Johan Sandberg McGuinne

- Sweden -

Johan Sandberg McGuinne was born in 1987 in Västerbotten. As a child, he moved south with his family to Linköping in Östergötland after a few years in Umeå and Vännäs. Apart from Swedish and English, he developed a familiarity with two minority languages, Southern Sami and Scottish Gaelic. To him, being multilingual may best be described as being self-evident. Due to a great interest in languages he spent several years in European universities, where he studied literature, linguistics and educational science. Sandberg McGuinne is currently a certified teacher, having acquired two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Gothenburg, one in English and one in German. He also holds an MLitt focusing on Scottish literature from the University of Stirling, Scotland.

After one year in Freiburg im Breisgau, where he studied German linguistics, Sandberg McGuinne moved full-time to Stirling, Scotland, where he would stay until 2013. The relocation filled an academic and cultural gap, as his return to Scotland also meant a return to the Gaelic language. Aside from literary studies, he joined a Gaelic choir, reuniting him with the Gaelic language. The significance of music as a universal and personal way back into Gaelic is a recurring theme in his poetry.


This might be the best way to describe it: the song works as a living metaphor for creativity, a way of being engulfed by language, even when it hurts.


Moving to Scotland didn’t only reinforce his knowledge of the Gaelic language. At the time, he was also learning Southern Sami remotely from the University of Umeå. When returning to Sápmi after six years, he had retaken his mother tongue to such an extent that he could teach it. Today, apart from teaching Southern Sami, Sandberg McGuinne also teaches English, crafts and German. As of 2016 he has been the head teacher of Sami and English in the municipality of Lycksele.


Apart from his four primary languages, Sandberg McGuinne also speaks German, French and basic Portuguese. Mastering several languages is, in a sense, a Sápmi tradition. In the past, several habitants of the border areas near Russia, Norway and Finland knew a variety of Sami languages, in addition to their primary languages. In a way, Sandberg McGuinne is best described as a contemporary, and very much living, version of yesterday’s Sápmelaš (Sami).


In my experience, two traces clearly appear in Sandberg McGuinne’s writing – the ocean and the song. In one hand, the ocean signifies life, its grandness and inconsistency. At the same time one also finds melancholy, a longing for something. Although a restrained wrath is found in his poetics, I find him longing, rather than gloomy. Maybe it is inevitable, considering that his life accommodates so many important parts, that one is not able to own, or to be in, simultaneously. One cannot live in Scotland and only speak Sami, nor can one live in Sápmi being fully Gaelic.


The duality is fascinating, and at the same time it defines his writing in a way that has an impact on both linguistic and thematic choices.


A mhuir, suidh sìos ri m’ thaobh                             O sea, rest beside me       
air iomall an stuadh,                                               on the borderland of oceans 
is leig dhomh òran eile.                                           and teach me another song

Bha e tromhad an dàinig ceòl thugam;                    Music came to me through you;
gach rann ‘s gach sèisd bho d’ bhilean                     each verse, each chorus from your lips
mar ealt eun nar itealaich fo na reultan,                  like flocks of birds in flight under the stars,do ghàir-thuinn binn                                                     the murmur of your waves 
nar barcadh mu m’ cheann                                       washing over my head. 


In Sandberg McGuinne’s writing, the song and the joik both function as metaphors for being alive, being human and expressing oneself. Describing a melancholy of language stemming from the sensation of being in between, yet at the same time grounded in one’s languages, the song works as a mediator for what emotions and thoughts he chooses to convey. In that way, approaching one’s mother tongue through music is Sandberg McGuinne’s way of learning, getting closer to, and growing into his cultures – as they learn of, get close to, and grow into him.


Although there is a constant presence of water in his writing, and a deep familiarity with his cultures is sensed, he does not draw on primary industry such as reindeer herding, fishing or landscape. I do not sense that there are places he needs to go, which is a common thing for people, a static place to call home. Instead, he creates his Gaelic dimension and space through conjoining the song with the presence of the ocean.


In the same manner, his Sami homeland is found in the joik.


giesege gujhth vuesehtih                             That summer you showed me
guktie njoktjh vueline sneerhkedh,how you spun sinew into swans, aided by your songs,
guktie gïeleb gealojne gïelh             how you, effortlessly, snared each spoken syllable of                                                              ours 

gosse jorkestimmiej bïjre                             as we once again
vihth slognestimh,                                        made up lies about translations,
die gärjab vïrrine                                         you wrote
saepmien lïhtsegisnie                                   a book with blood drawn from your heart
tjeelih                                                          on the backbone of our people


I sometimes get the impression that Sandberg McGuinne is approaching poetry in the same manner as a bloodhound. The details in imagery precedes style and quantity. It may have something to do with his thorough studies in literature. It is through metaphor that he discerns that songs and joiks have wandered through time and territory. I remember a passionate conversation about him discovering the similarities between a Sami joik and a Gaelic song, how they both told the same tale, even though it had developed in different directions. He is so assured in both Gaelic and Sami that he is able to see, and dares to hear, that there has been a literary exchange between people, through looking at the ocean as a unifier instead of a barrier, something that only he might be able to find.


How many other Gaelic Sami do you know of?


It is not only through his poetics that most people have gotten to know him. Through well-written debate articles and blog posts, Sandberg McGuinne often uses a kind of humoristic wrath when the dominant culture gets on its high horse. I experience the same balance in his poetry, and it is interesting to see how he, with precision and rapidity, comes back with something which is often widely spread. Owing to his cutting tongue and accurate voice, he has become quite the commentator of cultural politics in Sápmi.


Due to his linguistic knowledge, Sandberg McGuinne is often asked to translate texts ranging from poetry to screenplays. One important contribution was to translate and adapt the Sami jubilee performance of the epic poem Jielemen Aavoeinto English for the grand centennial celebration of Tråante in 2017. With an affecting imagery, it was important to keep the rhythm. In the English adaptation one senses both proximity and distinct balance between the idiomatic poetics of Rawdna Carita Eiras and Sandberg McGuinne, which may best be explained by the fact that Jielemen Aavoewas based on both the joik and the song, a general theme that I would say summarizes the entirety of Sandberg McGuinne’s poetry.


Written by Anne Wuolab and Pia Sjögren

Translated by Kristoffer Appelvik Lax


All quoted poems are in Gaelic and Sami.