Unearthing Erotic Genius: On Rut Hillarp and Swedish Modernism

“Rut Hillarp was born 100 years ago this past Friday. She is one of the most unfairly marginalized authors in Swedish literary history. It’s as if we refuse to allow ourselves to discover just how damned excellent a poet she is.” — Bernur, February 23, 2014.

“Her lyrical prose is fantastic: so beautiful, erotic, dark, perceptive and intense.” — Swedish novelist Therese Bohman on her female role models, Kulturkollo, 2014.


A photo posted by Saskia Vogel (@saskia.vogel) on

Some discoveries are almost too delicious to share. We see an author’s name (on the web, on a shelf) and we decide we must read them. There was something to that name (the way the letters looked together or the paper’s grain). From the first line, the words tumble into an order, tantalizing and new, but somehow familiar. An echo we’ve heard before. The words tangle with our thoughts, become inseparable, and we, the curious reader, become devotees. For a time, perhaps forever, we keep the name to ourselves, guarding it as a jealous lover would. But some names ask to be spoken aloud, written in emails and on scraps of note paper with the addendum “must read.” One of those names is Rut Hillarp.

23s04hillarp2__mngl_20110923ab5x004,kul_1.indd_6388Rut Hillarp—who was she? The year of her birth, 1914, seems so distant, but the year of her death, 2003, still feels like it was yesterday. Five years ago, The Gothenburg Post called her a grand dame of the women’s movement. Rut Hillarp—one of Sweden’s great, yet overlooked Modernists—turns those whom she touches into devotees: her readers, lovers, students and mentees. She is a cult figure, an antiquarian bookseller in Gothenburg told me after I had learned her name and embarked on a mission to possess each and every one of her books. As soon as his shop gets one of her books in (rarely), it sells. None were in stock.

My romance with Rut Hillarp began this past summer when the Berlin-based publisher Readux Books was looking for one more piece to complete their Sex series which was to be published at the end of 2015. Since Readux launched in 2013, the publisher, Amanda DeMarco, has let me scout Swedish stories for their short, small format books, which include contemporary fiction, rediscovered classics, and essays about cities. My translation of Malte Persson’s short story “Fantasy” was my second translation ever—part of a gamble to see if I could turn my ability to speak Swedish, my mother’s second mother tongue, into a career. When I want to feel official, I say I am their Swedish editor. Mostly, I like to call it nothing at all and think only of the special pleasure of reading for love and with purpose, for Amanda.

Erotic culture is a special interest of mine (academically, professionally), and as her deadline drew near I berated myself for still having found nothing. In a fit of frustration (inspiration?), I typed something like “forgotten Swedish eroticist” into Google, thinking that my chances of coming across Sweden’s Anaïs Nin—or anyone vaguely comparable—were slim to none. But there she was: poet, diarist, experimental filmmaker, photographer, teacher, and novelist. And her novels, four in total, are how I would like to introduce her to you here—Blodförmörkelse (Blood Eclipse, 1951), in particular, from which the English translation The Black Curve (Readux Books 2015) is taken. I am not the first to love her, apparently, but I suspect I am the first to have brought her into my mother tongue. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only published English-language translation of her work.

1455734309252When her debut novel Blood Eclipse arrived in the mail, I barely dared touch it. A slim, brittle volume from an antiquarian bookseller in Stockholm. One of two available for sale online. Self-published in 1951. Number 27 in an edition of 500, with one of 50 covers hand-painted by the author and signed to Nils Ferlin (the poet, I assume). It was love at first line. I let the sun burn my shoulders as I devoured her words on the balcony wearing white gloves, so as not to mar the stiff, yellowed pages.

The novel begins with a man’s reply to his female lover’s letter:


It’s true, I didn’t come. I never intended to.
And I can’t accept the discreet excuse you offered me in your letter.
I don’t believe you waited long enough for me . . . I asked for you to wait as a period of gestation during which your desires would consolidate, your emotions coagulate. Until now any man has been able to satisfy these desires in you, but after this waiting period, they will be devoted only to Man.
Because waiting shapes his story and gives him his reality . . .
Like hunger, waiting is creative. It rouses new senses and needs, and so it offers Man an infinitesimal keyboard and a palette with metaphysical resonance.
Waiting entices the desired man, and he comes more quickly when he is late than when he is on time.

