New Writing in a Multi-cultural society

New Writing in a Multi-cultural society Symposium 28-30 oktober 1985 Vitterhetsakademien i Stockholm

Bengt Pohjanen

The dilemma of Vilhelm Ekelund’s aphorism: shall I write a villagemessage or shall I write blood? Is presumably well-known to many authors, especially to us who come from a multi-cultural society. In my culture there was almost no writing at all because of the multi-cultural society. We had no language that we could use for writing.

In my day-book I find this aphorism as a marginal note several times since I began keeping day-book twenty years ago. I have no question-mark after the aphorism. I have probably written it as a reminder for myself about the aim for my writing: not village-message, but blood! I was trying to find a writing without a language, because my first language didn’t exist as a written language. We had stories but no written language.

From the beginning I was conscious of the great problems: First, the problem of a man from my village. He had to bear witness in a court to a fight. He began speaking his own language, the Finnish dialect of Torne valley. The judge interrupted him at once. The man had to speak Swedish. “No”, the man said, “it has happened in Finnish, it must be reproduced in Finnish.”

The language in Tornedalen (east-northern part of Sweden) is different from the Finnish in Finland. I was born on the Swedish side of the boarder, the river of Torne. In recent times the people on the Finnish side of the river has more and more been assimilated with the society in Finland; the Swedes with the society in Sweden. In the 1930th the Finnish names of the villages were made Swedish. Many changed their family names. And we were not allowed to speak Finnish in school[1]. We had Finnish family names and Swedish Christian names. In my first Och fiskarna svarar Guds frid (And the fishes/fishermen answer God’s peace), Norstedts, 1979, the main character Kurt-Göran, a deputy head-master, has changed his name from Polonen to Polemalm.

The consequence of this development after the war between Russia and Sweden in 1808-1809 is that there now is a real boarder between the people on the both sides of the river Torneälv, the river that “unites two fraternity nations more than it separates”, to quote the “national anthem” of Tornedalen. The boarder between Sweden and Russia from 1809 separated families and homesteads. Tornedalen on both sides of the river had for hundreds of years been a unitary cultural area with the language in common until modern time.

The Finnish dialect on the Swedish side is disappearing, because it hasn’t been accepted as a language, neither in Sweden nor in Finland. The Finnish people now talk Finnish, and the Swedes Swedish or Swinnish. This Swinnish is no more a dialect, but of political and cultural reasons the language of Tornedalen in Sweden. If a language is a dialect or a language in its own, is not a scientific question, but a political. Is Swedish a German dialect, is it a Norwegian dialect? We all know that English is a Norwegian dialect.

There are very few authors from Tornedalen. Why? Our own language has never been a written language. And the language that lies near it, Finnish, has never been our language. The Swedish language we have learnt in school, and it has become the first language for the most of us. But is has not been the language of heart. People, who didn’t go to highschools, never learnt Swedish so well that they could write artistic texts. (The first novel in Swinnish, meänkieli, is just now in press; it is a short novel Lyykeri (a German pistol), written by me.

An other important reason for the absence of authors in Tornedalen is also the religious conditions. In my novel Ropandes röst (Shouting man’s voice), Norstedts, 1981, I have tried to create a picture of Lars Levi Laestadius, a pietist, who lived and worked in the North of Sweden in the 19th, and his movement, which has moulded the people in Tornedalen to ascetics. In such cultural conditions and circumstances literature has small chances to grow. Add to this a very rigid form of communism from Moscow.

The language is the most important expression for identity. Nut a human being in such a situation: between two languages, two cultures, two ideologues, deprived of their own languages, in short, brainwashed, loose their identity, their own history.

Jaroslaw Seifert says in his Nobel lecture that the reason for the great interest in poetry in Czecho-Slovakia was the political development. For the people, who had lost their delegates in times of sufferings, the language had become the most important expression for national identity. Tornedalen had no language, or we didn’t know that we had, because we had lost our identity.

In my novel, Och fiskarna svarar Guds frid (And the fishes/fishermen answer God’s peace), Norstedts, 1979, the implicit author puts an electronic apparatus in headmaster Polemalms brain. This headmaster is born in Tornedalen. He has bought a Swedish family name and consequently everything has gone well for him. But his mind is in chaos, he has no identity. He could be everything and nothing, he is able to play any roles very well. Even the structure of this book is in harmony with the implicit author and the main character.

