Saskia Vogel, guest editor of WWB’s March 2019 issue of Swedish-language writing, spoke with Linnea Axelsson about her August Prize-winning epic poem, Ædnan, which appears in the issue in Vogel’s translation.
“Ædnan” is an old Northern Sámi word for “land,” “earth,” and “ground.” The largest of the Sámi languages with an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 speakers, it is spoken in the northern parts of Norway, Finland, and Sweden. This word provides an entry point into Linnea Axelsson’s minimalist epic poem, written in Swedish. The narrative collection resonates with silence and, through the layout and design of the book itself, evokes the landscape from which Ædnan emerges. Nearly eight hundred pages long but with few words and much white space on each page, the book’s aesthetic evokes the feeling of those moments when we suddenly become aware of the expanse of earth and sky and remember that we are of this earth, not masters of it. It is a remarkable work of literature. Remarkable also for being only the second collection of poetry to win the prestigious August Prize for literature. The first was Tomas Tranströmer’s Sorgegondolen (translated into English as The Sorrow Gondola) in 1996.
By tracing modern Sámi history from the early twentieth century through the present day, Ædnan offers another view of the progress of that period in Sweden. The poem follows two Sámi families, beginning with a family moving with their reindeer herd to the summer grazing grounds on one of Norway’s northernmost islands. The family is unaware that in just a few years the Norwegian border will be closed to them and they will be forced to leave their homes. Life as they know it is on the cusp of change.
From wild and mighty mountains to tamed rivers and power plants, Axelsson evokes an emotional landscape as she weaves the story of these families together with Swedish colonial politics and the countercurrents of courage and resistance. As the August Prize jury wrote: “The loss of the Sámi ‘ædnan’ rhythm of life is captured in the histories of two families, rent by existential tears after having suppressed their belonging to language and nature for generations.”
Saskia Vogel (SV): Congratulations on all the success with Ædnan! Since I first read Åsa Beckman’s glowing review, it has been thrilling to follow the reception of this book all the way up to its winning the August Prize. It seems to have struck a nerve with Swedish readers. Could you tell me about the research process for this book?
Linnea Axelsson (LA): I didn’t really do any research for the book, but the book springs from memories and thoughts. I’m not sure I know where they come from. In part, from stories I’ve heard from family members. Then, of course, the whole book is about people that I’ve envisioned in my own mind but who don’t exist outside the writing and the words. The book is free in that way—it isn’t a documentary—and it circles around the feelings and relationships between these people. At the same time, there are parts of the book that I’ve snapped up from my environment—someone I’ve seen or things I’ve heard on the radio. Sometimes things like that have gone straight into the book.
SV: The form of Ædnan is so striking: it is a thick brick of a book that has these spare pages with few lines or words, and so much white space. And yet the reading experience was like that of reading a novel. How did you find the form of the story?
LA: The form developed after the writing. I probably started writing poetic fragments and then the feelings and images I wanted to include followed, like scenes in a story. I liked weaving them together, and I thought that the rhythm in the verses allowed for that. At some point, I started to like the idea of an epic, narrative poem, like the Aeneid, the Edda, and the Iliad.
It’s important that so-called “Sámi literature” isn’t seen as something exotic and on the side . . . but rather that it can seamlessly be a part of literature as a whole, as one of many threads and voices.
SV: Sometimes it’s difficult for me to distinguish between my own interests and a general trend, but in the past few years, narratives from Sápmi (the region stretching across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia where the Sámi live) seem to be more and more prominent. At the Göteborg Book Fair this past year, the topic of translating Sámi narratives was featured and Bágo in Books, the Sámi literary festival started in 2017, came up in conversation. In 2016, the film Sámi Blood was released. Cooper & Gorfer did that exquisite series of portraits of Sámi women in 2016. And, of course, art exploring Sámi lives was prominently featured as part of the 2018 Moderna Exhibition. A translator I spoke with who works with Sámi languages suggested that this increased visibility might be part of a rising consciousness globally among indigenous communities. Do you think this is true? Is there a rising consciousness around the Sámi in Sweden?
LA: Yes, there is a greater interest in Sámi expression—for example, artistic expression—which has always existed. It’s important that so-called “Sámi literature” isn’t seen as something exotic and on the side—and therefore less interesting, less serious, and of a lesser quality—but rather that it can seamlessly be a part of literature as a whole, as one of many threads and voices.
SV: You’ve talked about how in school history teachers spoke about Swedish colonialism and deportations in a clueless manner. You’ve also spoken of the tragedy in the Sámi people being alone in carrying forward the history and knowledge around this complex part of Swedish history. This history also doesn’t seem to have been made part of the international image of Sweden. As you have said, and as Ædnan shows through the characters it follows, there are silences, literal and metaphoric, that characterize Sámi lives. For instance, Lise is not able to teach her daughter’s children Sámi because Lise can no longer speak the language. To what extent was writing Ædnan a way to contend with these silences?
LA: The silence is absolutely in the book—silence in families and what it does. But I also call into question that simple idea that trauma can be released and that you can only achieve reconciliation through discussion and storytelling. In the book, Lise doesn’t really want to share much about her experience and I defend her for her choice. There is also a point where it becomes hypothetical: to constantly ask the vulnerable to speak and bear witness without also offering a significant inroad to reconciliation and forgiveness. For example, through a political change. Listening is absolutely an action, and it can be a healing action, as is opening yourself up and speaking. That’s how it is in art and between people. But in politics something more sweeping is needed because politics are about power and hierarchies.
SV: My questions have been quite overtly political. To open up a different kind of space in this conversation: Do you think about this book in such political terms? If not, tell me about how the story took shape inside you and how you relate to it as a writer.
LA: Literature is political in and of itself. It bears witness to a perspective on the world, it speaks of the world and its people. That’s my fundamental attitude. My experience is that my gaze and what I see is deeply colored by my heritage. But I also feel like a writer who writes a lot into what I am living, where I am, what I’m thinking right now or longing for—what I’m longing for and need, what I think I’m missing, in the world, in language. No, I don’t know if I can separate the political from the lyrical.