It is tempting to make a case for Rut Hillarp as Sweden’s Anaïs Nin. In response to Anaïs Nin’s notoriety, she wondered in a 1951 letter if she too couldn’t do just as well. Indeed, they have a similar erotic project. Like Anaïs Nin, Rut Hillarp’s works trace a map of the psyche’s movements through love, lust, and desire. One could align elements of Hillarp’s life (including a connection to Paris and creative intercourse with renowned cultural figures of her time) with Nin’s own. Whereas Nin’s fame was helped along by who published her in English and the censorship trials that added that tantalizing element of the forbidden to her work and life, Birgitta Holm offers no comparable story of scandal in her 2011 biography Rut Hillarp: Poet och Erotiskt Geni. Hillarp was a celebrated writer who traveled the world, took the matter of having lovers and being a lover seriously, and for whom desire was a way of becoming more receptive to her environment. One could try to spin sensation from the threads of her life—her joy in photos from costume parties, the cancer that left her with only one breast, the men and women who she invited to stay at her home, her masochism, her suicide—but that would do a disservice to a heart that beats with a singular rhythm. Holm, her former student and close friend, calls her an “erotic genius.”

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All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea

poster-of-the-KimsIn late 2014, I spent a few months immersed in North Korea, translating Magnus Bärtås and Fredrik
Ekman’s All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea into English.
da4cc5d9dd238a12d5b9b9e2b0bed598-w204@1xI loved everything about the book: the interwoven cultural and political histories (specifically: film history), the surreal reality the authors were navigating as part of a group trip through North Korea, the cultural and social history of North and South Korea and Japan. Yes, it’s about a high-profile kidnapping of two South Korean film legends, but it’s also a look at special effects on Godzilla…and the cultural lineage of Godzilla from Japan to NK to the US…and about how the dictator is created as a god/eternal icon, drawing from art history, world literature, and more.
Read an excerpt about a strange night in a (fake?) village and “culture shock” as a medical diagnosis at Literary Hub, and if you’re into reviews, here’s a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and a great review from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And here’s a taste of Pulgasari…Godzilla’s brother from another mother?


Weird Sex with Readux (You’re invited. 21 October.)

Invite Series 6

When Readux Books publisher Amanda DeMarco told me about their upcoming onex series, I had to submit something. Ideally a forgotten or little known Swedish eroticist or a writer deeply engaging with sex and power. Someone like Else Jersualem, whose 1908 novel The Red House examines prostitution and moral hypocrisy in Vienna through the eyes of a woman who grew up in brothels. It was a smash hit then, but she has since slipped into relative obscurity. I revisited The Red House, worried that my brittle copies of the novel and its 1932 English translation would turn to dust in my hands. The novel is sumptuous and political, but not sexy. And I wanted to find something that had never been translated before. Amanda’s deadline was looming. Little known eroticists don’t just fall from the sky…usually.

Where to start my search? I typed “forgotten Swedish eroticist” into Google.  And there she was. Rut Hillarp. Sweden’s Anaïs Nin. Pictured below.



23s04hillarp2__mngl_20110923ab5x004,kul_1.indd_6388I tracked down a copy of her first novel online (Blood Eclipse, 1951), one of only two for sale at the time, and when the brittle book arrived in the post, it was love at first sight. The cover was hand-painted by Hillarp herself: a visual representation of the book’s central images: the black and the red curve. It was one of 50 hand-painted covers of a print-run of 500. Her lyrical exploration of masochism blew me away with its whirling imagery and meditations on the origins of romance. We follow a writer as she engages in a complicated power play with a composer, in and out of the bedroom. It has some of those 50 shades and delves deep into the psyche of a female masochist.


66I’m not sure how to describe how special it feels to bring Rut Hillarp into English for (as best I know) the first time ever. I’m immensely grateful to Amanda for taking a chance on the sample I sent her and to Andreas Hillarp for giving us permission to publish his aunt’s work in English.

