The world has gone global and increasing numbers of women are migrating from poor to rich countries. They move countries in order to work and earn money: they flee oppression, poverty, and war. They have long been invisible and marginalised but since the 1990s they have been a more frequent presence in our minds. Over time, the ‘Other’ woman in Nordic literature has often come to feature as a figure of guilt – a figure who activates the Nordic female protagonist’s bad conscience. For how can you benefit from your own privileges with the knowledge that they are more or less directly based on the suffering of others? The Nordic woman has achieved a measure of gender equality by abandoning the women’s roles of earlier generations – the one who does the cleaning, looks after the children, prepares the meals, and so on and so forth. The problem, however, is that a large proportion of those roles are now filled by underprivileged ‘Others’: foreign au pairs and cash-in-hand cleaners, for example.
In 2002, the American feminists Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild published Global Woman, a book in which they point out that “the globalization of child care and housework brings the ambitious and independent women of the world together: the career-oriented upper-middle-class woman of an affluent nation and the striving woman from a crumbling Third World or post-communist economy.” They have not, however, been brought together “in the way that second-wave feminists in affluent countries once liked to imagine – as sisters and allies struggling to achieve common goals. Instead, they come together as mistress and maid, as employer and employee, across a great divide of privilege and opportunity.”
This is an issue upon which Nordic women writers primarily reflect in social-realist novels, but also in graphic novels, literary journalism, poetry, science fiction, and fantasy genres. They do so with gravity, irony, and despair. We have the traditional political works, which bring up issues for debate – particularly the violent oppression of women, as in trafficking. In the new millennium, however, we also find a type of postfeminist writing fuelled by irony, ambivalence, humour, and satire. Rather than activating the big emotions such as anger, and rather than arousing the reader’s sympathy and pity by means of a melodramatic or sentimental style, these works draw the reader into a universe marked by ambiguity and an apparent lack of morality. Written by authors such as Sara Kadefors, Selma Lønning Aarø, and Kirsten Hammann, they express a form of impotence in a neo-capitalist era where the individual is uncertain as to what she can do to change the world. Unlike the second-wave feminists, many women today see power as being scattered rather than as concentrated in identifiable centres among identifiable groups. Referring to works that have this perspective and tone as postfeminist does not mean they are not feminist. The ‘post’ prefix is more an indication of a continuous critical approach both to feminism’s fundamental theme – patriarchy – and to the feminism of earlier periods. In addition, ‘post’ may be understood as a matter of nuance linked to genre, theme and author. Some works have a greater, strongly emotive, feminist focus on the ‘Other’, while some have a greater and ambivalent focus on the Nordic ‘self’ – when faced with the ‘Other’.
Works of the latter type present the Scandinavian woman as stressed, irritated, jealous, ironic, and narcissistic in her constant soul-searching and self-criticism. More often than not, it is ugly and unpleasant to be present in this precariousness – for protagonist and reader alike (cf. Sianne Ngai’s theory of ugly feelings). Everything is painful. Solutions are rarely found – neither solutions to the social, political and ethical problems, nor the potential catharsis for the reader. The only form of release available to the reader is generally a slight giggle and a little smile. And a reinforced belief that something ought to be done to create greater fairness in the world – also between global ‘sisters’ – but we do not quite know what. In the following we will look at three categories of literature that reflect the skewed power relations between the Nordic woman and her oppressed ‘sisters’: au-pair novels, writings on women refugees, and accounts of the encounter with oppressed women beyond the European borders.
The Au Pair
Lack of sister solidarity and discomfort in being a privileged member of one of the world’s wealthiest welfare states are clearly expressed in novels about au pair ‘girls’. With scathing irony, these works question the Scandinavian woman’s good fortune as an equal, hard-working, ambitious woman capable of caring for her own family as well as less privileged others. In Fågelbovägen 32 (2006; Paradise Lane), Swedish Sara Kadefors (b. 1965) describes perfectionist Karin. She is a hospital doctor, has a husband and children, and is a volunteer at a clinic for people who have no documents or rights. Working with illegal immigrants is altruistic, politically correct, but also satisfies a (discomforting) need in a world that otherwise seems too easy and predictable: “Perhaps the suburban clinic has become a substitute for Africa. In the past, it had seemed enough to go off down there and work for a few months to get that need satisfied, a need you didn’t voice out loud, especially not in front of right-on colleagues. It wouldn’t go down well to admit that tragic human lives were now just a shallow thrill factor in her routine Swedish life.” The tragedies of the ‘Others’ are seen as exotic, and satisfy a need for meaningfulness in everyday life.
