The Atlantic Grows investigates notions of family, colour and race, and specifically the relationship between two sisters who share the same mother and yet are divided – by their different fathers, by the colour of their skin, and by the Atlantic Ocean that separates their continents.
In the light of the desk lamp
that is yellower than the daylight
the skin of my hand looks almost green,
almost red, with a golden wash.
It is not white.
The wall is white.
The used tissues
and the unpaid bills are white.
My hand has a different colour. The colour has a name.
I learned it when I was small. I used it
in the kindergarten, in the recreation club after school
when I needed a felt tip
in that indeterminable shade of pink
to draw a fleshy arm or a face:
I need the skin-coloured one.
There was no other use for that felt tip.
You are home on a visit and tell me
you tried to buy a foundation
at Copenhagen Airport, but the assistant
was unable to help. Your skin is too dark.
Welcome to the skin-coloured land.
Here you were born and grew up.
Here your colour has sometimes
attracted attention. My colour has not,
not here. There are things that have
happened to you in your fatherland
(that is not your father’s land)
that have not happened to me
(because it is my father’s land).
My powder is called 01 Neutral.
We are used to people asking where you are from,
how come we can be sisters. Wow, so you’ve
got this gorgeous young mulatto sister.
It never ceases to amaze me
that they should need to say mulatto before sister.
I wish I could turn a deaf ear,
that I could be colour-blind, but that is
my figment of fantasy. To be sisters: Equal. Different.
Fed at the same breast. The milk, the name
connect us. The Atlantic separates, connects us.
I am in the big family room of my aunt and uncle
who live one floor above us in the building on Østerbro.
The light is sharp, it floods in through the windows.
There are many couches in the room.
The light is on their blue covers
and my two cousins who tease me
because I say that you are my little sister.
Just as earlier in the day I tried to convince them
a day has 48 hours, not 24 as they claim,
they now try to convince me
that you are only partly my sister,
and that I cannot call you sister
when we have only the same mother
and not the same father.
Half-sister, little half-sister.
I realize there is a difference between us two
one evening when you lie in your bed punching your small fists
into the mattress because you miss your daddy
whom you have never met.
I am on the other side of the wall
waiting for mummy to do something.
We can always hear each other
in that little apartment. We share everything
except everything we cannot share. What you lack
is what I have in abundance:
another family, other birthdays,
other vacations. You are there each time I come home.
One day I ask you if you look up to me.
I have thought about it for a long time,
I have heard it is normal
among sisters. You give a shrug:
You can’t dance, you don’t go to parties,
and I think your clothes are uncool.
I suppose that beneath the skin our bodies are the same,
though of course I am an older, flabbier version.
I expect you will keep yourself slim and attractive,
while I fall into decay early due to insufficient exercise,
excessive drinking and inappropriate eating habits.
I malnourish myself. I pass out.
I buy vitamin pills at the drug store.
I must eat properly.
Hunger is always so inconvenient.
Where you are, the fast-food chains are open all night long.
You go out and buy frozen yoghurt at three in the morning.
You buy food in a drive-through and eat in the car.
You feel totally at home in the driver’s seat.
You change clothes, put on make-up, sleep in the car,
drive around to auditions and jobs.
You dance, catwalk, pose. Your body is your tool,
you know your own movements. You have a professional smile.
You have a boyfriend and a job in Las Vegas.
But I can’t figure out how you can stand to live here.
Aren’t you a feminist? Aren’t you provoked
by the ads for call girls and topless shows?
You’re more preoccupied by the racist structures.
The good modelling and dancing jobs often go to
skin-coloured women, and you can only think of
one black nightclub boss, whereas most prostitutes are black.
I ask if any of the nightclub owners are women.
They are not.
I say I’ve been thinking of going to a strip joint,
just to see how it feels.
You think it’s a strange idea.
Besides, you say, they would never let me in,
they would think I was a prostitute,
what else would a woman on her own be doing in a strip joint?
I am indignant: What if I were lesbian?
I can freak out. I’m leaving in a week anyway.
You say racism in the USA is like a remnant
of a stubborn old societal system,
a hierarchy that won’t give up.
Who is where in the hierarchy.
You once said racism in Denmark is different.
You believed that skin-coloured Danes
preferred to be on their own with others
who are likewise skin-coloured.
When you lived in Denmark, African Danes you didn’t know
sometimes nodded on the subway train or in the street. Perhaps it was
an unwritten rule to say hello when noticing each other among the
skin-coloured. Africans and Danes nod differently, you said.
Danes give an abrupt, downward nod,
Africans tip their head back gently.
I adopted the African nod.
But obviously I could never go acknowledging
occasional brothers on the subway train
as though I were a sister.
You have retained many of your old habits.
Your breakfast is oatmeal and tea.
You listen to the same music as when we were kids,
you have taught your boyfriend to like it, country and folk.
It makes me laugh, I am surprised and find it touching
when you both sing along.
In the desert you can’t remember your name.
We drive through the barren, stony desert.
There are cactuses as tall as trees.
Mobile homes scattered among the rocks.
We ask each other how people make a living here.
Who do they work for, where do they buy their groceries,
do they have running water? Then we see a supermarket
in the middle of nowhere. You say you could live here too,
just to find out how it feels.
Sometimes I feel nothing, I forget to ache.
