Women in Denmark should be both women and men at the same time, but “men” and “women”—what does that mean?
As a young single mother, Greenland-born Naja Marie Aidt began writing poetry and prose in Denmark, where she published for over twenty years. Since 2008 Aidt has been living in Brooklyn, and her writing has been translated into nine languages, yet it’s only recently found its way into English. Last year, Baboon, the short story collection that won Scandinavia’s highest literary honor—the Nordic Council Fiction Prize—was translated by US poet Denise Newman, published by Two Lines Press, and awarded the PEN Translation Prize. This year, Open Letter Books published Aidt’s first and only novel to date, a literary thriller: Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Aidt’s writing grabs readers by the shoulders. She guides us into moments of reckoning-near-collapse: A brother and sister remember their father differently. A small girl sees her father kissing another man. A stranger speaking in tongues forces his way into a couple’s small car. A mysterious bite fills with puss. The boy next door turns his lust on a goat. This is fiction that never simplifies but holds true to what Virginia Woolf saw clearly: “The beauty of the world, which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”
Our conversation took place at my kitchen table in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Mieke Chew Partway through Rock, Paper, Scissors, I realized the novel was broken into three parts corresponding to the title. I thought, This book will end in violence. Is the children’s game an organizing principle for the book?
Naja Marie Aidt Yes, but I didn’t know that at first. I was writing the middle section when I came up with the title. We have the stone, the paper, and then, indeed, the violence. It was a perfect setup. I simply had to do three sections because I was writing in the present tense, and I follow my main character so closely, every minute. It would be unbearable if we followed him without any break.
MC It works so well because rock-paper-scissors is a game of brotherly and sisterly cunning. The better you know someone, the more difficult and complex the game. It becomes a series of manipulations.
NMA And if you know somebody very well, you’ll often find that you will do the same thing, in the same order, and keep going and going. It’s a mind game.
MC In your fiction there’s always a wild intensity between your characters, but it’s not always a romantic relationship driving that intensity. Why did you choose a brother and sister for this book?
NMA I’ve been writing about siblings for many years. There are so many books about parents, the father-son relationship, the mother-daughter relationship. The sibling relationship can be as important as the parent-child in the way it creates us as people. You grow up together and are treated kind of the same way, but not the same way. You witness your parents’ lives together and that is very intimate. On the other hand, you can grow apart from your siblings. It’s a cruel relationship, too. The intimacy can be sickening.
MC There’s a story in Baboon called “Candy” where a young couple are out grocery shopping. The woman is accused of stealing candy from the store, which results in awful public humiliation for them both. Your sister told me this actually happened to the two of you. You were young single mothers at the time, shopping with children, and she was accused of nabbing some candy. Why did you change it?
NMA Yes, I stole that story from my sister. I had forgotten about it. I thought I’d invented the whole thing! But it’s true, and it was awful. My sister was taken in for questioning. I made it a couple in love because they should have been united against the store, but the opposite happened. It has to do with who can save whom. The man in the story isn’t able to spare his wife from humiliation, so by the end she disgusts him.
MC Your sister also told me Denmark is “the land of guilt and shame,” confirming Hamlet for us. Is she right?
NMA It is, it is. And it has a lot to do with Christianity. We have a state church; we’re Protestants. There’s you and there’s God, enforced by the state. It’s a punishing god. Churches are closing all over Scandinavia because no one is showing up on Sundays. I thought about this when I wrote about Stig Saeterbakken, a Norwegian writer, for Music & Literature. Scandinavian literature is often described as very dark, so I was trying to find out what that means. What is dark? I think the darkness is closely knit to the guilt and shame; it’s in all that’s unsaid. Ours is not a chatty culture. In the countryside, nobody speaks. You just know—tsk tsk, you didn’t do it good enough. It’s in the way you look at yourself. Aksel Sandemose invented a phrase: Jante Lov. It’s a law, a set of rules, that goes: Don’t you ever think you are anything; you are nothing. He makes fun of the way Danes treat themselves and others.