Now, come celebrate the publication of The Black Curve, a standalone extract of Hillarp’s debut novel. I’m thrilled to be taking the stage with Joanna Walsh. I haven’t been able to stop talking about Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales about Sex. It begins: “A girl passed a penis-bush growing in someone else’s garden, and picked a ripe dick because she couldn’t resist it.” Novelist Ryan Ruby will also be presenting his translation of a deliciously dirty literary tale with a twist by Grégoire Bouillier.

Shop the series here.






London Literature Festival News!

11745608_1048375738508949_1090609126980349689_nI’m excited to share that I’ll be donning two guises at the London Literature Festival this October: co-conspirator (pixels and sharp angles) and moderator/fangirl (spectacles and exclamation points).

For the next edition of Local Transport, Michael Salu and I have lined up a trio of exciting artists who will explore Data and Desire. What can all the data in the world tell us about the unknowable, the intangible, the essential mystery of life? Dystopian graphic novels, love at first sight, the S.O.U.L…. Give your weekend some byte.

Friday, October 9. 20.00-21.00. Festival Village below the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre. Get more info and buy tickets.




bretRGB-300x460I’m delighted to be sharing the stage once again with Lina Wolff for the First Look Book Club, where you’ll get a preview of her excellent novel Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (translated by Frank Perry for And Other Stories). She’s one of my favorite Swedish authors. And her book. Oh. Divas. Death. Despair. Desire. Stories nestled into stories. From Mexico to Madrid. Check out an interview we did for Granta here.

Tuesday, October 6, 19.45, Foyer Spaces, Southbank Center. Get more info and buy tickets.

From “The Memory of a Secret”

215051bWhat do we know about our parents? They’re never anything but parents. They do what parents do, listen but never speak. Help you up but they themselves stay down. One day you’ll start to wonder who they are. Those people who’ve always just been there. You realize that you don’t know what they’re thinking about in their beds at night. You don’t know what they dream about. Your memories don’t provide any answers, they can’t reveal their true selves. You’ve never wondered. There was never any reason to wonder, until now.


Fragment, 1992

I remember a nightmare, perhaps one of my first. I’m in the pale pink nave of a church, close to the front near the altar. Four strange men with shaved heads are leaning over me. One of them is holding a mirror. There’s something about the atmosphere. Something that isn’t right. You have to look at yourself in the mirror, one of the men says. When I turn my face away, they hold my arms and legs down while one of them grips my chin. At the very moment that I’m supposed to meet my own gaze, the large church doors swing open. The men flee and my dad approaches me. You’re not allowed to look into this one, he says, raising the mirror high. Then he hurls it to the stone floor and shards of Dad’s image fly across the room.


Blind Alley, 2011

We take the E4 south, me and my husband. We drive along Lake Vättern with the light of the sunset on our faces, and veer off onto the country roads of Småland. Arriving at the red house by the meadows and the lake brings a kind of calm. This place has always welcomed me with a peace that I’ve not found elsewhere. But this time it feels different. The tractors plough through the fields. Black earth covers the cut wheat, which only a month ago was tall and swaying elegantly. It’s autumn now.

The house has its own blind alley that can be used for parking, but three years ago Dad got it into his head that he wanted to transplant his raspberry bushes and lay a gravel driveway. It took several weeks; Dad was so invested in that driveway that it became comical. I did think it was charming, that Dad’s stereotypically male characteristics were charming. There must have been something about them that I liked, because the thought of him losing them scares me to death.

I see Dad in the kitchen window. He doesn’t see us. Dad is cooking, moving in that jumpy way that suggests that he’s stressed. We walk into the red hallway. It smells like it usually does. It has just been cleaned. Jackets hang neatly in the hall. On the ground floor, you don’t notice. The threat is upstairs. We eat dinner and I stay at the table for a long time, stretching it out as long as I can. My husband carries the bags up and eventually I, too, will have to make my way through the house. My childhood home, once the safest place in the world, has become a minefield. I’m not safe anywhere. Anywhere and at any time they might make themselves visible  . . .  traces of the new Dad.

My translation of this extract of Ester Roxberg’s Min pappa Ann-Christine was first published in English on 1 June 2015 as part of Words Without Borders’ Queer issue. Read the rest here.

Lead image Copyright/fotograf: Lina Alriksson 


The Quietus!

A big thanks to Jen Calleja, Amanda DeMarco, Karl Smith for making this happen! Here’s the start of The Quietus interview. Read on, lovelies.

