Wednesday, June 19, 2019
An Interview with Helene Uri, author of CLEARING OUT
As the translator of Clearing Out, I’m delighted to be able to introduce the Norwegian author Helene Uri and her marvelously written and moving novel to a North American audience. Clearing Out is a novel of losses (languages, histories, and parents), but also of discoveries and rediscoveries (heritage, memories, and love). In asking Helene Uri the questions below, I’ve focused largely on the Sami elements of Clearing Out. Yet the strength of the novel is that it succeeds on many levels, parallel and overlapping, in telling two stories, one autobiographical (Helene) and one fictional (Ellinor): two contemporary Norwegian women, both linguists, both dealing with the loss of an older parent.
Uri is one of those authors whose work spans many forms: literary fiction, young adult fiction, popular nonfiction about language, and academic work on linguistics. She has a PhD in Linguistics; she has appeared frequently on Norwegian television (including a past stint as host of the travel-bicycling reality program Girls on Wheels); and she writes a regular column on language for Aftenposten, one of the country’s main newspapers. Her most recent book, Who Said What: Women, Men, and Language (2018), won the country’s prestigious Brage prize for nonfiction for its witty and intelligent take on the issue of gender in speech.
Language, including the linguistic phrase “language death,” which occurs when a language loses its last native speaker, plays a large role in Clearing Out. In Norwegian the title Rydde ut means, in its most direct translation, “to clear out,” and can describe the efforts adult children make to deal with the accumulated possessions of their elderly parents, which sometimes spark questions and reveal secrets. But the term can also have more sinister, active meanings: “utrydde” means “eliminate, eradicate, obliterate, wipe out, exterminate, kill off.” An “utryddet språk” is a language threatened with extinction.
There are nine Sami languages in Sápmi, which covers the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Sami language with the most speakers (estimated at around 20,000) is Northern Sami. Over the past decades, numerous programs have been created to help save and promote several of the languages, with success. Yet other Sami languages are edging closer to extinction. The character of the linguist Ellinor has much of interest to say about dying and dead languages from around the world but until she arrives for a research project in Finnmark and engages with the men and women who speak or don’t speak Sami, who remember when they stopped or why they never started speaking Sami, Ellinor doesn’t fully engage with the pain of language loss. Helene, as Ellinor’s creator, is not unlike others in Norway with a forgotten, often suppressed knowledge of a family tree that includes Sami grandparents or great-grandparents who decided for various reasons to “pass.”
For millennia the indigenous Sami people hunted and herded reindeer, fished, and built boats along the coasts and in the mountains and valleys of inland Fennoscandia. Often coexisting peacefully with settlers from the south, their existence became more precarious in the seventeenth century with the advent of missionaries and colonists, who dislodged them from their age-old grazing, hunting, and fishing territories. Punitive laws followed, including sending children to boarding schools and forbidding the Sami language. Many Sami resisted and fought back in the courts and engaged politically; others intermarried or assimilated and hid their old identities. Some emigrated to North America and, in doing so, erased their Sami backgrounds
There’s currently a resurgence of interest in the United States and Canada in Sami heritage. The Minnesota-Finnmark writer Ellen Marie Jensen, author of We Stopped Forgetting: Stories from Sámi Americans (2012), is part of a new wave of Sami-American researchers, organizations, and cultural events dedicated to delving into family connections and celebrating new forms of engagement. In Norway the issue of Sami identity and rights is complex and often painful. Along with cultivating pride and a renewed exploration of culture and language, the Sami grapple with continued prejudice and the “shame” that Uri refers to below (as well as ongoing struggles against resource extraction from corporations that threaten their land and livelihoods). In 1997, King Harald V of Norway made a formal apology on behalf of the state to the Sami parliament. Norway’s parliament recently instigated a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to investigate and attempt to heal past injustices and abuses against the Sami and Kven (ethnic Finns in Norway) population.
