Register Friday | September 21 | 2018

The Careful Process of Becoming Extremely Precise: An Interview with Naja Marie Aidt

I was visiting my partner’s family in Denmark over the winter holidays. I’d brought a couple of books to read on my trip, but they were poor choices. One sucked a lot, the other mostly sucked. So I chucked them. My mother-in-law, a retired journalist and avid reader, was worried about me not having any English books to read, so she gave me one of my Christmas presents early. It was a copy of Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman. I read the first story, “Bulbjerg,” and was completely floored by the prose.

I certainly wasn’t alone in my opinion of Aidt’s English-language work. When the Dalkey Archive published “Bulbjerg” in its Best European Fiction 2010, Radhika Jones in Time magazine singled out this story of frayed love. “The emotions unleashed in this tale couldn't be contained in any nice little talk,” she wrote. “They are painfully universal. Yet you know exactly where in the universe you are. This is the hallmark of great short stories, from Chekhov’s portraits of discontented Russians to Joyce’s struggling Dubliners to Jhumpa Lahiri's uprooted Bengalis.”

Aidt is a celebrated author in her native Denmark—since 1991, she’s published nearly twenty books of poetry and fiction, and won such awards as the Danish Critics Prize for Literature and the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Ten minutes after I finished her book, I tracked her down to ask for an interview.

Melissa Bull: How much of your work has been translated into English so far? And can you tell me a bit about the process of getting Baboon translated into English? 

Naja Marie Aidt: Baboon came out in the United States in October 2014. Before that, I had stories published in different American literary magazines. It was a long and amazing process working with Denise Newman on the translation, not that she didn’t do all of the hard work on her own because she really did! But we had very interesting conversations and discussions about how to transfer the tone of the book into a smooth English without making too many sacrifices. In the summer of 2013, she received a huge grant and went to Copenhagen to catch up on her Danish and finish the translation. I was vacationing in Denmark at that time and we spent several days making some final decisions together. I even took her to the Botanical Garden to show her exactly where the story “The Green Darkness of the Big Trees” took place. 

I admire the art of translation so much. How do you translate a native saying? What do you do if there is no word for something in the text in English? Denise and I would help each other come up with ideas and I really appreciated her openness. She was willing to share her thoughts and listen to me as well. As a Danish writer living in the US, I have a feeling for American-English and it was such an instructive experience for me to work with Denise. I learned a lot about the English language. Denise is a poet herself and she is very sensitive to every single comma, every little detail. She knows about the rhythm of the language and I find that very important in order to re-create a text in a different language. My books has been translated into nine languages, but as I don’t, for instance, speak Icelandic, Serbian or Italian, it is impossible for me to know if the translation is good or horrible. In those cases I have to rely on the publisher.

MB: I felt, when reading your fiction, that there was a kind of poetic tightness to it, a purposeful distillation in language, so that your short fiction felt almost like narrative prose poems. So I was not surprised to discover that you are also a poet. 

NMA: I identify myself as mostly being a poet. I’ve published ten collections of poetry and three collections of short stories. To me, working with prose demands the same extreme consciousness on the language. I make sure not to use the same words too often and I work carefully with every single sentence to create a certain feeling and rhythm for each story. I also compose a collection of stories the same way I compose a poetry collection meaning, for instance, very carefully placing each story in the right spot to make them mirror each other and to make a “wave-like” reading possible. 

It is as if my stories jump right out of the language more than the opposite way around. I don’t sit down and spend a lot of time on storylines, plots and notes. I sit down and write. Something mostly pops up and I tend to follow my intuition when I pick what to chase and what to let go. 

MB: I’ve read some of the prose poetry you’ve published in English in Columbia’s online journal, Catch and Release. Is there a close relationship between the two genres for you?

NMA: What I really like about writing in different genres is that I learn so much from every genre and this knowledge inspires me to work differently with, for instance, poetry, after having written a play or a story collection. I deeply respect and admire each genre and I don’t especially fancy “poetic prose”—it often seems less poetic than “real prose,” whatever that is. So yes, in a way I find poetry and prose closely connected but, on the other hand, not at all. 

Those poems you mentioned are really poems and not prose. They might look as prose but they are definitely not. I always return to writing poetry to sharpen my language and my abstract thinking. There is something extremely nerdy about poetry that I love. It’s a completely different process than working with fiction and there are subjects that you can unfold in poetry which might be impossible to deal with the same way in fiction. The poems you mention, for instance. They jump within lines from historic events and facts in the seventeenth-century to present time to surreal dreamy experiences in a complete different scene. Even practically, the processes are completely different: you can sit down and work on a novel for maybe eight or even ten hours a day and actually write, while writing poetry might mean a good days work is two words or less. Or two weeks spent on moving a semicolon back and forth between two lines. I like that. It’s all about, to me, the careful process of becoming extremely precise. 