This month’s column swings the focus to the unsung hero – the literary translator – but just as much on contemporary Swedish literature and inventive ways of publishing literature in translation. (Portrait of Saskia Vogel by Richard Phœnix)


This month I read a book in translation every day for a fortnight. It might sound impressive/obsessive, but – as Berlin-based publisher Readux brings out single or groups of very short stories and essays, mostly in translation from German, French and Swedish in pocket-sized books that can be read in one sitting – it was close to effortless.


When founder and publisher Amanda DeMarco started planning Readux she was twenty-six and funding the project herself, so publishing four short books (of around 5-10,000 words) three times a year rather than full-length books was a ‘no-brainer’, though she actually regards Readux as ‘a magazine – incognito, exploded’.

Instead of telling you about all of the books – from Felicitas Hoppe’s absurdist nightmares, to Roger Caillois’ surrealist piece of psychogeography, to the revelatory story of a British poet becoming pen pals with an incarcerated Czech poet – I wanted to focus on Readux’s Swedish Series: not just because their short-form mini-book format is based on the Swedish publisher Novellix, who published the stories in Swedish, but because the three stories in this set were translated by the same person. They just so happened to also be the translator of another text that had recently made a real impression on me.

The trio of short stories that make up the Swedish Series was selected and translated by Saskia Vogel. Amanda Svensson’s Where the Hollyhocks Come From (excerpted above) was the first Readux book I read, drawing me in with the strangely menacing pink ice-cream on its cover.

It charts a young man’s melancholy liaisons with a Lolita-like girl in the countryside of southern Sweden and comes to a quietly traumatic conclusion. The story’s pull and that the girl’s looping speech snaps together so satisfyingly with the man’s preoccupied narration left behind the sense that this was translation at its best.

The narrator of Malte Persson’s Fantasy is a self-absorbed artist who infiltrates the team behind a failed fantasy film in an attempt to make a piece about their egotistical existences detached from real life; at times recognising her own hypocritical denial of how close she is to her subjects, her own self-importance and who’s using who. In The Lesson by Cilla Naumann, the most tense and ambiguous of the stories, a teacher’s inexplicable hate for a new pupil causes his control to slowly slip and has the threat of violence permanently hovering on the horizon.


I had come across Saskia a few weeks before when I read her translation of this excerpt from Pojkarna or The Boys by Jessica Schiefauer on the great platform Words Without Borders, and was left with a mournful wish that I had had the chance to read it when I was younger. The extract left a mark and the text itself was popping and as lively as the young girls in the story. Then I read the Swedish series and recognised Saskia’s name; this recognition felt like something to celebrate.

Literary translation is all too rarely considered an art, rather something more like an administrative task. It is part science, part mystery. It is engaged and impressive creative writing in its own right, and hopefully one day that will go without saying. Until then, I want to refract this idea through the prism of Saskia Vogel.

Saskia learned Swedish in her early teens when she moved from Los Angeles to Gothenburg to attend high school and went on to study English and film, followed by Masters degrees in creative writing and comparative literature in both the UK and the US. Her first editorial job was at AVN, a publisher’s weekly for the adult entertainment industry, but wanting to return to literature she found a job at Granta magazine in London, running their global events, PR and promotions. Now based in Berlin, she translates Swedish literature, is a writer in her own right, and is the co-founder and director of strategic communications at Dialogue Berlin.


Read the rest of this in The Quietus.

from “The Boys”

Liten Momo

Here’s an extract from Jessica Schiefauer’s young adult novel Pojkarna (The Boys). It was originally published by Words Without Borders. There’s a movie of the book coming out next year and the picture above was taken on-set by Karolina Pajak. Now, onward to masquerades and magical flowers…

It was a balmy night, spring had started to slip into early summer, the trees’ leaves were thick and bright green. We didn’t speak, we only looked each other in the eyes and received the paper bags that Momo ceremoniously handed to us. And when I opened my bag in Bella’s room, my heart started beating so fast it hammered in my ears.

She had made me a tiger costume. There was a hooded coat and a pair of elbow-length gloves, the tip of each finger adorned with a golden claw. There was no mask, no plaster to hide my face, but she had taken a thin nylon stocking and painted it with dark-brown filigree. I pulled the stocking over my face and lifted the hood onto my head. Then I looked in the mirror.

