No sugarcoating in Greenland

Feb 13, 2010 by

Kim Leine’s highly acclaimed and powerful debut “Kalak” from 2007 was written from a strong urge for penance.  “It was one of those stories that just needed telling”, he says. The book was written in the traditional style of a novel, but is categorised as a remembrance novel as it is actually a biography. Point in fact, the main character has the author’s real name in the story.

Born in Norway into a religious family, Kim learns from a very early age to fear God. So five years later, when his father fled a small isolated community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in search of self-realization in Copenhagen, Kim is left in a suffocating world of angst with his mother. At the age of 16 he runs away from home on his own quest for independence, hoping to escape an ever watching and punitive God.

Being a Jehovah’s Witness, he knows he is an outcast now. Therefore, looking for guidance, he takes refuge with his father. But he arrives in Denmark only to find that his father is living in a gay relationship and is very dismissive of any emotional needs he might have. With a budding sexuality and a deep longing for acknowledgement, Kim is manipulated and beguiled to have sex with his father.

Kim gets entangled in a world of abuse, manipulation and betrayal. Everything becomes a disguise of what really is. Abuse is disguised as fatherly love, intimidation as guidance, no boundaries as cool intellectual freedom. Being the young son and therefore inferior, Kim learns to pretend and put on a mask to hide his shame, anger and growing repugnance of his father. At school he becomes the strange and clever boy with an interesting father. At home he is the submissive son and the captive audience to his father’s display of superiority in music and literature. But slowly his world opens up and grows:

When I arrived in the city a lifetime ago, it was foreign and safe. Now it was confidential and threatening. Back then, I could not get lost as I was already lost.  Now I have a starting point and a point can easily get dissolved and vanish.  I could just keep on walking, I thought. But I knew it is impossible. You cannot disappear twice in one summer.

I move outwards in half circles. One day I turn left, the next right, I cross boundaries and return only to take off again and move further away from my starting point. I do not disappear. I am building a city in my head, my own Copenhagen, a city which has never existed before. The streets do not move anymore. Arches, walls, staircases stay in the same place. Because I decide it. I construct whole quarters in one day, erect churches and hotel buildings, move a point a couple of hundred meters closer to the centre, tear down a castle and rebuild it in a more suitable place, plant a park. The city grows. I walk and walk.

Pacing the streets and getting an education as a nurse helps Kim to detach himself from his father and begin a life on his own. He moves out and eventually makes friends. After a while he even meets a woman with whom he feels safe and he starts a family. But when the chance of getting far away arrives, Kim takes employment in Greenland without hesitation. Once again he becomes a refugee, this time with his family.

In Greenland, Kim hopes to start anew without all the clutter from Denmark. But emotional baggage has a way of clinging on to you, no matter how far you run. At home he makes a safe haven for himself in a clean little room, where he can escape from the world and read, write and listen to his own choice of music in peace. Each day he eats their food and makes it a virtue to learn a new word in Greenlandic. By all means he does not want to act like the post colonial Danes, who tend to think they are there to educate and save the inhabitants from themselves.

At first, Kim’s almost frantic attempts to integrate into Greenland’s society is not a labour of a love for the people or the country. It’s born out of a desire to create a new identity and build a sense of belonging. He desperately needs to be something else, something other than victim of incest. He needs to feel something more than a fear of Jehovah.

Therefore, his efforts to integrate into society and create a new identity replace all the pain and angst he carries inside. This works – for a while. What he is not aware of is that, without getting psychological help, he is bound to repeat the behaviour pattern of his father unconsciously and become an abuser himself. So Kim becomes an abuser of people, food, alcohol, drugs and sex.

When he starts to drink and have uninhibited sex with different Greenlandic women, he makes no secret of it to his wife. Somehow there is another side to the coin and a reward:

We exchange afflictions and successes all night long, lying skin to skin. The bed is the domain of painful confessions, the night is a good listener. I am confessor and penitent. I give absolution and receive the blessing. Some of the girls are very young, others are ten years older than me. But in bed age is an illusion, other things are more important.

