I’m not usually one for impulse purchases online, but today’s book would certainly fall into that category. At the start of February, I happened to click on a link to an article about a young Greenlandic writer, and after reading through it, I had a quick look to see if there was a translation out. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be an English-language version yet, but the German edition had just been released, and… well, I’m sure you can fill in the gaps. A week later, the book arrived, and a day after that finds me writing this review.
Look, I’m in my forties – this is as spontaneous as my life gets…
Nuuk #ohneFilter (Nuuk #nofilter, translated from the Danish by Giannina Spinty-Mossin and Katja Langmaier) is Greenlandic writer Niviaq Korneliussen’s first novel and was longlisted for the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2015. The book is divided into five sections, each written from the point of view of one of the main characters, and the overarching theme is of sexual awakening, particularly regarding lesbian attraction between the main characters. However, while the setting of the Greenlandic capital isn’t quite as important as you might expect (playing nowhere near as prominent a role as a smaller settlement does in Anna Kim’s Anatomie einer Nacht, for example), there is a sense that part of the characters’ struggles have to do with growing up in a small, oppressive community.
The first section sets the novel up nicely, with a stream-of-consciousness tirade from Fia, a young woman whose rage against her dull, inoffensive partner Peter is threatening to boil over:
…ich habe Lust, ihm zu antworten, dass ich kein Baby bin, hör auf, so mit mir zu reden, aber als er meine Hand nimmt, nehme ich seine Hand, als er mir sein Herz gibt, halte ich es, als er sein Herz als Opfergabe darbietet, habe ich Lust, es zu zerquetschen, weil Opfer sterben…
p.13 (Zaglossus, 2016)
…I feel like replying that I’m not a baby, stop talking to me like that, but when he takes my hand, I take his hand, when he gives me his heart, when he offers up his heart as a sacrifice, I feel like crushing it, because sacrifices die…
*** (my translation)
Inevitably, she soon plucks up the courage to leave him, ending up staying with Arnaq, a friend of her brother Inuk, while she attempts to move on.
It isn’t long before she’s tempted to get back out there, but surprisingly her attention is no longer on the men looking to sleep with her, but on the women all around. The glamorous party girl Arnaq has a charm all of her own, but it’s when Fia meets the beautiful Sara at a bar that she seriously considers her sexuality for the first time. But where does Sara’s partner Ivik fit into this new world, and what does Inuk think of his sister’s decision? Patience – the night is young…
The first two of the five chapters position Nuuk #ohneFilter as a set of linked short stories, and it isn’t until we get to the third section, told by Arnaq, that the true structure begins to emerge. In fact, the five parts tell the same story from different angles, with more information revealed, both about the characters’ feelings and their actions, as each new character gives their side of the story. We gradually learn more about the youths’ backgrounds, and Korneliussen skilfully describes a group of young people coming to terms with their sexuality, whether that entails the first inklings of gay desire, a hedonistic bisexual lifestyle or the end of self-loathing and denial.
This search for identity is the key to the novel, with several of the main figures struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. Inuk, for example, is shown lashing out in an attempt to deflect attention away from his behaviour, hoping that by focusing on others his own issues will somehow go away. While very different in style, Ivik’s description of how she came to accept her sexuality also shows the need to overcome several internal barriers along the way:
Aber auch als ich die fragen von meinen Freunden und meiner Familie beantwortet hatte, hörte ich nicht auf, mich selbst zu wundern.
Warum stehst du auf Frauen?
Als ich keine Antwort fand, begann ich zu zweifeln, ob die Frage notwending war. Als ich merkte, dass sie es nicht war, hörte ich auf, an mir selbst zu zweifeln. (p.98)
But even when I had answered the questions of my friends and family, I never stopped asking myself.
Why do you like women?
When I found no answer, I began to doubt whether the question was even helpful. When I realised that it wasn’t, I stopped doubting myself. ***
However, having found her place in life, she is jolted by the sudden relationship issues she experiences with Sara. Unable to let herself go in the bedroom, she wonders if this really is who she is…
And yet, there’s also a happier side to it all. One of the strengths of Nuuk #ohneFilter is in the way Korneliussen shows young people in love. The writer catches the mood superbly, from the first glimpses and the adrenalin that races through their bodies to the swing towards hopelessness and the belief that the person they’re falling for is ambivalent towards them. When these stages are eventually worked through, then the characters come together, and we can virtually see them glowing. Regardless of sexual orientation, these are heart-warming love stories, and few readers would begrudge them their happy endings.
