Words and the World

In Autumn 2017 SELTA member Fiona Graham attended the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre. Here she reports back on Ted Hodgkinson’s conversation with Jonas Hassen Khemiri, winner of Sweden’s August Prize in 2015.

In a conversation with Ted Hodgkinson of the Southbank Centre and fellow-novelist Kamila Shamsie, billed as ‘What can words do?’, Jonas Hassen Khemiri spoke revealingly about the power of words to effect change, and the limitations of language.

A diarist since the age of six, Khemiri wanted to be a writer from early childhood. He described his memories as ‘dynamic’, or changeable, and observed that they were often intertwined with language. This seems natural for a born writer who grew up in a multilingual household, with parents born in different countries. Khemiri’s father, a teacher of Arabic, enjoyed comparing and contrasting words in different languages and teasing out their connotations. Comparing ‘dead end’, ‘cul-de-sac’ (literally ‘bottom of the bag’) and ‘återvändsgränd’, for instance, he mused that the Swedish expression had more positive implications than its English and French equivalents.

Speaking about his August Prize-winning recent novel, Allt jag inte minns (published in Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation as Everything I Don’t Remember), Khemiri enlarged on the power of words to capture – and distort – memories. Samuel, the central figure in Allt jag inte minns, dies in a car crash, and those close to him attempt to bring him back by recounting their memories. Yet their very different accounts are unreliable, with gaps between reality and what is expressed in language. As a child, Khemiri missed people he was close to when they were absent, so he sought to recreate their presence by writing about them. In adulthood, he lost a dear friend while he was working on Allt jag inte minns. Again, he attempted to ‘bring her back’ by writing a text to be spoken at her funeral. Nonetheless, he was painfully conscious that words could not restore her to life, nor compensate for his feeling of ‘not having been there for her’.

What about the power of words to alert the public conscience to social ills? In 2013, when the Swedish police stepped up street ID checks on people of non-European appearance, the then Justice Minister, Beatrice Ask, drew a comparison between those who protested and former prison inmates who retain a fear of the police. Khemiri wrote an open letter, Dear Beatrice Ask, in which he called on the Justice Minister to imagine what it was like to be wrongfully suspected, again and again, just because of one’s skin or hair colour. Khemiri’s moving and powerful letter rapidly became the most shared text in Swedish history. Many Swedes with non-majority ethnic backgrounds identified strongly with the experiences he described; conversely, some of his friends expressed amazement at the huge number of testimonies his letter gave rise to. Khemiri drew a comparison with the MeToo hashtag campaign to raise awareness of sexual harassment and assault.

In the question and answer session, Khemiri said that writing non-fiction and fiction involved different parts of him. The letter to Beatrice Ask was a direct political response to a specific situation. Fiction is more open-ended, calling on the reader to ‘reconstruct’ the literary work in reading. For instance, Allt jag inte minns involves different voices, and it is left to the reader to work out who is speaking: Leide (the woman Samuel loved), Vandad (his male friend) or Samuel’s grandmother. Sometimes it is a matter of interpretation rather than deduction.

In response to Khemiri’s doubts about the effectiveness of his open letter, Kamila Shamsie stressed the importance of bearing witness; in twenty years’ time, Sweden would not be able to look back on 2013 and say there had been a consensus on racial profiling in policing.

Finally, Khemiri was asked about his reactions to translations of his work. He highlighted the importance for the translator of asking the right questions. Khemiri builds up a bank of ‘previously asked questions’ for his translators. He is acutely aware of the level of engagement different translators bring to the task; if they don’t ask the right questions, he said, ‘you feel they may not be the right fit for the book – and you cry!’ As for the end product, Khemiri reads the English and French translations, but feels better able to judge the quality of the English texts. He even prefers the English version to his original text sometimes. Khemiri’s remark that he is ‘blessed with an amazing translator, Rachel Willson-Broyles’ made the hearts of the translators in the audience beat faster. How many translators receive such an accolade from ‘their’ authors?


SELTA member Nicky Smalley reviewed Allt jag inte minns in SBR 2016:2. She set the open letter to Beatrice Ask in context in her review of Racismen i Sverige by Lawen Mohtadi and Devrim Mavi (SBR 2015:1).

By Fiona Graham