One of the things that sets Clearing Out apart from much of contemporary Norwegian fiction is the inclusion of Sami history and Sami characters, not just as window dressing but an integral part of the narrative. Anna and Kåre are fully realized characters, intelligent, complex, and generous individuals—far from the stereotyped Sami figures that have appeared on the margins of Norwegian literature for two centuries. Ellinor’s relationships with them add depth to the story, and Anna and Kåre’s irony and insight also intensify the themes of historical displacement, political conflict, and renewed interest in Sami culture (Anna was and is an activist and Kåre’s grown children take pride in their Sami background). The novel also casts a welcome light on the coastal Sami society of Finnmark.
Beautifully constructed, Clearing Out is both a clearing out and a gathering together of old and new stories from Norway’s past history and current preoccupations. For many Norwegians (and readers of Norwegian fiction in translation) the far north is a strange country. In this novel Helene Uri bravely takes a step toward acknowledging what has been lost of language and memory, as well as what can be recovered and remembered.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HELENE URI
CONDUCTED BY TRANSLATOR BARBARA SJOHOLM
Novels that combine fiction and autobiography seem to be gaining currency, in Norway as in other countries. How do you see Clearing Out fitting into this literary genre?
I was surprised when I discovered I was unable to write about language death and the Sami language without writing autobiographically. It took me a long time to realize I actually had to include myself, as myself! I’d never done that before. In my earlier novels, the "I" has always been someone else. Now there was a close, if not completely overlapping, relationship between the novel's first-person narrator and the novel's author. I didn't want to write an autobiographical text, but it couldn't have happened otherwise.
There are relatively few novels in Norway that include Sami characters such as Anna and Kåre, characters who defy certain stereotypes. What was in your mind as you created them?
Generally speaking, I suppose I thought of them as I always do when I create my literary characters: I want them to be alive and believable. People are people regardless of ethnicity, social class, gender, and age. A human being is first an individual, then a member of a group. But after having said that, it’s obvious that the certainty of your own background is one of several factors that shape you as a human being. And when a group of people has been oppressed, the certainty of belonging is something that characterizes the people of that group. And I wanted this certainty to be reflected in the characters.
One of the main characters, Ellinor Smidt, has a PhD in linguistics and so do you. You’ve also published a number of popular books about the Norwegian language. Can you say something about your choice to look at language through the prism of a character studying “endangered languages” in Norway itself? Was your intention in part to educate the general Norwegian reader?
When I write nonfiction books on language, I want to inform, and yes, "educate," my readers. When I write fiction, nothing could be farther from my mind! I wanted to write about language death because the theme has enormous narrative power. An image that popped into my head early on was this: A grandmother sits with her newborn grandchild on her lap. She bends over the child and sings a lullaby that her mother and grandmother sang to her, and she knows that the child she holds in her arms will never understand the words in the song.
But if my readers end up thinking about language death—that around fifty languages disappear every year—then that’s a good outcome as well.
What has been the reaction from the Sami community(ies) in Norway to Clearing Out?
I’ve only heard positive things. I’m telling my story and others must tell theirs. In any case, many feel it’s a relief to read a narrative where the shame is lifted.
The search for buried family histories is a resonant one in North America, where many immigrants often shed their names, language, and even ethnicities in order to fit in. A number of Sami-Americans have had no idea they had Sami ancestors. Do you think this phenomenon might be more prevalent in Norway than many have thought?
They say that if you have family from the north of Norway, then it’s likely that Sami or Kven (a Finnish ethnic minority) forefathers and foremothers will turn up. So, yes, this is common—and it’s also common that one does not know because the shame of it has been covered up. I recently visited a library in Nordland where they had blown up a huge photograph of two older people sitting on stone steps in front of a house. In itself, the photograph was beautiful, but the most interesting thing about the photo was what a later relative had done with it: He had scratched off the footwear of those depicted. Both of the elders were wearing komagers (traditional Sami shoes), but where the komagers should have been, there were only lots of angry, white lines on the image.
Have you continued to learn more about your family since your novel was published a few years ago?
I’ve gotten to know several relatives—and I hope to continue to learn more about them. And about the family. And about the Sami people. It will probably turn out that I have some relatives from that side of the family in the United States as well.
Barbara Sjoholm is an award-winning translator of Norwegian and Danish and the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction. She translated the Sami stories collected by Emilie Demant Hatt in By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends (Minnesota, 2019).