Sigbjørn Skåden

- Norway -

Sigbjørn Skåden (born 1976) grew up in the Sami village Planterhaug in Tromsø, Northern Norway. He has got two master’s degrees in literature, one from the University of York on the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, and one from the University of Tromsø on the development of Saami poetry in the 20th century.  His debut poetry collection Skuovvadeddjiid gonagas (The King of Shoemakers) was written in Northern Sami and for this long epic poem he was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the Nordic countries. He was also a key speaker at the indigenous forum at the World’s largest poetry festival in Medellín, Colombia, in 2012.


Skådens authorship ranges from non-fiction books about Sami people and culture, via the controversial blog novel Ihpil: Láhppon Mánáid bestejeaddji (Ihpil: The Savior of Lost Children), where he acted as a lesbian Sami girl, to the newly released novel Våke over dem som sover (Watch over those who sleeps). In 2010 he published his second book of poetry, Prekariáhtalávlla (A Song for the Prekariat). He has also written numerous works for stage performances and exhibitions, as well as edited publications and work on translations between Sami and Norwegian. Skåden is the first Sami author who's won the Havmann prize.

It might seem like I do it exactly the same way as everyone else


Saami literature is rooted in the oral tradition, in “yoik” – the traditional Saami form of song – and, in a number of cases, in the prose poem. Due to the Saami peoples nomadic way of life few publications exist. People who inquire about an overview of Saami literature are sometimes told to ask again in a hundred years, when the authors have had time to establish themselves. Nevertheless researchers and cultural historians have, since the 17th century, nursed the idea of this particular people somewhere in the vast wilderness of the north, sitting outside their tents behind the mountain gates where witches gather, singing their traditional songs in the darkness of deep winter. They have been fantasizing about their culture, their rites, the reindeers they are herding and their magical drums, and, above all, nurtured the idea that there, in their oral tradition, exist a yet-to-be-transcribed poetry epic in the veins of Kalevala.


Today, 400 years later, one can only wish for a more serious approach. Blind spots in the Nordic literary community, the lack of interest in each others writing and the fact that most translations undertaken are between the dominant and closely related languages of Danish-Norwegian-Swedish, should be the key issues of the debate. Central themes could, and should, be the Saamis – or the Greenlanders, or the Inuits – struggle for their own language; their stories, which, somehow, never seem to be heard by the rulers of the countries who govern Sápmi, and, most importantly, the many different expressions of the new Saami literature. Unfortunately, there is not room in this short text to address these issues. Let us instead hope that the voices from the marginalized languages rise higher and stronger until they no longer can be ignored.


It is hard, from an outside perspective, to talk about Saami poetry without incorporating the old stereotypes, treating the writers as a homogeneous group and reinforcing the post-colonial structures which the poems themselves seek to expose. The pitfalls are many, especially when talking about the Saami-Norwegian writer Sigbjørn Skåden (born 1976). In his aphoristic publication Notes from a Backwoods Saami Core a passage reads:


“I wash the dishes in the Saami way,” he says.

“How so?” says the anthropologist.

“It’s in the wrist,” he says. “But for people who are not so familiar with Saami culture it might seem like I do it exactly the same way as everyone else.”


This is a poet and cultural worker, son to a Saami politician, hailing from Planterhaug, in the Norwegian Saami region of Skånland, who is publishing epics in the Northsaami languange and who often makes appearances in gákti, the traditional dress of the Saami, but lives in the city of Tromsø, works as an editor of magazines, hosts cultural festivals and have a masters degree in British literature from the University of York. His collections of poetry, novels and non-fiction books (five in total, seven if you count the translations from Northsaami to Norwegian) might start in the English post-punk scene and end up in the political and cultural resurgence in Sápmi during the 70s and 80s. It is easy to see that Sigbjørn Skåden isn't doing things  exactly the same way as everyone else.


His debut, Skuovvadeddjiid gonagas (The King of Shoemakers), was published in 2004 and is still unrivaled in its genre and language. In this poem we get to know Jusup, a young Saami, who, after some years in the South, returns to his native village in the region of Ofoten during the interwar period. The trials of Jusup mirror those of the mythical Ahasuerus, the shoemaker of Jerusalem who denied Jesus, on his way to Golgotha, a place to rest and was therefore sentenced to wander the earth until the last judgment. Jusup is, like many of the protagonists in northern Nordic literature (Olof in Here's Your Life by Eyvind Johnson, Isak in The Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamun, Didrik in Thy Servant Is Listening by Sara Lidman) both rootless and restless, even after he returns home. The life of Jusup constitutes a vassalage echoing the conditions in today's Saami community and touching on issues of Saami cultural politics, young Saami identity and the new challenges of Scandinavian society.


To not belong anywhere also means being equally comfortable wherever you go, adapting to conditions whatever they are. In an unforgiving interwar period, strangely similar to today's harsh society, Jusup is searching, delighted and elevated on the one hand, and confused, questioning and desperate on the other:


The last whispered words heard on the busy docks

still ringing in the dancer’s ear:

“Fucking lapp bastards…!”

words spoken to Jusup from the excerpts of

the world

cannot touch the fugitive’s soul.


Skåden's poem do have its streaks of folklore, but, one might suspect, as an ironic gesture to the Norwegian and Swedish critics. The King of Shoemakers is one long, enigmatic Grand Tour, a strange heroic verse encompassing, through flash-like abbreviations, huge undertakings: dispersion,    migration, urbanization. Its boundless space creates a point of view transcending history itself. Jusup wanders like a true nomad, his journey is like a wave alternating between elevation and destruction, between seeds and crops, triumph and tragedy. There's something “primitive” in the writing, but, like with the elements of folklore, the primitivness feels like a part of the frame of reference, a self-conscious and ironic gesture to Saami notables like Nils Aslak Valkeapää and Paulus Utsi.


The poem, 14 chapters long, reads like a song of praise that recreates through destruction and expands the world through annihilating its linguistic and thematic barriers.



do you want the full story?

do you want the misery?

do you want all the heart?

do you want the inexplicabilities?

Oui, c’est moi, mes enfants,

qui suis le Juif errant,

Jusup is my name,

by now you know,

and in solitude I drift across the land.


Even more importantly, Skåden's writing crystallizes late Nordic modernism. Strangely free from, but deeply rooted in, traditional storytelling it unites its timeless introversion with a consciousness of experience. By binding together languages spoken in the geographic-historic region called the Nordics Countries, his poetry is also geopolitical rather than genealogical. To describe his wandering life Jusup uses both French and German – a way to emphasize the multi-lingual characteristics of todays Saami youth, according to Skåden himself.


The King of Shoemakers wants to give the nomads a voice. The Nordic Countries, northern Scandinavia in particular, have been populated by Swedes and Norwegians since a thousand years, but the countries have also hosted refugee children from Finland, traveling salesmen from Germany, immigrant Wallonian workers, traveling Roma and rejected Saami forcefully converted to Christianity. They all raise their voices in ascending, violent shifting between beautiful praises and scornful showdowns. When The King of Shoemakers reaches its inevitable crescendo those voices are hard to ignore.


I traverse the squares of your townships,

the roads of your hamlets,

the murky rivers of your ornamentations:





I fashion shoes for all

to spin my tiny world;

without my shoes I were not Jusup,

busy fingers sewing mindrecessed ornaments,

propulsively walking through history in a king’s shiny clothes,

have you seen me?

my shoes wallop


as I traverse the land:

da datta dayadhvam

shantih, shantih, shantih!

do duty duefully

satan, satan, satan!

Erik Jonsson