One evening at the clinic, Karin meets a young woman from Moldova – her namesake, Katerina. Katerina has pneumonia, she works as an au pair and is mistreated by her Swedish host family. Wanting to do the right thing, Karin takes Katerina home and employs her as au pair for her own family. Problems pile up, however, as it turns out that Karin cannot legally employ Katerina as she is an illegal immigrant in Sweden. The situation does not improve when it becomes obvious that the young and beautiful au pair has a closer relationship with Karin’s husband and children than Karin does. Worst of all, Karin discovers that Katerina has left her own children in Moldova in order to earn money in Sweden. The novel is a clear examination of the situation described by Ehrenreich and Hochschild, where the ambitious women of the world come together as mistress and maid, as employer and employee, but not as sisters and allies. As Katerina says: “I come from Shitland and you come from Luxuryland. That can’t be changed.” Karin is full of guilt and revulsion over her own affluence and “disgusting privileges”.
The novel ends with Karin having a mental breakdown. The women’s issues that are gradually exposed – but not resolved – are, firstly, whether the Scandinavian woman has to choose between being a good mother or a good fellow human being (the implication being that she cannot be both), and, secondly, whether the rich Scandinavian woman and the poor ‘Other’ can ever meet as equal partners – as friends.
Danish Kirsten Thorup (b. 1942) and Norwegian Selma Lønning Aarø (b. 1972) have also written satirically about au-pair-girl-and-western-self-realisation: respectively, the apocalyptic novel Tilfældets Gud (2006; The God of Chance, 2013) and the orgasm-centric novel Jeg kommer snart (2013; I’m Coming, 2015).
The Female Refugee
The basic premise of being a refugee is even more problematic than being an au pair. The refugee’s departure from the home country is rather less voluntary and the refugee often harbours traumas that cannot be shared. How can a Scandinavian woman help a refugee woman? Nordic women’s literature also addresses this issue with a greater or lesser degree of irony.
Danish Christina Hesselholdt (b. 1962) published her first work in 1991. In terms of genre, her books are hybrids taking the novel in the direction of drama and poetry. I familiens skød (2007; In the Bosom of the Family), for example, is a Woolf-inspired tale at the intersection between novel, drama, and short story. The plot unravels over the course of one day, July 6 2006. Nine people are at a Danish summer cottage, and the day’s events are narrated from changing perspectives, primarily that of the central character Anne. The group is made up of Anne’s family – husband, child, stepchild, mother-in-law – and two visitors: Julius, who is an author, and Naseema, a refugee from Afghanistan who comes to dinner with her two children.
Anne, like Kadefors’ Karin, is the self-assured, successful, privileged woman who wants to do good – both on the home front and in a broader social context. However, Anne is also partly motivated by boredom. Family life is not enough in itself, her job as a Danish teacher has become routine, and so she has thrown herself at Naseema: “That’s how it was, that which was foreign invigorated her. She needed that kind of stimulation, that kind of conquest, approximately every fifth year.” Anne is of practical and mental help to Naseema. She knows that Naseema has been subjected to torture, has lost her country and her husband. “At times she suspected herself of finding in Naseema an opportunity to get close to something really meaningful, a matter of life and death, a place where the pressure’s really on, beyond little everyday worries.” Anne is thus suspected (also by herself) of not being a genuine altruist, but of helping others in order, ultimately, to help herself. This anguished theme recurs in the novels: the Nordic woman is privileged, affluent, and safe but she is troubled by bad conscience, a sense of guilt, and an existential void.
Norwegian Aasne Linnestå (b. 1963) takes a completely different approach to the encounter between the Nordic woman and the female refugee in her book of poetry, Morsmål (2012; Mother Tongue). Linnestå made her literary debut in 2000 and she has since published poetry and novels. Morsmål places her in a hybrid genre where a collection of poems is epic and may be read as a novel. As the title indicates, Linnestå focusses on language, gender, and nation – and may be understood in the light of language theories connecting the ‘feminine’ to the ‘poetic’ (in the vein of the French-Bulgarian philosopher Julia Kristeva). Moreover, it may be understood in the light of a translation issue linked to national languages and their mutual status. In a geopolitical context, language skills are linked to power and the act of giving voice to someone voiceless might be experienced as a new form of assault. Thus, Linnestå proceeds with caution, with a few selected scenes, reports and dialogue. There is no punctuation, no capital letters and the book is about 250 pages long.
