Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Men Who Hate Women and Women Who Kick Their Asses: an anthology about the Stieg Larsson trilogy

I confess I haven't read this anthology, edited by Donna King and Carrie Lee Smith (published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2012), but I couldn't resist the title. A critical summary of the book appeared in the most recent issue of the journal Scandinavian Studies, considerably spicing up the review section and asking some interesting questions about feminism and crime in Scandinavia. About Stieg Larsson I assume I need to say very little, except that in Swedish the title of his first book was Men Who Hate Women. It became The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the English translation.

Less provocative, but closer to my own heart, was a very encouraging review of With the Lapps in the High Mountains, written by Tim Frandy, a scholar whose work on the Sami I respect. He calls the translation "an elegantly written ethnographic narrative" by Emilie Demant Hatt.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Norwegian Novelist Helene Uri Explores Sami Roots

Helene Uri’s 2013 novel Rydde ut [Clearing Out] begins twice. First, on a lonely marsh in Finnmark, Norway, with the character Ellinor stepping from tussock to tussock, turning to hear a man calling her and moving toward him—walking past the author without stopping or seeing her.

Then, in chapter two, the novel begins again: with a woman telling us about her father and what she knows about him—very little in fact. This father will turn out to have been the grandson of a sjø Sami, a coastal Sami, from northern Norway, or Sápmi.

Helene Uri, Norwegian Novelist
The first-person narrator is a middle-aged novelist, also called Helene, with two daughters and a husband, living in a comfortable flat in Oslo. Her father is long dead; her mother aging. Helene is about to begin a new novel and is searching for a protagonist. She will be called Ellinor, Helene decides; she’s an academic, without a settled job, a linguist with an interest in dead and dying languages. In her late thirties, Ellinor is painfully divorced, for reasons as yet unknown to her creator Helene, but that have something to do with the fact she wasn’t willing and then not able to bear a child. Ellinor has no mother, but a father, who, like Helene’s mother, is traveling into old age.

This postmodern premise is familiar from contemporary fiction. Novelists as disparate as Philip Roth, Ruth Ozecki, and Karl Ove Knausgaard have taken to employing not just a lightly fictionalized “I,” but to writing characters who have the same name and many of the same outer circumstances and inner characteristics as their creator. This doubleness is not exact and is always partial. In Rydde ut we can’t be sure that Helene the fictional novelist is completely the same as Helene Uri, who, like Ellinor, studied linguistics and has a doctorate in the subject from the University of Oslo.

Ellinor is a character with both firm and flexible attributes who shapes herself before our eyes and is given a history that helps set her story in motion, but remains resistant at times to Helene’s molding of her personality and her fate. As writer, I was fascinated by the push and pull of Ellinor and Helene’s stories: intertwining, paralleling, and conflicting. As a reader, I found myself drawn into Ellinor’s story in particular, giving myself over to the fictional experience—as if she were “a real person,” whose loneliness, loss, and awakening touched me deeply. I trust Helene and I care about her story as well, but I worried less about her—she is, we know, successful and loved, even though she too will suffer losses in the course of the novel—losses that in fact may well be more true than Ellinor’s.

One of the things that sets this novel apart from most Norwegian fiction is the inclusion of Sami history and Sami characters, not just as window dressing but an integral part of the narrative. As Helene begins to contemplate her fictional character Ellinor, trying to give her a project to work on and destination for the journey she’ll make, Helene receives a call from a woman who says she’s a relative living near the far northern town of Hammerfest. Through contact with this relative and her own research, Helene tentatively realizes that her grandfather, Nicolai Nilsen, was half Sami, listed in official documents as blandet, or mixed race. His father was a coastal Sami fisherman. Helene had thought her family background settled—she believed they all came from  southern and western Norway. Uncertain how to weave this new knowledge into who she believes she is, Helene chooses an alternate route. She sends her character Ellinor up to an unnamed town in Finnmark, during the dark time, with a research project: to interview and survey the Sami families there and to understand the ways in which they have retained or lost the Sami language. In the process Ellinor slowly makes friends with Anna, an elderly Sami woman, and Kåre, a Sami man with whom she’ll have more than a friendship.

