Reimagining the State: Jonas Eika Interviewed by Sarah Neilson

A collection of short stories by the Danish author addressing global class crisis and inequality.

Cover photo of Jonas Eika's After the Sun which is the title with swirly bright colors all around it.

Jonas Eika is considered a bit of a prodigy in Nordic literature. At just thirty years old, the Danish-born author debuted in 2015 with his novel Lageret Huset Marie; in 2018 his short story collection Efter Solen (After the Sun) won four major literary prizes, and in 2019 it won the Nordic Council Literature Prize. In his speech at that award ceremony, Eika skewered Danish politicians about their capitalist priorities and their ongoing policies of incarcerating immigrants. He also expressed hope and a call to action for people to use our hearts and imaginations to change the oppressive systems that white supremacy and imperialist policies have wrought across the world.

After the Sun (Riverhead), a slim book that nonetheless manages to cover a broad range of geographical and stylistic ground, is now translated into English. The stories travel from Copenhagen to Nevada to a beach in Cancún; and the characters experience grief, violence, and surrealism that impart an unsettling and sideways beauty. Eika deftly exposes the absurdity and harm of class, capitalism, and global oppressive structures through glimpses into the lives of a wide range of characters and the way they do or do not cultivate connection or community. It is utterly refreshing to see a Nordic writer break down the myth that democratic socialism exists there, and to use their work to explore its messiness.

—Sarah Neilson

Sarah Neilson As a Danish citizen who grew up mainly in the US, I’m frustrated that white liberal Americans idolize the Nordic countries for their perceived democratic socialist values. In reality, these countries are just as capitalist, racist, xenophobic, and imperialist as America. You spoke eloquently about this in your Nordic Council Literature Prize acceptance speech. What is your experience of liberal idolization of Nordic countries both from within Denmark and from other Western countries? How do you think that narrative can be effectively countered in service of dismantling Western racist, nationalist, capitalist power structures overall?

Jonas Eika Well, yes, Nordic exceptionalism is a well-advertised brand here too. Even with the right to welfare payments being tied to one’s capacity for wage-work, many Danish people will still think of Denmark as a kind of socialist country. Even with the state imprisoning rejected asylum seekers under torture-like conditions, kicking residents out of public housing based on their class and ethnicity, making “non-Westerners” a problem through statistics and law, and much more—even then, many (probably mainly white) Danish citizens will think of this country as egalitarian and inclusive and non-racist. So, there is this seemingly infinite gap between reality and national self-perception, which of course impedes resistance and solidarity. On a mental level, too, I think: What happens when the state is so thoroughly imagined as the medium of resistance, care, justice, and political life?

But to try to switch perspective a bit: of course, compared to the US, Scandinavian national states have been able to modify capitalism and redistribute wealth much more, so I do see how these societies seem desirable from there. At the same time, I want to insist that the welfare state is still a facilitator of capitalism. And a very active agent of racism and violent exclusion. Then, to counter the narrative, as you say, I think we need to insist that in spite of regional differences, capitalist societies are comparable across borders. They’re built on similar histories of colonization and plunder and enclosure and patriarchal violence, and so resistance can be shared too.

SN To continue on that thread, how does Danish nationalism and capitalist and institutional ethos, subtle or not, play a role in your fiction and your approach to writing in general? Or, put another way, how do you see writing and the communication inherent in it playing a role in dismantling these systems?

JE I’m hesitant to put that much agency and power on writing. There might be moments, periods of uprising and intense political activity, where writing can be part of a movement’s way of nurturing and reflecting on itself. But outside of those situations, I’m not so sure. Maybe writing can offer a language that feels at once on a level with the world and out of it; that can at once contain certain experiences and insist, on a formal level, that things could be different. Reading that kind of literature can feel like rewiring the brain and reactivating a sensuality that doesn’t get much space under capitalism.

Personally, when writing the stories that became After the Sun, I thought a lot about writing in an uneconomical or excessive way. Because of a strong, minimalist tradition here in Scandinavia, writing short stories comes with the expectation of a certain kind of moderation, which I wanted to go against. I wanted each story to contain many different genres, temperaments, digressions, and perspectives, and to sometimes push the periphery into the center, for example by suddenly focusing on a minor character or a side story. It was also about insisting—narratively and at the sentence level—of a potential for transformation in the midst of very bleak and oppressive circumstances.

Photo of author Jonas Eika, a white person with short green hair, pink drop earrings, wearing a burgundy shirt on with a soft pink background.

Photo of Jonas Eika by Aphinya Jatupariskakul.

SNIn the story “Alvin,” you render, in almost a satirical way, derivatives trading and financial phenomena more generally as simple yet shrouded, and also absurd. How do you view finance as a concept in global power structures, and what draws you to want to explore it in fiction? JE Simple yet shrouded, exactly! The more you read about finance, the more it feels like a fiction (a bad one). There is something gamified and imagined and very ridiculous about instruments like futures, swaps, structured assets and what have you. For me, it’s a confrontation with the fact that the systems that structure our common world are essentially fictions, held up by power and violence. Trying to imagine the mentality of people who trade in these things was also a way of thinking about what is probably a very old feature of life in commodity economies: this deep split between the thing and its history, and between actions and their effects. Which is also a moral problem that kind of mirrors the split between words and the things they refer to. In retrospect, I think that with “Alvin” I wanted to write a moral story devoid of morals. The characters don’t care about the effects of their actions, they’re too emotionally incapable to see what their desire comes from, but it’s still there, as a bodily, ghostly knowledge.

