Adrian Perera

Sweden

Adrian Perera was born in 1986 and resides in Åbo, Finland. His debut poetry collection White Monkey was published in 2017 and has been described as a turning point in “the white room of Fenno-Swedish literature.” White Monkey was awarded with the Finnish public broadcasting company Svenska Yle’s literature prize in 2017. In 2019 Perera continued his exploration of topics such as whiteness, family and adolescence in the novel Mamma (“Mother”), which was followed the next year by another novel, Pappa (“Father”). The poems published here at Versopolis come from White Monkey respectively newer, previously unpublished works.


One could view Fenno-Swedish writer Adrian Perera’s hitherto three books as a family: his debut poetry collection White Monkey (2017) would be the son, the epithet “White Monkey” deriving from a visit in his mother’s native country Sri Lanka, where his grandfather says that “[y]ou would anyway never fit here […] You’re a white monkey.” The novel Mamma (“Mother”, 2019) would, obviously, be the mother, a brown Sinhalese woman trying to navigate and communicate in her new country Finland, and the most recent novel Pappa (“Father”, 2020), just as obviously, the father, a white Fenno-Swedish man who’s divorced and early retired.

 

But just as a family never appears as its respective individuals, neither does Perera’s works; these three family members – the mother, the father and the son – are connected nodes exploring topics such as racism, Finland, language and adolescence during the 90’s. Each of the three books adds further perspectives and depth to these themes.

 

In one of the poems in this selection, translated by Jennifer Hayashida, the father reveals his xenophopia. The poem starts by him asking his “favorite question”, which is “Whose boy are you?”, followed by saying that “all refugees / are terrorists” and that “it is dangerous to open the border to / young brown men.” The son, knowing the answer to the question is far from as simple as the father thinks, asks “how I am different from them.” Juxtaposed is a scene of Syrians getting of the train and smiling at the son, well aware of “whose boy I am.” In another poem his white friends show little understanding for the reaction he gets when drunk people at parties ask him: “Where are you from // really?”, as they can not comprehend that someone would believe that he “would be something else than white.”

 

Coming this far I need to modify my very white reading of Perera’s authorship by looking myself in the mirror. In an interview in Svenska Yle Perera claims: “What I try to achieve with [White Monkey] is maybe not so much a discussion about myself and my family, as it is a discussion about the entire Finland and specifically the White Finland. I wish that people would look themselves more in the mirror, and less try to find me on the pages of the book.” Reading this quote, I am reminded by a recent interview with the indigenous Sami musician Sofia Jannok in the Swedish television show “Sverige!” (“Sweden!”). There she opposes always getting questions such as “what is it like being Sami?”, and poses a counterquestion: “How does it feel to be part of a colonial people?” What follows is a rare moment in Swedish television, as the journalist, Fredrik Önnevall, gives an elaborate and seemingly honest answer.

 

Jannok’s fear and fatigue of such questions is shared by Perera, and parts of White Monkey constitute of an interview with a journalist and a discussion with a publisher. These elements of the book anticipate reactions on the poetry the writer rather not have but knows he will. The publisher criticizes him for writing “typical wog poems” and suggests he omits them from the book as “[t]here are after all two in Sweden / and one in Denmark / writing poems about such things.” One of the Swedish poets referred to here is most likely Athena Farrokhzad who made an acclaimed debut in Swedish with the poetry collection Vitsvit in 2013 (translated into English as White Blight by Jennifer Hayashida in 2015), but even if one, despite this advance notice, is simple-minded enough to compare the two white-adhered poetry collections, there is way more that distinguishes than unites them. Whereas most of the family members in White Blight is well-spoken, saying each line as it was a quote, the way Perera’s works deal with language is fundamentally different.

 

Here the lack of words and incapacity to communicate is central, maybe most acutely phrased in this poem in White Monkey, translated by Jennifer Hayashida:


I have no words to say how I love my mother
since everything turns to anger.

All I see are her mistakes,
broken thoughts
and language.

All I hear is her shame
since she cannot be
what I need

and all I can feel is sorrow
since I am never
what she needs

so I say nothing.
 

The portrait of the mother is of a person having difficulties making herself understood in her new country, but also of someone doing everything possible to try to fit in and be accepted: she throws all her spices away when having guests, and she brings brochures from the travel agency when asked to come to the son’s class to speak about Sri Lanka. When calling her own mother, she tells her about all the kind people she’s met but not about “the woman spitting me in the face.” It’s a rendition of a harsh experience being the only brown person in a wood of white Finnish people.

 

But if the language barriers are easy for the reader to comprehend in White Monkey, the sequel novel Mamma, as well as the poem “Speaking of Mother (2019)” in this selection, goes all-in on the experimentality as it makes the confusion of language not only a theme but also the literary style. Here Swedish is mixed with Finnish, Sinhalese and English, and the multilingual dialogues are further commented by footnotes (“She can not speak Swedish. Everything she says sounds stupid.”) and freely translated in an appendix. In White Monkey the father says that the son “will never need” the mother’s language, and in Mamma something similar is phrased as: “Too many languages make the child confused.”

 

And confused is just what I as a reader become when I read Mamma, but it’s a confusion of vital importance. At first the multilingualism seems to confirm the idea that having too many languages causes a problem, but soon this is turned upside-down. The father is repeatedly cast as the character in control of language, but as neither the mother nor the son seems to understand him, he soon becomes the most ignorant of all. And in contrast the mother, who seemingly has the biggest problem with communicating, turns out to be the only one who even slightly has a possibility to grasp what’s going on, as she is the only one who knows even parts of all the languages in play.

 

Through his books Adrian Perera plays with the white Scandinavian populations’ ideas of ourselves and especially our non-racism. White Monkey starts with claiming that “[a]ll in this poetry suite is fiction / except for the problems” and Mamma has a similar claim: “All in this novel is fiction /despite the author.” And next time I feel the need to ask Perera’s poetry what it thinks about one thing or the other I will just turn the question around and ask myself: What do I think? At the moment I am at a loss for an answer, but one thing is sure: I will keep following Adrian Perera’s authorship, and it will make me continue to question how I view my own position, in the world and as a reader.

 

Helena Fagertun

Unless otherwise noted, all translations are made by me.