MB: Your work doesn’t shy away from discomfort, from ugliness, sex, attraction or regret. I find your style and subject matter to be a rare combination of bald and also full of tense emotion, judgment and sensuality. Do you have to dare yourself to be so upfront? Is it part of your nature? Is it something you want to read more? 

NMA: Well, I grew up in the northern part of Greenland and you cannot survive in such a place, at least not before Greenland became a modern society, if you are shy and afraid of facing life as it really is. I remember especially that when a child fell and hurt themselves, the adults would just laugh. They did that in order to toughen the kids up to survive in such a harsh climate that could easily become deadly. Sexuality, pain, ugliness and discomfort were regarded as crucial parts of our lives and nothing to hide or be ashamed of. And why should we be ashamed? Life is beautiful but most of the time it’s not. You give birth in deep pain and in a flooding of blood and slime. You stick your tongue into another person’s mouth and exchange saliva when you kiss your lover. You go to the bathroom, you sweat, you face diseases and death, none of them very pretty. That’s human life. What’s so shameful about that?

That’s beautiful, too, in its own right. I like to explore what seems difficult to handle and overcome in human life. In Scandinavia you will often find a certain literary style that’s very realistic and graphic and yet very intense and often written beautifully. Per Petterson, Kjell Askildsen and Stig Sæterbakken from Norway are good examples of that. So are Danish writers Helle Helle and Dorthe Nors, and Swedish writers like Linn Ullmann and Kerstin Ekman (all translated into English) among many others.

MB: I haven’t read a lot of Danish literature yet. I wondered, reading your work, if your habit of short sentences is informed by a Scandinavian style? I do a lot of work with French literature, where it is quite the opposite—generally speaking, French literature, unlike English literature, has these long, flowing, comma-laden sentences. 

NMA: Yes, there is a tradition in Danish literature to create short sentences. It might have to do with the fact that Danish is a tiny language—we don’t have that many words to juggle with compared to French or English. By creating short sentences combined with longer, more complicated sentences, it’s possible to create some sort of suspense or intensity or melody in Danish. Maybe we just try to cover up for the simplicity of the language. I don’t know if this makes sense at all, but the same goes for Norwegian. Not quite as much for Swedish literature in general, but Swedish does have much more complexity than Danish. When Denise Newman translated Baboon, we would often have to decide on making longer sentences by combining two or three sentences from the original text in order to make it a good read in English. That was very important for me: to make it a smooth and fluent read without losing the original feel and literary style. 

MB: In an interview with the Largehearted Boy (read it to get a playlist for Baboon), you talk about the calculation required to affect an emotional response in a reader, saying, “It’s the language itself that creates the tension, the passion, the intensity, not the artist’s urge to drown his or her audience in feelings.” How does this notion fit with the sparseness of your work? Is there an idea not to overload? A notion of precision? Of not telling the reader everything? 

NMA: Definitely. The more precise, the more intense. I like to create an almost sensual flow by seducing readers to read something that is not very pleasant to read. I want to let the reader all the way in without telling everything. This might sound self-contradictory but it really isn’t. A text should have its secrets and the secrets should be a dark, velvet, irresistible under-stream. At least I like that for my own writing. It’s important for me to leave some space for the reader, a space where she or he can make her or his own conclusions, like a space to breath in. To me passion, tension and intensity has a lot to do with everything rhythmic. Music, breathing, waves. The heart beat. The wind. The clock ticking. By striving for precision it is sometimes possible to make language the force that actually moves or touches the reader. Norwegian short story writer Kjell Askildsen once said that a good sentence is a sentence that can be followed by another good sentence. I think he is right. Every word, every sentence matters.

MB: In an interview with the LA Times, you said that Scandinavian short stories are “traditionally more like a novella and sometimes almost a short novel.” In this same interview, you also say that you’ve always been a fan of the American short story. I think this is interesting since some of the stories in your collection are indeed very short, but they’re vast in scope. Do you feel like your work straddles the two short story types at all? 

NMA: I think I always try to include more than a single scene or moment in my stories. I want to tell a lot in a few words. It is right that the traditional Scandinavian short story used to be quite long, but nowadays it’s not necessarily long. Raymond Carver had a huge influence on Nordic fiction writers all the way through the Eighties and the Nineties. Back in the Nineties, a lot of minimalistic literature was written in Scandinavia. I was never really part of that wave, though. My stories always turned out to be more swelling, more loaded or charged. Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner meant a lot to me at that time and still do. I grew up with John Steinbeck in Danish translation and would steal all of his books out of my grandmother’s bookshelves. Steinbeck’s novels were breathtaking for me as a teenager. His descriptions of what to me was the great, big world and his political engagement were completely eye opening to me. The mother in East of Eden haunted me down in my dreams. That was the first book for adults I ever read. I was 13 years old. Kate, the mother in the novel, was the most mysterious character I had ever met. She’s so enticing and deadly frightening at the same time. Maybe she’s actually the reason why I write the way I do.

