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The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat: a remarkable anthology of Nordic short stories

Editors Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson show both the vigour and variety of the short story form in the North.

If you have been to the North, you will know that you are at its mercy. In winter the sun barely peers over the horizon; in summer the nights stretch on and on into dawn. The cold won’t nip your nose: it will kill you. Volcanoes erupt and swallow the land. Humanity’s neat ideas about nationhood and identity seem especially fragile: human beings are not the ones in control. In The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, a collection of stories “from the North”, the editors – Ted Hodgkinson (senior programmer for literature and spoken word at London’s Southbank Centre) and the Icelandic writer Sjón – find a common thread of storytelling across these chill and beautiful lands.

For the book’s purposes nine regions and cultures are included: not just Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Finland but also Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Åland Islands and Saami Norway in that country’s far north; a huge geographical span brought together in narrative and united against the elements. The old Nordic sagas are full of magic and terror: their modern equivalents, this book reveals, have many of the same sensibilities. Readers who know Nordic literature, either via the popularity of Scandinavian crime novels or thanks to the hyperrealism of a writer such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, may be in for a surprise. These are 21st-century wonder-tales, in which the ordinary round of daily life remains “alive to the possibilities of human transformation”, says the editors’ lucid introduction.

Perhaps the clearest example of such a tale is “The White-Bear King Valemon”, by the Swedish writer Linda Boström Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken). It begins with a girl, Ellinor, living at the edge of a forest; so far, so fairytale. But then: “The road construction was still going on, advancing steadily, consuming the earth bit by bit.” Her mother cleans obsessively, her father drinks; but the forest calls her, and what follows is a haunting story of a young woman pulled between the quotidian and the mythic. She falls in love with a bear; but the falling is also a becoming, until she herself is scaling the steep face of a mountain with her claws. This is luminous writing, alive to the natural world, aware of the present day and yet seeking another dimension.

Many of the stories in this collection insist in this way on their own reality. “Weekend in Reykjavík”, by Kristín Ómarsdóttir (translated by Jane Appleton), begins with an ordinary descriptive paragraph of the surroundings of Iceland’s National Gallery, but then shifts bluntly away from realism into a world of performance and attack, where food appears “through a thin curtain that hides the other dimension”. This is a book full of hidden dimensions. More than once I laughed out loud while reading, simply at the surprise of what I discovered when I turned the page.

But no less compelling is Frode Grytten’s story “1974”, translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley. This is a classic coming-of-age story, in which a boy discovers his mother is having an affair. It takes place over a summer, in a group of holiday cottages owned by the smelting works in Odda in south-central Norway where the boy’s father is employed. “In 1974 Odda had its historical moment – when social democracy reached its peak, all visions were within reach, the working class had civilized capitalism, and the welfare society was as close to reaching fruition as it would ever be,” says the narrator, looking back. He portrays a fracturing idyll: his father violent, his mother unhappy, her lover driving around in a white Ford Thunderbird, its exhaust casting a symbolic pall over the landscape. After the peak must come the trough: the Scandinavian ideal of equality is no more robust than any other national goal.

And those ideals themselves have a darker side. So here, too, are cultures which have survived by defining themselves against a majority: the Greenlanders, the Saami. “The dead are here,” writes Sigbjørn Skåden, a writer who grew up in a Saami village. “With no drama, no conundrum, without being anything out of the ordinary, they are here.”

This is a remarkable collection. The editors show both the vigour and variety of the short story form in the North and how, perhaps surprisingly, the sharp air of those high latitudes breathes through them all. 

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and Other Stories from the North
Edited and introduced by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson
Pushkin Press, 256 pp, £9.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist