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The novelist scandalising Greenland

Breaking the ice: Greenland’s new literary star

Sarah Ditum crosses the glaciers to meet Niviaq Korneliussen

Sarah Ditum crosses the glaciers to meet Niviaq Korneliussen

Sarah Ditum | October/November 2018

Nordic noir, Scandinavia’s best-known cultural export, mixes violent crime and political intrigue. The climate is savage, the characters terse and there aren’t many laughs. Instead, you get snow, secrets, abuse, alcohol and some pretty ragged writing. Niviaq Korneliussen’s debut novel is completely different.

At a concise 200 pages, “Crimson” is a fizzing read about sex and identity set in Greenland. The book is a bestseller not just at home but also in Denmark, which has controlled Greenland since 1814. Already published in five languages, the novel is about to come out in English in a brilliant translation by Anna Halagar. A further seven translations are on the way. At just 28, Korneliussen is now the literary face of Greenland internationally.

Frank, funny and warmly romantic, “Crimson” tells the story of five young people in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and the author’s hometown. There’s Fia, who is bored with her boyfriend (“Dry kisses stiffening like desiccated fish”) and on the cusp of falling in love with Sara. Inuk, Fia’s brother, is running away from his own sexuality while also running away from Greenland to reinvent himself in Denmark. Arnaq is a chaotic party girl who is leaving a trail of destruction behind her. Ivik is a butch woman and Sara’s girlfriend, whose lack of femininity leads her to question whether she’s really a woman at all. Finally, there is Sara herself, whose section links back to Fia’s, encircling the novel like an embrace. Swirling streams of consciousness, text messages and snatches of pop lyrics coalesce into a vivacious whole.

Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is home to just 56,480 people: rounded to the nearest whole number, its population density amounts to zero people per square kilometre. With just 17,000 inhabitants, Greenland’s capital is more like a market town than a modern metropolis. That makes it an interesting setting for such fiction. Since the city has no dedicated gay scene, the characters in “Crimson” meet at bars and “after parties” in people’s homes where the drinking continues through the light Arctic summer nights.

Although global warming means that Greenland’s ice sheet is retreating, it still covers roughly 80% of the island, with humans pushed to the coastal fringes. For outsiders, that makes it a thrilling wilderness where humanity and nature meet in their rawest state. Life for locals here is more prosaic. There’s one shopping mall, where I first meet Korneliussen. In an email she describes it as “a big iron building that looks like a prison”. What I take for a resident’s affectionate disparagement turns out to be an entirely accurate portrait of the hulking metal-caged cube. Both its escalators are broken and it’s unsettlingly quiet. Even so, the author decides the café is too loud for us to talk in, and we cross the street to Katuaq, Nuuk’s cultural centre.

As in most small towns, everyone tends to know everyone else – if not directly, then by reputation. As I walk around with Korneliussen, she is stopped frequently and pauses for conversation, conducted back and forth with lots of gracious laughter in a gentle Greenlandic. (Like most Greenlanders, Korneliussen speaks the language, which is closely related to the Inuit languages of Canada, as well as Danish and English.) The closeness of such a place can be stifling, she says. Gossip spreads fast. Isolation – so abundantly available beyond the towns – is hard to come by when every public place is a social space too. Korneliussen enjoys swimming, but says she avoids the pool because people there so often want to chat, and she tends not to take the bus anymore for the same reason. Nuuk is also a hard place to leave. There is just one international flight to the city, from Reykjavik; the only way to reach Greenland’s main air hub of Kangerlussuaq in western Greenland is by prop plane.