Sometimes I think I have lost you,
that it is impossible to know each other
across an ocean and a desert.
It takes less than a day to cross the Atlantic.
We squabble about what to call it.
I ask when you are coming home.
You say going to Denmark.
So you go to Denmark and stay here a few days.
You sit at my round dining table,
rock yourself back and forth in my chair and frown.
When you leave you go home.
There’s nothing here for me,
you say several times.
You slept in my bed the other night, you woke up early.
The time difference between our continents ruins your sleep.
Now you have again crossed the Atlantic.
Left behind, without thoughts, I am standing in front of the mirror
in the dark hallway when my other sister, my father’s daughter,
comes in through the door. Why are you so small? I blurt out astonished,
almost in fright, as she brushes past.
I’ve always been this way, she says without turning round.
I suppose I got used to your height.
My eyes are too blue. I ought to wear contact lenses of mother-of-pearl. A wig of seaweed. The shampoo leaked inside my suitcase. It lathered up like mad when I tried to rinse the sponge bag. The drain bubbled over with foam. A bathroom with an ocean view. If the curtains were not closed. Look forward to seeing the sunken cities. I felt imprisoned among the low trees. Imprisoned in my room. I wanted to walk on the ocean bed. The ocean bed recycles itself as we recycle green glass and clear glass. The Atlantic grows. A tiny bit each year. Slow landscapes emerge, steep mountains and gorges. Magma rises up, the material is pressed together and drawn out parallel to the direction in which we move. A movement we cannot alter. The ocean makes no decisions. It touches every coast. Sways towards every land. Its temperature is rising, its level is rising. Warm water takes up more space than cold water.
Thick black hairs grow out of the birthmark on the thigh. Nothing helps against this family: An old child and a beautiful baby. So she learned to stand, but I don’t know what she is doing in my father’s house, in his big leather shoes. She dances instead of walking. Over the door sill. The tight grip of a chubby hand on my arm. I cannot be in peace now. A time without distance between our bodies. She has a bath while I am on the toilet. Aren’t you finished yet? It begins then. Separation as something horrendous, the dead bat on the floor of the bathroom. Separation as something gentle, a light mist upon the lawns. See you again. But then again, you never know. Our time with bodies in this world is short, it is a reason to dance. The moon is full, it hangs white and dim in its now. If you go away from me, you will never come back. If you come back, I will have forgotten you. Two moths have gone into the trap, their bodies are stuck to the paper, their wings are still flapping.
It is not enough to say something is inconceivably vile. It is damaging to say such a thing, I read. The idea is to say the opposite: Everything can be explained. The ruby is red because small amounts of chrome in the otherwise colourless crystal absorb violet and yellow-green light. In the jar of muesli are in fact two grubs, and yet I consume my moth-eaten breakfast, I am hungry. In my dream she had two bodies. She was a child who put her arms around my waist, her face was filled with love. At the same time, she was a grown woman walking at my side. A stranger commented on our relationship: And yet you look like you’re very close. It is raining too much now to go out. Snaking lines of preschoolers in rainwear pass quickly across the square. A very tall crane towers up above the building opposite. The idea is to be happy when you wake up, and when you walk along the street. Yesterday I spent my evening watching a film about the genocide in Rwanda. Is it me or the world who is filled with pain? I will not cycle in the rain, and so I walk, pushing the bike along the avenue. There are leaves on the trees. Groceries in the store. They have offers on plums and avocados, and so I buy some. I acknowledge a homeless man outside, but give him no money. I have put my receipt in my mouth.
The evening is open, the sky is still bright, only a bike ride separates us. No, that’s not the way to think. I want to lie down and feel the darkness rise up and fill the courtyard. The apartment is my territory, and I have expelled my family. To account exactly for their crimes would be too far-reaching. I have my reasons, without doubt. The law is behind me. The trees remain upright in the park. Today I was praised for performing the same movement as all the others, synchrony is beauty. My right arm feels like stone. I write with my petrified arm, I ought not to write such a thing, it ought to be impossible. I can switch on all the lights in my apartment. To insist on going with her would be inappropriate. Different relations accord different rights. The weight of the relation decides the distance permitted. The heavier, the closer. It is heavy to be someone’s mother. To give the child everything, or think one gives it everything, only then to be expelled for giving too much or not giving enough. It is heavy to be someone’s child, one begins by eating her up from inside. It ought to be light to be someone’s sister, on different sides of an ocean.
Julie Sten-Knudsen (born 1984) holds an MA in Literature Studies from the University of Copenhagen and is furthermore a graduate of the School of Literary Composition at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg. She has published two acclaimed books of poetry in Denmark, Hjem er en retning (“Home Is a Direction”) in 2011, and Atlanterhavet vokser (“The Atlantic Grows”) in 2013. She has translated poetry by Göran Sonnevi and Jenny Tundedal from Swedish into Danish and is a member of the editorial board of Danish publishing house Arena.
Martin Aitken (born 1961) has a PhD in Linguistics and gave up university tenure in 2008 to translate literature. Since then he has published a score of books in both Danish and English. His work has also appeared in countless journals and magazines, among them The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. Forthcoming works include novels by Kim Leine (for Atlantic and Norton), Simon Pasternak (Harvill Secker) and Martin Kongstad (Serpent’s Tail).
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