A shriek escaped from me and hit the glass, it bounced sharply between the walls of the room. I couldn’t get a proper look until it died away. Shere Khan shimmered in the mirror. He glared at me, yellow eyes glowing, his face dark and threatening. The broad coat and hood concealed my usual mannerisms and when I moved, he moved too, but not like a girl with a pimpled back and a body full of worry. He moved like a king, and we were one and the same, he and I.

Yes, Momo had really outdone herself. As I walked toward the garden with the weight of the coat upon me, I realized that she had planned this evening down to every last detail. Lanterns illuminated the greenhouse and apparently she had managed to get hold of a large stereo because pounding drums and dark rhythms spilled from the greenhouse, an undulating melody that made me think of gold and glinting eyes. She greeted us inside the greenhouse where the party was to take place, and as I came closer I saw an explorer standing by the wooden table, sporting a white safari hat and a waxed mustache. I glimpsed the mysterious flower’s head through the doorway, it nodded gently as if she were craning her neck to get a good look at us. The terrace door opened and the explorer laughed with delight as a silverback entered. He supported his steps with his knuckles and when he was very close he unleashed a howl, and I couldn’t help but join in on the laughter.

The explorer bowed, and with a sweep of his gloved hand he gestured to the table.

“Welcome to the tropics, my friends. Dinner is served.”

It was a clear, starry night. We lay on the lawn outside the greenhouse, resting our heads on each other’s stomachs. Momo had taken off her safari hat, her hair rippled over my tiger-chest. The flowers around us had opened up, their soft interiors glowing in the darkness. She looked at us through the doorway, her face was open and smooth and it made me think of butterflies, how their pointy proboscises pierced sacs of nectar, how they sucked it in. I propped myself up on my elbow and raised my glass of tea with a practiced gesture.

“Would it please the gentlemen to add some true drops to the brew?”

I moved Momo’s head off my stomach. She looked up with surprise when I wrapped my coat around me, walked up to the flower and started inspecting the teeming vessels in the center of its head. They were like small blisters protected by petals, straining and aching and filled with something that had to get out.

Bella, in her unwieldy gorilla costume, stood up. She had been in high spirits the whole night, alternating between her gorilla howl and howling laughter, and now she was so hoarse and tired that she swayed as she made her way to the greenhouse.

“Oh yes! New life will course through our bodies, and the stars will take our secrets to the grave!”

Then Momo giggled. She couldn’t help it with Bella striding so comically across the flagstones. The pants of the gorilla costume had hitched themselves up, revealing the tube socks she was wearing. But Bella gave her a stern look and Momo got hold of herself and said:

“Let us make a pact, gentlemen. Let us brew a Magical Potion and drink together. Let us never speak of our drink to any mortal, whatever may come!”

And as she spoke, she raised her glass of tea to the heavens, and we raised ours as well. Bella skipped forward toward me and carefully pulled the flower’s head down.

“Yes, I swear, I swear!”

We swore our oaths and I pierced one of the small blisters with the claw of my index finger. Thick nectar seeped out.

One drop for each glass.

We toasted. Then we gulped the tea down because suddenly it tasted irresistibly sweet and spicy. And when we looked up from our glasses, when we looked at each other’s faces, a deep silence fell over us.
Read the rest of the extract here: http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/from-the-boys#ixzz3MH7EHyXW

Just Be: On “The Boys” and reluctant womanhood


As a pre-teen in Southern California, I was terrified of the day I would have to wear a bra. As soon as you wore one, the boys would stalk you around school, sneak up behind you, and painfully snap the hook and eye closure against your back. It was a humiliating hazing ritual of sorts, with one foot in the innocence of childish play, and the other in the common attitudes about gender in the adult world, where women are often portrayed or treated as objects. And then there was the garment itself. Even the plainest of bras had something frilly sewn between the cups—no matter how modest the cut was, that alluring silk rose or come-hither bow suggested things about me that weren’t true, and that I didn’t want to be true. I wasn’t “that” kind of person. Not yet.

