Instead, it’s a real world story with political and social ramifications that’s as relevant now as it was when it came out in her native Sweden in 2018.
With a new English language translation bringing this book to the U.S. for the first time, I was pleased to send Axelsson some questions via email for the following interview.
Photo Credit: Daniel Pedersen
To start, what is Ædnan: An Epic about, and when and where is this story set?
It’s about two Sámi families roughly from the 1910s to the 2010s, and is set in the northernmost Sápmi on the Swedish side (Sápmi stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia).
The poem follows their different perspectives and experiences of many different events in life: accidents, forced relocations, Swedish colonialism, infatuation, love, loss.
It sounds like Ædnan: An Epic has a lot of connections to things going on in the world. And did when you originally wrote it a few years ago. Did you set out to write something that was socially / politically relevant, and Ædnan is what you came up with, or did you have the idea for Ædnan and then realize it would work just as well, or maybe even better, if it had some relevance?
No, I never think about themes or being politically relevant. I believe — or hope — that through work they will emerge on the page. In this case, the people I was writing about, together with a certain movement and rhythm in the language, was at the core of the work. When I start writing I know very little about what it will be about. I try to figure out what I can do with language by listening. Most often it starts with inner images, something that doesn’t go away. It took some time for these people to emerge, and several years to accompany them through a variety of events. There came a stage, when I realized that I had actually followed them, or taken them, all the way into our time. In real life, there was a big trial between a Sámi village and the Swedish state going on, and I was appealed by being able to take something that was going on around me and put it in the book.
When I began to work on this book, I was living by a small river, a stream, and there were constructors working on something in the village. They were foreigners, and on their lunchbreaks they sometimes, because this was in the summer, came to the river by the house and started fishing. And one day one of the men had a phone call out there, with what I presumed was his young child. Who was at home, in his own country. And the father away like this, far up in the north of Sweden, working. And it stuck in my mind, this image of work as something that makes you go away, and how it can be a dividing force within the family. I was thinking of how that was part of the history my culture, one of my cultures, since I’m mixed, Sámi-Swedish. How, in many reindeer herding families, often in periods the men in the family spent a lot of time with the heard, and women and children at times being some kind of other unit. And in that moment, those silent faces I had been imagining became faces of Sámi people. And I knew I was writing about family, and work, and living with the land. And through that relationship between human and land came the changes in working conditions for the families, through the history of colonialism of the Swedish state — by politics, church, school system, fueled by racial biology.
You referred to Ædnan: An Epic as a poem, but it’s also been called a novel-in-verse. For people unfamiliar with that term, what does it mean, and how is it different from a prose novel?
Epic poetry is commonly described as long narrative poetry. Listening to poet Alice Oswalds thoughts on epic poems my own understanding has somewhat changed, through her analysis of the language of Homer, in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and how that language behaves and grows. Some would perhaps say that if you’re interested in people, you tend to write novels than an epic. But I’m interested in people and think there is room for that in poetry as well. Fiction, memory, history, character — all those things can appear in the novel as well as in epic or lyric poetry. So the difference between poetry and prose lies in language, and perhaps also the lyrical self. But I don’t think you need anything other than your interest in reading to read an epic.
So, is there a difference between a novel-in-verse and an epic poem? And if so, what is Ædnan: An Epic?
For me it is an epic poem. But I am not particular about what readers call it. I know some reads it as a novel and others like poetry. Novel-in-verse just didn’t feel right for this book, I can’t explain why. Perhaps for the scope of it, and also that it got into the history of colonialism and nationalism, which I perhaps would have avoided, would I ‘ve written a novel. In novels and short stories, I think I’m looking for something different, as a reader.
The book is also based, for me, quite heavily on an oral tradition. Especially in the first part of the book, in the more ancient time, the poem has something archaic about it there, and something to do with legend that I think comes from that oral tradition, and the art of memory. This feeling of telling a story, or being told a story, and adding to a story that already exists.