Morsmål is about the encounter between a Norwegian woman and a female refugee from a non-European country. The refugee has been subjected to numerous sexual assaults and overall, the work expresses a rage directed at the patriarchy. One of the key messages in the book is that refugees are not only a public but also a private matter: “the / state / said yes // so / what / do / I / say?” The poet-narrator opens the door to the refugee in the hope that they may work out a common language that will enable the poet-narrator to tell the other woman’s story: “I scatter a language across her sounds / but I don’t know this language either / until it starts coming to us / in chorus”. The poet-narrator gradually comes to see the refugee as her new ‘sister’, as a kind of unknown sibling who was not there during her childhood but has now become part of her Norwegian life. Their conversations develop over several seasons and rouse strong emotions. One section has the title “Vredsel”, a new word made up from vrede (anger) and redsel (fear). And the fear comes from outrages committed by men. The women “talk about axes and knives / hammers and cocks / men men men”. Halfway through the book, critique of the patriarchy emerges into what may be interpreted as an eruption of rage against the dogma “boys will be boys”. Whereas the rest of the pages are white and sparingly covered with words printed in black, the three pages covered with “boys will be boys” are black and the letters are white. The pages disrupt the rest of the work – they could well feel like an insistent reprimand coming from beyond the universe of solidarity established by the women. However, they also resound as subversive, repetitive sneering from the discursive location of the women.
The tone in Morsmål is serious and existential, and in no way touches on irony or satire. The work concludes with thoughts about a constructive cultural encounter and a completed writing project that catches a life story without reducing either the narrative or the individual. On the penultimate page, we read: “there is nothing left behind / […] when you are gone // you always take all your belongings / with you”. And the last page simply states: “but you are here // now”. Poetry is, through apostrophe (i.e. its ability to address an absent person or object) capable of pinning down the transient in an alternative, lyric moment.
Hesselholdt and Linnestå are of the same generation, born within a year of one another, but in this instance Hesselholdt’s work is considerably closer to a postfeminist sensitivity with a focus on the agonising aspect of being Danish and ‘altruistic’, while in her poetry, Linnestå expresses a more feminist project marked by a post-colonial sensitivity to the ‘Other’.
Reporting On the Oppressed ‘Other’ Woman
Globalisation entails meeting the ‘Other’ woman on home ground – in your own house and home – but a global, feminist awareness can also lead the essentially indignant Nordic woman off on a journey to rectify the injustices in the world. For the writer, the means of doing this will often be a project to pass on information and knowledge, a book, which will hopefully generate understanding and involvement and ultimately lead to social and political action. In terms of genre, the book might be anything on the arc from soul-searching novel based on personal ugly feelings to the more extrovert journalistic account.
The ultimate postfeminist, ironic story about the Scandinavian woman’s ambition to write a book about the ‘Others’ is probably Danish Kirsten Hammann’s En dråbe i havet (2008; A Drop in the Ocean). Hammann (b. 1965) made her literary debut in 1992, first with poetry, then with novels. Her analysis of complex women is extremely subtle; there can be no doubt that her novels exemplify the postfeminist depictions based on ambivalent, ugly feelings.
En dråbe i havet begins in the social-realist tradition with the story of Mette, an author living with her husband and child in Copenhagen. Measured on any scale, Mette is successful and happy. Unlike the previously mentioned protagonists, Mette considers herself to be in love with the man she is married to; she is seemingly an enthusiastic participant in their sex life, she spends quality time with their daughter, and she puts a great deal of energy and thought into clothes shopping. Something, nonetheless, jars; it all seems rather forced. And then, the question arises: is the woman of today globally concerned? Well, on the one hand, Mette has “no problem with the poor and hungry people in the developing countries. If developing countries were done away with tomorrow, simply removed from school textbooks and the TV news, Sated Mette could live perfectly well in their absence.” She thinks the problem is an artificial one: “It’s only because she’s making an effort and forcing herself to do it, that she’s got to write an idiotic book about hunger and distress. It’s just research. A form of taxes and duties she feels under obligation to pay.” On the other hand, pictures of emaciated children can fire her up – a youthful rebellion. And she values this fire in a world where everything is organised for her in “a peaceable country with safety nets”, a country where satiety borders on fatigue.
