I’m a Danish writer. I’m not a Danish writer.
Two statements equally true. How can it be? I was born and grew up in Denmark, have a Danish passport, and write my books in Danish. So de facto in terms of national definitions: I’m a Danish writer. Yet I don’t feel Danish. My mother is Austrian, my father half-German. Language emerging from culture, my more dramatic Slavic temper has never resided well within the limits of Danish laid-back wordings. And since the age of 23 I’ve mainly resided outside of Denmark.
As we didn’t speak German at home, I didn’t grow up bilingual. Rather than German, English became my second language, and when I was a teenager, through the books I read in their original language, through the films, the music, it became my emotional language. The lack of sensual breadth in the Danish usage of language pushed me to choose another. And though until recently I still wrote all my fiction in Danish, I’ve felt the Danish language to be a constant challenge for the hot-bloodedness of my heart. My pen has had to make sentence structure-loops and grammatical twists which would be correct in the eyes of no Danish teacher, but which were necessary to express the stories of my mind in this straightforward Scandinavian tongue, not fit for Alpine crevices and ravines.
From early on I was continuously told by my editors that my books are ‘so un-Danish’ – something I’m not sure was meant as a compliment, but which a bit defiantly (or perhaps purely out of necessity) I decided to take as such. Not only did I write in a tempestuous language, my subjects were often far from the Danish mainstream agenda (genocide in the Balkans, or ethics in modern contemporary art and life), and even my characters had far-flung (from Danish) origins. Realizing that this ‘un-Danishness’ would always undermine any attempt I might make at being ‘a Danish writer’, I finally – after my fourth novel or so – accepted it.
But then what identifying label should I use?
Originally educated a macro-economist, I became a full-time writer in 1995. I have worked for the EU and United Nations across the globe, from Dar es Salaam, Maputo and Dhaka to Brussels, Milan and New York. Thus, I would prefer to say simply ‘writer’, with ‘citizen of the world’ implicitly understood. But for those who wish to put my books on a regional shelf, ‘European’ at least feels much less wrong than Danish. After all, the conglomerate that is Europe today carries an almost endless range within it.
The literature which has formed me is no more Danish than I am: my inspirations come from as far afield as Faulkner and Gogol, Achebe and Laxness, Cortazar and Hamsun, from Cervantes to Camus, Mahfouz to Woolf. I have taken advantage of the writer’s privilege of choosing my favourite teachers across the centuries, spanning Shakespeare and Dickinson, over Hardy to Jeannette Winterson, Dante over Canetti to Calvino.
To the question ‘What is my Heimat?’ I have no answer. New York is my favourite city, that most multicultural place of all, with room for everyone. Yet, the Atlantic being too wide for comfortable commutes, I’ve recently moved back to Europe, this time choosing an all new home-base in Elsinore, at the edge of Scandinavia where the North Sea meets the Sound headed for the Baltic Sea. A corner of Denmark that breathes the very universe, echoing the secret truth which is that the contents of my bookcases are probably my true Heimat.
Having always worked closely with all my translators, and occasionally making culture- and language-specific adjustments, it’s perhaps no surprise that a few years ago I started a process which would become a major ongoing work: fully adapting one of my books to the history, culture and geographic specifics of each country where it is published. War – what if it were here tells an imagined reversal of the refugee crisis (centred on a family fleeing their war-torn European country), and depends upon its readers being able to identify with the characters. When the book had its first translation in 2011, into German, I knew an entire rewrite would be required; I’ve now done 12 country-specific adaptations with more to come. Some of my editors have told me that this has never before been done in the history of literature. Yet, I simply did it because it felt right, because the story demanded this level of adaptation, of empathy. Perhaps it is also a reflection of the fact which is the essence of being multicultural: to be understood you have to always be ready to adapt yourself to whatever culture you navigate within at any given moment. You are, always and everywhere, your own interpreter.
By now we are so many millions who have more than one culture – bi-, tri, quatro-or more – that it feels increasingly nonsensical to use the limited national labels of human identity. This is particularly true in a field such as literature, where all writers in their souls essentially belong to universal humanity over and above any nationality. Yet, it’s how the world of literature is still organized: how bookshelves are categorized in the bookshops, how prizes and awards are given, how invitations to panels at book festivals are classified. How you will find us listed in the encyclopaedias, the Wikipedias.
Danish being an incongruity for me, even an impossibility – I do embrace the wider river of the regional. I am a European. I am a writer.
Am I a European writer?
You be the judge.