SN Can you talk about the importance of the corporeal in your writing? The body is such an integral part of these stories.

JE For many of the characters, the body is the only thing they have to work with. Maybe they’re not in a position to analyze their situation, but on a bodily level, they understand it. There’s no organizing or tangible resistance taking place, but there are bodies, exhausted and estranged, still looking for new ways of connecting to each other and the world around them. Plus, writing fiction is a bodily thing for me. Not that I go through all the same feelings and states as my characters, but I have to find a bodily place to connect from in order to write them.  

SN How do all of these bodily aspects interact with capitalism? What is capitalism’s influence on the bodies of your characters?

JE For many of them, it’s not only determining their circumstances but also entering their bodies, like when they have to move and act and speak in specific ways to perform a service. They have to constantly mirror the desires of others, which of course removes them from their own. So even though there are small pockets of intimacy and eroticism, they’re never totally apart from their oppressive surroundings. I think tenderness and roughness exist side by side in these stories and are sometimes hard to separate.

SN I watched a video of you reading an excerpt from the story “Bad Mexican Dog” in Danish and was struck by the rhythm and lyricism of it in the original language. How has the translation process felt for you? What is lost and what is gained in that process, and has it changed or expanded the way you view these stories?

JE I am very specific about the rhythm of my sentences. When writing feels right for me, it’s often like finding the words for an underlying rhythm, sometimes determining the number of syllables for a word or sentence member. So reading and commenting on the different stages of the translation was also a process of understanding how the feel and the beat and the temperament of the stories could be created in American English, using the possibilities and limitations of that language. And I think Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg managed to do that. I don’t think I’m good enough with English to say exactly what is gained and lost. But I hope that there is some of the same mix of literariness and ineptitude or childishness that I intended for some of the stories.

SN How is the landscape important to your writing? What draws you to the varying settings of these stories?

JE Many of the settings arose kind of intuitively when I started writing, but I guess for a reason. “Alvin” takes place in the inner city of Copenhagen, a business and shopping area that I rarely go to. I think it made sense to place these two very detached characters in this anonymous and commercialized area in my own city that is strange to me. Then there’s Rachel, Nevada, where I’ve never been, but which interested me because of its history of transitioning from a mining town to a center for UFO tourism. There was something about the juxtaposition of those two economies, and about the location of the town, that must have seemed just right for the story I wanted to write, which was both about grief and science fiction. Of course, this is all in retrospect, and I’m probably giving the impression that I plan and know much more than I actually do when I start writing. But looking back at the book now, I can see that many of the settings have a feeling of something at once very concrete and unreal. And I think that has to do with writing about places and lives that are so structured by profit motives, power, and inequality.

SN How do you feel about the label “surrealist fiction”? Or genre labels in general?

JE I don’t mind genre labels in general. They can be a way of pointing towards literary affinities and playing with conventions. Though of course it’s worth noting that they are almost only being used about writing that deviates from a modernist European norm of realist literature that often revolves around the individual psychology.

I don’t consider my own writing “surreal.” I’m not very interested in juxtaposition and contrast, or in the imagination as a literary domain, but in expanding the field of the sensuous. The occult and sci-fi stuff in After the Sun is, for me, mostly about that: expanding what can be felt, thought and seen, though not as a total break with the logic or reality of the story. Everything that happens in the stories happens, it’s never just in the mind of the characters. That’s why I try to always write the strangest parts with a precise and visual materiality. 

SN Who are some of your inspirations and who are you excited about reading right now? 

JE In recent years some other recurring inspirations have been Octavia Butler, Hiromi Itō, Roberto Bolaño, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Lately I’ve been reading quite a lot of Birgitta Trotzig, a Swedish modernist poet and novelist. Everything always gets worse and worse in her stories, in a stuttering, repetitive, and very poetic way that constantly invents new words and sentence structures in order to get at the despair or her characters. It sounds awful now that I’m describing it, and it kind of is, but there’s a beauty to it too.

SN Are there any other projects you’re working on that you want to talk about?

JE I’m just in the process of finishing the Danish translation of Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism in collaboration with my co-translator Nanna Dahler, which comes out this fall. I’m very excited to see what kind of analyses and conversations the book might inspire here in Denmark. Returning to your first question, racial capitalism and racist state violence don’t have the same history or take the exact same forms here as in the US, but do of course exist. And I think that Jackie Wang’s mix of post-Marxist and Afropessimist thought could be useful for analyzing how. It’s also just a great book, an interesting mix of essay, theory, and poetry.

After the Sun is available for purchase here.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.

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