The Week Before The Festival: Littfest, Sweden

No Language is Too Small To Remain

An Interview with Johan Sandberg McGuinne

/ by Helena Fagertun

Nordic and international collaborations to support the conditions for Sami writers should be strengthened’. This was one of ten actions presented by the Swedish Writers’ Union and the Sami non-profit association, Bágo Čálliid Siebrie, in 2016. Curious as to the background of this Ten Point Action Plan, as well as what has been achieved since and what lies ahead, I interviewed Johan Sandberg McGuinne, who is a teacher of South Saami and English and one of the members of the board of Bágo Čálliid Siebrie.


In 2014 Bágo Čálliid Siebrie, a non-profit association for Saami writers and other people interested in Saami literature, was founded. It seems like the need for a network such as Bágo was acute and huge. Can you tell me more about the background and reasons for the association?

Looking back, I think that it is both thrilling and humbling to think about how what was initially little more than the brainchild of a group of aspiring writers in Jåhkåmåhkke, on the Swedish side of Sápmi, quickly developed into one of the most important voices for Saami literature out there. The initial goal of Bágo was never to become a big association, but rather to create a platform from which Saami authors could address the world in general, and the Swedish majority society in particular, with a unified voice.

We quickly realised that our association filled a massive gap in the existing systemic framework available in Sweden with regards to literature. Not only was there a massive need for someone to openly question the abysmally low numbers of Saami books published in Sweden, the lack of a platform from which one could address the wider public meant that any and all critiques of the current literary climate were dismissed as singular, misinformed voices. Thus, Bágo soon turned from being merely an association for published and aspiring writers from Sápmi, into a vocal, public supporter and promoter of a Saami voice in Swedish literature.

And, without exaggerating, I think we can safely say that it has paid off – it cannot have been easy for the Swedish Writers’ Union to openly question the settler state mentality so ingrained in Sweden, as they did when they proclaimed that ‘the Swedish self-image cannot be considered whole if its void of a Saami cultural as well as literary voice’, and for that I am eternally grateful. It shows both an understanding of the current climate, and a wish to change it for something better.

Would we have come to this point without the help of Bágo? I might sound conceited in proclaiming no, but I do not think that Saami literature on the Swedish side of the border would have come this far without the commitment and hard work laid down by the founders of Bágo and all their collaborators.

Bágo has, since its foundation, done many things to support and promote Saami literature. In 2016 the association, together with the Swedish Writers’ Union, presented ten actions that need to be done in order to improve the conditions for the Sami literature. What were these actions and how has Bágo worked with them since then?

The Ten Point Action Plan was first published and put together by the Swedish Writers’ Union’s Saami Working Group, as well as Bágo, as a way to create a step-by-step guide to promote and actively revitalise the Saami literary scene in Sweden. Two of these proposed ten actions that have already been successful were to create a Saami Writers’ Centre (FC Sápmi), which I will talk more about later, and to have permanent Saami ombudsmen in the Swedish Writers’ Union.

One of the proposed actions focuses on creating a new system of scholarships and grants to promote publishers and writers to produce new literature in different Saami languages. This is crucial in order to change the ongoing and, frankly speaking, depressing trend in Sweden where we, until recently, have only published one new book in a Saami language every fifth year. As someone who produces their work through the medium of a highly-endangered language, it is important that you have both the financial and communal support needed in order to continue to be able to write books in your own language. With a reader base amounting to fewer than a 1000 people in some cases, a writer cannot live off their work unless they are also supported through grants or project scholarships.

Another important proposed action is to fund a school for Saami writers, which would not only guarantee that future generations would have access to newly-written books, but also that the intergenerational transmission of knowledge from one writer to the next would not be lost.

During the Jokkmokk winter market this year, FC Sápmi was launched. What is FC Sápmi and what will FC Sápmi do?

FC Sápmi, or The Centre for Saami Authors, is perhaps one of Bágo’s most exciting projects. First of all, it focuses on a more inclusive understanding of the term ‘Saami writer’ and shifts it from being merely a synonym of ‘a writer who writes in a Saami language’ to that of ‘any Saami that writes’. At the same time, the Centre strives to encourage and promote the production of new literature in all our Saami languages. In a climate where we are constantly surrounded by a pessimistic outlook on the future of not only our literature but our languages as well, it is important that we shift the discourse from one of negatives to one of positives. By establishing a Centre for Saami Writers, we want to give writers the help and support they need, in order to be able to continue to produce books in different Saami languages, but we are also wanting to promote a strengthened Saami literacy amongst our younger generations.

As a result of language loss and a constant change of orthographies, many Saami grow up unable to both read and write their own languages – with the creation of FC Sápmi, we hope that we can change this trend.

Now, the Centre is still young, but we strongly believe that writing and reading books in your own language is a human right that has to be protected and nurtured by both Sápmi itself and the Swedish state, as well as all the other colonial nations that currently govern Sápmi. Over the next couple of years, the Centre will function as a focal point for public awareness, knowledge dissemination and skills development aimed at new and established Saami writers. With time, we hope, this will lead to a brighter and more positive future for Saami literature.

Apart from your engagement in Bágo you are also a schoolteacher of South Saami and English. Do you see parallels between the situation for the Saami literature and the Saami languages?

Most certainly! Our languages currently find themselves in a position where their worth as tools for communication and vessels of cultural knowledge transmission is diminished, simply because of their endangered status. As a result of internalised colonialism, we have often bought the idea that our languages are too small to be useful in a global world, and if we do think of them as important, we instead seem keen on force-feeding ourselves the lie that our own languages somehow are harder and more complex than all other languages out there, thus making it impossible to learn them properly.

Moreover, because of an alarming lack of educational resources, and the fact that most Saami children on the Swedish side of the border have to learn Norwegian before they can even start reclaiming their Saami languages – an effect of the Swedish state’s historical choice to quite often ignore the need of our children, thus making us as teachers dependant on Saami educational resources created in Norway for a completely different educational system – we find ourselves in a position where we, as teachers, tend to focus primarily on orality, rather than literacy.

This, in turn, means that we as a community risk raising generations of speakers who have to jump through numerous hoops just to become unconfident speakers of a Saami language, whilst at the same time stripping them of an ability to read and write Saami books.

In short, one could claim that as long as the Swedish school system continues to allow schools to deny students their legal and human rights to their mother tongues throughout the country, and this in turn means that we, as Saami teachers are doomed to fail to raise a generation of readers because of a lack of lessons, we will struggle when it comes to the survival and longevity of our own literature.

Then again, to finish on a more upbeat note, Saami school-children today seem genuinely interested in not only learning their languages, but to be able to write them as well. If we can just figure out a good way to focus that passion for our culture and languages into something good, I don’t doubt for a second that we will foster a new wave of Saami writers that can continue to produce books for many years to come.

Helena Fagertun

is a Swedish writer, translator and former editor for the literary magazine Provins. In 2016 her translation of American writer Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (2012) was published and in 2017 Green Girl (2011/2014) by the same author was published, both at the publishing house Modernista.