Mette contacts a relief agency that can assist in her research. She does not really want to leave her home, but it turns out there is a secret, virtual hotel room in Copenhagen facilitating access to all the places of misery around the world. In this room, Mette may explore wretchedness for short periods at a time without missing out on her daily Copenhagen life. The novel crosses over into science fiction when objects, bacteria, and people start crossing the border between the virtual space and Mette’s world. Mette has the idea to exchange homes with an Ethiopian family – just for a few days. They will live in her flat in Copenhagen while she and her daughter Sofie explore what it is like to live in a village in Africa. But everything goes wrong. The Ethiopian family does not want to come to Copenhagen, Sofie and Mette end up in a rubbish dump in India, Sofie is exposed to danger, and when Mette’s husband, Martin, discovers what she has done, he wants a divorce. By the end, Mette – like Kadefors’ Karin – is on the verge of a breakdown. Combining the role of homemaker in a welfare state with the role of globally active feminist proves irreconcilable. It is impossible to devote oneself both to one’s own children and to other people’s children. When all is said and done, Mette is seen as a victim who has been squeezed between two patriarchal world orders: that of man, Martin, and of “the Gods’”, the male engineers who run the virtual world from New York.
Writing as a journalist or as a novelist clearly affects genre, tone, theme, and focus. An example of an author whose writing is more akin to journalism, feminism, indignation, and belief in being able to make a difference – also on a global level – is the Norwegian journalist and war correspondent, Åsne Seierstad (b. 1970). In the autumn of 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, she travelled to the capital of Afghanistan where she met a bookseller and his family. They agreed that Seierstad could live with them in the spring of 2002 and write a book about them. It proved to be the best selling non-fiction book in Norwegian history. It has been translated into more than 40 languages and was the first Norwegian book to ever be included in the top 10 of The New York Times list of best sellers.
Bokhandleren i Kabul (2002; The Bookseller of Kabul, 2004) was published with the secondary title Et familiedrama (A Family Drama). In her Preface, Seierstad explains her methodology, her motivation, and her choice of form. During her first visit to the bookseller, Seierstad soon got a sense of the oppression endured by the female family members and she wanted to write about that. The bookseller immediately agreed that she could move in, observe, and write about them. Seierstad imagined that, as a western woman, they regarded her as “some sort of ‘bi-gendered’ creature”. She could mix with men as well as women (which a western man would not have been able to do), but despite her own privileges, Seierstad explains, she became increasingly furious: “I have rarely quarrelled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there.” She was provoked by the men’s attitude to women: “The belief in man’s superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned.”
Seierstad describes the intimate female sphere, going to market wearing a burka, the hammam, arranged marriages, the sense of shame when your husband takes another wife. Above all, Seierstad focusses on Leila, the bookseller’s young sister, who dreams of becoming an English teacher but ends up having to accept a suitor she neither loves nor respects. The book concludes with a heartbreaking tragedy: “Leila feels how life, youth, hope escape her without being able to save herself. She feels her heart, heavy and lonely like a stone, condemned to be crushed for ever.”
Seierstad chose to write in ‘literary form’ – within the genre of literary journalism as we know it from the US – which lead to misconceptions and fierce criticism. In addition, the book was soon translated, enabling the bookseller to read it whereupon he and his wife travelled to Norway and took legal action against Seierstad and the publisher, Cappelen Damm. The case eventually ended in 2011, following an appeal, with Seierstad and the publisher being cleared. Bokhandleren i Kabul has entered the history of Norwegian literature as a political, feminist work with hitherto unequalled international impact, but also as a work written in the controversial genre of literary journalism. Despite her good intentions, many regarded Seierstad as being the Nordic career woman bolstering her own position at the expense of the Afghan women she wrote about: the great divide of privilege and opportunity identified by Ehrenreich and Hochschild continued to be seen as insurmountable.
