/ 13 March 2019

The Week of the Festival: Littfest, Sweden

NolitchX. What is Nordic Literature?

If Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian or Swedish literature sometimes refer to the literature written in each country and sometimes to the literature written in the main language or a minority language, then what is Nordic literature? There is no Nordic language, and Scandinavian only refers to the main languages of three of the five countries integrated into the Nordic region. 

The Nordic literature project and network NolitchX claim that Nordic literature is any literary text produced by a writer in the Nordic countries, and that it is a multilingual literature that includes not only literature in the official main and minority languages in the region, but also the one written in foreign languages.

According to the statutes for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, 'a Nordic language is considered to be either Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic, Greenlandic, Faroese, or Sami’, while the Swedish Academy doesn’t give any definition to its Nordic Prize which, if one takes a look at the list of laureates since the beginning of the prize in 1986, seems to be rewarded only to writers of the main languages in the Nordic region, and of the Swedish language in Finland and Faroese. 

So, what is Nordic literature? The Nordic Council states that the purpose of the Nordic Council Literature Prize is to ‘generate interest in the literature and language of neighbouring countries, and in the Nordic cultural community’. But what is ‘the literature and language of neighbouring countries’ of the Nordic region, which is linguistically and culturally a very diverse territory? 

The statistics vary a lot depending on each country's way to classify citizens according to country of origin or mother tongue, or if there are any statistics at hand at all, but about 16 percent of the population of Sweden are foreign born, 8 percent of the population of Denmark, four percent of the population of Norway, and only 1 percent of Finland’s population speaks a language that is not Finnish or Swedish. Of the 16 percent foreign-born Swedes, according to estimations by Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall, Arabic is today the second most spoken language with about 200,000 speakers, and Russian is the mother tongue of nearly 80,000 citizens in Finland which makes it the third most spoken language after Finnish and Swedish, just to take two examples. 

Now, one could choose to define ‘the literature and language of neighbouring countries’ of the Nordic region with the inclusion of what Parkvall calls ‘immigrant languages’, referring to the foreign language communities that thanks to different kinds of migration exist in the Nordic region since the Twentieth century. This means that the Nordic literature is exceptionally multilingual.

The Nordic literature project and network NolitchX (Nordic literatures in Change and Exchange) started in 2017 with the aim to make visible the work of immigrant language writers residing in the Nordic countries. The project name, pronounced as ‘Knowledge X’ points to the unknown literature written in minority and immigrant languages. NolitchX has its roots in Finnish multilingual project Sivuvalo founded by Peruvian-Finnish poet Roxana Crisólogo in 2013 to make visible the literature written in other languages than Finnish and Swedish. Sivuvalo means ‘light that shines but is not seen’ (a name with a similar connotation to that of NolitchX) and its activities bring together writers from different language communities in readings and experimental productions where the literary text establishes a dialogue with other art forms playing with the concept of ‘translation’. These events also bring attention to the lack of literary translations, which is one of the main obstacles for writers writing in foreign languages to get the chance to be read and published in Finland. Sivuvalo has engaged in discussions with organizations of Finnish literature claiming that the Finnish Writer’s Union should accept foreign language writers in the country as members and that there ought to be grants for translations into Finnish and Swedish for the work of these authors.

Sivuvalo is now one of the main partners running NolitchX together with Malmö based association Tre Tärningar (‘Three Dices’) and partners in Denmark and Iceland. NolitchX continues the multilingual multimedia productions of Sivuvalo on a Nordic level and puts a lot of resources and effort into producing these readings and translations for them, as both are necessary means to reach professional and general audiences at the same time as there are almost no funding for translations into the main languages for immigrant language writers in any of the Nordic states. 

As of 2019, NolitchX focuses on connecting writers, texts and readers from all language communities – official main and minority languages as well as immigrant languages – in the Nordic and Baltic regions and Germany. The multilingual Nordic literature is a concept in the making, and NolitchX thinks the best way to help shaping this awareness and vision is to make writers meet and their texts to meet new audiences. 

By Roxana Crisólogo and Petronella Zetterlund

Photograph by Rosa María Bolom

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Article commissioned and edited by Versopolis' guest editor Helena Fagertun.