is unreasonable, he says it. Is this reasonable? He asks. Is this really reasonable?
It isn’t reasonable, for things to be this way.
Vård & omsorg
Ordfront förlag, 2022, 286 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Olivia Bergdahl and Ordfront förlag for permission to publish this translated extract.
Olivia Bergdahl is a prominent stage poet and writer. She has published two collections of poetry, and two works of prose. A translation of Olivia Bergdahl's spoken-word poem Europe can also be found in SBR 2022:2.
Linda Schenck is a native English speaker who has lived in Sweden for many years. Professionally, she worked as both a conference and court interpreter and a translator of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she devotes herself entirely to literary translation. In 2018, she received The Swedish Academy Award for Translation of Swedish Literature.
by Hanna Johansson
reviewed by Alex Fleming
After interviewing her for a magazine piece, a lonely, unnamed narrator strikes up a friendship with an older artist, Helena. The narrator soon becomes Helena’s companion and confidante, and seems compelled to make herself available to her, seeking in this relationship some sort of fixed place in the world. When Helena eventually asks her to join her and her teenage daughter Olga at her house in Ermoupoli for the end of summer, the narrator gratefully accepts.
Having never met Olga before, the narrator initially views her with contempt, resentful of the natural, unbreakable bond she bears to Helena – and the ease with which she appears to reject it. But as the days pass in the sultry late-summer heat and Helena remains distant, the narrator’s feelings towards the much-younger Olga shift; first towards a longing for validation and solidarity, and then, eventually – desire.
What unfurls is a fascinating, layered exploration of desire, power and isolation, interwoven with the shifting dynamics of age and status. All of this is told through the perspective of a contradictory, complex narrator, who seems to hover between disarming honesty and self-deceit. While she recognises the loneliness that drives her own behaviour, she also has a tendency to project onto others, loading seemingly innocuous interactions with near-epic meaning. As a result, the text thrums with a sense of expectancy – perhaps even impending disaster.
This charge extends into her depiction of the scenery around her, particularly the sights, smells and sounds of Ermoupoli and wider Syros, where most of the novel takes place. In her heightened emotional state, the narrator picks up on wonderfully evocative details – the scents of sun-cream, salt and sweat on a shirt; the texture of raw squid; the crackle of pomegranate seeds being chewed. Johansson’s sensuous language is a joy to read, and her depictions of Ermoupoli, this city of erstwhile pomp and ruin, stick with the reader long after the pages have turned.
There is an emotional perceptiveness here, too – Helena, viewed through the narrator’s eyes, is particularly well drawn, an insecure, ageing artist who often retreats into a persona; a mourning mother struggling to connect with her daughter. The submissive, yet in some ways protective, bond that the narrator feels towards Helena is palpable and nuanced. The shifting nature of the narrator’s relationship with Olga makes the latter harder to place, and she is by turns childishly awkward and assured. Only her loneliness remains constant.
Indeed, the casting – or re-casting – of narratives is another key theme of the novel. Throughout the novel, the narrator slips in and out of her own memories and fantasies, consciously shaping and fixing the narrative she tells of her life. ‘I wasn’t in my body anymore. I was in the story I was telling myself. I was preparing a memory for later,’ she writes at one point. This suppleness is even echoed on a sentence level: sentences unfurl like waves lapping against a shore – clauses flow into one another, honing, expanding, occasionally contradicting what came before.
At a slim 223 pages, Antiken (Antiquity) is a compact yet loaded novel, and much of it takes place beneath the surface; between the lines. While the narrator’s relationship with Olga can feel uncomfortable at times (all of the central relationships of the novel are marked by an imbalance of power, but, for obvious reasons, this one especially so), it is presented in a nuanced, non-exploitative way. The narrator’s gaze is suggestive, rather than sexual, and the book is more interested in the dynamics driving the protagonists’ behaviour than the details of the relationship itself.
The novel received a glowing reception in Sweden, where in 2021 it was awarded the prestigious Katapult Prize, for best debut, and nominated for Borås Tidning’s Debutant Prize the same year. With its settings and themes it has aptly received comparisons to Duras, Lolita and Call Me by Your Name, but closer to home it also bears echoes of Ida Linde’s Mördarens mamma (The murderer’s mother, not translated into English), for its slippery, complex narrator and sense of looming ruin. World English rights have been sold, and I am certain that a similar reception awaits it in the English-speaking world. It is an irresistible novel that gets under your skin.
Foreign rights: Norstedts Agency
Hanna Johansson is a writer and critic who frequently contributes to national Swedish media on topics such as art, literature and queer issues. Antiquity, her debut novel, was joint winner of the Katapult Prize 2021 and was shortlisted for Borås Tidning’s Debutant Prize 2021. It will be published in English translation (tr. Kira Josefsson) by Catapult in 2024. Hanna Johansson took part in SBR’s event on Emerging Voices 2022.