Anna and Kåre are fully realized characters, intelligent, complex, and generous individuals—far from the stereotyped Sami figures that have appeared on the margins of Norwegian literature for two centuries. Ellinor’s relationships with them add depth to the story, and Anna and Kåre’s irony and insight also intensify the themes of historical displacement, political conflict, and renewed interest in Sami culture (Anna was and is an activist and Kåre’s grown children take pride in their Sami background). The novel also casts a welcome light on the coastal Sami society of Finnmark.

The sjø Sami aren’t the reindeer herders of fairy tales and history and have often been neglected in research and popular imagery. Their ancestors have been there for millennia; they were sighted by sea travelers as far back as the ninth century. Fishers and boat builders (they constructed many of the Viking long ships, it’s thought), they also carried on trapping and hunting, which eventually led to domesticating reindeer. As colonization took hold along the coasts of Norway, many Sami moved inland, but others co-existed with Norwegians and Finns while still keeping their separate language and traditions. However, “Norwegianization” policies regarding education, citizenship, and rights to territory and resources made conditions for the Sami people increasingly more difficult and many dropped their identity or moved away. Thousands emigrated to North America in order to escape stigmatization and make new lives for themselves. During the last stages of World War II many towns and farms in Northern Norway and Finland were destroyed in a scorched-earth retreat. The Sami, particularly in Norway, were pressured into ever greater assimilation or isolation; it’s no surprise that many abandoned the Sami language or didn’t teach it to their children. Often children were sent to boarding schools where only Norwegian was spoken.

Rydde ut isn’t a historical novel, but the events above and their consequences form the backdrop to the parallel stories. Helene’s grandfather Nicolai was one of those young people from the turn of the century who was sent to a boarding school and then emigrated briefly to North America; he returned to southern Norway to study engineering, marry, and raise a family. He spoke little about his past and he never mentioned to his relatives that he was half Sami. Ellinor’s story, set in the present, shows her ignorance in first arriving up north about Sami history and language, and her gradual acclimatization to the rich meaning of past culture and the stirrings of renewed Sami pride. Not that the novel ever stoops to rhetoric; the Sami themes are handled with some subtlety, and the Sami themselves give voice to their own resistance, resignation, pride, and the irony so characteristic of their society.

This novel works on many levels as it deftly moves back and forth through place and time. Both Ellinor and Helene experience deaths and are forced into the role of children dealing with the accumulated possessions of their parents. Hence the term “rydde ut,” which in its most direct translation means “clear out.” But the term can also has more sinister, active meanings: “utrydde” means “eliminate, eradicate, obliterate, wipe out, exterminate, kill off.” An “utryddet språk” is a language threatened with extinction.

There are nine or ten Sami languages in the territory of Sápmi, several of which are not in popular use. The one that Ellinor is pursuing in Northern Norway is North Sami, which has the most speakers. It is threatened but also protected in Norway and Sweden. Over the last decades new elementary schools have been created and numerous programs exist to help save and promote the language. For many older Sami it’s too late; while socially Sami, the language they were never taught or heard only from their grandparents has indeed been eliminated. Ellinor, as a linguist, has much of interest to say about dying and dead languages from around the world; but until she comes north to Sápmi and engages with the men and women who speak or don’t speak Sami, who remember when they stopped or why they never started speaking Sami, Ellinor doesn’t fully engage with the pain of language loss. Helene, as Ellinor’s creator, who is herself as it turns out, related to people in and near Hammerfest who also share the same heritage, is not unlike others in Norway with a forgotten or suppressed heritage.

Beautifully constructed, Rydde ut is both a clearing out and a gathering together of strands from Norway’s past history and current preoccupations. For many Norwegians, their far north is a strange country, a distant land of colonization and resistance, a frontier of exploration and recovery. In this novel Helene Uri bravely takes a step toward acknowledging what has been lost of language and memory, as well as what can be recovered and remembered.

