05. 06. 2012. 10:00

"I never write to provoke": interview with Janne Teller

Janne Teller's young-adult novel Nothing (2000) caused controversy in Denmark and was banned for a time before it became compulsory reading in Danish schools. Her 2004 novel If Scandinavia Were at War shows the hopelessness of refugees and paints a dire picture of the majority society. Janne Teller was one of the guest writers of the International Book Festival in Budapest this year.

Your novel If Scandinavia Were at War shows the life of refugees from the perspective of a teenager. Did it stir such a controversy as Nothing?

It was a little bit different: this time the problem was not whether young people should be allowed to read it, but that some politicians said: oh, it is not true, we would never be like this. They didn’t understand that this is fiction. Some people felt evidently uncomfortable about seeing the situation from the other side: how you would feel if you were in that position, if you were treated the way these people in the book are? Then, of course, this has some consequences: what kind of person are you if you actually do treat people like that?

The book was written in 2001. Although we had to wait more than ten years for the Hungarian edition, it still has a lot to say, its message is very timely. Actually, I can’t decide whether it is a good or a bad news…

This is actually how I feel about it. Of course, I am very happy that the book is now being spread in Europe. But in a sense I hoped that it would be unnecessary. I wrote it because I was very disturbed by what happened in Denmark ten years ago.

What happened then?

In Denmark we always had minority governments that, whether they were left or right, cooperated across the middle. Then in 2001, the centre right parties obtained majority with the votes of the extreme right. It became obvious very soon that they gave immigration policy to the extreme right. And in a very short time Denmark totally changed. It is not just that there were very strict policies introduced against asylum-seekers and immigrants, but even Danes who wanted to marry foreigners had a hard time, because it was very difficult to bring people in. And the rhetoric against foreigners, particularly against Muslims, became horrible, with politicians claiming that Islam is not a religion but a terrorist organization, or that the Quran is like Mein Kampf. So Denmark has turned very antagonistic to foreigners, and Muslims in particular.  I myself come from a family of immigrants...

Yes, the question is pretty evident: to what extent were you influenced by this background in writing this book?

It is not that I sit around and keep saying that I am an immigrant, but I guess I am provoked by this fact. My mother was born in Austria and grew up near the border to Slovenia. After the war, the Red Cross went around and offered the skinny children to come to Denmark and Sweden to get food. My mother was sent to a Danish family: she was twelve years old and came with a sign around her neck, just with the name and the address of the family she should go to. She spoke no Danish, they spoke no German, and still they took her in, and gave her food for three months. Later she came back to Denmark several times, and later on moved to Denmark. On my father’s side, his father was a soldier in WWI, and after the war he came to Denmark with twenty marks in his pocket. In a sense, they were typical economic immigrants, they wanted to have a better life somewhere else. Yet politics often disturbs normal people’s life, and for different reasons they might need to leave their country. And then they lose control over their life. This is not to say that there are no problems when suddenly there is immigration on a huge scale, or when different cultures meet. But you always have to remember that these are human beings. It could be you. It is destinies we talk about, not numbers.

Why is it important for you to adapt the book to the circumstances of the country where it is published?

Because I want the reader to be able to fancy herself in the protagonist’s place, and I think that is only possible if the novel takes place in the place the reader comes from. I want to give the feeling of 'what if all this happens to you'. So in the original version there was a Danish family, and then I adapted the text for each country, but it is exactly the same story, the same things happen to them. The only things that change are the reasons for the war, and some small things linked to the culture. Like, you know, I use the Oktogon where it is the City Hall Square in Copenhagen.

Who had the idea to have a passport format for the book?

Actually, it was the publisher who first thought about it and I loved the idea. A passport is the most important document for a refugee, and it is mostly what they can’t get. Sometimes we don’t realize how privileged we are to have it.

Both in If Scandinavia Were at War and in Nothing the protagonists are teenagers. Did the perspective of a child make your job as a writer easier? Was it easier to shed light upon sensitive issues in this way?

The big existentialist questions are actually really simple. Nothing was the first book I wrote for young adults, and somehow this made it possible for me to be more direct, to go further in a way I don’t think I could have done if I tried to write the same thing for adults. Because young adults are very demanding readers, they don’t take bullshit, they don’t accept conventions. So you have to be really truthful.
And I think young adults see that there is hope in this book. They see very clearly that it is not a book that says life has no meaning. Gradually the question changes, and the real question becomes what the meaning is, what matters really? Is it those things that the society thinks are important—to be someone, to be number one—or it is something else?

What were the arguments for the ban of Nothing?

Generally it was that there is too much violence in it, which I really don’t think is true. Compared to any crime story there is nothing here, violence is described only in a few places. And some people said it could make young people depressed and commit suicide. I was very shocked by this. To me, even though the book is very dark, it ends in a positive tone. I never write to provoke. There is no sexual content, no foul language in it. I thought it was such a normal story. Actually, I write to learn, I always write about things I don’t understand.

You gave up your professional career in the UN in order to devote yourself to writing. Was there a moment in the last fifteen years when you felt sorry about this choice?

No, even if there are days when writing is very difficult. What I miss though is the multicultural life, and to be involved with a group of people in something, to have a common goal. But I really feel at home when I write my stories. By addressing some of the subjects I use my experiences, what I have learned. So now I am working on the same things, just from another angle.

Orsolya Ruff

Tags: Janne Teller