The University of Wisconsin Press publishes many fine books and encourages authors to write about their own projects on publication date. Here's the link to mine about Black Fox: A Life of Emilie Demant Hatt, which came out earlier this month, along with the text below.
It was more than idle curiosity to begin with, but not much more.
Up in the far north of Norway, on a lamp-lit day in December, 2001, the Norwegian writer Laila Stien told me the story of Emilie Demant Hatt and Johan Turi. Or at least the little that was known then of their story:
In the early twentieth century, a Danish woman artist had visited Lapland and encountered a Sami wolf-hunter, by chance, on a train. Later she inspired and helped this man write a book—Muitalus sámiid birra (An Account of the Sami)––now considered the first classic work of Sami literature.
I immediately had questions, but for a long time, few answers. Who was this woman, Emilie Demant Hatt? How did she end up in Lapland, or Sápmi, as the region is now called? What kind of artist was she? And what was her relationship with Johan Turi?
I read her engaging travel narrative in Danish, With the Lapps in the High Mountains, from 1913, and Turi’s equally marvelous book in its 1931 English translation, Turi’s Book of Lapland. And I included what I knew about the pair in my own travel narrative, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland. Each time I went to Scandinavia I made time to do more investigation. I visited the museum in Skive, Denmark that owned some of Demant Hatt’s artworks, and the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, which held a collection of fifty Expressionist canvases of Sápmi, all painted when she was in her sixties and seventies. The Nordic Museum archives also possessed many of her papers, including intimate letters from Turi, and her field journals from the ethnographic trips she made to Scandinavia in 1907-1916. In Copenhagen I visited the Ethnographic Collection at the National Museum, and pored through eight boxes of letters, sketchbooks, and photo albums. But not until 2008, after the Danish State Archives had put records of their holdings online, did I realize how much more there was: several dozen boxes of material by and about Demant Hatt were available. I’d suspected the woman was something of a packrat, and now I knew that for certain.
By the time I realized the extent of Demant Hatt’s archives, it was too late for me to feel properly frightened or inadequate. I was enthralled. Each challenge—deciphering her handwriting in letters and journals, learning all I could about Sami history, and culture, meeting scholars in many fields, walking the same streets Demant Hatt had walked––led me further. I translated her book With the Lapps and wrote an introduction. Then, because I was deeply fascinated with another of her relationships, an adolescent romance with the composer Carl Nielsen, I wrote a novel, Fossil Island, and a sequel, The Former World. Eventually I felt I knew enough to begin a full-length biography, a project that would lead me deeper into the same questions I began with years ago––Who was this woman, Emilie Demant Hatt? How did she end up in Sápmi?––but which grew increasingly complex:
Who was Johan Turi, as a writer and artist? How did Demant Hatt represent him and promote him as an indigenous author? Was their work together ethnographic collaboration or something else? How was Demant Hatt affected by the racial biology movement, much of it directed against the Sami, in Scandinavia? How did her year in the United States with her husband Gudmund Hatt, in 1914-15, and their contacts with Franz Boas and other Americanists shape her ethnographic thinking? Why is her pioneering fieldwork among Sami women and children and her folktale collecting so little acknowledged? What was the impact of Sápmi on her visual art and how were her Expressionist paintings and graphic work received in Scandinavia?
Every life has its mysteries and one of the roles of the biographer is to dig them out through the careful reading of letters and the charting of personal connections with other historical figures. But even more important in writing a person’s life, especially a life that is both significant and neglected, is a biographical approach that looks at the context of the subject. Demant Hatt, born in 1873 in a rural village in Denmark, traveled widely in her lifetime, not only to Northern Scandinavia, but to Greenland and the Caribbean. She was a self-identified New Woman, one of the generation of women artists allowed to study at the Royal Academy of Art, who took advantage of changing times to travel alone, far off the beaten path, and to marry a much younger man. She lived through two World Wars, including the occupation of Denmark by Germany. Her historical time period, particularly as it relates to changes in Sápmi, is a crucial aspect of her life. She came to know Sami nomadic herders during a time of transition, and she bears important witness to the injustices the Sami suffered from their neighbors and respective states and to their efforts to claim agency over their lives.
Demant Hatt didn’t live outside her era and some of her attitudes may strike us now as patronizing. She was both insider and outsider in Sápmi. Her friendship with Johan Turi was both loving and conflicted. Yet it’s also possible to understand how unwaveringly admiring and actively supportive she was of the Sami. In lively, insightful narratives, in fieldwork notes, in folktale collection, and in her paintings, she’s left an important record of a nomadic people and a northern world that continues to educate and enchant.