Helene Uri has a website, with a Wikipedia page in English and a more substantial entry in Norwegian. An interview with her in Norwegian in Dagsavisen from 2013 gives more background on her discovery of her family’s roots in Finnmark and how she used that information in her novel.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Slowly Reading Knausgaard: My Struggle

It was toward the end of the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus, My Struggle: A Man in Love, that I noticed something strange on my Nook e-reader. Instead of turning at their usual lightening speed, the pages were slowing down. I tapped the lower right-hand corner as vigorously as I could; still, each page stayed stuck for a good ten seconds before moving forward. As any sentient person knows, electronic time is not like ordinary time, say, when you are sitting in your backyard watching the birds at the feeder or talking with a friend over dinner. Waiting for anything to appear online or on a screen is nearly unbearable, even when that wait time is just a few seconds longer than usual.

I’d read the first book of the series in print (also in the English translation) and when I put it down, after the long, visceral, and grueling description of Karl Ove’s father’s death and the horrible state of the family house afterwards, I thought, Okay, it’s a fascinating project and I’m interested in Knausgaard for so many reasons, including why and how his book has become such a phenomenon to people don’t know Norwegian and Swedish culture, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the second book anytime soon.  I felt wrung out and vaguely ill.

Then, late one night a couple of months ago, a kind of Knausgaardian feeling began to come over me, a curiosity about what he might do next. A yearning to be in his world again, to see him smoking outside his apartment building, changing nappies, walking around Stockholm and buying expensive second-hand books, talking with his friend Geir and his current wife Linda. What ever happened with his first wife? And how did he end up in Sweden?

I called up him on the Nook.

I don’t read regularly on my Nook Simple Touch, which I bought a few years ago in protest against the Kindle, but there are many things I love about e-reading. One is the opportunity to read lots of samples, sometimes a good thirty pages, of all kinds of books. This is a brilliant way of getting a feel for all the works of an author and for exploring work by writers I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t buy a huge number of e-books, but I do buy some every month, along with going to the library and continuing to shop at independent local bookstores.

I hit “buy” on My Struggle: A Man in Love that evening and for a few days I read, enthralled and vaguely uneasy, trying to pin down what makes him so readable. For me there’s some nostalgia and recognition at many of the places he describes. I lived and worked in Norway in the early 1970s and returned frequently for long stays after that. I’d once had a friend in Knausgaard’s hometown of Arendal and I know the beauty and loneliness of Southern Norway’s rocky coasts and beaches. I also recall the tedium and narrowness of small-town Norway. I knew the Bergen of the 1980s, too; I had younger friends, Bjørn and Ida, who used to go to Hulen, the club Knausgaard mentions during his university years. As for Stockholm, over the last ten years I’ve been there often; I’ve know those Östermalm streets and I’ve seen those men with baby carriages (maybe I even saw Karl Ove?). Last March in Stockholm I went to the cafe Blå Porten with my friend Hugh and to Zita Bar with Eva; both locales turn up in My Struggle: A Man in Love. (Eva, like others I know in Sweden, assured me that she doesn’t have the patience to sit around reading Knausgaard.)

So there’s the familiarity, the recognition, and also for me the curiosity of reading about a Norwegian in Sweden, uncomfortable at Swedish collectivity, worried about Swedish gender roles and his sense of not belonging. He illuminates something for me, as an outsider who translates, researches, and has good friends in both countries, about what it feels like to be Norwegian, to live in Sweden.

Knausgaard’s writing is sometimes lyrical, sometimes ordinary, and his philosophic and literary ideas often strike me as half-baked. His identification with the great man, nonconformist truth-teller thread in Norwegian literature is vaguely clichéd and self-aggrandizing––Ibsen, Hamsun, and Hauge are among his chosen fathers. One could add Strindberg, too, who also minutely examined his soul in countless works of fiction and autobiography.

Knausgaard gives a nod to older contemporaries, Dag Solstad and Kjartan Fløgstad, important male Norwegian authors he measures himself against; otherwise he’s dismissive of most Scandinavian writers, softened by modern socialism and somehow feminized and coopted by the easy life that popular writers have in Scandinavia. You wouldn’t be getting a good idea, if you only read Knausgaard, that there are significant women authors in Scandinavia and that historically they’ve had much to say about marriage, patriarchy, and unheroic daily life.

