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.