Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck – whose collection of weird and wonderful fiction, Jagannath, received considerable critical praise – speaks to us about writing in English as a second language, the dangers of treating a literary genre as the ‘redheaded stepchild’ and the benefits a writer could reap from Live Action Roleplaying…
You delve into being a ‘bi-lingual author’ in the afterword to your short story collection, Jagannath, highlighting in particular the cultural weight words can have in various contexts. With this in mind – and given that we’re living in an ever more interconnected world that relies on a lingua franca to continue flourishing – do you think that non-native writing in English will become less taboo? Are there things you keep in mind or are anxious about when you set about writing in English, and what would you recommend to anyone who opts to write in English if it’s their second language?
People already write in English in other areas, such as the world of academia or in media, so it’s logical that some authors will turn to English. However, most authors I know who write in English as a second language do so because they can’t sell their fiction in their own country. I turned to English because of the lack of venues in Sweden, the unhealthy obsession with genre markers, and the difficulties to market fantastic fiction. If I’d written in another genre, it’s very possible that I’d never left Swedish. So, I’d say that as long as the Swedish publishing industry, and critics, insist on treating anything that’s not social realism like the redheaded stepchild, the number of authors writing in English will increase more than if that hadn’t been the case. Considering things are improving in Sweden, though, I don’t know what’ll happen next.
I run creative writing workshops, and I regularly encounter writing students who ask about writing in English. My primary piece of advice is to master writing in your mother tongue first. Find your voice. Without that control, it’s so much harder to take control over writing in a second language. My second piece of advice is to immerse in the other language if possible, maybe take creative writing courses abroad. My third piece of advice is to never abandon your mother tongue, because it informs and enriches how you express yourself in your second language.
Though Jagannath can’t be said to be narratively cohesive in any real way, there do appear to be one or two thematic threads common to some of the stories. Family ties certainly emerge as a consistent obsession; expressed variously, be it in a haunting fairy tale (Cloudberry Jam), an epistolary character piece (Some Letters for Ove Lindstorm) and a coming-of-age, intergenerational drama with a fantastical twist (Reindeer Mountain). Other stories within the collection also hint at the family as a source of both revelation and mystery (most notably the science-fictional title story). Is your attraction to this particular theme down to cultural, personal, artistic interests – or is it a mix of all three?
My primary obsessions have always been the unstable nature of reality, things that fall in between categories, and alien mindsets. That’s something you’ll find in all of my stories. When it comes to writing about family, it’s not family per se that interests me, but families and/or family members gone weird: the alien within the familiar. The stories you mention all have some folkloric influences, and folklore is obsessed with weird family: the odd uncle who’s probably half troll, the younger sibling who must be a changeling, and so on. And family is interesting. Even more interesting when you subvert it – introduce the very strange into what is the most fundamental experience for most of us.
What kind of effect did the 2010 Clarion workshop have on your writing?
I began to master my writing in English, I learned a ton about the industry, and I made friends for life. I heartily recommend it to any writer just starting out.
In Jeff VanderMeer’s creative writing guide ‘Wonderbook’, you speak about how LARPing (that’s Live Action Roleplaying) sometimes helps your writing. For the benefit of our readers, could you expand on how improvising within an invented world with real-life people can help to get your creative gears going?
Physical or verbal improvisation can make you a better writer, because it allows you to practice free association outside your normal constraints. It’s pretty much like doing strength training to become a better runner. As a writer, it’s easy to get stuck in a place where you only have your own imagination for company, and writer’s block is often a result of feeling crushed beneath this huge responsibility to come up with great fiction – on your own. Telling stories together with other people can be very liberating because you no longer carry that responsibility alone. And it’s not just that: you’ll get impulses and unexpected ideas from others, too. You introduce an element of chaos into the process, which is very healthy, especially for control freaks.
Your story ‘Sing’ which was featured on Tor.com and has made it onto the shortlist for the British Fantasy and Science Fiction Association of this year, also seems to be a commentary on a particular kind of community, with a perhaps more sinister echoes (which, to me at least, seem to transmit the same notes of encroaching, communal horror as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery). Given that the story is also very clearly about the ins-and-outs of language as a cultural tool (weapon?), what was it that you set out to express in this story?
It should be said that I don’t write commentaries, or metaphors, or similes. To me writing isn’t about expression as much as it is about exploration. You could say that I’m handing in a report rather than sending some kind of message.
In ‘Sing’, I wanted to explore a set of phenomena, and in extension the psychological and physical effects these phenomena would have on a community. What happens to a group of people when sound is unreliable? What if they enter a symbiotic relationship with another species? What if that relationship has unintended side effects? I was interested in how this kind of society treats aberrations – in this case the main character, who has suffered some of those unintended side effects and becomes an outcast. Not because of her disability as such, but because of where it comes from; she’s an unpleasant reminder of the true nature of the villagers’ “arrangement”.
Could you tell us more about your Swedish-language debut novel, Amatka?
I published my debut novel Amatka in October 2012, so it’s been out for a while. It’s essentially a thought- and language experiment. Humans have colonised a world where physical reality is mutable, and language both a tool and a threat. The story follows Vanja, a researcher who has failed to fulfil most of the duties expected of a good citizen. She is sent to the distant colony Amatka to map hygiene habits. What she finds during her research leads to something quite different, unravelling the truth about the colonies and their history.
I can’t tell you when Amatka will appear in another language, but keep your fingers crossed.