My good friend Katherine Hanson, who did her dissertation on the poet Olav M. Hauge, has immersed herself for many years as a translator and commentator on the work of the bold and incisive nineteenth-century writer Amalie Skram. If you want to talk about a writer colliding with social norms, talk about Skram, whose husband put her in an insane asylum, or Norwegian Gerd Brantenberg, whose witty novel from the 1980s, Egalia’s Daughters, sends up gender roles in an imaginary world where women have all the power and men have none. There seem to be no gay or feminist writers, no immigrant voices in Knausgaard’s literary world. His views of Scandinavian literature are weakened by this absence.

All the same, his way of seeing the world and his constructed appearance of honesty and self-revelation are compelling, I can’t deny it. Boring sometimes, but compelling and often memorable. As a reader I can’t help feel the imprint of his sensibility and the rhythm of the words getting under my skin. I engage with him. I engage deeply and sometimes I go back and reread passages, or linger on scenes, or feel I am lingering, because Knausgaard himself is loitering so distinctly on the page. It may not be Proustian (the writing is not often as beautiful as Proust’s), but there is a kind of attentiveness to daily life and its ordinary events that captures the sense of suspended time, a present moment in which other past times exist, in which childhood is conjured up from smells and tastes.

Perhaps it was because of all this Knausgaardian lingering and loitering in My Struggle: A Man in Love that at first I hardly noticed that the pages of my Nook had slowed so noticeably, and that the story or the description took so long to progress, but instead hovered in its digital shimmer longer than normal before moving on, as if in a kind of suspended time.

But at one point, shortly after the scene where the narrator’s cell phone is knocked from his hand on a Stockholm subway platform and seems to fly into a woman’s open purse—a scene that actually did arouse some curiosity on my part as to what happened next—the pages turned no more. I could go back to the beginning and move forward and back, but around page 380, a barrier went up, and all I could get from Nook was an error message, one I’d never encountered before: “Activity Reader is not responding. Wait or force close.”

Waiting was no use, nor were repetitive actions, nor turning the Nook on and off. I began to realize that the problem could be in the e-book itself.

Thus began a correspondence with B&N’s Customer Service over the next three weeks. As with most online businesses that make it incredibly simple to buy things and so complicated to get help should anything go awry, I spent a long time looking for the right contact information. I was oddly thrilled when I got a response the next day that showed I wasn’t just imagining things:

Thank you for contacting Barnes and Noble. We understand that "My Struggle, Book Two: A Man in Love" is showing an error message "Activity Reader is not responding. Wait or Force close". We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

We have downloaded the same title on our NOOK Simple Touch, and we got the same issue. Thanks for letting us know.

This eBook was not formatted correctly. We will forward this to our NOOK Content Management Team for revision. This will take 1 to 2 weeks to be corrected. You will receive an email stating that the necessary corrections have been applied.


Of course, having been validated so thoroughly, I thought that I would actually receive an email in a week or two; why shouldn’t I believe “Isaac”? But two weeks passed and no email arrived stating that the necessary corrections had been applied. Once or twice I check my e-copy; no, things still came to a grinding halt around page 380. I grew impatient. Surely, with Knausgaard’s importance, other readers must have had this problem? Was this a sign that I was the only person left reading a Nook not a Kindle? Wouldn’t Farrar Straus like to know that eager Knausgaardians had met an error message?

The response to my follow-up inquiry was friendly but of course by someone other than “Isaac.” “Marie” didn’t believe I had a problem. She’d looked at My Struggle: A Man in Love on her company Nook and the pages turned just fine. Obviously she hadn’t gotten up to page 380. Maybe that was true of other readers as well?

So I asked for a refund. And received a lovely letter from “Mickey.”

Warm greetings from Barnes & Noble!

I understand that you would like to get a refund on the eBook entitled "My Struggle, Book Two" that is still having an error after downloading it on your account even though you were informed that the eBook has already been fixed. On behalf of Barnes & Noble, please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Since you're one of our valued customers, as you requested, we are issuing a refund to your credit card with the amount of $10.89.

Should you have any further concern, please do not hesitate to email us back and we would be grateful to assist you.

