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Is it enough to be set in the North,

February 17, 2014

for a novel to be Northern?

Last summer, I was lucky enough to finally travel to Norway, a country I have wanted to visit since I don’t even know when. The home of such intrepid northern explorers as Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen and the literary giants Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset—not to say the birthplace of cross-country skiing and (my favorite activity to do with my dog) skijoring—Norway has always captivated me with the arctic landscape I hold dear combined with the promise of more than a millennia of living in and with that same landscape. Norway is not a frontier like Alaska. It is a developed landscape, but it is also a preserved and inhabited landscape with a people who recognize that the wild is as much necessary to domestication as settlement (unless you are a wolf, a topic I may try to tackle in a later post). It is true that Norway is an oil country whose economy is dependent on a petroleum industry and it is also true that the degradations to lively nature that come with such an industry are done in someone else’s home (such as the Canadian tar sands of Alberta). But this is not a post about my epic (as in Norwegian Black Metal epic) car ride from Oslo to the island of Hamarøy, from Hamarøy through northern Sweden to Finland, or from Finland back to Norway within smelling distance of Russia and down south again to Oslo. I won’t be going into detail here about the two beautiful Siberian huskies my soon-to-be-Iditarod-champion friend picked up for her kennel or the time we went swimming in the fjord and then I was made to eat a shrimp, Norwegian style. Instead, I want to talk about a book I brought with me and read under the midnight sun in various managed and unmanaged campsites along the road. The book is Let the Northern Lights Erase your Name, by the San Francisco author, Vendela Vida. *****Beware—SPOILERS—ahead*****

While Vida claims a connection to a Swedish heritage in the interview section in the back of the book, I think it is important to note her literary milieu. She is not a northern writer, although she did spend some research time in the North—what she calls Lapland in the interview section and throughout the novel. I think it is telling for how she constructs her North that she writes, “I wasn’t expecting that the Sami culture would be so vibrant, that I would see people wearing traditional Sami outfits in their everyday lives.” While it may seem nit-picky to go after an author for using the term “Lapland” to describe the Sàmi homeland that stretches from Norway through Sweden to Finland, this is a novel about finding one’s identity and coming to terms with a violent and, in some respects, colonized past—a past which was stolen. Consistently using a label that was imposed, that directly defies the political action at the heart of the plot about Sami cultural and political autonomy—the renaming of Lapland to Sàpmi—needs questioning.

Vida is known in Bay Area literary circles. She is the editor of the popular and beautifully put together literary journal, The Believer. She has a writing style that is at times both charming and deadpan. If the novel had been a short story or a collection of witty one-liners—the comebacks that one is always thinking of as ideal responses to situations that are either after the fact or never materialize—it would have been more of a success. Some of my favorite lines:

I left the hamper two feet from the entrance. If Pankaj came into the bedroom, he would ask, “What’s this for?”/ “To hamper you,” I would say.

All the houses but one had a single strand of white Christmas lights bordering a garage door, or running along a roof. / “Everyone is very upset with that house,” Eero said, gesturing at a house with blue lights outlining the front door. “Those people really took it too far.”

Travel is made for liars. Or liars are made by travel.

Although there are several problematic topics in the novel that I would like to discuss (a horrifying drugging and rape of the main character that, in some ways, mirrors the rape of her mother, but that is never discussed again or has any bearing on the story whatsoever beyond a chapter vignette; the racialization of characters that is produced through the denial of their racialization—the raced characters are left at the margins for an ending that privileges whiteness; the way in which pivotal historical and political events for the formation of Sàmi identity and autonomy are lightly brushed in as colorful background, but are not treated in any meaningful detail), what I will focus on in this post is the mirroring of a “bad” (inauthentic) Sàmi man and a “good” (traditional) Sàmi woman. The equal and opposite pairing of these two characters structures the Orientalism of the book that creates the North as the new exotic from which to write stories of and for the culturally dominant West.

