Writing her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – which was an International Man Booker Prize finalist – Danish author Dorthe Nors wanted to place her protagonist in some kind of existential crisis, but importantly she also wanted a female character who did not conform with typical societal roles.
“I wanted to write about a female protagonist who was not attached to the roles society often attaches women to, also in literature. We are mothers, lovers, wives, daughters when we pop up in fiction, and it’s been like that for centuries and centuries,” Nors said, speaking ahead of her appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival. “So I thought it would be nice to present a character who was there in her own right and her existence is blunt and is laid out there like it is. And she’s also a misfit, which was really really interesting to write about because she doesn’t want to adopt any of the roles that society wants from her.”
The protagonist, Sonia, challenged certain stereotypes in the West and in her native Denmark, she said.
“Because in Denmark, women are supposed to be strong and be able to do it all. I mean you can be a strong woman and you can be a mother and you can do everything at once and do it all. So she was very provocative to Danes, and as soon as she was translated into the world, she was suddenly a feminist icon,” she said. “It was so interesting to see how she was read and living. In Israel it was like, ‘Wow, you wrote, you wrote a book about a woman who doesn’t want to be a mom. I mean, wow’.”
In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, which is published in China by FLTRP, Sonia is learning to drive, which Nors says suggests is a metaphor for becoming the captain of your own ship.
“But it’s also a story about relationships, because in the process of learning how to drive you have a driving instructor who is actually in control of the car because otherwise you will kill people, so it’s a strange kind of relationship where you donate your free will to a person you don’t really know who’s sitting to your right,” she said. “And that says a lot about relationships, what do you donate into your partner? What kind of responsibilities of your own life are you donating to people around you? Are you actually taking responsibility for where you want to go and how you want to go there, or are you letting other people decide for you?”
So there is a lot of relationship analysis in this book, Nors said, because all the relationships that Sonia has can be understood in the light of what kind of responsibility of her own life she has given to other people instead of taking it herself.
Another book of hers that has been very successful all around the world is the short story collection Karate Chop, which is also published in China by FLTRP.
She wrote this collection in 2007 and 2008, and while she said the ‘myth” that she wrote the whole book in two weeks was not true, she did write seven or eight of the stories during a short stay in a remote cabin belonging to a Danish poet. At the time she was reluctant to even take on short stories, as she felt she might be more suited to the novel form.
“What happened was that I didn’t want to write short stories at all because I found them so difficult to write, because you can’t make any mistakes in a short story that are as short as the ones that I write. So you have to be so precise and so targeted and have such a strength in your voice. And I didn’t think I had that, but then I wrote one, and it was so much fun. I found out that it was a good instrument for me.”
Nors said she discovered she shared a trait with German short story writer Judith Herman, where they both found they picked up sentences they overheard in life and stored them in their minds.
“We hear a sentence here or a sentence there, and if we can tell that one sentence has a lot of energy attached to it, we store it. We just put it in a sort of an archive in the mind, and then we just let it roast down there for two, three, four years. And you don’t do that with novels, novels is a different way of working,” she said. “So that’s how Karate Chop actually came about: intensive, written in the moment, and erupted from sentences I’d heard in subways, in cafes, in conversations around dinner tables.”
The experience made her feel she fit in well with the American style of short story writing “because the American tradition of short story writing is very focused on presence, which is that you feel that you’re very close to the narrative, you can hear the voice and the intensity of the narrative. It feels like you’re in place immediately, you’re in the situation immediately, and there is a rapid effect, which is also why [my collection] is called Karate Chop – you hit fast and you’re out fast, and you have to leave the maximum effect on the reader.”
While she did not write the full Karate Chop collection in a couple of weeks, she admits that the other “myth” that was widely circulated at the time that she was in love while writing it was indeed quite true. And that helped her creative process in some way at the time, she feels.
“I was in love, and you know that sensibility to have when you’re really… I mean you’re crazy when you’re in love, you’re not normal, it is like a disease. But what it does for you is you are super sensitive to details. I mean, your senses are turned up in a weird way,” she said. “I think it might have something to do with the confidence in which I wrote it. Like, ‘I can do this’, you know. The talent doesn’t come from being in love. It’s there when I’m not in love as well. The confidence goes up and down.”
HYGGE AND THE DARK
Karate Chop is humourous and satirical at times, but also a very dark read in ways, and many suggestions have been made about how Nors may have been poking fun at the famous Danish notion of hygge and happiness in that writing.
Nors said that with its developed social welfare system Danes are “privileged beyond belief” compared to much of the world, but it was certainly not utopia.
“When it comes to life, as such, we are not happier than the rest. We still lose our loved ones, we still get sick, we still fight to have good lives, to become who we want to be. And also half the year is very dark in Scandinavia. It gets dark early, which is one of the reasons that we invented the phenomenon hygge. Because we have to cosy up for the darkness. But that also comes with a very high suicide rate. And a lot of melancholy and depression, because some people cannot cope with the darkness, and also a lot of loneliness, we are a lonely kind of people.”
In some ways she said she “was poking a little fun at hygge” because from the outside Denmark appeared the epitome of contentment and cosiness and “Moomin mugs and all that”.
“Hygge is also a way of staying in control of what we’re talking about. So, there are issues in the Danish society that perhaps are difficult to discuss because you can’t spoil the hygge. Racism, for instance – don’t spoil the hyyge. Sexism – do not spoil the hygge. Our colonial past, for instance – don’t spoil the hygge. So it’s also a social control system.”
Another acclaimed book that Nors wrote a few years ago, one that is not in Chinese yet, is Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space, an experimental book where every sentence was written as a headline or a social media update.
“I wanted to try and figure out if are you actually able to tell a deep, complex, existential story about a human being using only very fixed language structures like you do on the Internet, and also the news media. If you look at the news media in their headlines they are always constructed in the same way because that’s the way that the brain easily reads them. But what does that do to all the complexity of the human soul? All the complexity of relationships?”
In Denmark many school teachers used the book in class “and forced their poor pupils to try and play the same game” and see how deep their communication could go using only status updates. It was quite the challenge for them, and for Nors clearly a sharp social commentary on how humanity often interacts in contemporary times.
“That was a very playful book to write for me,” she said. “I had so much fun.”