I hope that, I was able to address your concern accordingly. It is my great honor and privilege to assist you with this concern.

Take care and enjoy the rest of the day!

Clearly “Mickey” was not a native English speaker, but he was very close. What gave him away was a slight floweriness, a concern for my welfare. And how kind that he offered to address my concern accordingly, that it was an honor and privilege to assist me.

After my refund, the copy I had of My Struggle: A Man in Love swiftly vanished from my Nook library. After some thought I decided to give it another try and ordered a new copy—how simple that always is on the Simple Touch: “Buy. Confirm.” But sadly this copy had the exact same problems as the earlier one: a slowing down, followed by a refusal to budge, and an error message.

I wrote again to Barnes and Noble, complaining mildly, and asked for another refund. Again, a kind reply came back the next morning from “Arren.”

Thank you for writing to us, and we hope you are doing great today. We can certainly understand your frustration because you ordered My Struggle, Book Two: A Man in Love again, but you still encountered the same issue, and you would like to be refunded.

This missed opportunity to give you an enjoyable experience with B&N is something that we could never abide by. As a result of the issue you have recently encountered, and in order to prevent this from happening to you and other customers in the future, we are investigating issues more often and new procedures are being put in place. 

I love this letter about B&N’s missed opportunity to give me an enjoyable experience even though, forgive me, I harbor doubts about new procedures being put in place. Still, I wanted to reassure “Arren” that in the scheme of world events and life’s disappointments, it’s not the worse experience I’ve ever had. I have trouble sustaining the pose of entitled consumer and am easily placated by a refund. I wanted to tell him that in a strange way, the slowing of Knausgaard made sense to me, and that it illustrated, unintendedly, all that was most Knausgaardian about modern life and its peculiar irritations, as well as giving me a sense of suspended time, a yearning to know the future while stuck in the present.

The truth is I had quite liked my correspondence with B&N. The opportunity for enjoyment was not missed at all. The gracious tone of their emails with their hint of Google Translator was so different from what I usually find in my inbox that I delighted in them.

All the same, that very same day I went to my local library and just checked out My Struggle: A Man in Love. And very soon I knew what had happened to that cell phone that went flying out of Karl Ove’s hand.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Art of Recalling: Art Essay in New Issue of Feminist Studies

The most recent issue of the well-respected and long-lived journal Feminist Studies has just been published and my essay about the artists Emilie Demant Hatt and Johan Turi is included. "The Art of Recalling," illustrated by works in oil and on paper by Turi and Demant Hatt, considers the effect that Turi’s drawings for his book Muitalus samiid birra had on Demant Hatt’s own artistic career as an expressionist painter. 

I've been studying Demant Hatt's life and art a good long while, but it was only when I read Harald Gaski's insightful essay, More than Meets the Eye, a couple of years ago in Scandinavian Studies that I began thinking about the ways in which Demant Hatt and Turi had a reciprocal artist partnership as well as an ethnographic collaboration.

The designer has used the same painting of the ice bridge that the University of Wisconsin Press put on the cover of With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman Among the Sami 1907-8, my translation of Demant Hatt's travel ethnography of her time in Lapland. The imagery of the reindeer going up the mountain  can now be compared with Turi's drawings inside, which also show simplified figures of reindeer ascending and descending the mountains.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Far from perfect: Michael Booth's The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle

Maybe, if you’re like me and have spent a far amount of time in Scandinavia, you’re used to stereotypes about the Nordic lands held by people who’ve often never been there, but who take their images from popular culture. Before the arrival of Noma and Nordic Noir, I often found impressions of Scandinavia revolved around a handful of pictures: Fjords, snow and skiing, Olympic athletes or other tall blond people, lutefisk, and Ingmar Bergman films. Seattle has many Scandinavian-Americans and a thriving heritage culture (the big 17th of May parade, Swedish pancake breakfasts, Norwegian language classes). Yet detailed knowledge of modern Scandinavian societies is often lacking, even as curiosity seems to grow.

Now, instead of Olympic skiers, the Nordic countries would seem to be populated by serial killers and depressed, often alcoholic detectives. On the other hand, the food is thought to be much better than it was: fewer meatballs and more birch sap and lichen crackers.

