A Rumbling from the Backwoods

“This is the oppressor’s language, yet I needed it to talk to you.”

Week of the Festival: Littfest, Umeå, Sweden

“This is the oppressor’s language, yet I needed it to talk to you.”

This line by the American poet Adrienne Rich conveys the experience of having to use the language of the powerful to communicate, of having to reflect yourself in the gaze of power to become visible. It is a line that expresses the postcolonial experience of – quite literally – writing in the language of a former colonial power, but also of having to struggle for your own sense of the world and your own narrative. How do you write about your colonial and rural reality beyond the economic and cultural metropolis? How do you write without exoticising, without reinforcing stereotypes, without reproducing the gaze of power? How do you write in the language of the oppressor, without that language and that oppression itself taking center stage? 

Over the last few years, a de-centering and decolonial tendency has established itself within Swedish poetry, focusing on Sápmi — the land of the Sámi indigenous community — and Norrland — the sparsely populated countryside of the north of Sweden. While Norrland comprises 58% of the country, it is still imagined as a barren and idle periphery, an inverted version of the productive centre. This is despite its producing 40% of the country’s energy supply and delivering the vast majority of its raw materials. 

David Väyrynen, photo by Daniel Olausson

This poetic movement attempts to liberate language from the oppressor, confronting stereotypes and exoticism. It instead makes language originate in the rural and the colonised, in a form of poetry that sees with the gaze and speaks with the tongue of the oppressed, engaging the language of power in as much as it takes it apart. 

In 2018, Linnea Axelsson was awarded the prestigious August Prize for her poetry book Ædnan. “Ædnan” is the North Sámi word for the land, the ground or the earth. In a book consisting of 760 pages, Axelsson tells the story of two Sámi families from the beginning of the 20th century up to the present day. The voices of Ristin, Lise, Sandra and other family members give evidence of a century of Swedish colonisation: from the imposition of the hard national border with Norway in the early 20th century to the ten-year long lawsuit of the Sámi village of Girjas against the Swedish state for control over natural resource extraction, fishing and hunting rights. Girjas's recent victory has resulted in an outpouring of hatred and threats against the village and its representatives. Thus once more making visible one of the formative experiences of the Sámi community: that of racism and aggression from the Swedish community. 

They’ll have to excuse us

If we upset their 

dreams

 

They’ll have to excuse us

But the epoch of progress

and the consciousness of the world

cannot contain

the history of their country

(Ædnan)

But it is also a gaze that is turned inward. It is telling of the fractured self of one who is denied the right to be whole, who has been taught to despise and hide their native tongue. Of what happens to a human being when her origin is repressed. 

How do you 

beat a people 

to a pulp

a land

Why did I

imagine

at all

 

That all was once

one and the same

And not like this

broken

 

as I myself

ever was

Still I wander here

(Ædnan)

In Axelsson’s poetry Sámi subjectivities and concrete experiences are weaved together to form another idea of Swedish history from that told by the majority Swedish society. In so doing, she reclaims Swedish language itself. Another possible way of not-speaking the language of the oppressor is to take it apart. This is the method of David Vikgren in his ninth poetry collection Materialvägensägen (2019). The term “materialvägen” of the title refers to the tracks made by the navvies during the construction of the railways in far north Sweden, while the term “sägen” is cognate with “saga”. The poems re-appropriate the contemporary political jargon – speaking of depopulated rural communities defined by the absence of social services and the exploitation of natural resources – and turn it over, picking it apart until nothing but translucent nonsense remains. 

In the words of the Swedish public radio, when Materialvägensägen was nominated for the annual 2020 poetry award Lyrikpriset: “The mumbo jumbo of regional policy is ground down to a singing cinder explosively testifying to the exploitation of the countryside”.

Backwater against accountant company know-how the No-trespass sign
ho-hos: Raise the Readers up high measure up crooked timbers + wind
with The Memory = a fine support for Night in the Beast’s swelling
belly. Yodeling down Material road with a sign and a rail and the
opinion polls tumbling. Here is the House with no Walls and a Floor
and a Roof holding up what Capital has obliterated long ago. But now
pull, pull the rope out of the Snake as If drawing hydroelectric power from
a Disestablished health care centre. At last standing striking the shovel
on the mouth upon In the names belonging to the Rat himself. And the stones shall cry out: In the ground In the mound arises a Closed-up health care centre. Whatever beyond be that the Mountain carries shall be Bottom.

(Materialvägensägen)

In his poems Vikgren, born and raised in the town of Övertorneå by the Finnish border, makes use of repetitive symbolisms of space — the defunded health care centre or the desolate shopping mall. In and around these places, characters such as The Rat, The Crocodile, The Company Kingpins and The Bachelor maneuver, surviving, exploiting or departing — the three available options in these depopulated areas that are rich in resources but emptied of social services. 