MC Do you think more is imparted with a look or gesture in Denmark?
NMA Yes, and that can be very humiliating and painful. People ignore you. On the subway there could be a scene where someone is crying or in pain and no one reacts. They don’t want to get involved. It sounds like Danes are horrible people, but they’re not. It’s just that it’s better to stick to yourself. A certain brutality is the consequence of this way of interacting.
MC But when you won the Nordic Council Fiction Prize, even Danes described your work as dark! How can that be?
NMA It must be because I was born in Greenland, which is further north and even darker!
MC Do you think the darkness comes from the climate and the solitude?
NMA It does. The loneliness and depression caused by the lack of light.
MC But your fiction is often set in the spring or summer. John Berger says more can happen in spring than in winter. Maybe it’s that everything happens in those months and nothing in the others?
NMA Yes, then you go and hide like an animal. You wait for April.
MC What was it like growing up in Greenland?
NMA I was born there so I didn’t find it exotic. I lived in the northern part of Greenland, so we had those long winters. Nighttime twenty-four hours a day for three months. I remember it as claustrophobic. You couldn’t go out to play because it was dark. I remember my mom suffering from depression. She couldn’t stand it. That was in the ’60s and during the winter we were completely isolated. All the villages were on the coast with long distances in between. When the sea freezes there’s no contact. Nobody comes. There were snowstorms. Helicopters couldn’t come. Everyone waited for the icebreaker to arrive in the spring. It would bring us oranges or whatever. It was a party.
MC What was your daily routine without fresh fruit and vegetables?
NMA It was meat. And canned vegetables and frozen vegetables. We didn’t even get milk. I remember we had powdered milk, but we never drank it. We poured it down the sink when my mom turned her back. We didn’t get any calcium at all, I guess. We would eat a lot of seal, fish, poultry, whale, sometimes reindeer.
MC What is the folklore in Greenland like? Were you aware of it?
NMA They have a very strong tradition of shamanism. Women, as I remember it, old women, would drum and go into a trance and sing and ramble. It was scary for me as a child, but also fascinating. The mythology is all told orally. They don’t have a literary tradition. The stories are terrifying and so are the rituals. For instance, even when I was growing up, in very small villages, if somebody did something wrong that person would be told to leave the community. It was a punishment. These societies or communities were so small that there was no courthouse or police. If someone raped somebody or did something cruel or wrong, they’d be kicked out. The thing is: it’s impossible to survive because it’s so cold. I remember hearing about this as a child and being terrified of those exiles. They would go from town to town to get food, breaking into people’s houses at night, desperate for their lives. That was one of the traumas of my childhood. The qivitoq, that’s what it’s called. To go qivitoq. They were half alive, half dead.
MC Did they ever find somewhere to rest? If they found a new village or community were they accepted?
NMA No, it was like a long and painful forced suicide. That says something about the culture. Another thing is that, back in the old days, because people were so isolated, if a stranger came to a village where there might be only thirty or fifty people living together, everybody would have sex with that person. It makes sense right? You need new blood. So their view on sexuality is traditionally completely different from Danes. They are very open about it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You can do it with anyone; it doesn’t matter. Even if you’re married to someone, it was in everyone’s interest to be open. At least that’s how it was back then. Greenlanders have a very interesting view on the body.
MC How did your family end up in Greenland?
NMA My father was very young and had just finished studying to be a schoolteacher. His girlfriend left him and he wanted to commit suicide to end his heartache. Then he met my mom and somebody had just left her. She heard my father was escaping to Greenland and thought it was a good idea. They got married when she was nineteen and left together.
MC They chose Greenland because there were jobs for teachers?