Between fiction and journalism we find Norwegian Lene Ask (b. 1974), who published the graphic novel, Da jeg reddet verden (When I Saved the World), in 2009. The ironic intention of the title is underpinned by the cover illustration depicting the red-haired author in Jesus-pose, letting the little children – of all races – come to her. In 2008, Ask had been commissioned by Norad (Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) to go to Tanzania and describe the health situation of children and women. Her Norad project resulted in a booklet containing seven stories. Subsequently, Lene Ask published Da jeg reddet verden as a personal, humorous reflection on the trip, the meeting of cultures, and the way in which to represent the ‘Other’.
The work depicts the autobiographical protagonist, Lene Ask, assigned by Norad to go to Africa to make a comic-strip report about the women’s and children’s health issues. As a Norad employee explains: “We hope your drawings will put a focus on these issues.” The story is permeated with self-irony on the individual level as well as on wider social, cultural, and national levels. In drawings and words, Lene’s individualist ambitions as an artist, her disinclination to visit a country where standards of hygiene do not comply with Nordic standards, her racist Sunday-school upbringing, and her cultural prejudices against polygamy and genital circumcision are disclosed and addressed. Not in the sense that she ends up in favour of polygamy and circumcision, but she realises that aspects of our culture may seem just as outrageous to Africans as aspects of their culture seem to us. She also realises that undesirable cultural practices are embedded in socio-economic conditions, i.e. they cannot simply be abolished without considering the possible unintended economic consequences.
Back in Norway, Lene’s experience in Africa puts the Scandinavian woman’s problems into perspective. As she says to her husband: “Children die of starvation and my biggest worry is that my daughter refuses to eat vegetables.” Insights are converted into drawings that are exhibited but a new perspective is added at the private viewing. Some Norwegian-African women are present, and Lene looks forward to talking with her “African sisters”. However, they criticise her for presenting Africans in such a prejudiced, degrading way – as victims. They demand that Lene apologise “to the people of Africa” and yet again, Lene feels like a failure. It all ends with a telephone call telling her that a young pregnant woman, she had met in Africa, has died in childbirth because the hospital had refused to help her – a patient who was too poor to take along her own bag of essentials. Lene regains her belief in the importance of narrating the victims’ stories and that individuals may change the world – if only a little.
Involvement and Inadequacy
There is no definitive solution to the issues of creating equality, equal worth, and solidarity across ethnic borders, globally as well as locally. Second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s and subsequent generations are being challenged anew in a globalised world. This arouses feelings of guilt, responsibility, and involvement, leading many female writers to pick up their pens. The ensuing literature covers the spectrum from straightforward informative works focussing on the ‘Other’ woman to works containing a larger self-reflective element where the focus continues to be a more ironic take on western woman, her quandaries, her lack of sister solidarity, and usually also her continued lack of gender equality. More often than not, it appears that the expectations posited on women (their own and/or those of society) make it impossible to meet the requirements of being homemaker, career woman, and global sister.
- Lene Ask: Da jeg reddet verden. Jippi, 2009
- Kirsten Hammann: En dråbe i havet. Gyldendal, 2008
- Christina Hesselholdt: I familiens skød. Rosinante, 2007
- Sara Kadefors: Fågelbovägen 32. Piratförlaget, 2006
- Åsne Linnestå: Morsmål. Aschehoug, 2012
- Åsne Seierstad: Bokhandleren i Kabul. Et familiedrama. Cappelen, 2002. The Bookseller of Kabul, Little, Brown and Company, 2004
- Kirsten Thorup: Tilfældets gud. Gyldendal, 2011. The God of Chance, Norvik Press, 2013
- Selma Lønning Aarø: Jeg kommer snart. Flamme, 2013. I’m Coming, Anansi International, 2015
- Åsa Arping: ”Att sätta medelklassens problem under debatt. Samtidspolitik, etik och klassmedvetande i Sara Kadefors Fågelbovägen 32”. Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap 2, 2011
- Solveig Brandal: Bokhandleren i Kabul av Åsne Seierstad. Litterær journalistikk, etikk og kvinnesak. Ph.d.-afhandling. Universitetet i Oslo. Upubliceret, 2016
- Barbara Ehrenreich og Arlie Russell Hochschild: ”Introduction”. Global Woman. Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, Ehrenreich & Hochschild (red.). Henry Hold and Company, 2002
- Julia Kristeva: “Fra én identitet til en annen” (1975). Moderne litteraturteori. En antologi, Atle Kittang et al. (red.). Oslo Universitetsforlaget, 2003
- Sianne Ngai: Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press, 2005