Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Taking a test on my own text

A slightly weird experience. One of my two published short stories has been included in a textbook for Swedish as a second language. (No, I don't get any royalties for it). The reason is, I believe, that the story is about a migrant's experience, but disguised as a fairy tale. Fairy tale is always a good form to tell about difficult matters.

The story is well known in many versions: a young maiden meets a Merking who entices her to follow him into the sea. She marries him, but every now and then she longs back to land, and when she goes back she has to decide whether she wants to return. I have, after many years, made up my mind, but it wasn't straightforward. In fact, when I wrote the story I hadn't yet made up my mind.

Anyway, this story has already been used in Swedish SATS. Now migrants arriving in Sweden and hopefully wishing to learn Swedish will have a chance to read it. It has been beautifully illustrated.

The short introduction to the story says:

What do you do if you like two places equally, but must choose the one or the other? Read this fairy tale, written by the author Maria Nikolajeva [I believe my name was important for the choice of text]. It is a story about Renata who is torn between the place where she was born and the place where she has lived most of her life. Which is her home?

I must say, I am quite moved by this introduction, and I really hope that people who read the story will recognise themselves.

After the story, there is a set of questions and tasks.


1. Why did the Merking want Renata to follow him to the bottom of the sea when they met on the beach? [Not sure how I would answer this. He fell in love with her? He desired her? He was sexually attracted to her?]
2. Name three things on the bottom of the sea that were different from what Renata was used to. [I had to re-read the story to answer this. I think the right answer is: language, food and darkness].
3. How did Renata react to everything new and unfamiliar? [Hmm… I think the answer is: She eventually got used to it. This is a really difficult question].
4. Why did Renata suddenly long for the land? [I thought I knew that one, but I had to check. She heard church bells. Now, this is a symbol, not a claim that it is your religion that calls you back].
5. Tell us about Renata's first visit back to land. [This is not a comprehension question. This is a retelling question. It can be answered by one short sentence, such as “She was happy”, or expanded into eternity].
6. What had happened when Renata returned to her childhood home for the second time? [Her parents had died. My parents were still alive when I wrote the story. The last sentence is life-to-text projection and should be avoided].
7. In the end of the story, Renata must make a difficult decision. What decision does she have to make and what does she decide? [To be or not to be? To have a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder Cheese?]


1. The story is about a girl, a Merking and a realm at the bottom of the sea. What do you think these three factors [!] symbolise? [A woman, a man and the man's home? A woman, a traficker and a whorehouse?]
2. Who influences Renata's choices? [The Merking asks her nicely. The friends on land are aggressively persistent. I think she follows her heart rather than reason].
3. Why do you think the author has chosen to write this story as a fairy tale? [Ask the author! Because it hurts less to depict your painful experience in disguise. Because imaginative writing has stronger impact on the reader than realistic].
4. Why do you think Renata followed the sunset in the end of the story? [This is a good question. Heroes always follow the sunset. But I think the correct answer is that sunset symbolises death. However, since the sun sets in the West, you can also infer that West is better than East. That is, for someone from Eastern Europe].


1. Why do you think Renata is hesitant about where it is best for her to live? Do you recognise her hesitation? [Well, we are all hesitant about big decisions, but migrants may feel it stronger.This is text-to-life projection and is one of the main reasons we read fiction].
2. Renata is a woman and the Merking is a man. In the story, the woman is torn between the two worlds. Would it be the same if Renata were a man? Why? Why not? [It is doubtless women who more frequently follow men. Even the Bible prescribes it. But I cannot see why it couldn't be the other way round. And there are many fairy tales with exactly such reversed gender roles. I am curious what the students say. Some may misunderstand the question and consider whether the Merking could fall in love with a man].
3. What do you think about Renata's final decision? Would you make the same decision? Why? Why not? [Now, an important aspect of the story is that Renata loves her husband, and she has followed him of her own will. If as a migrant you escape from war or poverty you may have other reasons for staying or leaving. Also you may or may not like your new country and feel welcome and comfortable. Renata loves the sea realm, she has learned the language, she has learned to cook, and she is used to darkness. The merpeople have accepted her. She has children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And she has absolutely nothing to return to. But again, I would be curious to know how the conversation goes in this class].

Then come the exercises. The story, the task says, uses many adjectives [I think it was deliberate]. The various assignments are to match adjectives and nouns, to build adjectives from nouns (for instance, “sunny” form “sun”) and from verbs (for instance, “shining” from “shine”).

Well, I don't really like fiction used to train adjectives. However, as I know from my recent cognitive studies, associative memory is strong, and if the adjectives will in the future remind the students of my story, maybe it's not a bad thing.

