Tales from the Outskirts of Society
A Literary Debate on Motherhood
The Women Writer’s Group in Ostrobothnia
In the 1960s, the strong Icelandic ‘rímur’ (rhymes or ballads) tradition made way for a ‘free form’ modern poetry, which itself was part of an international revolution within poetic language. At the age of nineteen, Steinunn Sigurðardóttir appeared at the crossroads between modernism and the 1970s confrontation with modernism’s inaccessibility.Her authorship has received a lot of attention, and is characterised by a unique lightness and linguistic playfulness. The combination of isolation with a many-sided self, a theme that occasionally emerges in her poems and prose works, is the result of a reflection on time, its nature, and its transitoriness. In this way, a search for time goes hand in hand with a search for the self. Today, Steinunn Sigurðardóttir is a beacon of Icelandic literature. Her thematic concerns have been picked up by other Icelandic writers, including Vigdís Grímsdóttir and Álfrún Gunnlaugsdóttir.
With her debut collection, Indeni – udenfor (1967; Within – Without), Danish writer Kirsten Thorup succeeded in placing herself from the outset at the centre of the literary arena. Here and in her subsequent collections she explored the positions of alienation, powerlessness, and objectification in a markedly personal voice. With her remarkable novel Baby (1973) it became clear that Kirsten Thorup had something more to say. This novel was a stylised and compact prelude to a comprehensive body of contemporary literature that has made her one of the most widely read authors in Denmark.Kirsten Thorup presents us with an unmerciful and paradoxically loving portrait of the apocalyptic images that constitute contemporary culture.
Stina Aronson, who published seventeen books, is best known for her depictions of life in the ‘wasteland’ of Norrbotten province. She acquired a wide readership with her novel Hitom himlen (1946; This Side of Heaven) after many years of a distinguished writing career. Among the innovative features of Aronson’s tales from northern Sweden is the paucity of plot in the generally accepted sense of the word. Discovery of the world, its serenity and sudden horror, is the primary event.The greatest inner tension in Aronson’s later works is between the modernist description of the world and a moral or ethical attitude towards it. Aronson’s stories of northern Sweden offer the gift of resonance that transforms alien silence into familiar intimacy, which somehow remains fundamentally unknown and unknowable.
During the 1920s, Finnish Katri Vala was the central figure of a literary group called the Torchbearers, which represented the first generation of authors after Finland obtained its independence. Their goal was to overturn existing literary conventions.She made her debut with Kaukainen puutarha (1924; The Faraway Garden). The most innovative feature of Vala’s poetry is its visual lucidity. Another characteristic is its free verse, which took hold in Finland partly due to her. Her imagery reflects the use of primitive and exotic elements by early twentieth century modernists. In primitive cultures they found the original life force that art needed for renewal, and they countered the prevailing culture with exoticism.Spending time in prison was a crucial event in the life of Elvi Sinervo (1912-1986), who started off with a book of short stories entitled Runo Söörnäisistä (1937; A Poem from Sörnäs). The most important prose author in the left-wing Kiila (Wedge) group, she was sentenced in 1941 to four years at a house of correction for participating in illegal political activities. The themes of the book place it squarely in the anti-Fascist literary tradition.
Many women writers in Sweden in the 1970s wanted to speak for themselves and deliver testimony of their own experiences in their own voice. In order to achieve this, they recreated an old genre, the confessional novel, which can trace its ancestry back as far as Augustine’s Confessiones (Eng. tr. Confessions) from approximately 400 AD, and whose modern form was shaped by Rousseau. The confessional novel continued the documentarism of the 1960s. The reportage book that had then treated of the larger spheres of life, with travel books and sociological depictions of social classes and spaces, was now turned to depicting the intimate sphere of life: the home, feelings, and personal development. Just as it was important in the 1960s to document personal participation and research, so in the 1970s it was equally important that described experiences and adventures were absolutely authentic. Where the ideal of the 1960s was objective depiction, the 1970s becomes the decade of subjective representation. Fiction makes claims to authenticity.
The writing of Rut Hillarp is suffused by refined erotic mysticism, far from the primitivist sexual Romanticism of the 1930s modernists. Her kinship with the Swedish erotic poet Erik Johan Stagnelius, their vacillation “between spiritual sensuality and sensual spirituality”, their eroticised experience of life. But the glue that ultimately holds Hillarp’s poems together is the “now”.She has been compared with both Edith Södergran for her erotic poetry and Karin Boye for her sexually charged spirituality. The ultimate objective is guilelessness. The experience of pain and ecstasy is a means of becoming more receptive.
Female poets of the early twentieth century discreetly described sexual experiences in terms of grass that smoulders or is flattened like a mat beneath the lovers. Eventually, the euphemisms grew unnecessary and Eros’ significance to a generation of female poets becomes obvious in the work of Berit Spong, Ingeborg Björklund, Greta Knutson, Martha Larsson, Maria Wine, Ingeborg Erixson, and Elsa Grave, among others.