NMA Because it used to be a Danish colony. That’s the horrible but true story. So the poor Greenlandic children had to learn Danish in school. It was good for my father because he got a free house and money to go back to Denmark every summer. My dad was very Danish in his sensibility. He was always very shy. My sister and I saw him naked once and it was a devastating moment for him. Oh, the guilt and shame! I didn’t understand it, because when I went to daycare the Greenlandic women were not shy about their bodies.
MC Why do you write about the body?
NMA With Rock, Paper, Scissors I wanted to explore the male identity. When I was a kid in Greenland, I was never satisfied with being a girl. I wanted to be a boy. That was so attractive to me, and it seemed so much more fun and simple. Little girls can be conniving. I liked the idea of having a strong body, so I played mostly with the boys. When I started working on the novel I tried to understand why it was easy for me to write a male character. It was joyful. I could feel him so strongly. When my parents divorced, I lived with my father, then I had four sons, so I’ve been exposed to the male body, maybe more than I even wanted to be. But, for my generation and up, girls should be able to do the same as boys, choose the same vocations. In Scandinavia, there are so many single moms providing for their families. Women in Denmark should be both women and men at the same time, but “men” and “women”—what does that mean? I thought it would be interesting to explore all the taboos. I went back to Greek mythology, and the Bible, to Cane and Abel. I wanted to put Thomas through all the problems of male identity. He’s homophobic, he has a difficult relationship with his father, he has issues with his male friends. Then there’s his relationships with women, his violence. Anything I could come up with I brought down on that poor soul. It’s about a man’s crisis. It’s about not feeling comfortable in the identity that has been set up for you.
MC In the book people can construct their identities, but can’t cope when their constructions are contradicted. Thomas’s father was violent toward him, but a good father figure to someone else. This is a brutal realization for Thomas.
NMA That’s the whole story he bases his life upon. It’s the way Thomas understands himself, through his father’s violence, so how could someone have a completely different opinion of that same man? It’s not fair to him. So the rage begins.
MC What interests you about these multiple lives parents have?
NMA I guess the way that you look at your parents throughout your life. When you’re fifteen, you look at your mom with different eyes than when you’re twenty-five, ten, or five. In a way, you always know your mom, and on the other hand it’s a changing relationship. You do, at some point, forgive her everything. When you have kids yourself, most likely. You haven’t forgiven yours?
MC No, no, I have.
NMA The weird thing is that different kids can see their parents in a completely different way. You have to like your parents just because they’re your parents. We don’t like everybody.
MC How did being a parent help or hinder your writing?
NMA It did both for sure. I think it helped me because I was a single mom with three kids for many years. I had to concentrate on my writing because I couldn’t spend too much time on it. I got pretty good at writing the right sentence on first try, and I got good at writing anywhere. So I would sit at the playground and write. Or I would stay up all night and write as they slept, then take them to school in the morning and go home and sleep. Some writers need a certain office, or they have to write at a certain time of day, drinking from this specific coffee cup, but I don’t have rules. I can write anywhere. They taught me that, the kids. But it was only possible because I lived in Denmark. I had a cleaning job, and then I wrote on the side. I got support from the state. As a single mom in Denmark, you get a lot of support. You don’t have to pay full price for daycare, you get free meals, and the state helps you pay your rent. Would that be possible here? A single mom, a writer, with three kids. I can’t imagine.
MC Rivka Galchen wrote a great piece that lists women writers and how many kids they have. Most of the women on her list don’t have any, and the ones who do often have quite fraught relationships with them.
NMA You see it with artists in New York City. Most women don’t have children. I guess they copy the male artist identity. Women writers should marry men or women who want to take care of the kids. I had my first child when I was only eighteen. I didn’t really have an education. Then I worked in the music business. I started writing poetry, then quit my job so I could write.
MC You were a poet before you started writing fiction. Is it strange to have your fiction translated in the US first?