One day, the girls in my class were rounded up and given a strict lecture by our gym teacher on the medical dangers of kicking boys between their legs. Apparently someone had had enough of the bra-snapping. Whoever the unidentified assailant was, she was a hero to us all. During this fragile time, when the changes in our bodies were weighing so many of us down, and the uninvited gazes were making some of us want to shrink from view, I was reminded that standing up for yourself and taking control of your narrative is always an option.

How I wish that Jessica Schiefauer’s August Prize-winning young adult novel Pojkarna (The Boys) had been on my bookshelf when I was a young teen. It would have immediately become part of my YA canon, reminding me that my reluctance to slip into womanhood wasn’t unusual, and that just because I was being looked at in a certain way by men didn’t mean that their perception of me was a reflection of who I was.

In The Boys, Schiefauer gives three fourteen-year-old girls a magical way to take control of their narratives. Schiefauer says that “the gaze” is at the heart of her novel, that it is ultimately a novel about perception. Kim, Bella, and Momo are sexually harassed by the boys at school and feel uneasy about the attention that puberty has called to their door. These are imaginative, willful girls, who are also insecure and searching for ways to simply be in the world as people. How do they escape or neutralize the unwanted attention? One day, Bella plants a mysterious seed that grows into a resplendent flower. The flower’s nectar has the power to transform the girls into boys for about half a day. Through this transformation, the girls experience what it’s like to exist in the world outside the heterosexual male gaze. They now know what it is to be seen as a subject, rather than an object. Each girl uses this experience to reimagine herself in her own way.

This novel could also be read as queer literature for its tender treatment of desire (in this extract, note the moment where Kim feels a pang of attraction to Momo after they’ve turned into boys) and how it explores gender fluidity. For Kim, her female body is an alien shell, and she finds a home in her male body. The other girls are at home in their original bodies to varying degrees. I kept thinking of Cris Beam’s project on the increasing visibility of transgender youth in Los Angeles, as featured on This American Life. And of Brendan, the Internet-famous “teen diva” and LGBTQ activist who is the face of a recent American Apparel campaign. Or of Roscoe, the gender-fluid son of the main character in Showtime’s House of Lies that writer Matthew Carnahan based on children he has met. Let’s put the language we can use to describe this to one side: there’s something interesting stirring among young adults today. There seems to be a swell of young adults who perceive gender as a fluid concept. Who feel empowered to fundamentally question who and what and how they can be, however they were born. I wonder what Judith Butler has to say about this.

The extract in this month’s issue of Words Without Borders introduces us to Kim, Momo, and Bella on the eve of a masquerade in Bella’s greenhouse. During the party, they discover the magical power of the resplendent flower and have their first night out as boys. These chapters from the middle of the book showcase the simple richness of Schiefauer’s prose. There is something of Theodore Roethke in her sensual and fraught engagement with nature and the greenhouse. We see how she lays out the landscape of the girls’ lives and how they carve out safe spaces for themselves in this town near an untamed forest. We see how they blossom or shrivel in various environments. And in the moment when the girls first see their boy-bodies, you know you are in for a wild ride.

One of the translation challenges I faced was capturing Schiefauer’s magical tone. Through Kim, the narrator, the fantastical and the quotidian mingle, drawing the reader into the uninhibited imaginations of the girls as their extraordinary story plays itself out in an average Swedish town. There was a risk that Schiefauer’s easy flow between reality and fantasy would become jarring. Tube socks and the ceremonial drinking of a magical potion aren’t natural bedfellows, but I hope I’ve succeeded in bringing them together as seamlessly as they work in the Swedish.

As the lively current discussion of issues around sex, gender, and power show little sign of waning, I hope that every reader that identifies with “The Boys” will find comfort in this story and, regardless of how they are perceived, will feel empowered to just be.

This article was originally published by Words Without Borders on 18 December 2014. 

Finland’s Philip Teir on Bilingual Publishing and the Global Novel

Philip Teir has published one of Finland's most anticipated books of the Fall.

