Words Without Borders March: ‘How Political Borders Shift’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Taking as a starting point the protest over right-wing exhibitors at the 2017 Göteborg Book Fair, ‘Words Without Borders’ March issue focuses on politics, stereotypes, and identity in Swedish and Finnish writing.

Image: Catherine Anyango Grünewald, Film still from ‘Vanity + Shame,’ 2011. By arrangement with the artist and provided to Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Limits of Free Speech and Humanist Values’
Revolting, inexcusable current events are part of the focus in Words Without Borders March issue, released on March 5.

This edition of the magainze, writes guest editor Saskia Vogel—the Berlin-based author and translator, and former contributor to Publishing Perspectives—”started with a question that sharpened to a point in the autumn of 2017, when a neo-Nazi organization was given a permit for a protest that would begin outside the annual Göteborg Book Fair. Leading up to this moment was the book fair’s controversial decision to yet again allow Nya Tider (New Times), a far-right extremist publication, to exhibit on the convention center floor.”

Publishing Perspectives readers will recall our coverage of the issue at the time and the parallel programming in the city of Göteborg organized by other literary organizations. As things played out, the book fair’s director Maria Kaällsson would resign her post after the furor.

Of course, the attacks of Friday (March 15) on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand—particularly with the grotesque element of the gunman live-streaming his assault with a GoPro helmet camera—now have added a terrible new dimension to Vogel’s essential question in positioning the edition she has curated: She asks, “Whose story gets to be told?”

In the new nightmare at Christchurch, the dilemma created by online platforms like Facebook—which ostensibly cannot manage to shut down so monstrous a feed as the killer’s images for 17 minutes—raises that question to a compelling new level. “Including Finland-Swedish writers is a nod,” she writes, “to how political borders shift, how language and culture moves, and the complex human history of migration that disrupts any notion of a stable and self-evident idea of a ‘nation,’ providing a counterpoint to the exclusive visions of the far-right.”

Saskia Vogel

In the context with which she’s working, Vogel writes in her introduction, “Who Dreams of Us?” there are competing interests and quandaries here. “Watching the events around the Göteborg Book Fair unfold,” she writes,” prompted me to evaluate my practices as a translator.”

As she observed the situation in Sweden unfolding, she saw “the discussion of the limits of free speech and humanist values; the authors making the decision to attend the fair or boycott it and what either action meant in terms of resisting anti-democratic forces; [and] the sudden emergence of independent book fairs organized in protest of the book fair’s decision and in hopes the fair would change its mind.”

Vogel goes on to update us on the Göteborg Book Fair, which held its 2018 iteration with the right-wing Nya Tider banned from exhibiting by a new director, Frida Edman. Independent parallel events were nevertheless held again. One was stopped by the city, “citing security concerns”—it was sponsored by the Nya Tider.

While the challenges of such socio-political events are mild exercises by comparison to something as horrific as the Christchurch killings, Vogel is helping us to ask the next question after her own: If we shy away from asking “whose story gets to be told?” are we leaving ourselves unprepared when the unthinkable leaves us grasping for answers.

Saskia Vogel’s ‘Permission’ is set for paperback and Kindle releases on April 8 and 9 from Coach House Books, and is out from Little, Brown now in hardcover

What Vogel brings to her curation is the work of a group of eight writers whose work appears in English for the first time. There are three poems, two excerpts from novels, a memoir excerpt, a personal essay, and a passage from a book-length epic poem.

What’s challenged throughout are stereotypes of Scandinavia as that social utopia many like to see in their minds. Under this midnight sun, instead, writers take on close-mindedness, racism, poverty, the struggle to feel accepted.

Contents, Briefly, From The March Edition
  • From  Aednan, poetry by Linnea Axelsson, translated by Saskia Vogel. The epic poem from which this is excerpted is a multigenerational exploration of the indigenous Sami culture in Sweden. Axelsson is a Swedish novelist and poet with Sami ancestry. Her debut novel, Tvillingsmycket, was published in 2010, and Aednan in 2018. Aednan won the 2018 August Prize, Sweden’s most prestigious literary prize, normally awarded to novels
  • “Interlude,” poetry by Mara Lee, translated by Saskia Vogel. The memory of a teenage encounter with neo-Nazis on a deserted beach haunts the narrator’s adult relationships. Lee has published two collections of poetry, Kom(Come) and Hennes vård (Care of Her), and the novels Ladies (2007), Salome (2011), and Future Perfect (2015). For Ladies, she won the Svenska Dagbladet Prize and the Per Olov Enquist Prize. She has also translated the work of Canadian poet Anne Carson.
  • From  Event Horizon, fiction by Balsam Karam, translated by Saskia Vogel and Alice Olsson. In this work, a young member of the undocumented population, captured after leading an uprising, survives years of torture and chooses martyrdom in space over execution on earth. This is a work of dystopian feminist fiction set in a futuristic world. Karem, whose family was deported to Iran from Iraq and fled to Sweden, today works as a public librarian in Stockholm.
  • From Wretchedness, fiction by Andrzej Tichý, translated by Nichola Smalley. Tichý was born in Prague and lives in Malmö. Two of his four novels have been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. His most recent novel, Eländet (Wretchedness, forthcoming in 2020 from And Other Stories), won the 2018 Eyvind Johnson Prize and was nominated for Sweden’s prestigious August Prize.
  • “Kopparberg Road 20,” nonfiction by Mathias Rosenlund, translated by Christian Gullette. The author challenges the stereotype of Scandinavian affluence by detailing his impoverished life as a struggling writer. Rosenlund lives in Helsinki and is the author of the memoirs Svallgränden 5 (2015) and Kopparbergsvägen 20 (2013).
  • “White Monkey,” poetry by Adrian Perera, translated by Christian Gullette. The poet exposes unthinking everyday racism and the inherent bias of publishing “categories.” Perrera lives in Helsinki. White Monkey is his first poetry collection.
  • “Twenty-five Thousand Miles of Nerves,” poetry by Nino Mick, translated by Christian Gullette. The author interrogates binary structures and the rigidity of bureaucracy. Mick is a Spoken Word poet based in Göteborg.
  • “Alhambra,” nonfiction by Johannes Anyuru, translated by Kira Joseffson.  A black Muslim living in Sweden travels to the Alhambra. This is not a polemic, but a personal essay interspersed with excerpts from Swedish writer Sara Nelson’s fragments about her mother’s death. Anyuru is a poet, novelist, and playwright. He made his debut in 2003 with the critically acclaimed collection of poems Only the Gods Are New. A Storm Blew in from Paradise (2012) was based on his own father’s life. The Rabbit Yard (2017) was a critical and commercial success and was awarded the August Prize for poetry. Translation rights have been sold into twelve territories and film rights have been acquired by Momento Film.

As Vogel writes, “The events around the Göteborg Book Fair were a welcome reminder of the power of protest as a tool of change—and a reminder that our voices matter, the stories we tell matter—but the questions raised around the book fair in 2017 are far from resolved. The tensions it laid bare are still running high.

“The 2018 Swedish elections gave us more to untangle, not least in the increase in far-right representation in government.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, more from us on translation is here,  and more of Publishing Perspectives’ coverage of the Swedish market is here.

Our Spring Magazine is ready for your free download, having been produced to coincide with the London Book Fair. Trade visitors to London found a print edition available, also free of charge.

In the magazine, you’ll find issues and players who were important at this year’s London Book Fair and who will factor into other major fairs of the season this year, plus an early look at key points interest about the coming Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 16 to 20).

Download the new magazine here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.