Why did you decide to write Ædnan: An Epic as an epic poem as opposed to a prose novel?
It was when I found this rhythm and structure of simple, short lines, that I felt movement and truth in the language. Somewhere there the idea of an epic grew, and I felt that I didn’t want it to be a poem-ish poem, but something more prosy, and yet I wanted the stillness and images of modern lyric. Making a novel or a trio of novels didn’t feel as an alternative, the language didn’t want to go there.
So, what poets do you feel had the biggest influence on Ædnan: An Epic?
There is a Sámi poet called Áillohaš, or Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, whom I think murmurs somewhere in the poem, along with Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi.
How about prose writers; did any of them have a big influence on Ædnan: An Epic?
It is difficult to point out any direct influence, [but] my favorite writers and poets are probably in everything I write. Tjechov, Ingeborg Bachman, Paulus Utsi, Birgitta Trotzig, Philip Larkin, to name a few.
And how about non-literary influences; was Ædnan: An Epic influenced by any movies or TV shows or maybe song lyrics or visual art like paintings?
There is an engraving from German artist Käthe Kollwitz called “Pregnant Woman” [“Schwangere Frau”] from 1910, that woman is certainly in Ristin and Lise somehow.
Now, Ædnan: An Epic originally came out in 2018, but this is the first English language edition to be published. In prepping this new version, did you change anything about the original text?
In Swedish the book is almost 800 pages, so there was an enquiry from the U.S. publisher if we could perhaps do something to make it more compressed. The translator Saskia Vogel came up with a small change in layout that would cut a lot of pages, so this is a more flowy Ædnan, which works beautifully.
Then there was a passage that I wrote through and compressed.
The question itself interests me: When is a book finished? I think you reach a point where you shouldn’t touch the text anymore, it’s rather that the text is fed up with the author than the other way around. You can go on rewriting details forever, but you reach a point where you decide to let go, and that is the right thing to do. To be able to return to a book in this way after a few years and poke at it again has been lovely.
My first thought when I saw that Ædnan: An Epic was an epic poem was that I should read it all in one sitting. Which is what I always do with epic poems. Do you think this is the best way to read Ædnan?
I don’t know if the book profits from one reading style or the other. I only know how I work as a reader, and I never move forward from A to B without stopping, without going back, rereading. Rereading is something wonderful for a reader. I hope we are still readers who does that.
However, the epic has a rhythm that allows you to flow through the book. And in this case the material deals with grief and loss, and perhaps the rhythm and shape with short stanzas was also a way to move through the loss, and still at the same time experience this rhythm and dance going on that you have in poetry, the joy and lightness of that.
Now, I am a straight, white, American male, and my ancestors came to this country long enough ago that I consider myself an American and not a Polish American or German American, etc. What do you think I — and people like me — will get out of reading Ædnan: An Epic? Or, more appropriately, what do you hope we’ll get out of it?
You can only hope for the book to evoke the reader’s interest so that they don’t put it down. And in that, you are quite dependent on the reader’s own imagination, and the reader’s own life and imagined life, and the reader’s ability to somehow become these people, and explore what is said and unsaid within that particular story or poem. That is what you hope will happen. And that leap into another human being, I believe, is not limited by gender, ethnicity, or class. In any case that is my own experience as a reader.
The original version of Ædnan: An Epic won Sweden’s most prestigious award for literature, the August Prize. Which makes me think someone in Hollywood might consider adapting it into a movie. Do you think Ædnan: An Epic could work as a movie?
That is a difficult question. I have no experience in transferring literature to film, so perhaps what I would imagen difficult or impossible — for example the intimate portraits of people, the different landscapes, the movement over 100 years — would be the things that would attract screenwriters and directors.
Finally, if someone enjoys Ædnan: An Epic, what epic poem would you suggest they read next?
The Odyssey is well worth the effort, and in English you have so many different translations.