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The Desire for a Different Life

Written by: Malan Marnersdóttir |

Cover of Jóhannu Mariu Skylv Hansen: Logi, logi eldur mín, Leikmynd from »Gomlum Gøtum« 1988

When Oddvør Johansen’s (born in 1941) novel Lívsins summar (Life’s Summer) was published in 1982, it was received as a breath of fresh air, as a reinvigoration of the Faroese novel.

It tells of a ten-year-old girl with the literary name Nora, and depicts the somewhat straitened circumstances of a working class family in Torshavn at the start of the 1950s. The family has an irrepressible desire to better itself. The father plays the horn in a band and is a cabinet-maker; the mother paints watercolours in her spare time. Nora herself wishes for a piano.

At the end of the novel, the mother’s watercolours have been discovered by an art connoisseur, and an exhibition is arranged. The father has received a large commission and a very advantageous loan, which means he can expand his workshop and is able properly to develop his artistic side in his work. And Nora has got an old piano. Things, in other words, are going well for the working-class family, because everyone is able to devote themselves to their own interests and follow their desires, alongside their usual duties.

It is different for the family of Nora’s friend, whose father is a doctor and whose mother, Alvida, dreams of becoming an actress: but this runs counter to the medical profession’s norms and expectations of the perfect family life. She is, therefore, forced to get divorced, choosing disgraceful desire over her wifely duties, and travels abroad in order to develop her artistic abilities. The departure itself takes place in silence. She takes a taxi on her own to the ship, two hours before it sails, and lies in her cabin until the ship is far out at sea. Then she gets up and goes up on deck, and sheds a tear at sunset while a cabin boy walks past shrugging his shoulders at her. As a farewell present, Nora’s mother has given her a picture called “Gossip”, in which women are putting their heads together. The picture of female companionship, along with the prejudiced title, is a humorous commentary on female solidarity and supports the choice the doctor’s wife has been forced to make.

In Nora’s family, motherhood gives rise to art. When Nora’s mother gets contractions, and at the high point of her labour, Lívsins summar shifts into a prose-poetic description of cosmic dimensions. Bright and frosty stars sing, and the moon welcomes the new baby while nodding like a wise old woman at the reader: “Oh yes, oh yes – this is life, you life-giving women on earth”.

The pictures hanging on the walls are watercolours and ink drawings of children in various situations. Motherhood provides artistic motifs, and the prose poetry makes motherhood universal, placing it in the centre of the cosmos.

Oddvør Johansen’s second novel, Ein mamma er ein mamma (1993; A Mother is a Mother), focuses on motherhood in a different way. It tells of love, infidelity, and female aspirations in two cases. One woman has difficulty having children, and another has them all too easily. As in both novels, many of the stories in the collection Bella Katrina, 1989, are based on the author’s own experiences. Bella Katrina is the author’s alter ego, and tells of domestic life in Torshavn, mostly concerning women’s experiences, in the present and the past, usually in a humorous light.

The Move to Independence

“Kata, ein seinkaður nekrologur” (Kata, A Delayed Obituary), BRÁ no. 5, 1984, is a poem about a woman who wanted an education but was not allowed one, because she had to return home and look after her father and sisters when her mother died. The poem, written by Ebba Hentze (born 1931), is structured around a young woman’s experiences, and the poem urges her to leave home.

Ebba Hentze made her mark as a children’s author with, in Danish, Antonia og morgenstjernen (1981; Antonia and the Morning Star) and Antonia midt i verden (1982; Antonia in the Centre of the World), and in Faroese with Mia, skúlagenta í Havn (1987; Mia, A Schoolgirl in Torshavn) and Gulleygað (1992; Golden Eye).

Maud Heinesen (born 1936) has, together with Ebba Hentze, revitalised Faroese children’s literature. She published her first novel for children, Marjun og tey (Marjun and Her Family), in 1974. Her second book, the hilarious Abbi og eg (Grandfather and Me), appeared in 1993.

The relationship with Denmark is a sensitive matter for many Faroese people. In the past, literature did not describe life in Denmark. Oddvør Johansen and Marianna Debes Dahl (born 1947) rectify this by presenting positive descriptions of the benefits of living in Denmark. A large chunk of the plot of the first Faroese feminist novel, Faldalín (1988; i.e. ballad expression for a woman, such as Lady Fair), by Marianna Debes Dahl, is set in Copenhagen. The novel follows Mjøll from the time when, as a child, she loses her parents – her mother dies, and her father sends her to boarding school so that he can focus on his career. During her entire adolescence, Mjøll tries to heal the wounds of her loss. She looks for a community she can be a part of; by the time she is married and has children, the intimate sense of belonging that she longed for has become a deep, dark hole. Her husband is completely unsympathetic and represents the ‘male law’ that Mjøll decides to fight against. At the end of the novel, Mjøll stands strong, alone with her small son, and ready to get started on her life’s work.

