Sweden may be famous as the birthplace of the contemporary Scandi-crime wave, Pippi Longstocking and the Nobel Prize in Literature, but look a little closer and you will see a wealth of less famous but equally brilliant gems among the writers creating contemporary literary fiction and poetry.
Contemporary Swedish literature is characterised by a diversity of voices, settings and literary intentions. From intricately plotted memoirs to bold experiments in perspective via idiosyncratic depictions of rural life, this particular trip around Sweden gives you a glimpse into the country’s literary riches.
The comparative isolation of northern Sweden has produced some of the country’s most fascinating literature in recent years, often characterised by strange events and the creative use of local dialect. Two examples of this are writers native to Västerbotten, Torgny Lindgren and Stina Stoor. Lindgren sadly died earlier this year, but many of his books (Hash, The Way of a Serpent) have been translated into English by Tom Geddes. They capture a world of tight-knit communities and inexplicable but comic encounters. Following in Lindgren’s linguistically experimental footsteps, Stina Stoor’s sole short-story collection Bli som folk (“Beasts and Other Stories”) is yet to be published in English, but it’s a rich and complex portrait of an area that has been hard hit by depopulation and economic decline. My hope is that one day English readers will have the opportunity to enjoy its frank and pleasingly vulgar explorations of human nature.
The southern region of Skåne has also produced some bold writers recently. This year’s winner of the August Prize, Sweden’s equivalent of the Booker, is Lina Wolff, with her novel The Polyglot Lovers, a work of comic genius and serious feminist intent that revolves around an ill-fated manuscript written by a fantastically egotistical male writer. If you can’t wait for that, her acclaimed debut novel Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs was published in English in 2016, in Frank Perry’s Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize-winning translation. Also from Skåne is Andrzej Tichý, a young writer who brings his innovatively constructed narratives to life with direct language tinged with multilingual slang. His first novel in English translation is expected in 2019.
Travelling up the western coast, we come to Gothenburg, and two writers who have made their names as being unafraid to challenge racism and religious intolerance – Athena Farrokhzad and Johannes Anyuru. Farrokhzad’s poetry collection White Blight was published in Jennifer Hayashida’s translation in 2016. Her confessional, accusatory portrayals of life in the diaspora make for transfixing reading. Anyuru is also a poet, but my favourite book of his (and the only one to have been translated into English – by Rachel Willson-Broyles in 2015) is the novel A Storm Blew in from Paradise. At its centre is Anyuru’s father, a Ugandan pilot trained by the Greek military just before Idi Amin’s coup. It’s a visceral study of power, ambition and desperation.
Heading east to Stockholm, we find Jonas Hassen Khemiri, whose playful yet insightful novels, stories and plays have brought his reputation as a uniquely talented wordsmith to a wider audience outside Sweden. His most recent novel in English (published in 2015) is Everything We Don’t Remember, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles. This portrait of a young man, told from multiple perspectives, speaks eloquently of the fragility of human relationships.
Finally, I’d like to come to Per Olov Enqvist, one of Sweden’s most established writers, and one who has been translated into English many times. His most recent book in English is The Parable Book (2016), in Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation. A tale of a young boy’s life-altering love for a much older woman, The Parable Book twists and overlaps, pouring forth in a series of riddles. The writing is rhythmic and reverberates with memory and realisation.
This personal journey through Sweden’s contemporary literary landscape is no more than a snapshot, yet I hope it gives you an idea of the boldness and innovative spirit of writers working in a national context that has an international significance far beyond what might be expected of such a small country. Swedish writers are often outward-looking and well-versed in international literature (perhaps they have the Nobel Prize to thank for that), yet are intensely conscious of local identities and their place in the world. The writers I have highlighted here are excellent examples of that combination of far-sightedness and dedication to the detail of local life – I hope you enjoy exploring their work.
By Nichola Smalley
Nichola Smalley is Publicity, Marketing and Sales Manager at independent publisher And Other Stories. She’s also a translator and lover of Swedish and Norwegian literature, and an escaped academic. Her translations include Jogo Bonito by Henrik Brandão Jönsson, a Swedish book about Brazilian football, and How to Fall in Love with a Man Who Lives in a Bush by Emmy Abrahamson.