The first full-length work by Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt—born in 1963 in Greenland, raised in Copenhagen, and currently living in New York City—is now available in English with the translation of her short story collection Baboon, which earned her the biggest literary prize in Scandinavia, the 2008 Nordic Council Literature Prize, and is being published this month by Two Lines Press in a sharp translation from Denise Newman.
Aidt’s writing includes nine books of poetry, short stories, radio plays, plays, films scripts, and children’s books, and her work has been translated into Italian, German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Latvian, Icelandic, and Czech. Her literary career began in 1991 with the poetry collection Så længe jeg er ung (“As Long As I Am Young”), part one of a trilogy she completed in 1994 and which, like Baboon, plumbs the depths of relationships with family and friends. Baboon is her third short story collection.
Although her subject matter with these new stories is quotidian, Aidt’s characters and their fates are anything but: After their son is tossed from a bike and injured, a husband decides there is no better time to reveal to his wife details of his affair with her sister; a well-meaning couple, forgetting to place a bag of candy in their supermarket basket, find themselves charged with theft above their assiduous protests.
In our conversation via email, shortly after the author’s return to New York from a reading tour in Denmark, we discussed the importance of place in Aidt’s fiction and her ability to recast the familiar as strange, as she puts it, to turn “frustration and sadness into a new possibility, a new freedom,” creating the impression that one is seeing with new eyes.
Eric M. B. Becker: The subject matter in this collection is deceptively everyday, and yet each story’s conclusion is unexpected. It calls to mind the oft-cited Proustian assertion that true discovery takes place not in the exploration of new surroundings, but in seeing them differently. In Baboon, we have a bit of a hybrid. The characters do explore new terrain, but some of the most common experiences—going to the store, honeymooning—are suddenly jolted from the comfort of predictability. Despite so many deeply personal experiences, rather than driving the reader to consider them as idiosyncratic, these stories urge the reader to consider all of reality’s possibilities.
Naja Marie Aidt: One of the subjects I was interested in exploring or scrutinizing when working on Baboon (and something I am always drawn to when writing) is the absurdity and survival instinct that we live our everyday life as if nothing would ever change or threaten it. And when something does happen—your lover leaves you, you get sick, you lose a close relative, you find yourself in a car accident, or someone attacks you, you realize how vulnerable you are, how weak you are and how easily everything you trusted to be forever vanishes within seconds. It fascinates me to dig into those few seconds and to write about characters’ reactions to sudden changes, whether coming from the inside or the outside world.
Baboon was written while the economic boom was at its peak in Denmark, and that exaggerated everything. It made people feel like they didn’t need anyone anymore. You could feel the change in the streets. No politeness, no kindness, no community feeling. A lot of stress and egoistical behavior was activated. A terrible blooming racism. Fear that immigrants would come and take away our privilege. And also a new focus on the body. It was now possible to spend a lot of money to gain the perfect body, to get a pair of new breasts, to work out seven days a week, to make sure not to eat or drink anything that was not “guaranteed” to be healthy and so on. The body was worshipped as a temple. And the fear for diseases and sickness drove people mad.
I wanted to combine the materialism in society with the focus on the body and I spent a long time trying to invent a new kind of writing that not only described this but that in its way was the materialism, the body, the fear, and the intolerance. That’s why you will find very little in the way of psychological portraits, as in classic psychological realism. Instead, there are a lot of bodily reactions and the stories are written in the present tense to catch some of the “now and here” stress to force the reader to experience what the characters experience at the exact same time. The stories are mostly composed as a sequence of scenes with very little information on how the characters feel. Like a clash between person and surrounding. The story “Mosquito Bite” is an example of this method. I wanted to combine a literary poetic prose with a tight Steven King-like horror/suspense feeling in order to get that clash. A clash of the unpleasant, unexpected.
EB: How involved were you working with your translator for this book?
NMA: I have worked very intensely with my translator, Denise Newman, for years and years, and it feels like a great accomplishment to have had the opportunity to be part of that process. When my books are translated into Serbian or Italian, I don’t have the skills to actually read and understand the translation, and it’s always nerve-wracking not knowing if the translation makes my writing worse. Denise and I have had lots of discussions and it was always my intention to make Baboon work well in English. So we did make decisions to cut down on some of the very short sentences followed by other short sentences, which is a style of writing we use a lot in Scandinavian literature, because it works well with the way the Nordic languages function, and instead we broke them up and turned them into longer sentences when it sounded better and less abrupt in English.
