David Väyrynen is a poet, publishing his first book of poetry, Marken, later this year. He is also the spokesperson for Norrländska litteratursällskapet/Författarcentrum Norr, an association for writers and other people interested in literature from the north of Sweden. Curious on his thoughts on the poetry from and the conditions for writers in the countrypart of Norrland, which covers almost 60 percent of Sweden’s area, I decided to ask him some questions.
Helena Fagertun (HF): This week Versopolis is dedicated to Swedish contemporary poetry. It’s also the week before Littfest in Umeå, which is the largest literature festival in northern Scandinavia. Last year, 2016, Provins, a magazine which focuses on literature from and about the Northern part of Sweden, and which I, together with the poet Pernilla Berglund, am the editor for, was awarded “Best Swedish Cultural Magazine of the Year.” There are also a number of writers from the north who have made it big recently, one example could be the writer Stina Stoor and her short story collection Bli som folk (Beasts and Other Stories) which was awarded the country’s two main debut prizes, as well as shortlisted for the August Prize for Best Fiction 2015. Is there a golden age for literature in the north right now?
David Väyrynen (DV): I’d say that it is a golden age for culture in the north right now. One could just look at my hometown of Gällivare, a small mining town 20 kilometers above the Polar circle, where a lot of creative people of my generation have moved back to live in the town or village they grew up in, in the last couple of years.
I think it has a lot to do with modern communication; it’s no longer necessary to live in a bigger town. And that is, in many ways, connected to how you value the periphery. During the 90s and the beginning of the millennium, I’d say that the strongest values were about consumption and city life.
Perhaps it’s just about me and my friends getting older, but my feeling is that other values have gotten stronger in the past ten years, values often about the ability to live a simpler life, in less need of money and success, and more about your possibility to create, never too affected by what are the main tendencies in cultural life at the moment. And for that, the northern part of Sweden, with smaller towns and cheaper lifestyle, is ideal.
Traditionally the prose from the north of Sweden has been strong, with authors such as Sara Lidman, Torgny Lindgren, and P-O Enquist. The province of Westrobothnia actually calls itself “the county of story-telling.” There are, and have of course been, poets coming from the north as well, but they seem to not have been as central to Swedish literature as the novelists. Why is that, do you think? And can you comment on the story-telling of story-telling of the north?
Spontaneously, I’d say it’s because a lot of the communities in the north were only oral in their communication, for a very long time. Much of the prose from, for example, Westrobothnia, that has gotten popular, is a lot like story-telling, and perhaps that’s the reason why the prose has become bigger than poetry. Poetry has also, for a long time, been seen as too pompous to be a natural part of everyday life in the northern region.
The other question is trickier. If we accept the capitalism of today as it’s loosely organized, I’d say that branding a whole region in this way is a better form of capitalism than plundering natural resources. Of course, it’s about tourism and trying to sell a package of experiences to middle class, cultural, mostly white human beings, and that will affect the presentation of the authors, as well. The branding will probably prefer something feel-good, instead of something too critical. In a decade or two, it might affect the literature being written, as well, and literature formed by tourist companies isn’t what I want to read.
Over the last year you’ve been the spokesperson for Norrländska litteratursällskapet/Författarcentrum Norr, a non-profit association for writers and other people interested in literature from the north of Sweden. What does this association do, and can you tell something about the conditions for the writers in the north today?
The slash symbol in the name marks the difference between the first part, Norrländska litteratursällskapet, to which everyone who is interested in northern literature can apply to be a member, and the second part, Författarcentrum Norr, which is an organization for published authors, and mostly functions as a link between authors and, for example, libraries wanting to book a presentation or a reading. Because we are the sum of these two, the board of the association can work on arranging meetings for both authors and people interested in literature, often readings during release parties for our magazine, Provins, and sometimes seminars on different subjects.
Norrland is a large region, but we try to spread our activities to as many different places as possible. The members of the board are located in different cities and villages, so the association doesn’t really have a center, something I see as one of our strongest advantages. One of our biggest events is the ceremony where we announce the winners of Norrlands litteraturpris, a yearly contest for books with a strong connection to Norrland.
About the conditions for the writers in the north today, I’d say they are okay. As mentioned before, modern communications have done a lot for the possibility of living in the north. But, at the same time, perhaps a bit of the old popular movement around literature has got a beat. I sadly think that a lot of bookings nowadays are being done in the bigger cities. A lot of smaller towns struggle with their economy and, of course, that affects the authors, not being able to tour as much as I believe there’s an interest for.
Last year the Swedish Writers’ Union presented ten actions that need to be done in order to improve the conditions for the indigenous Sami literature. Within the Writers’ Union there is also a group working specifically with these questions. This year Norrländska litteratursällskapet/Författarcentrum Norr will hold its annual summer meeting in Jokkmokk in Lapland. In your opinion, which are the challenges for Sami literature and how do you think they can be overcome?
There are hardly any publishers working with Sami writers born in Sweden. That is the biggest problem, as I’ve learnt. A lot of the Sami writers born in Sweden have been published by Norwegian publishers, because Norway has so far supported literature written in minority languages more generously.
Since 2000, the Sami language, together with four other languages, has been an official minority language in Sweden, but a lot of the support goes to translators working with informative texts for the municipalities.
I think the problem for the Sami literature has been lack of structure. When there’s no structure, of course individual authors, like Paulus Utsi and Rose-Marie Huuva, have found their way to literature, but to create something bigger, Sami literature is in need of a couple of corner stones, for example publishers or a Sami literature school. That would make it a lot easier to create the network that is needed to publish the authors of today, but also to educate the authors of tomorrow. The work that is being done by the Swedish Writers’ Union, together with the Sami association Bágo, is a promising start.
You are also a poet yourself, published in a number of magazines, doing readings and quite often featured in the media, especially since you are one of few poets living in the small town of Gällivare in Lapland. Later this year, you will be publishing your first book of poetry. Can you tell more about this book and your hopes for it regarding, for instance, distribution and prejudices about the north and people living in the north?
The name of the book will be Marken, which means (the) ground/territory/land. It’s a poetry book, but it will contain a lot of different styles: a short story, psalms, an annual report from a fictive collective household and a funeral telegram, among many others. As I see it, the book is about values in the north of Lapland, values formed by the two biggest movements up here: The working-class movement and the Laestadian movement, a religious revival within the Swedish church. In those two very different movements I’ve found similar values about solidarity, function, survival, humbleness and the unwillingness to complain about insignificant problems.
I’ve tried to use the Finnish form of Swedish that we speak up here, partly because it’s a form that has never been used in literature before, and partly because I believe it’s a form that will appeal to the people I belong to. As I have mentioned before, a lot of the texts are not poetry in the strict sense. I wanted to create fictional dialogues that could have been heard in the local store, and still fill them with meaning, often connected to, let’s say, the idea that a pair of dirty trousers is as good for keeping the cold away as a pair of clean ones.
Because of my living here, my poetry will hopefully be better absorbed by people who I would love to read my poetry to during a tour around the smaller towns and villages of Norrbotten and Lapland.