Maja Lee Langvad

Denmark

was born 1980 in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark. She graduated from Forfatterskolen 2003 and from 2004 to 2010 she was co-editor of the literary magazine Banana Split.

Her debut Find Holger Danske (Finding Holger Dane) from 2004 deals with adoption, nationalism and racism. It was much acclaimed and rewarded with the prestigious Bodil og Jørgen Munch-Christensens debutant prize. 2007 to 2010 she stayed in Seoul to reconnect with her biological family and Korean cultural roots. During this time, she worked on the book Hun er vred (She is Angry,) which was published in 2014 together with a follow-up to the debut, Find Holger Danske: Appendix.

Maja Lee Langvad has been an influential voice in debates on transnational adoption.

She has also collaborated with artists making video art, performances, theatre, film, choreography, music and sound art.

2017 her latest book Dage med galopperende hjertebanken was published.


In 2006 the Danish Culture Canon was launched. At the request of the Danish government more than a hundred works in eight different categories, including literature, visual arts and architecture, were selected as the most important items of Denmark’s cultural heritage. The presentation of the Canon had been preceded by a long and animated discussion, and many critics regarded the initiative as part of an aggressive nationalistic discourse. A way to point out borders between “us and them” in a situation where the right-wing populistic Danish People's Party set the political agenda, immigration issues were on everyone’s lips and the word “fremmed” – foreign – was commonly used to sort out anything unwelcome in the Danish society.

The Culture Canon was not the last attempt to establish official hit parades in Denmark. It was followed by canons of history, nature and democracy, and in 2016 supposed Danish values such as freedom and “hygge” (coziness) got its own top ten.

From a bit distance it surely looks like Denmark has a fixation with identity.

2006 also was the year when Maja Lee Langvad’s debut Find Holger Dansk (Finding Holger Dane) was published, a book that puts the finger on this national obsession.

Holger Dane is the mythical hero that sprang out of medieval epic poems and eventually grew into a national symbol, according to the legend a slumbering warrior ready to wake up in turbulent times to save the nation from its enemies. Ransacking what it means to be Danish, and above all what it means not to be Danish, Langvad introduces Holger Nondane, Holger Newdane and Holger Nowdane. At the same time playful and razor-sharp she’s not only dismantling myths but also language itself. Simply twisting sayings and replacing words she uncovers prejudices hidden in common expressions.

Conceptual in its set-up the book is cut together collagelike, using documents such as newspaper articles, political programs and the poet’s own adoption records. Whoever thinks ready-made aesthetics necessarily is impersonal should take a closer look. Adopted from South Korea a few months old Langvad uses her own self-biography as ground for scrutinizing the cherished concept of the Danish and what is required to fit in.

To start with, she presents questionnaires with answer options, addressing the biological mother, the adoptive mother and herself. Questions seemingly objective and neutral but under the hard-headed surface screaming with sorrow: “Do you wish your adoptive mother had not been the person to adopt you?”

In later sections the poet sharpens the political edge. Pia Kjærsgaard, at that time the controversial leader of the Danish People’s Party, shows up dreaming nightmares about foreigners under her bed.

In the ten paragraphs of the poem “This is the Danelaw”, proceeding from the self-effacing Law of Jante, Langvad hammers out the impossibility for persons such as herself of being considered Danish, ending with the rule: ”Do not think you are a Dane because you feel Danish.”

What it means to feel Danish but not be regarded as Danish is a question Langvad explores further in Hun er vred (She is Angry), where the simmering sorrow has transformed into boiling anger. She started writing her book while she was residing in Seoul, met her biological family and kept company with adoption critics. At the same time, she published a sequel to her debut, a small “appendix” in which the continued questions show that there is no definitive end in the history of the adoptee. Will the biological mother, for instance, still want to see her if she tells her that she’s a lesbian?

In She is Angry Langvad’s subjective history is broadened, and the trauma she experienced on her own skin – literally, as eczema – is put in the context of the transnational adoption system, which the poet has criticized also in debates.

The autobiographical foundation is emphasized in the subtitle, “A personal account of transnational adoption”. Yet the author doesn’t present herself as “I”, but uses a third-person point of view, thus indicating the collective significance. Zooming in and out from the most specific viewpoint to the general, the poet highlights how the individual life is entangled in the worldwide structures.

Even though the fury is regulated and systematized in a catalogic form, with every section starting with the words “She’s angry”, it possesses a violent, volcanic strength. It’s an emotional anger, an existential anger, a political anger, a private anger, a piteous anger, a grandiose anger. This multifaceted anger becomes a self-generating motor, a poetry machine. 

The outrage hits in every direction: towards the South Korean government, the Danish politics, the biological family, the adoptive family, her friends, and, not least, herself: “She's angry with herself for being angry”.

As well as an insistent long poem She is angry can be read as a polemic, thoroughly built on research and provided with a long list of footnotes. The book is an eye-opener, erasing the well-established notion of adoption as an indisputable act of goodness and a win-win situation. Langvad describes a commercial adoption industry, a big business where children become export products, worth 15 million dollars a year to South Korea; where adoption agencies represent a mighty lobby able to stop legal reforms challenging their interests; where homes for single mothers are owned by adoption service providers; where young women are persuaded to give away their babies; where children regularly are labelled as foundlings to simplify the bureaucracy.

There is a clear message that children as far as possible should have the right to remain with their biological parents. But the poet doesn’t let any question be an easy one. She leaves no stone unturned, comes up with reservations, rejections, objections, contradictions, nuances, and almost every statement opposes the one before. Anger is a feeling seldom containing complexity, but with all the poetic repetitions, variations and ambiguities, Langvad captures the intricate tangle forming human emotional life, and at the same time gives her text a rhythmic pulse.

Amidst this boiling pot of indignation and frustration there is also room for humour, irony, and, maybe paradoxical, self-distance. That’s part of what makes the book a page-turner.

As one of the most acclaimed and discussed poets of her generation, Maja Lee Langvad undoubtedly ought to be included in a modern Danish literary canon.