Faldalín is also a portrait of a generation. It describes the Faroese people who were educated in Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s, and who adhered to the left-wing tendency common amongst Nordic intellectuals of that period. They wanted to revolutionise Faroese society when they returned home, but when it came down to it, it turned out that lofty political goals and activism had been a mere diversion for the men. For the women, on the other hand, politics had been a serious matter, and while the men join Lions and Rotary clubs and drown their guilty conscience in whisky, Mjøll attends political meetings and participates in cultural-political events.

The Known Certainty – The Unknown Uncertainty

The titular story in Frostrósan og aðrar søgur (1987; The Frost Rose and Other Stories) is written by Lydia Didriksen (born 1957) and was published for use in schools as a result of the short story competition held by the Women’s Organisation in 1986. It is about a young woman standing on the docks with her back to a warehouse and looking at the surf crashing on the breakwater, which is likened to an enormous shark’s mouth. She clutches the handle of the warehouse door and wishes that the wind would blow her into the building, and at the same time she wants to throw herself into the mouth of the shark. As though in a dream, she suddenly finds herself in a church, at a ghostly Mass, with women dressed in black who, like her, are dead. In front of the altar lies a coffin containing the dead person, who the priest says is a child “who has found the way home”. The storm and the Mass represent the main character’s struggle between the fear of standing on her own two feet and the desire to live life to the full.

In the short story collection Gráglómur (1992; Grey Eyes), she describes women at different stages of their development: the little girl’s first experience of independence, the first period, the anxiety of becoming a grown woman, the encounter with a man, and the fusion of the female and the male.

Dagny Joensen (born 1944) made her debut in 1981 with Gerandislagnur (Everyday Destiny), three radio plays set in the present day which depict women from three different social classes: the working-class woman, her daughter-in-law who works in an office, and her friend who has married into the upper class. The focus is on their attitude towards marriage, and the plays trace the women’s growing awareness that their marriages are more destructive than they are beneficial. But they make use of this awareness in different ways. The working-class woman remains in her marriage, but begins making demands on her husband; the office worker wants a divorce because she is able to support herself; while the upper-class woman pushes her knowledge to one side and becomes even more submissive to her husband.

In the prose work “Uttan fyri byrgingina” (In Front of the Dam), Varðin, 1981, Dagny Joensen describes a woman who tries to surmount a high obstacle because she can hear voices asking her to come. When she finally gets over to the other side, she finds nothing there. The piece is balanced on the same axis of doubt and uncertainty as Lydia Didriksen’s “Frostrósan”: the anxiety of leaving the known, secure world, and the desire to start a new life.

In her poetry collection lýtt lot (1963; mild breeze), Guðrið Helmsdal Nielsen (born in 1941) uses the motif of nostalgia to describe a different kind of homesickness to the usual urge to return home and use one’s abilities and education for the good of the country. For Guðrið Helmsdal Nielsen, it is an artistic and personal homecoming.

An ‘imagery of insignificance’ is dominant in Astrid Joensen’s (born in 1949) poems. Flowers, birds, dragon flies, and, not least, children make frequent appearances. Nature is a source of images par excellence; states of mind such as sorrow, longing, defeat, and powerlessness are described through metaphors of nature. Birds, puddles, rivers, and a rowan tree are recurrent motifs. The poems are, on the whole, very fertile and moist. There is a sense of dripping, running, and sliding down into a cavern, alongside the impressions made on the first-person narrator by the external conditions.

In Lát (1988; Sing), and Ímillum (1995; In Between), Malan Poulsen (born in 1957) invokes strong but tragic female figures from Faroese songs. In one poem in Ímillum, she thanks Eve for the Fall, because without it life would not be full of desire:

Thank you Eve
for biting into the apple
and for being driven out of Paradise
without you
no birth
no death
no searching
for knowledge
no time
to dream and write about
we would not be.

Rakel Helmsdal (born 1966) is an exciting young author. She writes poems and short stories that focus on specific experiences and take place in unidentified environments. She made her debut with the imaginative, realistic children’s book Tey kalla meg bara Hugo (1995; They Just Call me Hugo).

Translated by Brynhildur Boyce