In vain, when asked about my visits to Sweden, land of the murderous and melancholy, do I try to paint a more complex picture, one that includes a lot of multicultural billboards and young men, often accompanied by their friends or fathers, pushing perambulators on the street.

In London a couple of weeks ago I picked up The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a new book that purports to tell the “truth behind the Nordic miracle,” by travel writer and humorist Michael Booth, a Brit who lives in Denmark with his wife and family. It’s a little unclear what he thinks this miracle is; I  had the feeling he and his publishers were taking advantage of more extensive media coverage in Europe of Scandinavia, mostly owing to the popularity of several Danish TV series: The Killing, Borgen, and most recently The Bridge. Nevertheless the various straw dogs Booth assembles from each of the five countries allows him to offer opinions ranging from the hilarious to the puerile to the purely dyspeptic, with a good dose of sensible criticism of Denmark’s denial of its financial outlook, Sweden’s faltering welfare system, Iceland’s spectacular meltdown and recovery, Norway’s smug oil wealth, and finally Finland—which mostly does things right.

Posing as a naif at times, a brash travel writer looking for trouble, Booth is actually well-read when it comes to politics and a cool-eyed journalist, adept at getting interviews with the movers and shakers of each country. I read most of this longish book at one sitting (granted, on a flight from London to Seattle there’s a great incentive to sit), and found myself smiling at times and often nodding in agreement. I’ve been to each of the five countries, and know Norway particularly well from having lived there and visited numerous times. In the last ten years I’ve also spent lots of time in Sweden and Denmark, and many things he wrote either jibed with some of my own observations or discussed some aspect of the political scene that illuminated something I’d had never fully grasped, particularly about the ways in which the five countries, in areas of welfare, education, and economic policy differ so greatly, in spite of having many shared values.

Yet ultimately, for all the facts cited and the impressive number of interviews with policy makers, newspaper editors, bureaucrats, and a few relatives and friends for the personal touch, Booth’s book seems to me to skate too much on the surface, often generalizing and reinforcing stereotypes and maximizing divisions. He talks, for instance, about the social problems that occur with trying to fold immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, into the more homogeneous Nordic populations. But he rarely allows an immigrant to speak and certainly doesn’t celebrate some of the interesting initiatives at work, for instance, in Copenhagen, in the women’s organization Kvinfo, which has expanded its mission to include mentoring for refugee and immigrant women and a greater emphasis on ethnicity and equality along with gender issues.

Less reliance on his professional network, more innovative reporting, and especially giving new citizens of the different countries a voice, would have uncovered varied and creative responses to immigration, many government supported. Booth’s mention of the Sami who live in Sweden, Norway, and Finland is brief and uninformative; just one paragraph (p186-7) is devoted to this indigenous people with an important history in Scandinavia, a vibrant contemporary culture, and an ongoing political role to play in stopping destructive development in the north. No book can cover everything, but a book that claims to tell the truth about the Nordic people should make a greater effort to include many more voices. The Nordic countries, individually and as states, are far from as homogenous as Booth makes out. They may well be conformist in some ways, but Nordic people also travel widely and read voraciously, so their world is wider than Booth gives them credit for.

While the book made my flight speed by, I was plagued throughout my reading by a curious sense of emptiness at the heart of The Almost Nearly Perfect People. What was missing was the poetry of the North, the compelling light and darkness, the wild landscapes of the Norwegian coast, and rolling farmlands and forests of Sweden and Finland, not to mention the extraordinary volcanic, otherworldly geography that is Iceland’s. I felt sometimes I was sitting in an office block in Stockholm listening to one more talking head on the subject of the Swedish economy when I wanted to be walking along the Baltic shore on a bright summer’s day.

The poetry was missing in a literal sense, as well. Where was Nobel prize-winner, Tomas Transtömer? Or Rolf Jakobsen? Or the Sami joikers and  poets? Or the new crop of writers with immigrant parents who now write in Swedish or Danish? Where were exciting and popular Scandinavian writers like the Icelander Sjön or Norwegian Per Pettersen? Nordic Noir aside, Scandinavia and Finland have a wealth of literature, much of it translated, that far from reinforcing stereotypes, are more likely to illuminate the truth(s) of the Nordic imagination.