A third example is provided by David Väyrynen’s debut collection of poems Marken (2017). His poems — firmly rooted in the everyday language of Malmfälten’s mining towns defined by the dual traditions of working-class militancy and the Laestadian pietist revival — denude the southern metropolis of its pathetic vestiges of power. The country life of the far north is projected as ideal and normative, while the city people’s unending chase for entertainment, prestige and novelty is scrutinised. His poem “Vår ropande röst (i obygden)” (“Our Voice Calling (in the Wilderness)”) becomes a fiery call to arms, which is telling of a north that has broken free from the southern colonial power, taking back control of the natural resources on which the cities rely for electrical power and material wealth. 

and I say to you comrades and all like-minded people

let today be a day when we pledge solidarity

for the work that will have to be done here in future

to allow us to be independent of them

for only running their race

do we need their machines

only by being truly self-supporting

can we stay alive

and let us ever proclaim this truth

that we have always managed without them

that they have never managed without us

that ours is the land and the independence

forever and ever, amen to that

(Marken, translation by Robin Blanton)

But resistance also lies in everyday objects and observations. The subject speaking through Väyrynen’s poetry is the northern worker: someone who doesn’t expect to much from life and who already knows how to live the kind of simple life which will be required of us all as we move into the epoch of climate collapse. All the while the southerner keeps on consuming as if humanity could cut loose from nature. Thus the southerner becomes a stereotype of the very kind that the northerner has traditionally been reduced to. 

Fancy people (down south) never wear jackets

because they call them blazers or peacoats or parkas

and need help putting them on a hanger

 

or they call them anoraks or furs or vests

and indoors they are far too warm

and outdoors far from warm enough,

 

manufactured more for the statement they make

than any action they would let you take

they are less like jackets than like masks

(Marken, translation by Robin Blanton)

In 2019, the year after Ædnan was awarded the August Prize, author and journalist Marit Kapla received the same award for her debut Osebol — a work of journalistic poetry where the author returns to the village where she was born, in the north of Värmland close to the Norwegian border, to listen and talk to those who stayed behind. Osebol is in a state of rapid depopulation. The village, built around forestry, lost employment opportunities as the large forest industry conglomerates mechanised production. 

Kapla interviews almost every single adult in the village, and lets their voices resonate throughout more than 800 pages in a way that is reminiscent of Svetlana Aleksievitch. The voices ring with a deep love for the place they call home, but they also betray a collective inner dialogue over why anyone would want stay in such a place, doomed by time and centralisation. 

I wouldn’t really feel at home in a city either

I don’t want to sit around in some fucking suburbia

That’s not really my thing

I like loafing about

It’s a bit harsh

And the weeks are long when you’re away working

And you don’t grow any younger, do you

But it is what it is

One returns to Osebol you know

I guess it’s a disease or something

I guess it’s something deep down

I guess it’s that I’m born here

I guess that’s what it is

(Jan Hagström, born in 1966, Osebol)

As the world changes so does the little village of Osebol. Globalisation, the rise of the service economy, the mechanisation of the forestry industry, immigration — all these social transformations affect the inhabitants. The arrival of a small number of asylum-seekers becomes an opportunity to revive the community, at least for a little while. 

So there won’t be any asylum-seekers

at the local hotel

starting this September.

That will be weird.

 

There has been for four years.

 

It will be hard on the school, on us

the shop, the gas station

 

You see them around town.

 

They’re part of the view.

 

They’re always cheery when they come

say hello.

 

You’d have hoped that

more would have stayed

but it’s like they say 

perhaps many would have wished to

but its that thing with the jobs.

 

They don’t grow on trees.

(Anna-Karin Larsson, born in 1972, Osebol)

All of these poems relate to power and the metropolis in different ways. The exploiters of natural resources, the urbanist with his stereotypes, the Swede who is unaware of his own colonial past. In these poems they are revealed, as the people from the periphery speak of them. 

The voices in the poems are acutely aware of the othering that they are subjected to by society’s majority – the Swedes, the southerners, the city-dwellers. They, on the other hand, are queer indigenous-folk, the backwards country-folk, the lingering residue of times gone by. And so the text itself relates to this othering by inverting the stereotypes and reflecting the gaze, by talking to the oppressor in his own smashed up language. In doing so, the voices re-appropriate the words, unmasking power and making themselves the subjects of their own stories. The oppressor is still standing, but he is deprived of his language. What remains is a rumbling of voices, songs and words flowing from the backwoods. 

English translation of texts and poems by Samuel Carlshamre, unless otherwise stated

The article was commissioned and edited by Helena Fagertun