The mother of the main character, Clarissa, leaves her family when Clarissa is a teenager and no word is heard from her again. After the death of the man whom she thought was her father, Clarissa finds out that her mother had previously been married to a Sàmi priest in northern Finland. This man, Eero Valkeapää, is not treated well in the novel and it is not his actions or lack thereof that manifests how the author views him; it is through his physical description. He is deformed with two “skin tags” on his forehead, a visual expression of both the feelings Clarissa has for him (she wants him to be her dad, she is disgusted that he may be her dad) and his character function of being the opposite to the valued traditional lifestyle that Clarissa romanticizes for Anna Kristine, the Sàmi woman who turns out to be her grandmother. Anna Kristine wears traditional clothing and heals Clarissa with local knowledge and wisdom gained from living in harmony with the landscape (instead of against it like an imposed Christianity). The opposition between modern and traditional, local and imposed, good and bad are constructed in such a way that precludes Sàmi from being both traditional and modern while they incorporate local culture and foreign ideas so that they are complex, multifaceted, variegated, people living in the world today, with a history, a present and a future. One doesn’t go to India and act surprised at the quaintness of a woman wearing a sari while expecting her to have some deeper spiritual connection because of her dress. We of the West learned to rethink our assumptions about the East through the theoretical and political work of many scholars and perhaps it is now time to take that knowledge and apply it to the North. India is also present in the novel, a somewhat lopsided foil to the Arctic, but it is no longer exotic enough and so the Arctic provides the space of trying on and taking off different inhibitions—it is the new frontier of exploring oneself through the background of another people/culture/history.

To put Vida’s novel in context of an Orientalized North, the editors of the critical and comparative circumpolar volume, Arctic Discourses, highlight the “interplay of expectations and experiences…[that] constitute a history of repetition [with] the constant return to fixed topoi and intertexts” in narratives about the North. The editors wish to coin a new term—the term I myself have appropriated for this blog—for the wealth of textual production that makes up our knowledge of the Arctic: Arcticism. Drawing upon Edward Said’s critical investigation into how the discursive projects of science, literature and art worked (however unevenly) hand in hand with the political project of imperialism to create the West’s knowledge of the East, the editors of this collection state: “Within this Arcticism, images of the natural or indigenous other are reproduced or naturalized…Arcticism also becomes a strategy of imagining the self…as an explorer-hero, a scientific worker, or a white imperial male. It can also be a strong force in the imagining of the collective identities of empires, nations and minorities.”

By naturalizing the grandmotherly qualities of Anna Kristine through her traditional dress and knowledge of healing, local history, and ecology, Vida emphasizes how indigeneity in the North should be valued. Eero Valkeapää, as a priest living in a modern home who does not keep reindeer, is deformed; Clarissa’s repugnance to his physical presence is also disgust at his position within the community. There is a lot that can be said about the destructiveness of Christianity to northern communities, but the character of Eero is not such an attack on colonialism and missionization in the North. In the end, the novel, while a light read for a long airplane trip, is not a northern novel. It is “Articist” (Arctic Orientalist) in that it continues to propagate stereotypes of the North for Western consumption without ever investigating or questioning how what we know about the North comes to be known and transmitted. The real political gains and cultural vibrancy of the Sàmi remain completely hidden within the pages. If you would like to read contemporary texts by Sàmi writers I have included a few works at the bottom. Do let me know your thoughts on the novel and if you have any further reading suggestions!

Further reading:

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (Greetings from Lapland; The Sun, My Father)

Meaghan Perry (Májja). “Elle Hansa (Keviselie): Mapping Sami Culture

In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun: Contemporary Sami Prose and Poetry

Arctic Discourses, edited by Anka Ryall, Johan Schimanski and Henning Howlid Wærp.

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3 Comments
  1. You seem to see all literature through a political prism, which neatly sterilises it; but perhaps the writers are peering through the same deforming prism. Hence a deformed priest — rather neat and tidy and colourless. I grew up in the Canadian north and I never saw deformity restricted to the whites like me, and not all the moral deformity I saw among natives could be blamed on ‘the dominant narrative of (fill in the blank with favoured Western coda de moda)’. There were some rather good priests. But if they don’t come out all black on the other side of the prism, perhaps they have no place in political writing — or is it ‘all just ‘fixed topoi and intertexts’? Do you really not see the sterility of this entire academic discourse of jargon versus jargon that you seem willingly committed to, and that you perpetrate?

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