Finland’s Philip Teir is a culture editor, anthologist and author who we hope to be reading in English soon. Teir’s much anticipated debut novel The Winter War: A Novel about Marriage, published today, is a tense, funny depiction of family, globalization and life’s little disappointments during a long, cold winter Helsinki winter when everyone, as Teir says, is drinking a little too much, freezing cold, and their moral compasses are drifting. We caught up on bilingual publishing in Finland, a global-minded middle class and a Kafka-esque attempt to write about fishing gear. This interview with him originally appeared in Publishing Perspectives. By Saskia Vogel

PP: You’ve edited anthologies, written short stories and poetry and you are the head of culture at Hufvudstadsbladet, as well as a critic. Have you always wanted to write literature, or were you a critic and journalist first?

Philip Teir: As a teenager, I had two big idols: Franz Kafka and Tove Jansson. In a way, they are each other’s opposites. The one writes absurd, small stories in claustrophobic milieus, without larger gallery of characters, the other writes about families, children and adults, about nature. When I had a summer job at a local newspaper after high school I was sent out to report on a new store that sold fishing equipment. I tried to write the article like a Kafka story. I didn’t know anything about journalism. Today, I see myself as a journalist first. Fiction is a significantly slower practice. But journalism is a good way to uncover the society that I, ultimately, also write about in fiction.

Is this multi-stranded literary and cultural engagement typical of authors in Finland?

Yes and no. It’s down to personality a bit, isn’t it? The journalistic approach is to do a little multi-tasking, do lots of things at the same time, to the let the subject determine which form the text takes. It could be fantastic to be an author full time, but I’d probably miss culture journalism, being part of that ongoing conversation. It’s also about supporting one’s self, to pay the rent. As part of the small Finland-Swedish minority, I feel it’s good to be active and set the bar high, to keep the cultural tradition going. I think one can compare Finland-Swedes with Icelanders. Many people engage in some form of cultural activity, many do more than one thing, and most of them know each other.

VinterkrigetFinland is a bilingual country. Can you tell me a bit about the experience of being published in two languages in one country? And how you think your work differs in nuance, impact or meaning between the languages?

I haven’t seen the Finnish translation of my book yet, but it will be published at the same time as the Swedish edition in the autumn. This means that all the last-minute changes I do have to be sent to the Finnish translator simultaneously. My last book, a short story collection, was published in Finnish. I didn’t think it would feel that different to read it in Finnish, but it really was as if it were written by another author. But it was also a positive experience, to read your own book with fresh eyes, in a language you understand. It’s hard to say exactly what is different. Language affects the tone and mood, and that’s even more apparent in short stories. But some things actually work better in Finnish than in Swedish because, in spite of everything, the action takes place in Finland.

Does a bilingual publishing culture create a particular kind of reader? What do you see as the benefits and challenges of this publishing culture?

Not everyone in Finland reads in both languages. Finland-Swedes read Swedish language books, in general, and Finnish speakers read books in Finnish. Some people, especially Finland-Swedes, also like reading in the other native language, too. I think that the respective lingual cultures are apparent in the choice of subject matter and in style, in the social perspective. There’s a certain type of Finland-Swedish author who can’t seem to find their readers in Finnish, and vice versa, of course.

Tell me more about subject matter and style.

A certain kind of language-driven prose can naturally be difficult to translate to the other language. One of the last years’ Finlandia-winners, Mikko Rimminen, has been translated to Swedish but doesn’t seem to have found a big readership. Typically he is a very language-driven writer. Monika Fagerholm, one of the most prominent Finland-Swedish authors, has been well-received in Finnish but maybe not in the same sense that she has been praised in Sweden. It might have something to do with language, but also with subject matter — she has always written about girls’ lives, and it has resonated very well with the Swedish reading audience and with critics.

Looking at the anthology on masculinity that you edited and The Winter War, are gender and sexuality a key theme for you?

I’ve explored men’s roles in a few of my earlier books, also in my short stories, but this time I wanted to write about women. There are four main characters, and only one of them is a man. So, this time masculinity wasn’t a central theme. But I think it crept in there anyway. The main character, Max, lives in an academic world where feminism holds a pretty strong position, and so it begins to address questions of gender and sexuality…I don’t think you can write a book that is set today without asking if gender plays a role in some way. But it’s also a book about generations, about those who are born in the 1950s, and their children, who are born at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the ‘80s. How these two generations relate to their various roles in society and how they see the future.

I think many of us look to Scandinavia as a model of gender equality. Where does that debate stand in Finland? What are the key issues and do these come up in your novel?

