Linda Boström Knausgård’s second novel, Welcome to America, is set not in the United States, but within the confines of a Swedish apartment swollen with family secrets and contrarian silence. Following the death of her father—a tragedy she is convinced she engineered through prayer—Boström Knausgård’s child narrator, Ellen, stops speaking. While the trauma inciting Ellen’s selective mutism is palpable, the young protagonist synchronously radiates power, wielding her silence as the only means of maintaining control in the face of a self-absorbed mother, her increasingly volatile brother, and the specter of impending adulthood. Meticulously translated by Martin Aitkin, Welcome to America is Boström Knausgård’s defiantly pithy portrait of a family disconnected and consumed by grief. On the eve of the novel’s publication in the United States, we asked the Swedish author, poet, and radio documentary producer about writing bravely, the experience of being written into someone else’s narrative, and the unexpected power of silence.
—Sarah Timmer Harvey, August 2019
Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Welcome to America is your second novel to be translated into English. Did you collaborate with Aitken on the translation?
Linda Boström Knausgård (LBK): I didn’t work with Martin on the translation. In fact, I didn’t hear from him while he was working on it. Martin is a very good translator, and I think that he’s produced a beautiful translation. I’ve read it twice in English, and I am very happy with it. I believe that if I had started to concentrate too much during his work and asked him all my questions before he was ready, I’d be exhausted. Our languages have a lot of differences—sentences do not start, or end, in the same way. I know Norwegian and Danish very well, and when it comes to translating work into these languages, it can be difficult not to intervene too much. When I finally had a book translated into Finnish, it was a relief because I didn’t understand a word. I think it’s best to let go as much you can, but you then must also be happy when you finally read it. If you have a good translator, you should stick with him or her!
STH: When you are writing, do you consider the language in which you are writing? For example, how Swedish might shape and contain the narrative?
LBK: I write in Swedish and could not write in any other language, never! The language forms the story; it is my frame, and so I cannot abandon it. I love to write in Swedish. I like how it presents itself on the page, almost like a surprise.
STH: Where and when do you write? Do you have a daily routine or ritual?
LBK: I don’t have a daily routine, but I hope to have one soon. It might take some of the fear away. In my ideal writing routine, I would start working at six in the morning. It’s easiest to write in the early morning—perhaps due to the clarity you have then. You have many hours in front of you, and you have the feeling that the rest of the world is still sleeping. I write bravely in the morning. Later in the day, the doubt comes, but you should never listen to the doubts.
STH: What is it that you fear about writing?
LBK: I fear most that I’m never going to be able to write again. You never really know. But then writing itself gives you the ability to write. It is easy to write when you are already writing, when you are into a new book and keep writing because it already means something to you. It’s most difficult when you are starting something new. Or when you have nothing at all.
STH: Welcome to America is about a girl who stops talking at a pivotal moment in her life. What is it about selective mutism that interests you?
LBK: I am not particularly interested in mutism, but when the first sentence came to me, I knew it was the right way to write this book. I know the subject matter in Welcome to America so well that it was a way to change everything I knew and begin again. When I was a child, I fantasized about never saying another word again. It was often anger that prompted these thoughts, but I never managed to keep it up it more than a few hours. Ellen, the child in Welcome to America, is much stronger than me.
STH: Do you equate silence with power?
LBK: I think it takes a great deal of strength to remain silent. And I think it is a powerful way to change a whole family.
STH: How would you say silence is viewed in Sweden?
LBK: In contemporary Sweden, which wants to be progressive in every way, a silent child would be considered a horrible thing. Maybe not horrible, but silence does do something to you, and I think we fear a silent child more than we know. The silence itself has a huge impact on the people around it. You feel the pressure. How do you speak to a silent child? Especially in this era, which is loud and demands that you participate.
STH: You have the unique experience of having been a “character” in someone else’s autobiographical novels. Has this changed the way you approach the characters in your own writing?
LBK: No, I feel very free when I write. I am loyal to my characters and serve the book as well as I can. I think my language exists purely through rhythm and knowledge. I am my dark, inner twin when I write, just as I think Margaret Atwood once said (or wrote).
STH: While reading Welcome to America, I found myself particularly aware of the positioning of the characters: how they moved through each scene, their physical interactions with each other, and the spaces they inhabited. Did you plot the movement of the characters in this novel the way you would a radio play?
LBK: One of the themes in the novel is, as you said, the constant awareness of others. The family moves around their apartment, always knowing where the others are. So, there’s that awareness, coupled with the question of who is able to be strong in that kind of situation and who is not. I didn’t think of radio plays when I wrote Welcome to America, but many people have talked about adapting the book into a chamber play, and it actually is set to be staged for the theater in Germany.
STH: Both your novels have been under one hundred and fifty pages, is this deliberate?
LBK: Not exactly deliberate but, as I said, I left a lot out of the story. I don’t like to show everything in my books. I wouldn’t be surprised if I wrote a long book one day, but right now, I seem to have a shorter rhythm.
STH: What are you currently working on?
LBK: I recently finished a novel that will come out late August in Sweden. I can’t talk about it yet, but the title of it is October Child.
Photo credit: Christina Ottosson Öygarden
Linda Boström Knausgård is a Swedish author and poet, as well as a producer of documentaries for national radio. Her first novel, The Helios Disaster, was awarded the Mare Kandre Prize and shortlisted for the Swedish Radio Novel Award 2014. Welcome to America, her second novel, was nominated for the prestigious Swedish August Prize and the Svenska Dagbladet Literary Prize.
Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and, most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.
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