This book was published in the U.K. and its audience is more geared to a European readership. Here are a handful of reviews that give a flavor of the response to Booth's information as well as his humor.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Exhibit “Memories of Lapland” at the Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Sami Working with Reindeer, 1943. Emilie Demant Hatt, Nordiska Museet
It was about ten years ago that I first saw Emilie Demant Hatt’s paintings of Sápmi, over a dozen of which are now on display at a new exhibit at the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm. I’d been interested in this artist, writer, and ethnographer for a couple of years by then and had begun researching her life. I’d also sought out what I could of her artwork.

Mette Dyrberg at the Skive Art Museum in Denmark was one of the first to welcome me to the world of this relatively unknown artist. This museum, near where Demant Hatt (1873-1958) had grown up by the Limfjord, had been given a number of oil paintings from Demant Hatt’s own collection, as well as watercolors and sketchbooks. I understood from an illustrated catalog, published in 1983 by the Skive Art Museum, that Demant Hatt’s style changed radically in the mid-1920s and that most of the finely painted but more realistic work owned by Skive didn’t always represent her mature, Expressionist style, which was more dramatic and whose subject was often landscapes of the far north. Some of these Sápmi landscapes, privately owned in Denmark, were reproduced in the catalog. Others were said to belong to the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm.

Nordiska museets huvudbyggnad
Nordiska Museet, Stockholm
The story went that, near the end of her life, finding no public institution in Denmark that would take her many paintings of Sápmi, Demant Hatt sent around fifty of them to the relatively new “Lapp Department” of Nordiska Museet. I was tantalized by the thought of those paintings which, according to all accounts, had only been displayed once at the Swedish museum, in 1953, along with those of six other Swedish painters who also used Sápmi as a motif.  After this exhibit the paintings went into storage and there, apparently, they’d remained ever since. 

The Nordiska has Sweden’s largest collection of Swedish cultural-historical artifacts. Designed to look like a Danish Renaissance palace, one of the museum’s most striking features is the massive interior hall, with a marble floor and many marble columns. It was finished in 1907, the same year that Emilie Demant Hatt began her long stay among the Swedish Sami at Lake Tornesträsk. Artur Hazelius, its founder, began collecting everything to do with Sweden’s pre-industrial, vanishing culture—from handmade furniture to folk art, from regional dress to actual buildings––back in the 1870s. The popular open-air museum near the Nordiska, Skansen, is where many of the buildings were reassembled.

The Sami Exhibit, Lapparna, opened 1947. Nordiska Museet
Before the Nordiska was built, Hazelius had displayed some of his treasures in the Scandinavian Ethnographic Collection in the city center. This included many objects from Sápmi—sleds, tents, and all things to do with reindeer, as well as domestic utensils and sacred drums. The Sami collection has had a long, fascinating, and sometimes contentious history at the Nordiska, with the permanent Sami exhibits reflecting the fashions and prejudices of the time. The current exhibit is short on objects and uses more multimedia to allow the Sami themselves to speak about their varied lives and memories. Some of the Nordiska’s artifacts have been transferred to Áttje, the Sami museum in Jokkmokk, Sweden.
In 1939 the anthropologist, journalist, and photographer Ernst Manker became the director of the museum’s first attempt at a more scholarly and organized “Lapp Department. ” A strong proponent of the Sami, Manker wrote a number of books about the herding culture, edited an academic imprint, Acta Lapponia, continued to collect artefacts, and rearranged the Sami permanent exhibit into what was, for the time, a more progressive display. Manker invited  Emilie Demant Hatt to Stockholm in 1940 to receive the Hazelius Award for her work with the Sami and particularly for her collaborative translation of Muitalus sámiid birra/An Account of the Sami by Johan Turi. The original event, an ambitious “Lappish Evening” at the museum, which would include a speech by Demant Hatt, was scheduled for April of 1940­­—but had to be postponed, when the Germans invaded Denmark. Later that year Emilie Demant Hatt did manage to get to the Nordiska, to give a much admired speech in praise of Johan Turi. Karl Tirén, who had collected Sami joiks on wax cylinders early in the century, and Israel Ruong, a Sami ethnographer and linguist, who was also a joiker, appeared with her that evening.
From this evening, a friendship between Manker and Demant Hatt grew up, and it was Manker who invited her to donate photographs, unpublished manuscripts, letters, and field notebooks about her Sami ethnography to the Nordiska. He also welcomed the gift of the paintings, though the Nordiska was not properly an art museum, but one of cultural history. The paintings, while preserved as part of the substantial Sami collection at the museum, were likely destined never to be exhibited after that first show in 1953.
Some ten years ago, I was doing some journalism and working on my book The Palace of the Snow Queen and had various occasions to be in Stockholm. I decided to see if one of the curators at the Nordiska would let me have a look at Demant Hatt’s paintings. I was invited to meet an art curator, Maria Maxen, at the entrance hall; she led me downstairs and along a corridor. Through the doors of cage-like storage rooms I glimpsed swords and pewter tankards and painted chairs, multitudes of objects from Swedish culture that had come to rest here. One of these small storage rooms held the paintings of Emilie Demant Hatt. They were upright in storage shelves and we took them out one by one and leaned them against the walls and shelving so that I could take digital photographs.