The headmaster drinks alone for two or three days, he writes short stories, which content pieces of himself, because he doesn’t know whom he will meet if he meets himself. He is a communist, and he is a religious man, he is teetotaler and he drinks, he wants to be an author but feels guilty for creating, he knows that it is the highest form of sin, he creates as God from nothing, he is a god. He has no language, but in some way he is able to speak so that a listener believes in what he says.

He knows that he has to throw himself naked in the battle of life, as King Lear. He has to loose everything to win it. That is his paradox. He reads a preach by Laestadius in Finnish, and he falls under a table, he dies. Of course symbolically. And he decides that he now has to wash up.

Well, The Head-Master Polemalm plays a game with the language. Therefore he writes. His writing is is practicing Sapir/Whorf-hypothesis. Finnish and Swedish are structurally very different languages. When you talk these two languages, you experience the reality in two different ways, you live in two different worlds. It is in some kind a schizophrenic situation, but he is not ill, he is an author, an artist. He uses these experiences to investigate the existence. He understands that there isn’t one truth, the paradoxes are the truth, everything depends on your point of view.

As this novel is written by Polemalm, the implicit author just puts the electronic in his brain, but he could also be seen as an author in that stage of his development as an author. He isn’t yet conscience of that his playing games with the languages gives him his individuality as author.  Why not?

But now back to the problem of the man in court. One day, two years ago, when I was writing a novel, Singer’s demons came in my typewriter. It began suddenly writing double F, I stopped working with the novel, and I remembered that I had written in Swinnish a story about perjurers. Like Polemalm I started playing a game with some sentences and lines. I asked as Polemalm: What is it in Swedish. And I wrote the novel, Kasaland. The demons disappeared, and the angels began helping me. So this dilemma saved me, I hope, from village message, and I had found a language for that subject. The damnation had become a blessing.

Maybe, the man in court was right. The fight has happened in Finnish, it must be reproduced in Finnish. But a court is a very serious place, the authorship plays games, in my opinion. Or as Heinrich Böll puts it: not even the humor is a class privilege, but a hiding place for the resistance.

Second: not only the language is a problem for an author in such a multi-cultural society as Tornedalen. You write in Swedish about things that are unknown for many critics too. Unknown, although the society in Tornedalen is a part of Sweden, and has been in hundreds of years. Some critics spend money and time on understanding an author from corresponding cultures far away from Sweden, but know nothing about very old minorities in their own country. Some times I have a feeling of the question in the Holy Scripture: does it come any good from Nazareth?

As an author I first felt like Jacob, I was escaping, I thought that every author has to live in Stockholm, first, and then move to Copenhagen, and from there to Paris and into the history of the Emperor Charles the Great[2]. However, when writing my dissertation about the Finnish modernist Antti Hyry, I understood that Hyry was right: he had travelled from the northern part of Finland to Helsinki, and he saw that the buildings in Helsinki too were turned up. I realized like the escaping Jacob; this is a Holy place, I didn’t know.

The most important point is not the language, the subject. Before writing my novel Kasaland, I was interested in Xenofon, an ancient journalist, horseman and army leader. I discovered that the grandfather in Kasaland was very like Xenofon. He just lived in another society, another time. Realizing such a thing you try to write blood. I think so.

When I realized that I had to write about my own society as it was, or is, I began telling stories about Tornedalen as the many good story-tellers had told med. They never said: once upon a time… They just started telling about perjurers, ghosts, common people, magicians and murderers, wars and religious experiences as if it really was happening just now. Time and space are not important, but the story. And who said what, like in sagas of Iceland.

I write in Swedish. Why? Because it is natural for me to write in Swedish. When I now publish my first novel in Swinnish, it’s also playing a game. Swedish is now my first language, and I want to write for the Swedes.

But it is a kind of humor, that the few texts, some poems, that I have written in Swinnish (they are not even printed), have been translated in Poland by some translator to five or six languages.

About the identity I now know: I am not a Swede, I am not a Finnish; I don’t care what I am.

I want to write, because it is an attitude to reality and an attitude which for me is playing games with the language.




[1] This because of e pedagogical idea from USA, that it was best for the children to use just one language.

[2] Maybe I was quite right.

Källa: ”New writing in a multi-cultural society”: Svenska vitterhetsakademin, 1985, Northern Libraries Colloquy, 11:1986: Luleå, ss. 33-39, 1986.

Kategoria(t): Ylheinen. Lisää kestolinkki kirjanmerkkeihisi.