Stop the press! New literary category discovered in the Nordic region

Olli Löytty’s comment presented at the publication of Ahmed Al-Nawas’s report “View of the Conditions of Arabic Literature in the Nordic Region”

For a scholar working on a discipline called Finnish literature, that is to say on a field that does not traditionally even recognize the existence of Arabic literature in Finland, it is definitely a gesture of trust to be asked to comment on a report concerning Arabic-Nordic literature. But here we go!

However, that was not the whole truth about my expertise, since for the past 3-4 years I have been working on a project called Multilingualism in contemporary literature in Finland (funded by Kone Foundation). Whenever I have told somebody about the project the first question presented to me has been: What multilingualism? Seriously, in what way is Finnish literature multilingual?

The bilingualism of Finnish literature does not raise eyebrows. The intertwined national history of literature written in Finnish and literature written in Swedish is presented partly mutual, partly separated. In the recent literary histories, literature written in Swedish is depicted as an integral part of Finnish literature ­– but in separate chapters. Authors who write in both Finnish and Swedish do not seem to exist, let alone mix the two languages.

In order to search for those literatures written in minority languages and truly recognize them as existing, meaningful categories we must move away from the established literary field that is commonly organized around the holy trinity of a nation, a culture and a language

I think it is interesting to speculate – although it might sound like a typical academic problem – whether there is one literary field in Finland or two, defined by the so called national languages. And if the Finnish-speaking and Swedish-speaking literary fields are considered as two separate fields, how autonomous they are? And what about the literary institutions? How much does the language matter?

And now we come to the topic of today: What about the literature written in other languages? Should we see it as part of the same field, or would it be more convenient – for a reason or another – to talk about literary fields in plural? And if so, what kind of hierarchical structures are created and strengthened by doing so? This is something we have recently been discussing in our research project while we have applied Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory to the literary field/fields of Finland (see Grönstrand et al. forthcoming).

When we discuss the position of literature written in other languages than Finnish and Swedish, we soon realize that language does matter. Considering, for example, the visibility of Lapland in the promotion of tourism in Finland, it is strikingly strange and confusingly odd that we “mainstream Finns” know so little about Sámi language, let alone about Sámi literature. In that respect, the literatures of the so-called old minorities are not in much better position than the newcomers.

Actually, in order to search for those literatures written in minority languages and truly recognize them as existing, meaningful categories we must move away from the established literary field that is commonly organized around the holy trinity of a nation, a culture and a language (or, in a case of Finland, two languages).

First of all, for the writers in non-dominant languages – to use this clumsy but nevertheless practical concept – the initial problem is to be seen and perceived. This is precisely what, for instance, Sivuvalo project has been doing, and this is what our research project has also been pursuing.

This need to recognize the existence of literatures written in non-dominant languages is also what Ahmed Al-Nawas’s report so vividly demonstrates. The sheer fact that there is something called Arabic-Nordic literature should not only result as headlines in literary magazines (as if!) but in addition have a deep impact in our conceptions of literature in general and national literatures in particular.

As Pascale Casanova writes in The World Republic of Letters (2004):

“As a result of the appropriation of literatures and literary histories by political nations during the nineteenth century […] our literary unconscious is largely national. Our instruments of analysis and evaluation are national.”

One could add that our instruments of analysis and evaluation are also profoundly monolingual! Casanova continues:

“Indeed the study of literature almost everywhere in the world is organized along national lines. This is why we are blind to a certain number of transnational phenomena that have permitted a specifically literary world to gradually emerge over the past four centuries or so.”

This tendency to look at literature along national lines can also be called methodological nationalism, which assumes the national category as a self-evident frame and context for research and the nation as the primary unit of study. As a way of looking at world, this methodological nationalism can be challenged with an idea of transnationalism, which refers to links functioning across nation states. (See Pollari et al. 2015.)

As language, Arabic is a model example of transnationalism. That is also true about it as a form of literary expression, since the readers of Arabic literature are scattered not only around the Arabic speaking world but also in Arab diaspora that reach the Nordic countries, as we can read in Ahmed Al-Nawas’s report. He talks about the “transnational circle of knowledge production in the Arabic speaking world” extending around the globe:

“Today, an Arabic book of poetry could be written in Tampere, published in Milano and translated into several languages, awarded with the PEN Prize in London, and censored in Jordan and most of the Gulf States.”