In these dark apartments late at night, I acquire more knowledge of the Greenlandic mentality, language and customs than any book in the wide world could have given me. But another thing which these women give me, is a much greater gift. They convince me that I am physically attractive to other people than my father.

But later, Kim becomes aware of the grim fact that he has come to resemble his father. He slowly understands that he has looked upon the Greenlanders just as the old colonists would, with prejudice and lack of knowledge. He had tried to use those women to heal his own wounds, disregarding both their needs and the pain he brought onto his own family.

While living in Greenland, Kim still stays in touch with his father and visits him on his summer trips to Denmark. At no point does he dare speak of the abuse but he watches his father closely. His father has replaced Kim with a new group of people he can dominate; vulnerable souls who also have left the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Slowly, the psychology of his father’s actions, his need for other people to depend on him and follow his rules, surfaces and becomes understandable to Kim. Yet, it has took him 15 years to actually feel anger and let his father finally fall from grace. Finally he can understand his father and see him and his behaviour for what it really is. He sees what it does to other people, including Kim himself.

In Greenland there is no right to have ownership of land, and therefore the people are depended solely upon the outcome of their catch or their wages. This breeds a culture with no roots. The meaning of owning a home, the saying “a man’s home is his castle” certainly do not exist there. The dependency on what nature brings for food and the unstable force of nature means that you can be rich one season, only to be thrown out of your home and into the streets the next. Therefore you learn to survive without being attached to material things. You learn to live in the moment, from hand to mouth. A way of life which resonates with Kim since he no longer has any roots. He has begun to give in to his impulses of wanting a painless life by taking drugs.

Somehow Kim has thought of Greenland as a place which could cure his wounds and a place where he could seek refuge from the futility of his past. A place where he could help save and give aid to the atavistic inhabitants.

But a real meeting between Kim and the Greenlanders could not take place before he understood the pathology in his relationships and the way he viewed other people. Through his work as a nurse, he began to learn about the people and the conditions they live under. Slowly Kim becomes more capable of meeting them on equal terms.

Unfortunately, at that point, Kim had become addicted to drugs stolen at the hospital. When one of his co-workers discovers him taking drugs, he is reported and sent to a psychiatric ward in Denmark.

At the hospital,  being clear in his mind, Kim learns what the doctors think healing is. To them, being cured means being able to fit in, to obey the rules of behaviour in society and suppress your real feelings. It has nothing to do with dealing with your demons and solving your problems. In Greenland people show their pain and feelings, no matter how ugly the feelings are. The contrast between the way you are expected to act in the Danish society and the more authentic way of life Greenland, makes Kim realises he needs to go back to Greenland. He suddenly understands that, what he first felt was a disgrace, the Greenlanders displaying their failure and sorrow openly, he now realizes has a hidden gift and a healing quality.

The novel has many themes, such as rebelling against your family and the problems of post colonial workers; but the overall theme is the pathology of abuse and the long road to healing. What makes this novel stands out is that Kim does not rail off in self-pity. He hurt a lot of people by his behaviour, but at the time he simply did not know better. Even so, it was still his doing. So, although he is a victim and has been taught how to become an abuser by his father, Kim takes it upon himself, to face his demons and take responsibility for his actions. This level of awareness comes across clearly in his language. The voice of Kim is not the voice of a victim seeking attention. The motive is not a sentimental one. He simply tells people what happened, nothing more nothing less. Therefore you feel sympathy and admiration for his character and for Kim Leine’s ability to write about such painful experiences in a very personal and original language.

In 2008, Kim Leine published a new novel called “Valdemarsdag”. This time, the main character is his grandfather, whom he discovered was a murderer. The novel revolves around the day of the murder in 1938. The focus is how the murder took place and what drives a man to kill. In research for this book, Kim has read all the police files including eye witness testimonies and has even seen the photos from the crime scene and the actual weapon which was used.

Last fall,  Leine returned to Greenland in his latest book “Tunu” but now as a male character called Jesper who works as a nurse in small village. Jesper is not Leine’s alter ego, nor is the novel a biography. The story is based on the knowledge of Leine’s time in Greenland and you get to know what the many fates of the Greenlanders could look like and how a post colonial worker could integrate into the community.