NMA I am so happy to be published in English, but it’s strange. When I started writing I only wanted to write and read poetry. I didn’t think highly of prose. But, while I was writing, stories kept coming up in my poems. I didn’t want fiction interfering, so I wrote about fifteen stories and put them in the drawer and left them there for a year or so. Then I asked a Danish fiction writer to have a look, and he told me to publish them. It was almost by chance that I started writing fiction. Those stories were my breakthrough as a writer, and they did very well in the school system. After that, I went back to poetry, but when I got divorced I started back on stories and plays because I badly needed money.
MC What are your plays like?
NMA Pretty surreal. I gave up on plays. I could do it, but it was really hard work. I think you need a special talent to be a playwright because all you have is dialogue. No description. There’s nowhere to rest when you write.
MC There’s so much in your books that is intensely physical. Did this come in part from writing for the stage, for living, breathing actors?
NMA I learned a few things from writing plays. I learned about dialogue. I did a film script, too, and I learned about how to create a scene. It was good for my fiction. If you read my earlier stories, then read Baboon, you can tell that it’s easier for me to build scenes that you can feel. It’s important to me that the scenes are physical and real. I think that is what you work with when you work with scripts and plays.
MC What script did you work on?
NMA I did a film called Strings, and it actually sold in about fifty countries. It did particularly well in Asia. It’s a weird movie, to tell the truth. It’s a marionette film for grown-ups. You’ll have to see some of it since it’s impossible for me to explain. We had to invent a whole world. How did they die? How did they commit suicide? They cut off their strings. Then there was my idea that all the strings are connected. Who controls them? Is anyone up there? It’s a fantasy film, but made with real puppets from Eastern Europe. We had around two hundred puppeteers working on the film.
MC How did this all come about?
NMA The director came to see one of my plays, then contacted me. At first there was no project in mind. We had a lot of ideas that didn’t work out, but then he came up with the puppets and I said, “No way, I’m not going to do this, it’s ridiculous.” Then I did it anyway, to face the challenge of developing a brave new world. What kind of weapons would they have? Would they have sex? Everything.
MC How did you show intimacy?
NMA The strings were involved. They would get tangled up. They touched the strings to show affection.
MC Sex in your work is much remarked upon. I think its because you do it so well, and not many do. I worried I was generalizing about this, but then I remembered The Guardian’s Bad Sex Awards. Why do you think people get it so wrong?
NMA There are so many reasons. People want to make it poetic, romantic, beautiful. It’s bad to have that idea, even before you write.
MC Even worse, I think writers try to make it sexy.
NMA They do? But, those passages are not sexy. What do you call it? There’s a word in Danish called sensuel. It means the way you are in your body, the way you feel the air on your skin. When we have sex, it’s about sensuality. And, if it’s bad, it feels like an insult. Sexuality is not a nice, cute, sexy place. In Rock, Paper, Scissors, there’s a scene where Thomas is unkind to his spouse, and he’s frightened by it himself. He’s completely out of control. It can be a disturbing, frightening place.
MC I wanted to ask you about the epigraph to Rock, Paper, Scissors. Why did you pick it?
NMA It’s from Rilke’s “Tenth Elegy”. It’s about the idea that everything is rising. What happens if you have that idea of life, how do you react when a happy thing falls? You see life as something that moves forward and gets better all the time. If you have that view of life and the world, it’s going to be very difficult for you. Everybody has that view in some way: I’m going to get richer, I’m going to have that house, I’m going to get that job, that boyfriend, that whatever. But life is not like that. I can be very happy an hour a day and then so unhappy for the next two hours. It goes back and forth all the time; life is not something that is stable. When you think that life is at its best, something terrible happens to you. It’s unpredictable. That’s a huge problem for Thomas. He thinks he can control everything and decide. Of course, we can in comparison to people in Africa, Syria, and other parts of the world. We do have a lot of privileges, but we cannot control life.