The final assignment is to summarise the story. The assignment explains the importance of key words in a summary. What are the key words of my story? I don't think you can find them in the text. You will have to read between the lines.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

When I met Olof Palme

Everybody in Sweden today shares their memories of Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister who was assassinated thirty years ago. A bit similar to J F Kennedy: everybody - old enough - remembers what they did. I am old enough. But that's another story.

On the day following the assassination, Staffan and I were going to a city in Sweden where a play he had translated was opening. I was still in bed when Staffan stormed in, screaming: "I am not going to any f*ing opening night!" My reaction was that the author had said something stupid or the theater had misspelled Staffan's name on the poster or something mundane like that. Instead, he threw the morning paper at me, with Palme on the front page.

The opening night was of course postponed, and Staffan and I, together with the rest of Sweden, spent the following days in front of television.

Inescapably, I remembered my only encounter with Palme, which I will share now. A couple of years earlier, there was another opening night (now you will get the impression that we didn't do anything other that attend opening nights, which is very true since Staffan was much involved with theatre in those days). It was a musical which Staffan co-authored and which featured a very famous actress in the main role. It so happened that she had participated in Palme's election campaign, and therefore he was a guest of honour at the performance and the following party.  I happened to sit next to him at the party, and when he realised I was Russian, he looked at me, took a deep breath and started reciting one of the best-known Russian poems by Alexander Pushkin:
          Буря мглою небо кроет,
          Вихри снежные крутя...

There he stopped, and I picked up without thinking and finished the whole poem, which ends by a proposal to have a drink, which we did.  

Staffan thought it was hilarious when I told him. Not that the Swedish Prime Minister could recite the first two lines of Russian poem, which he had likely learned as a child from his Russian nanny, but that I could immediately pick up and continue. I didn't find it remarkable at all. Every educated person in Russia can recite poetry for hours.  

Monday, 15 February 2016

How to recycle a hero

This is a column I wrote for a Swedish daily in February 2007, when the world lived in anticipation of the final volume of the Harry Potter saga. I feel it still holds true, so here it is for your amusement.

There are speculations about whether J K Rowling intends to kill Harry Potter off in the final book of the formidable series. The author seems to have said that it is appropriate to let the protagonist die so that nobody can pinch him and write a sequel.
As if it has ever stopped literary thieves.
For a start, a couple of books about Harry's life before he learns that he is a powerful wizard. Nice books about everyday adventures with the abominable cousin. They will probably be less exciting than Harry's breath-taking escapades at Hogwarts, but it's child's play for a good writer, and the fans would love to know more about their darling. If Scarlett's Childhood can satisfy Gone with the Wind fans, why not Harry Potter's Childhood?
           A set of at least five volumes can be devoted to Harry's parents, including his dad's pranks mentioned in passing throughout the series. Details about his friendship and rivalry with Harry's teachers will doubtless be welcomed by many readers. It might be permissible to add some erotic flavour that Harry is spared.
           Hermione, Ron, Ginny and the Weasley twins will all get a series of their own. Unfortunately, Mergione's Private Mission and Sen Awesley's Twelve Deeds have already been published by two quick-minded Russian writers, but otherwise the sky is the limit. Moreover, Hermione has a time-turner which allows her to be in two places at the same time, to attend twice as many classes. If she lets Harry borrow the time-turner, all his seven years at Hogwarts can be repeated, in a parallel dimension.
Harry Potter's Cook Book and Harry Potter's Feng Shui are guaranteed bestsellers. Huge success can also be predicted for The True Confessions of Harry Potter and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Harry Potter.
If Harry necessarily must die in the end of the final book, there is always hope that he would do it with Hermione just before he dies, and then Harry Jr, or possibly Harriet, can take over. There is of course something Da Vinci Code over it, but it is surely within fair use. This plot can be stretched for at least twelve volumes.
However, it would be much nicer is Harry lives, becomes Head of Hogwarts, introduces a democratic student union and initiates international collaboration with other wizard schools in a true Bologna spirit.
It may be hard to do all this before the interest fades, but there are many examples of large teams of ghost writers who will easily produce three-four books a month. Although they should preferably be well educated and well read in myths as well as world literature to maintain the level of Rowling's witty allusions. A couple of unemployed professors of English literature may run workshops.
But if Harry really dies in the end of the final volume, don't mourn him too long, dear friends all over the world. There are many stories in which the hero dies and is resurrected, from The New Testament to Sherlock Holmes

PS. All ideas in this column are copyright protected and available for best bid. Nothing under six-digit will not be considered.