Leine received many letters after writing his first book that confirmed it was important for him to write his biography, not only as a therapeutic tool on his own path, but also to share it with other people. Having emptied himself of his life story and written the novel in only three months, Leine was afraid that he had thwarted his chances of becoming a real author. But fortunately there was more to tell, more to share, so we get to enjoy more of his intense stories and excellent writing.

At the moment Kim Leine’s books are available in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Publishers in Germany are also starting to show interest in this great author.

Lone Christensen

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“In the Kitchen” by Monica Ali

Nov 29, 2009 by

In the kitchen

British Asians:

Monica Ali was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to a Pakistani father and an English mother. The family immigrated to Bolton, England, when Ali was three years old.

Today 4.2 million immigrants from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka) are living in the United Kingdom; their presence has caused this group to be named British Asians. Monica Ali may not consider herself a member of this group, but to the outsider she fits the profile of the young South Asian artist who often starts out writing about her own culture as she did in her debut “Brick Lane”.

Several very successful South Asians have shown up in the popular entertainment industry since the 1970s, such as Freddie Mercury forming the rock band “Queen” and music producer Biddu Appaiah who composed famous songs like “Kung Fu Fighting” and “I Love to Love”. In 1982, Ben Kingsley starred in his ground-breaking role as Mohandas Gandhi, and in the beginning of the new century, Parminder Nagra joined the US American medical drama series “ER” playing a doctor. Naveen Andrews, who started out in Hanif Kureishi’s film “London Kills Me” (1991) and the miniseries “Buddha of Suburbia” (1994), is now one of the main characters in the American TV series “Lost”.

Besides the obvious universal talent of the aforementioned artists and several others, the British film industry found it hard, at first, to see how the lives of Asian immigrants could be of interest to a wider audience. It was not until 1985, when the film “My Beautiful Laundrette”, written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, hit the movie theatres that the filmmakers got convinced of good stories hidden within the Asian community. This gave Asian artists a chance to address and display prejudices and urban myths in a satirical manner, forcing white Englishmen not only to laugh at the Asian people but also at their own stupidity. The miniseries “Buddha of Suburbia” and the comedy talk show “The Kumars at no. 42” charmed the audience with this humorous approach to such a delicate subject and unarmed many, also outside the British Isles.

British Asian writers first appeared in the beginning of the 1980s, and have since bred household names such as Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Raman Mundair. Now, a group of famous and upcoming British Asian writers have launched a website, “The Asian Writer”, where you can find many authors still unknown to the mainstream literature world in Europe.

Monica Ali:

Monica Ali started writing about her own culture and particular environment in “Brick Lane”, which follows a Bangladeshi woman settling down in an arranged marriage in East London. Eventually adapted for screen, the portrait of this woman, her choices and actions which include adultery, caused protests from the local community around the real Brick Lane. Yet the novel won the British Book Award prize “Newcomer of the Year” in 2004. Ali’s second book, “Alentejo Blue”, takes the reader across the water to Portugal with not one main voice but a set of voices, from a small village in the area called “Alentejo”.

In her latest novel, “In the Kitchen”, Ali returns to England and speaks through the voice of the white English Chef, Gabriel Lightfoot. Gabriel is a middle aged executive chef working in an underground kitchen in an old worn down hotel in central London. Here, he manages a multicultural staff from places like Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. Often, Gabriel does not know whether his employees are refugees, illegal immigrants or part of the anonymous foreign low paid migrant workers doing “the odd job” in London. In order to make something of himself, he makes a plan for his life that involves buying his own restaurant and getting married to his girlfriend, Charlie. According to his plan, he will be leaving the kitchen in six months, so he has not bothered to get the proper names or personal data from his staff. But the sudden death of Yuri, a porter from Ukraine, changes everything.