The love aspect is universal, of course, but there are some subtle Greenlandic influences. Nuuk, despite being the biggest city in Greenland, only has a population of around 17,000, meaning that everyone knows everyone else, and if something goes wrong, it’s hard to hide (as Inuk realises only too well). There’s also the darker side to the country, one documented in Anatomie einer Nacht (and in Kim’s non-fiction book, Invasionen des Privaten), with high levels of alcohol consumption linked to abuse, and while this doesn’t feature too heavily here, at least one of the characters has a rather troubled time behind them.
While I wouldn’t say Nuuk #ohneFilter is a YA book, it’s definitely a novel for a younger generation. Korneliussen mixes up the structure with iPhone text threads, hashtags, spoken language and links to Youtube videos at the end of the book, with each section having its own theme song. There are also lashings of colloquial English interspersed with the German, which while not always perfect, made for interesting reading. The five sections are distinct in style, and there are some interesting choices here, from Fia’s initial manic ramblings to the deliberate repetition of structures used in several passages. However, in truth, there’s nothing complex or outstanding about the language at the sentence level, making for a fairly simple read.
Despite that, Nuuk #ohneFilter is a book I enjoyed, interesting, entertaining and cleverly put together without ever becoming too gimmicky, and I’d be surprised if some small press didn’t go for this (particularly a small, edgy American publisher). It would be easy to pigeon-hole the novel as Gay Lit, but in truth it’s more universal than that, both a love story and a coming-of-age tale from the frozen north.
And if you don’t like the sound of that, then there’s just no pleasing you…
To finish off, I thought I’d discuss the background of the book a little. It was originally written in Greenlandic and then translated into Danish by the writer herself; my German-language version was translated from the Danish version. While I quite like the physical object, I’m not convinced that the German publisher has quite got it right, especially with the title. The original book is called HOMO sapienne, which cleverly introduces several important themes of the book in a fun play on words, and the German version is a typically lame attempt to make it seem ‘cool’, while removing any sense of what the book is actually about (n.b. translations of book and film titles into German have a habit of doing this…).
The cover picture takes a similar tack, playing with the Greenlandic flag and integrating it into an iPhone text bubble – how cute. Except that the original cover has a naked woman (possibly the author?) sitting down eating a banana, which is approximately a million times more eye-catching. Perhaps, then, the Austrian publishers were a little nervous about promoting the sexual side to the book, a theory supported by their nervous trigger warning hidden at the bottom of one the first pages:
Das Kapitel ‘Home – INUK’ des Romans enthält an einigen Stellen gewaltvolle Sprache gegenüber Schwulen und Lesben. Dies kann traumatische Erinnerungen und Angst auslösen.
The chapter ‘Home – INUK’ in this novel contains violent language towards gays and lesbians in some passages. This may trigger traumatic memories and anxiety. ***
After reading that statement, I was expecting something seriously brutal, but it was nothing more than a young man saying ‘Gays are Bad’ in a variety of ways. I’ve read a whole lot worse on many topics without any warning being given… Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how the English-language version will look, if and when it arrives. If anyone’s interested in my view, I’d keep the original cover and title any day 🙂
UPDATE (16/2/17) – Katja Langmaier, one of the German-language translators, left a comment below which addressed some of my comments on the book, and she kindly gave me permission to add some of it here:
I just wanted to clear something up, because it concerns the politics of the German translation, since you pointed out the cover and the trigger warning. The choices are very much political and not a sign of being nervous or timid. The publisher’s background is in queerness and anti-racism and both things you pointed out derive from these politics.
There is a tradition within anti-racist and queer activism of holding back with the use of (photographic) images of people, especially within ethnicised contexts, that is, when people get marked as non-white, because these images support the notion of (non-)whiteness being something based on looks and bodies, while it is actually a much more complex construct. That’s why there is a different cover-design that doesn’t use an image of a person in the German translation.
As for the trigger warning: They always seem overanxious to people who have not been traumatized, but they are there to caution people, who will know that it concerns them when they read one. In other words: When you read a trigger warning and think “oh, I wonder how bad this will be”, you can instantly relax. There won’t ever be anything in a work of fiction that will be traumatizing to anyone, because trauma happens in real life. “Triggering” is not just a reminder of a trauma, it means that depictions of violence can set a brain back into the reality of a traumatizing event. Like, for instance, if you have been the victim of a violent hate crime and during which you were called a “fucking fagg*t”, just to read that phrase can set your brain into a panic mode where it tells you that you’re back in that situation. Luckily, for most people trigger warnings seem unsubstantiated, but for people with traumata they can prevent horrible experiences that to them are very much real.
A big thank you to Katja for offering an insight into the decision-making process around the book 🙂