Feminism is still a bit of a controversial word in Finland, compared to Sweden. I think we are getting there, and I think the differences aren’t actually very big. Finland is still more of a macho-country, which has to do with history. I actually wanted to call a book about marriage The Winter War because growing up I was sick of hearing Finnish wartime stories about manhood and bravery.

One of the themes you address in the novel explores the relationship between the Finland-Swedish and the Finns. What captures your imagination about the relationship between these two language/cultural groups? Or is it simply part of setting a novel in Helsinki?

Yes, it’s quite natural for a book set in Helsinki, which is a bilingual environment. But I also have a bilingual background, my mother speaks Finnish. So that’s the environment I know, an environment where both languages are present all the time.  You might speak Finnish at work and Swedish at home. My book is written in Swedish, but in reality part of the dialogue is in Finnish. It sounds schizophrenic, but it’s not strange when you’re used to it.

Your references to the impact of globalization on health care, the Occupy movement and the difficulty of the youngest daughter Eva in getting her life started feel very current, as does your main character’s engagement with love and marriage. What are you responding to in this book? And did you set out to write a book that captured the zeitgeist?

I knew I wanted to write a novel that takes place in Finland around 2010. Funnily enough, books about the zeitgeist aren’t that common in Finland. I also wanted it to be a global novel to a degree, because I think the sort of family I’m writing about isn’t particularly rooted in their national identity, they are part of a kind of global upper middle class. They have children who study abroad who are used to moving in foreign contexts, who might come home one day and say that they’re getting married to a Belgian stockbroker…or something. Our generation takes this kind of rootlessness for granted, but it can also lead to it being unclear in which context they should anchor their identity. The risk is that one becomes a little cog in a global market economy.

The Winter War reads like a novel for a global, connected society that is still trying to find a common language. Its locations span Helsinki, rural Finland, London, Manila…and the narratives in each place feel equally keenly observed and one feels at home in each place even when the characters notice their outsider status. Many of the Swedes I went to school with in Sweden ended up in London for university, so Eva’s narrative feels like a common narrative among Swedish/Scandinavian young adults, similarly the narrative strand about Katriina’s task to recruit staff in Manila for her hospital in Finland. What informs this encompassing world view? How did you come to these narratives?

These kinds of experiences are around us all the time. But I don’t think they’re depicted in Finnish literature that often. With Katriina and her work with Filipina nurses, it was expressly the desire to write about a non-literary job that was appealing. On the whole, I was interested in describing modern, bureaucratic workplaces, also through the older daughter Helen and her work as a high school teacher.

I am again and again enthralled by concise prose and storytelling, by a similar turn, The Winter War is an expansive, Jonathan Franzen-like, multi-stranded narrative about a family, its joys and discontents. How did you come to write this story in this style?

I have read Franzen and I like his books. I think he has found a functioning formula for how to write broad, entertaining prose that also is deeply engaged with society. He is also good with families, describing family dynamics. On the whole, I’ve read alot of Anglo-Saxon contemporary literature, and could maybe mention Siri Hustvedt and her novel What I Loved, because the art world is a red thread that runs through my novel. But at the same time it’s foremost a depiction of Helsinki. A depiction of a special kind of long, heavy winter like we’ve had in recent years. A time when the Finns drink a little more than usual, when the moral compass loses its direction a bit because everyone is freezing cold all the time and feeling lonely.

Could you say a bit about how your work as a journalist and poet has influenced your writing?

It might be more the other way around. Writing fiction hopefully makes me a better journalist. On the other hand, one of the nice things about being a journalist is getting the opportunity to see a lot of society.

After The Winter War is published in Finland this August, what are you working on next?

I don’t know yet. The Winter War was born suddenly one day when I came up with the full title – “The Winter War: A Novel of Marriage.” So I started writing a story around that name. Maybe I need to have a similar aha-moment. Right now I just have loose images in my head, but nothing that resembles a real story.

The Winter War is published by Natur och Kultur (Swedish-language edition, Sweden), Schildts&Söderströms (Swedish-language edition, Finland) and Otava (Finnish-language edition, Finland) today, August 16. He is also featured in Granta Finland’s debut issue, themed Food, published this summer.

Saskia Vogel is a publicist, a writer and translator from Swedish.