Right from when Gabriel was young, he was set on becoming a chef in a restaurant decorated with the prestigious Michelin stars, but over the years he changes his goal, and steadily gains the necessary experience to become his own boss with his own place. Based on Gabriel’s working class background being from the northern county of Lancashire, we learn that people there still live with their nostalgic dream of a cohesive community. At the same time, while suffering from job losses, they feel threatened by immigrants, and therefore their racism is very much alive. Though having tried to distance himself from this background in order to gain his own life experience and values, Gabriel is forced back to face his past due to his father having terminal cancer. This gives him a new understanding of the complexity and secrets of his family, which went unnoticed to him as a child.

Shortly after the discovery of Yuri’s body, an Eastern European worker named Lena approaches Gabriel. With the police crawling all over the restaurant and especially down in the kitchen, Lena, being an illegal immigrant, doesn’t dare to go back in search of some hidden items. Since she is claiming to be a former sex-worker and a victim of human trafficking, Gabriel takes Lena under his wings and invites her to stay in his flat. During her stay, Lena becomes more than just a friend in need for him, and this threatens Gabriel’s carefully made plan of marriage with Charlie.

The novel is not only about shedding light on the life of migrant workers in the modern Britain. It also deals with the breakdown of a man’s dreams and hopes for a better future, which triggers both a loss of identity and values, and skeletons falling out of the family closet. Abuse and using other people to get what you want from life, and the awareness of doing so, are also an important issues.

Monica Ali shows the reader, that it doesn’t have to be the immediate family or friends who end up teaching you the facts of life. The unsettling images of Yuri’s dead body haunt Gabriel in his dreams and start a journey of searching for a place in the world. So he puts to a test, what he thought to be certainties in life.

Gabriel learns that truth can be found in the most unlikely places and that he cannot run from an unsolved past. Through Lena, he discovers that love goes beyond satisfying one’s own lust and desires. And to his regret, it finally dawns on him that you should hesitate trusting a suit with money. The strangers, who play a minor role in his life, end up being crucial contributors to “making life happen” instead of his original plan.

On a larger scale the story is about the fractured lives many people lead in Western societies today, which have come with the loss of close communities where you would club together with family and friends, with a solid sense of who you are, where you belong and what your national identity stands for. Somehow Gabriel has lost all this, while his father had managed to keep both a longterm relationship with his wife and his lifetime workplace. So Gabriel’s family up north symbolizes the past, and, at the same time, the security many people nowadays see in the extended families that people in cultures outside Europe seem to have.

From this change people might gain a freedom to choose and to leave their families, jobs or their life situation, whenever they want to. But there are no longer sacred truths and certainties anymore. Not aware of this, and in his crisis, Gabriel frantically seeks for the one truth and talks to two staff members. Nicolai represents the scientific approach to understanding why humans act and think the way they do. Oona represents the belief in a more new-age world view of destiny and faith. Gabriel himself rationalises his past failures and makes up stories of what his life is like, to cover up his loneliness and sense of not belonging anywhere. He has become a drifter in a multicultural metropolitan, and in order to gain control over his life, he tries to reason with himself, still following his plan, but he forgets the most important elements in life.

In choosing a white middle aged male from the executive level as main character, Monica Ali has surprised once again and has gone in a the complete opposite direction than with the young Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen, in “Brick Lane”. Ali’s understanding of the psychology of crisis and the detailed descriptions of Gabriel’s stimuli, thoughts and actions are simply brilliantly done. The language gives a vivid insight into the life and working conditions in particularily dark corners of our society.

The initial drama is well crafted with a multi-layered theme, but the breakdown of Gabriel’s world does not lead to any other realisations, besides him going back to reconnect with his roots.  Monica Ali paints a picture of the problems many people have to face in modern society. On the other hand, she does not make much use of the potential in the hard-earned lessons Gabriel has endured.
Therefore, as a reader, you end up feeling that “In the Kitchen” is treading water with a crisis that seems to go nowhere. You are left hungry for “the knot of open wounds” to be tied up and hope for at least some tangible conclusions that may lead to a new faith and understanding of life.

It is a shame the ending was not given the attention it deserved, when a longer and more detailed closure was expected and called for – a shame, because it sure is not due to a lack of skills, knowledge or talent of Monica Ali, which gives you the notion that the novel was ended in a hurry.