I have translated poems and children’s books from Norwegian and Swedish, and know how difficult it is to transfer a text to a different language. I’ve also worked with Susanna Nied, the translator of the great Danish poet Inger Christensen, for many years now as she has translated one of my collections of poetry into English and that, too, has been a wonderful journey which has taught me so much about the American language (really, American, so different from the British English I was taught in school).
The process of translating Baboon into English has been very interesting because it was also a way to learn English at a deeper level and to understand the hidden meanings of words and phrases—all the secrets hidden in the language that you cannot know about if no one tells you about them. The color of the language, one might say. Denise is a poet herself, which makes her extremely aware of every word and every comma and she has been so generous in sharing those considerations with me. I am truly grateful for that.
EB: To what extent would you say your writing has been influenced by the works of non-Danish writers who you came to read through translation?
NMA: To a great extent! I read American short story writers like Jayne Ann Philips, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe and Hemingway, intensely when I was young and they have definitely influenced me heavily in many different ways. The same goes for Russian literature, like Chekhov or Nabokov. In recent years, I have read Ingeborg Bachmann, Edouard Léve, Roberto Bolaño, and Lydia Davis—among many others.
The inspiration from other writers works is constant and ongoing and an automatic choice and necessity. You might say that Scandinavian literature is the ground I stand on and writers like Karen Blixen, Selma Lagerlöf, Knut Hamsun, and Johannes V. Jensen, plus newer names like Per Petterson and Sara Stridsberg are all important parts of my literary luggage.
EB: One of the greatest things about translation is its power to introduce readers to new ways of seeing. What is it you hope Anglophone readers will take from Baboon? Is it any different from the reaction you hope to cause in readers of the original Danish?
NMA: I hope they will like and feel disturbed by it. I like disturbing literature. No wonder Lolita is one of my favorite books! When something is disturbing it is moving, too. It makes you think about something in a new way, it moves you intellectually, too. Some Danish readers I heard from felt very disturbed by Baboon to a level of psychical discomfort. They wanted to throw away the book but they couldn’t help themselves from reading. I think their discomfort was mainly caused by their being Danish and the question the book raised for them: “Are we really that far out of our depths?”
EB: Almost as long as there have been writers, there have been writers who wrote from places other than the country or city in which they grew up. Seeing as how you now live in New York, did you note any change in the role setting plays in your fiction? Was there a sort of cultural translation that took place in your writing as a result of the change in your daily surroundings?
NMA: Definitely. But Baboon was written while I still lived in Denmark. When I first moved here I did a collection of poetry called Everything Shimmers. It’s about what it means to belong and if it means anything to belong to a certain place.
I was born and raised in Greenland, which used to be a Danish colony. Suddenly I was in New York City. I could take a plane and go see the Virgin Islands that also used to be a Danish colony when Denmark exploited people from Africa and kept them as slaves. Some of the street names there are still in Danish. The islands were sold to the United States for like nothing. Now they are somehow part of the States but in a weird way. They cannot vote. All this led me to think and write about places, New York included. About being an immigrant, a stranger, someone other people look at in a certain way. The loneliness of that and the freedom of that.
In my novel Rock Paper Scissors, I invented my own place as a setting. I could not decide on either of my homes, Copenhagen or New York. That made me frustrated and sad. I had been away so long and found it difficult to create a realistic Denmark. But on the other hand I felt I hadn’t been in New York long enough to know what people were talking about at home when they shut the door behind them. These things are very important to know as a writer; all the tiny little expressions that mirror a certain culture or morality or a national identity.
So I tried to turn the frustration and sadness into a new possibility, a new freedom, by creating a place that contained both Europe and the States without naming any city or pointing out which languages were spoken and so on. An unnamed place that sums up the western world. That was a lot of fun and it turned out to be an empowering act for me as a writer, floating somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.
Eric M. B. Becker is a writer, translator, and award-winning journalist from St. Paul, Minnesota. He has recently published translations of Brazilian writers Edival Lourenço, Eric Nepomuceno and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, as well as 2014 Neustadt Prize winner Mia Couto, in The Massachusetts Review, MobyLives, and Asymptote. In 2014, he was recipient of a Louis Armstrong House Museum Residency. He also serves as assistant managing editor at Asymptote.