An evening of Nordic literature

Representatives from four Nordic nations chat about what makes their literature special

Photo: John Olsen
Swedish poet Johannes Heldén and translator Elizabeth Clark Wessel read from his poem “Astroecology” in Swedish and English while haunting images show behind them at an event at the Danish Embassy earlier this year.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

The Alan Cheuse International Writers Center at George Mason University, in conjunction with the Embassies of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, and Argos Books, presented “An Evening of Nordic Literature” on February 8 at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Lars Bo Møller, the Danish Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, gave the opening remarks. He emphasized the ties that bind the Nordic nations together and their current eagerness to present themselves to the American public.

These countries are bound together in many ways including through their literature. The Nordic people share a melancholy feeling due to their long, cold, dark winters, which have an effect on human nature. Therefore, Nordic literature has a dark quality with existential themes. Consider the very popular Nordic crime novel that is definitely a brand of its own.

Møller said that literature plays a prominent role in helping foreign relations. He then introduced Matthew Davis, Director of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The goal of this center is to connect established and emerging international writers. Its brochure states that the center has “the potential to help revolutionize the way the world sees America and how young American writers see the wider world.”

Davis organized the evening’s program and served as its moderator. He began by telling the audience that the first known example of written Swedish literature dates back to the early ninth century and was written on the Rök runestone.

He then introduced Swedish poet Johannes Heldén and one of his translators, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, who read excerpts from his poem “Astroecology” (Argos Books, 2016), which illustrates the gradual degradation of our world. They alternated their readings—he in Swedish, she in English—while haunting images of the decay of organic matter (e.g. plants, pets) and of inorganic material (e.g. drones, data systems) were projected on a screen behind them.

Heldén is a writer, visual artist, and musician. He is particularly interested in ecology, artificial intelligence, science fiction, and poetry. He has published 12 books, four music albums, and seven digital online works of poetry and visual art.

The second writer on the program was Danish poet Katrine Øgaard Jensen. She began by reading one of her own poems, “Time Machine,” in which she describes her mother’s slow, undignified descent to her death:

Our mother as the ruins of a once great building. A fallen monument. How civilized she was before the illness compared to now.
Trapped in a body that is no longer hers, that refuses to obey…

Jensen then read from her translation of the poetry collection Third Millennium Heart by Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (Broken Dimanche Press, 2016).

I give away my third-millennium heart, I send it into orbit and get it
back tenfold, it grows via the babel effect
tenfold, tenfold, tenfold

Jensen has served as editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation. She is a judge for the Best Translated Book Award. Her goal, she says, is “not only to write a great novel of my own, but to promote Danish literature—which is why I am also translating authors from Denmark that I feel should be more known.”

The third writer was Eliza Reid, a Canadian who met Icelander Guðni Jóhannesson at Oxford in 2003 and married him the following year. He was recently elected Iceland’s President and she is, therefore, Iceland’s First Lady. When she moved to Iceland, she discovered a country whose people were great lovers of the written word. Literacy is very important and writers are revered and admired. One finds more statues of writers there than politicians. Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world.

Reid talked of the impressive annual Christmas Book Flood (Jólabókaflóð). Everyone eagerly anticipates this October event in which publishers flood the market with new books. As books are by far the favorite Christmas presents, the people then have ample time to do their holiday shopping. Presents of books are given on Christmas Eve and people then spend the night reading! This tradition began during World War II.

She pointed out Iceland’s long literary history that dates back to medieval times. The Sagas of the Icelanders and the Poetic Edda are still widely read and translated in Iceland. And in 2011, Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital city, was designated a UNESCO City of Literature.

In 2014, Reid co-founded the very successful Iceland Writer’s Retreat. She emphasized that it is an event for “everyone who enjoys writing, not just for published authors.” Well-known author Geraldine Brooks led a workshop at the retreat’s inaugural event. When she was asked about her experience there, she replied, “Iceland is the most creatively stimulating place I have ever set foot. The landscape is so other-worldly that it forces you to see with fresh eyes. And being in a culture that’s so rich in literature is remarkable: the depth and breadth of the writing tradition and the modern commitment to literature is breathtaking.”

Norway’s contribution to this “Evening of Nordic Literature” was a performance of the opening scene of Jon Fosse’s play Someone is Going to Come. The two actors, Nanna Ingvarsson and David Bryan Jackson, had performed in Scena Theatre’s recent Washington, D.C., premiere performance, directed by Robert McNamara. The largely Scandinavian audience showed their enthusiasm for the actors’ mesmerizing performance.

(A review of the play was published in The Norwegian American on January 27, 2017. You can read it at www.norwegianamerican.com/arts/fosses-minimalism-takes-the-stage.)

Davis then led a stimulating Q&A session. He asked all presenters what was unique about the literature in their particular Nordic countries.

Reid replied that Icelandic literature is Nordic and cannot be characterized as uniquely Icelandic. And she emphasized again that writing brings people together. Connections are built among people who love the written word.

Heldén responded that an important focus in Swedish literature is ecological degradation because of the love Swedes have for the natural environment.

Wessel admitted that translating poetry is a challenge but she enjoyed translating Heldén’s poetry. She talked about the beautiful, unique experience she had sitting beside the sea with the poet and his other translator Kirkwood Adams as they worked on the translation together.

Jensen said that Danes wrote in all genres and there was nothing specifically Danish about the literature. It is definitely Nordic, however, as it is very dark. She evoked laughter from the audience with her reason for the dark nature. “Nordic literature is dark,” she explained, “because the people in the Nordic countries are so happy!”

Davis then introduced Scena Theatre’s award-winning director Robert McNamara who pointed out the obvious cultural difference between American and Scandinavian audiences when viewing a Nordic work such as Someone is Going to Come. He noted the hearty laughter of this evening’s audience, which showed their understanding of Fosse’s dark humor; they “got it!” During the D.C. run of the play, the American audiences had seemed unsure of the appropriateness of laughter.

The special evening ended with an invitation to the wine and cheese reception offered by the Danish Embassy.

This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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