I’ve been translating a Norwegian children’s book into English. I looked up a word, uflaks. I had no idea what it was. It means bad luck. In my searching, I found an article by a Norwegian doctor, and he was talking about how everyone is on a special diet, trying to be healthy. He said, “Health is about good and bad luck.” You get sick or you don’t get sick. Maybe you feel better if you eat grapes instead of candy, but it really doesn’t matter. So he talked about the body and disease in terms of luck. You get cancer: bad luck. You live till your ninety and never have to take a day off work: good luck. Prepare for everything and enjoy your life. Baboon is about that: dieting, exercising, meditating. All the ways we can be our best and seduce the world.
MC Thomas’s sister, Jenny, is always saying: “Things are getting worse, worse, worse.”
NMA Yes, at some point Thomas and Jenny cross each other. He’s the happy thing that falls, and she’s the happiness that rises from the darkness.
MC You mark the point where things shift. It’s very hard to know where that point is in your own life.
NMA The trick is that the reader sees everything before Thomas does. What happens to Thomas is that he doesn’t allow himself to be in his body and feel what is really going on. He cuts off his intuition because he’s afraid of it.
MC In one of her poems in Glass, Irony & God, Anne Carson writes, “It is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them, sane or insane, male or female, good or evil, trustworthy, marriageable, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals inspired by God. These judgments happen fast and can be brutal.” It seems to me that’s how your fiction works.
NMA I guess we’re talking about intelligence, and maybe that’s just about being very quick at gathering all this information from the world. When you meet people, the way you interact, if you feel uncomfortable or not.
MC We are both in a foreign land in the US. The hard thing about being in a different country is that we could be reading all the signs wrong.
NMA And I guess we do. I often find myself to be a little too naive when I meet Americans. It takes a while, I think, to be able to look into the American soul.
MC The worlds of your fiction are dead serious, even in their humor. Tell me about translating children’s books, which you also do. Why do it?
NMA It’s fun. I do it for pleasure. I know we’ve been joking a bit about meditation, but translating is like meditating. You sing into another language. You have to find the right words for the song. The writer that I translate the most is Stian Hole, and his books are just so beautifully written, and they are about friendship and death and grief and happiness. The one I am working on now is about a boy who is an outcast and makes little notes and a girl who finds the notes in the woods.
MC What languages do you work with?
NMA I used to speak Greenlandic, but I don’t anymore. I forgot because I came to Denmark when I was around eight. There’s only fifty thousand Greenlandic people around the world, so if you are not in Greenland, you have no use for that language. It’s very difficult too, so I just lost it. English, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and I’ve tried to learn French five times but haven’t succeeded.
MC Did you grow up reading Danish children’s books?
NMA Yes, they were read to me when I was little. My biggest literary inspiration as a kid were fairy tales. What could we do? We didn’t even have a television. So my parents would read to us all the time. I think a writer can learn a lot from the Brothers Grimm. There’s no description that doesn’t serve the story. They are masterful.
MC One of your short stories is about a little girl at a train station. When I read that story, I remembered being her age and seeing things that way.
NMA It’s a true story. I was three. What I remember is putting my doll’s bassinette in between my legs like my father did with his briefcase. My father had run into someone, a friend, and they saw me imitating him and laughed. It’s one of my first memories, and it’s a memory of humiliation.
MC I have a similar memory. I went up to a man wearing a suit and clung to his leg. I assumed it was my dad.
NMA You were little, you could only see so far. My first memory is of riding on the front of my dad’s bike. I would sit in a little seat on the front bar and we would ride through the woods. I remember because it was the first time I saw a chicken. We were in Denmark for the summer. There was a little house near the forest and they had chickens outside. I remember the sounds. It was a very physical memory because I was sitting there with my father’s arms around me, the sun was shining, and it was all very exciting. In Greenland there were no trees, so everything seemed wild and exotic and, then… the chicken!
MC Is there anything that happens in your fictional world that can’t happen in the real world?
NMA No, unfortunately.
Mieke Chew grew up in Australia, where she founded Higher Arc magazine in 2011. She works at New Directions Publishing.