Lone Christensen


Monica Ali appeared as a guest at the Danish Royal Library’s event “International Forfatterscence” which was filmed by the Danish national TV and later will be avaible to view on their webpage:
Books and film by Monica Ali:

British Asian writers in the UK:

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Literature Festival in Copenhagen

Oct 22, 2009 by

This year Copenhagen is celebrating literature for a whole week in November, starting the 6th with libraries and local community centres opening up their doors all over town.  “København læser” (Copenhagen reads) is an event, which is free of charge with writers and critics sharing their love for literature.

The big annual book fair, Bogforum, will officially be declared open on Friday the 13th of November at 10.15 by the famous author Per Olov Enquist.  If you cannot wait, then Bogforum, together with the Royal Library, has made a pre-opening event on Thursday evening with the British writer Monica Ali.  The event is a part of the Royal Library’s “International Forfatter Scene” (International Author Scene), where they invite international authors to talks filmed by the Danish national TV.

The actual Bogforum takes place in the heart of Copenhagen and is open to the general public with books on any subject to content your heart.  Like book fairs all over world, you will be able to find all the newly published books about philosophy, psychology, religion, history and politics, cookery, health-and-body care, and of course fiction for children and the adult reader!

On the various stages you will be able to meet Danish writers who you may already be familiar with as their books have been translated into many European languages.  Maybe Merete Pryds Helle, Ida Jessen, Svend Åge Madsen, Anders Bodelsen, or Dorrit Willumsen ring a bell?  If not, now is your chance to expand your knowledge the literature and the many different writers from Denmark.

If you are more interested in politics, then perhaps the former editor from the German “Der Spiegel”, Stefan Aust may get your attention with his book about “Rote Armee Fraktion”?  Or could a discussion about the challenges of the multicultural society in the West between the editor of the Danish national newspaper “Politiken”, Thøger Seidenfaden and Rune Engelbreth Larsen spark your interest?

You could also listen to a talk between Margrete Auken and her daughter Ida Auken, about their book “Dig, mig og Gud” which deals with faith and God. Both are members of the Danish parliament and Margrete is a priest where as Ida Auken has a masters in theology.

Or perhaps you are more into gardening and would love to hear what Camilla Plum, author of “Camillas Havebog”, has to share with Denmark’s “grand old man” of gardening, Søren Ryge Petersen? Camilla Plum is famous for a food show set on her farm, where she cooks with vegetables from her own garden. She has also published several cookbooks.

A more exotic part of Denmark is in focus, when the author Kim Leine talks about his new book “Tunu”, which gives you access to the tough circle of life in Greenland where people live closely with the facts of death and nature.

If you have small children and no babysitter in sight, then there is no reason why you should not bring them along. They could meet the very talented artist and writer Peter Madsen, who shows his drawings and talks about his and Sissel Bøe’s new series of children books “Troldeliv” and the making of his comic book “Valhalla”.  Or get entertained on the stage for children, by the funny duo Michael Wikke and Steen Rasmussen, who are well established as makers of family oriented films. Or they could listen to another well known writer and filmmaker, Kim Fupz Aakeson telling the story about the boy Vitello.  There will be many competitions for the children of various ages all over the fair.

The list of subjects, authors and writers is long and diverse and I haven’t even mentioned all the different crime writers yet!

The highlights of the foreign writers must be the invasion from the British isles;  Robert Goddard, Sadie Jones, Susan Moody, Paul Sussman, Tabish Khair, Raymond Khoury and Roddy Doyle. 
Or could the Americans Colin Harrison, Liza Mundy, Donald Spoto be more to your preference? 
Or maybe you think the large group of Scandinavian writers are the highlights; From Norway Karin Fossum, Jan Kjærstad, Anne B. Ragde, Helene Uri, From Sweden Per Olov Enquist, Jan Guillou, Camilla Läckberg, Klas Östergren, and from Iceland Einar Már Gudmundsson?

Whatever you like to read, or enjoy hearing, you are sure to find something familiar, something new and something to rock your boat at the Copenhagen book fair!

Copenhagen reads:
Copenhagen book fair:
Royal Library:

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