Niviaq Korneliussen has made a dramatic entry into Nordic fiction. Far removed from criminal noir yet possessing something of the Bergmanesque, her novel renders her the best-known Greenlandic writer outside her homeland. It is written in Greenlandic, an Inuit language, which was only written down for the first time in the mid-19th century. Its original title was Homo Sapienne.
Set in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital of roughly 18,000 inhabitants, Crimson portrays the claustrophobic lives – despite the grand, empty landscapes – of five contemporary young people growing up in a Greenland depicted here as an insular, postcolonial society in which everyone knows one another and which is struggling to establish an independent identity as a country. On the one hand, it is determined to disown the prejudices directed towards it by its erstwhile colonial master, Denmark. On the other hand it seems to confirm some of those very charges: for example, that Greenlanders are violent alcoholics given to child abuse – one of the five characters in the novel suffered abuse as a child from her own father; another flees to Denmark to escape a homophobic scandal, only to encounter a similar lack of acceptance for being a Greenlander in Copenhagen.
The five protagonists record events from their own first-person perspectives. This is pithy, vigorous prose narrated in the present tense, interspersed with text messages and hashtags, and bursting with youthful invective and suppressed emotion, as the characters grapple with their conflicted identity as modern Greenlanders and above all with the homophobic prejudices of a socially conservative society. Two, Arnaq and Sara, self-identify as lesbian, while one, Fia, rejects a stifling heterosexual relationship to discover her repressed preference for women. Fia’s brother Inuk rejects his previous homophobic attitudes and comes out as gay, while Ivik, always uncomfortable in her ‘female’ body, eventually accepts that she/he is a man.
Since such identities cannot be publicly visible in Nuuk’s existing bars and clubs, the novel portrays an underworld of night-time ‘afterparties’ in private flats, characterized by excessive alcohol consumption and promiscuous sex. If this seems gruesome, or even tedious, it is underscored by a sardonic, self-deprecating humour, prompting a feeling of almost affectionate acceptance. Basically, however, the struggle is one against loneliness in a society that rejects difference in the name of national belonging.
The upshot of these stories is nevertheless positive. Key is the story of Sara and Fia, who meet in the opening pages and finally come together, thus providing a structural resolution to the whole. But Sara’s story has another dimension: her close relationship with an elder sister (to whom the opening poetic epigraph is dedicated) and the birth of the sister’s child, at which Sara (not its father) is present. The birth of new life changes the tenor of the narrative. Interestingly, as mother and aunt cuddle the baby, they say: ‘we realise that we don’t know the gender of the child’. Gender is secondary to love and human acceptance, as is sexuality, and indeed nationality. A youthful cry for our times.
Reviewed by Ursula Phillips
Written by Niviaq Korneliussen
Translated from the Greenlandic by Anna Halagar
Published by Virago (2018)
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
Ursula Phillips is a British translator from Polish and a writer on Polish literary history. Recent translations include novels by Zofia Nałkowska, Choucas (1927) and Boundary (1935), which received the Found in Translation Award 2015 and the PIASA (Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America) Wacław Lednicki Award 2017 respectively.
Read Ursula Phillips’s #RivetingReview of A LARGE CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ WITH A DASH OF ELVIS PRESLEY by Tania Skarynkina