Ann-Helén Laestadius on her latest novel Stolen, and the Sámi community.
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Ann-Helén – thanks so much for speaking with me. I’d like to start by asking about the closing lines of your letter that opens my copy of Stolen: ‘I don’t have a language, and I don’t have any reindeer, but I have a heart which is very much Sámi. And no one can take that away from me.’ In many ways, that beautiful passage feels like the bedrock of the whole book. Could you speak a little about it?
It’s a question with many answers. As a Sámi your identity sometimes gets questioned by Swedes, but also by other Sámi. This is because of an idea the state has historically perpetuated: that the Sámi must be a certain way – keep reindeer, speak Sámi, and live in Sápmi. In the book for example, Elsa’s mother is called rivgu – a non-Sámi woman, despite her having Sámi roots, which was important for me to portray. When your identity is questioned, it’s important to stand up for your roots and not let anyone else define who you are. I have also been subjected to ignorant questions, where people want to find out if I’m a ‘real’ Sámi, and that is why it’s important for me to establish this idea in this sentence.
Stolen starts with a child’s voice (and ends with one, too). When, in the writing of the book, did that voice come to you? And what, for you, does this child’s perspective enable? As I ask this, I’m conscious of many and lauded books for your readers, and how that might have shaped this text.
I initially didn’t want to write from a child’s perspective, but when I sat down at the computer Elsa appeared, and suddenly it became obvious that I had to tell her story from childhood to give the reader a better understanding of her actions as an adult. Through my research, I spoke to several reindeer herders about the anxiety they felt about their children being forced to grow up with Sámi hatred and reindeer killings. They often felt inadequate because they were unable to protect their children from the cruelty.
Maybe relatedly to both these questions, silence seems to be a significant feature of the novel – between generations, between and within communities, in both private and public contexts. Could you talk a little about the idea of silence?
Silence is for many a way to protect their family – and perhaps their children above all – from being burdened by hardship, but sadly it’s a method that can easily go wrong and instead create anxiety and a feeling of isolation that can have dire consequences. I think silence contributes to mental illness. It is especially tangible among young male Sámi reindeer herders, who traditionally have to be strong and able to take care of everything, but who in reality might feel terrible and don’t dare speak to anyone about it. Silence is more common among the older generation, where there isn’t a habit of talking about their feelings, and I believe there exists a kind of shame around what one has been subjected to.
A lot of time passes in the book – a decade between its first and second parts. This passing felt important for the development of characters, the histories in which they exist, and the themes the book explores. What role does the temporal scope play for you?
It was absolutely necessary to have a time jump. I didn’t want to have to choose between only writing about Elsa as a child or Elsa as an adult. I really wanted to tell both stories, and that left no other choice.
How did you collaborate with Rachel Willson-Broyles on her English translation of Stolen? You grew up in a home of three languages – Northern Sámi, Meänkieli and Swedish – and in the context of the historical and ongoing marginalisation of minority languages in Sweden (societally, and also in educational policy), language – and how stories move between or are kept within languages – of course feels so significant for you and for this novel. What does translation into English, and the many other languages the book has been conveyed into, mean to you?
The translation to English is massively meaningful. It means that the book has the possibility to reach a huge audience and I’m so happy that people outside of Sweden will get to read about the life of the Sámi. I’m happy about all the translations, and it’s almost difficult to fathom the great job my agent has done. I’m so grateful that there is an interest in the book from all over the world. Rachel and I have had a dialogue around questions that she’s had about various things in the process, and it’s fantastic that she has spent so much time and been so meticulous in getting everything right. My experience as a whole has been great, and the translators who have worked on Stolen have been very dedicated.
Stolen is fiction, but it is firmly rooted in the real lives of Sámi people and real events that have taken place in Sápmi. Could you speak a little about the process of working with testimony, reports, and documentary material in writing the book?
I collected material for several years: followed reindeer herders on social media, read Sámi newspapers and above all interviewed reindeer herders and accompanied them while out with the herd to see their work up close. My mother grew up in a reindeer-herding family, so it has been a part of my life since I can remember, but of course I needed to do some research to capture the finer details. One of the reindeer herders gave me one hundred police reports that her reindeer collective had made regarding killings of their reindeer, and when I read that bundle I realised that I had the foundation of my book. I have been rigorous about letting the reindeer herders read the manuscript before sending it to print. Its accuracy has been very important (with this I mean the pure facts and details) but above all it has been important that they can recognise themselves and feel that I am telling their stories as truthfully as possible. I often hear/read about reindeer herders who have been so moved by the book that they have to pause their reading, so it seems I have succeeded in my aim of capturing their experiences accurately.
Finally, what are your hopes for the future of Sámi literature – in Sweden and elsewhere, in Sámi and in the other languages of the region and in translation?
I hope that our stories will spread across the world, and I hope that Sámi literature, both in Swedish and Sámi will be translated. I think that the conditions for Sámi literature are good, especially in Sweden. There has been a surge in Sámi writers the last couple of years and that inspires younger generations, so I’m sure that what we see now will encourage others to start writing.
Ann-Helén Laestadius is an author and journalist from Kiruna, Sweden. She is Sámi and of Tornedalian descent, two of Sweden’s national minorities. In 2016, Laestadius was awarded the prestigious August Prize for Best Young Adult and Children’s Novel for Ten Past One, for which she was also awarded Norrland’s Literature Prize. Stolen is her first adult novel; an international bestseller, it was named Sweden’s Book of the Year and has now been sold into twenty-two territories. She lives with her family in Solna outside of Stockholm.
Stolen by Ann-Helén Laestadius is publishing 2nd February (Bloomsbury Circus, Hardback: £18.99)
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.
Photo credit: Thron Ullberg.