As I am not an expert in that field, I cannot comment on the report from the point of view of Arabic literature. However, that’s something I am really keen on learning more about. It would be interesting to know, for example, how does the Arabic Nordic literature differ from other Arabic literature written in diaspora? Does the place matter? What does it mean in practise if an author’s “Arabic language and literature skills were shaped in the diaspora”, as Al-Nawas writes about Iraqi-Danish author Hawra al-Nadawi whose debut novel was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2011.

Few days ago I attended a discussion on Benedict Anderson’s influential book Imagined Communities. Anderson underlines the significance of print capitalism and literature in the modern nation-building. In Finland, Anderson’s theory is particularly telling, as fiction has indeed played an important role in imagining the Finnish nation and its people. So that is what literature does; it creates communities, and therefore it would be extremely interesting to know what kinds of communities are created by the Arabic-Nordic literature.

From the point of view of Nordic literature and the national literatures within that region, there is one particular observation I’d like to share with you.

In his report, Al-Nawas writes about the rising interest in Arabic exile and migrant literature in Europe, which can be explained not only by the growing number of migrant writers in that region but also by the public interest in current war in Middle East and the migration caused by it.

I certainly agree. The reason for the visibility of, for example, Hassan Blasim in Finnish media is not only due to the fact that this internationally renowned author happens to live in Finland but also because the topics and themes he writes about are of great interest to many European readers, as many of his stories deal with the war in Iraq and the diaspora of Iraqi people. However, it is not only the topic of his stories that are appealing to Finnish and European readers but also the quality, the literary nature of his texts. The style of his writing has often been compared to esteemed writers such as Franz Kafka, Roberto Bolaño, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes.

But no matter how good a writer he is and how well he masters his craft, he would not have been noticed in the first place by the multilingual Nordic audience if his books weren’t translated to Nordic languages; actually, to all of them, including even Icelandic. But they would not have been translated to those minor languages if they weren’t first translated to English, the true superpower in the world literature today! As I have asked some of the publishers who have published the translations of Blasim’s books, they all told me that they had heard about him because of the English translation and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize that is actually awarded to translations.

To put it bluntly: the best way for Arabic-Nordic literature to become part of Nordic literature scene goes through English translation. And this is not at all, I want to stress, desirable situation! Therefore we must find other ways to recognize and promote Arabic literatures in the Nordic context.

To end my presentation, let me comment on the regional frame of the report. I am sure there are both practical as well as geopolitical reasons for choosing Nordic region as a frame of reference, but despite all the cultural commonalities, as an entirety ‘Nordic’ is rather arbitrary category. But I think it is simply a brilliant idea!

Miscellaneous regional frames can provide a much-needed alternative for the nationalistic gaze. With frames like Nordic literature, Fenno-Baltic literature, Northern European literature etc. we may be able to resist the perceptions created by the methodological nationalism of literary studies, and consequently we can be more alert and sensitive to the fundamental multilingualism of literature. If we study literature not by following the national lines but by opening our perception to various regional framings, we will definitely learn more about it.

Having read Ahmed Al-Nawas’s report on the conditions of Arabic literature in the Nordic region, I indeed have learned something. I have seen a glimpse of a literary scene to which presently I don’t have access. I am convinced that this report helps and paves way to scholars as well as other actors in the literary and cultural field working on the same area. And once more I want to thank for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts inspired by the report.

Olli Löytty

References

  • Casanova, Pascale (2007) The World Republic of Letters. Translated by M.B. DeBevoise. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.
  • Grönstrand, Heidi, Kauranen, Ralf, Löytty, Olli, Melkas Kukku (forthcoming) Monikielisyys ja kielellinen moninaisuus Suomen kirjallisuudessa.
  • Pollari, Mikko; Nissilä, Hanna-Leena; Melkas, Kukku; Löytty, Olli; Kauranen, Ralf ja Grönstrand, Heidi (2015) National, transnational and entangled literatures. Methodological considerations focusing on the case of Finland. In Rethinking National Literatures and the Literary Canon in Scandinavia. Ed by Ann-Sofie Lönngren, Heidi Grönstrand, Dag Heede and Anne Heith. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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Olli Löytty  is a literary scholar who has specialised on cultural studies. He has published many articles and a handful of  monographs on representation of otherness in particular and on cultural encounters in general. In his post doctoral project ”Ethnic characters, strange settings and transnational crossings in Finnish literature” (2011-2013), funded by The Academy of Finland, he focused for example on migration literature.
(http://www.monikielisyys.fi/en/participants/)