Bull: So apart from Kate in East of Eden, did anything else make you want to be a writer? Do you come from a family of readers or writers? 

Aidt: No, I don’t come from a family of writers, but my family includes a lot of artists and musicians all the way back to my great-great-grand parents. My father is a teacher and a poetry lover and my mom is a painter. She went to the Danish film school when we moved to Copenhagen from Greenland, and graduated as a film director. In that way it’s an “artsy” family. When I was very young I wanted to become a musician. I played keyboard in a band, did a lot of song writing and started working in an agency when I was twenty-two. I went to business school and got promoted as a sales manager at the BMG record company. I was pretty good at it and made a huge salary for my age. But I got bored. 

When I was around twenty-five, I desperately enrolled at the University of Copenhagen to study anthropology but I never showed up for classes. Instead I wrote my first collection of poetry and quit my job. That’s the short version of the story. I’d been reading and writing with great obsession since I was ten years old and despite that I didn’t have the courage to admit to myself that I wanted to become a writer, that it was definitely my dream. I had this tremendous urge to express myself. Playing music was fun but writing seemed to be both what I was best at and a lifestyle that seemed to be a good match with my character or nature. I like to be on my own and I like to disappear into language. I can’t live without it, to put it straight. Writing is very physical to me, and at the same time very mental, intellectual. I am not a hermit—at least not always—and I love company and teamwork. But at the end of the day, I want to be the one who makes the decisions so writing means great freedom to me. It’s always difficult and frustrating to write but also very empowering and releasing. 

MB: You’ve already mentioned a few, but can you fill us in on what Danish or Scandinavian writers we are missing out on and should be reading?

NMA: Oh, there are so many! Dorthe Nors (Karate Chop) and Helle Helle (This Should Be Written in the Present Tense) are good places to start. Pia Juul (The Murder of Halland) is another great Danish writer. Sjon from Iceland is amazing and so is Per Petterson from Norway. Swedish Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater made a huge impression on me when I read it years ago. Oh, and Kjell Askildsen! His Selected Stories was published in the US last year. And then there is of course Karl-Ove Knausgaard. He’s amazing. All of the books mentioned are already translated into English. 

MB: You live in the US now. Has the change of scene affected your work? Do you miss the four hours of daylight in winter, or the white nights in summer? Are you surviving the super-snowstorm predictions so far? 

NMA: I don’t miss the darkness at all! Danish wintertime is just horrible. People get depressed, no one goes out, it rains constantly, and it feels like the sky is only a few inches above your head. But I do miss the light summer nights. I usually go back in July for vacation and that’s really lovely. Super-snowstorms do not frighten me. After all, I’m from Greenland. I’m sure the change of scene in my private life has changed my writing, too. Since I moved here I have, among a book about freedom and gender written in cooperation with two fellow Danish writers, been publishing a collection of poetry and a novel. The poems are about being a stranger, about being an immigrant, and about Denmark’s relationship to the world abroad—for instance I write about the dim and shameful chapters of Denmark’s history while we were colonizing first the Virgin Islands and then Greenland. It’s also about New York and the United States and in a way it’s an investigation of what it means to be away from home—does home means anything? What is a home? And how stupid you feel when you lose your mastery of your language and have to speak poorly in your new language. The loneliness and the confusion you feel. The loss of identity. 

The novel is called Rock, Paper, Scissors, and it takes place in a nowhere place. I simply invented a city and a country for my story by picking all kinds of different objects, landscapes, plants, buildings, names and so on from all over Europe and the States. I did not feel close enough to Denmark to write about it and I did not feel enough intimacy or connection to New York to be able to write about New York and New-Yorkers. It’s a story about fathers and sons, families, lies and love, betrayal, violence, devastation and despair. Almost every taboo and mythical aspect connected to the male gender is part of this book. I have a male protagonist in this book and that was very interesting, to write a man. Surprisingly enjoyable.

What I love most about living in New York City is the diversity. This city is populated with so many people from all over the world. So many cultures and languages are represented. Denmark seems very small and provincial to me now. The journey from a small and isolated town in Greenland to Copenhagen—which used to frighten me as a kid with its loud noises, tall houses and many cars—to New York has been amazing. I can easily picture myself living in other places now. The definition of home has changed completely for me, and that has changed me as a person and a writer. 

MB: What are you working on now?

NMA: It’s always terrifying to talk about work that’s not completed. What if I never complete it? But I am trying to write poetry right now and I dream of writing a new collection of short stories. 

MB: When do we get to read more of your work in English? Tell me it’s soon. 

NMA: It is soon! My novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors, will be published in the States in August by Open Letter Books and I’m very exited about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Melissa Bull is Maisonneuve’s Writing from Quebec editor and a Montreal-based writer, editor and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Prism, Event, Playboy, Matrix, Broken Pencil and the Montreal Review of Books. Her translation of Nelly Arcan’s collection, Burqa of Skin, was published in 2014 and her collection of poetry, Rue, is forthcoming in April 2015.