Though Korneliussen was born in Nuuk, she spent much of her early life in an even smaller place, Nanortalik, the country’s southernmost city. She and her girlfriend Miilla now live back in Nuuk with two dogs, a German shepherd and a rescue mongrel with one ear and half a tail. The dogs, she says, help to break up her sedentary routine: “When I’m writing, I forget to go out. But when you have dogs that can’t really happen.” Like her character Inuk, Korneliussen moved to Denmark for university but returned to Greenland when she found it hard to find work. Danish racism against indigenous Greenlanders like herself is widespread. “Danish people saw us as savages,” she says. “Even though our colonisation wasn’t that violent, it’s been very hard for people to meet each other again when they saw us as animals.” Stereotypes of the work-shy, drunken, child-abusing Greenlander are common; bars routinely refuse entry to Greenlanders. Korneliussen says her next novel will explore the alienation of a Greenlander in Denmark.

Although “Crimson” is set in Nuuk, Korneliussen’s drive to get away from there is a key part of how she came to write it. In 2012, she entered a short story competition. The prize included a trip to Kangerlussuaq for a writing workshop. “I thought, I’d like to get away from the city, so I sent it in,” she says. That story caught a publisher’s eye, which led to “Crimson” – it appeared in both Greenlandic and Danish under the title “HOMO Sapienne”. At the local bookshop, Korneliussen talks me through Greenlandic literature. It takes up just one wall – the rest is given over to Danish books, apart from a small corner devoted to English-language big guns such as Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”. Now, Korneliussen mentors and supports younger Greenlandic writers. “I really want Greenland to have more writers,” she says. “I think they have a unique voice because we’re so small and our language is so different.”

Greenlandic writing has tended to fall into two camps. There are books that address social issues, such as alcoholism, suicide and sexual abuse, all of which run at devastating rates on the island. And then there are books that celebrate the grandeur and wildness of the landscape. “I really wanted to focus on the people,” Korneliussen explains. “Young people didn’t have a voice in Greenlandic literature at all at that point. I wanted to write something I could recognise myself in.”

The Greenlandic language has had joint national-language status with Danish since 1978. West Greenlandic is the standard form, yet regional dialects persist. The language’s literary roots are shallow: it has existed in written form only since 1851, when a German missionary called Samuel Kleinschmidt formalised the orthography for the first time. (The first Greenlandic novel was “A Greenlander’s Dream” by Mathias Storch, in 1915, which imagined a future where Greenland was no longer under Danish control.) So the language feels in flux even to native speakers. At the bookshop, Korneliussen and bookseller Maasi Chemnitz, also an author, laughingly agree that no one should write in Greenlandic. “Even though it’s my mother tongue, I have trouble finding the right ending,” Korneliussen says. “Is it supposed to be one n or two? Two ss or one?”

At lunch the next day, Korneliussen is in a more serious mood as she describes the obstacle her native language presented at the start of her career: “I felt very young, especially when people were trying to tell me how to use the Greenlandic language – ‘you can’t say that,’ ‘but we say it all the time!’ I sometimes felt very fragile.”

Language, as so often in post-colonial settings, is heavily politicised. Nationalists see those who speak only Danish as not truly Greenlandic, yet people who speak only Greenlandic are often “stripped of opportunities”, she says, in teaching or health care where Danish predominates. Korneliussen recognises the hangovers from colonialism (Greenland has been self-governing only since 2009), but she also sees Denmark and Greenland as being fundamentally entwined: “It’s a bad thing that we’ve been colonised, but I don’t know what else would have happened. America? That would have been much worse.” In the Art Museum, she shows me a photo series she collaborated on, which combines confrontational phrases in Greenlandic, Danish and English (“Wake up Eskimo!” says one).

Some readers see the casual discussion of sex as the main taboo in “Crimson”. Greenlanders and Danes have been more shocked by the irreverent way Korneliussen handles language and identity: “When my book was published, people asked, ‘Have you had some issues in your childhood? Do you have some identity issues?’ Because it’s not normal that a Greenlander criticises her own people.” She’s sceptical about full independence from Denmark. The government, she says, should focus on education, health and climate change. The success of “Crimson” has made her the island’s global voice. That isn’t what she wants. “Why can’t I just be a writer?” she asks. But this young author, standing at the head of a new literary wave in a young language, is already far more than that.