I loved the paintings from the start. They were much larger than I expected, most of them, and the colors hadn’t faded, but glowed through a light dust of time in hues of vivid scarlet, warm topaz, and an icy northern palette of blues and grays and greens. I tried to grasp the immensity of what I was seeing: over fifty landscapes of jagged mountains with the swirling Northern Lights behind and women in red koftes boating around a deep blue, glacier-powdered mountain lake. Firelight spilled like molten lava from tents shaped like small brown volcanos and reindeer herders stood around bonfires warming their hands during a coffee break in the middle of a vast winter wilderness. Reindeer trudged over ice bridges and grazed in the midst of snowfields. And in many paintings were small scruffy dogs, sometimes staring up at the sky, witnesses and working companions.
Later I was glad I had spent more time photographing than simply staring, open-mouthed, at the unexpected riches in storage. The digital pictures I took that day have long been friends to me and I’ve called them up regularly on my computer screen to admire them and to describe them in my writing about Demant Hatt. 

Emilie Demant Hatt, 1910
I remember saying to Maria Maxen that day, wouldn’t it be wonderful if these paintings could be displayed? It was a question I was to put with some wistful regularity to curators at the Nordiska in years to come. I was able to visit the physical paintings twice more; by 2013 when I was there last, Emilie Demant Hatt’s paintings, along with thousands of other objects, had been moved to a vast state-of-the-art, off-site building in a Stockholm suburb. All the canvases had been mounted on huge, heavy screens, so it was possible to see them all and all at once. I had an hour or more of communion with the work I’d come to know so well over the years and it was heaven.

On February 6, the Nordiska opened an exhibit titled Minnen av Lapland, “The Memory of Lapland,” which shows fifteen of these paintings. I’m honored that I’ve been asked to come to Stockholm and speak at the museum March19 about Emilie Demant Hatt’s life as an artist and ethnographer among the Sami of northern Sweden. My old friend Hugh Beach, a professor of anthropology at the University of Uppsala, will introduce me and say a few words in Swedish about Demant Hatt’s importance as an early woman anthropologist, and curator Cecilia Hammarslund-Larsen will speak about the exhibit. I’ll show slides, too, and give thanks. It is always an occasion for joy and gratitude when something you wish for—in my case the chance for a larger public to see some these marvelous, vivid paintings—actually comes true.

Most of the links in this post are to Swedish language sites, but Google Translate (on the Nordiska's site) will give an approximation of the content. A version of this blog post, along with more reproductions of Emilie Demant Hatt’s art, appears on the website

I’ll also be giving a talk about Emilie Demant Hatt at Kvinfo, the women’s library, in Copenhagen, March 24. Both my talks will include slides of Demant Hatt's photographs and paintings.

“The Art of Recalling,” an article about the influence of Johan Turi and Sápmi on Emilie Demant Hatt’s art will appear in Feminist Studies, summer 2014.