One of the international guests at this year’s edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, the award-winning Swedish speculative fiction author KARIN TIDBECK, speaks to Teodor Reljić about what it means to be an author of alluringly strange prose that is hard to pin down, the dynamics of being a multilingual writer, and how live action role-playing continues to influence their work for the better.
TR: Your work is often described as unclassifiable, at least insofar as putting a genre label on it goes. But how does this feel from the other end – namely, your end? Do you set about writing strange, uncanny tales that defy categorisation, or is it simply that the stories you want to tell refuse to conform to a pre-set shape?
KT: It’s entertaining to see how people categorise my stories, because I don’t. All I do is write down what comes into my head.
I’ve written stories for anthologies a few times and then, the genre and theme was already decided. It’s really hard, because once I have an idea it tends to wander off where it wants to go. Because I actively decide not to steer the story, I have sometimes ended up kind of shoehorning it in and adding elements to dress it in a suitable jumpsuit. When I’m free to do what I want, I end up with stories that “defy categorisation”. That’s fine. Categories are artificial and I enjoy poking around in the liminal spaces.
TR: Let’s pull back a bit. What would you say were some of the most significant flashpoints of your career as a writer so far, and how did they contribute to turning you into the writer you are today?
KT: My career is a very long series of decisions, coincidences, luck and hard work. When I was 22, I started working in a science fiction bookshop and thought that I wanted to be on those shelves too. It sparked an ambition. When I was 28, I decided to give writing my all.
I uprooted myself and moved from Stockholm to an arts college across the country, where I studied creative writing for two years. It was the first time someone took my ideas seriously; before that, I had heard that my stuff was too weird or difficult to read.
Now I could finally find my voice. The most significant move for my career was to attend [acclaimed US speculative fiction workshop] Clarion. I applied because I couldn’t find a foothold in Sweden and during those six weeks in San Diego, I learned so much – about writing, about the industry and that I was on the right track.
That’s also where I met Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, who would end up publishing my English debut, Jagannath. But at the bottom of it all is the great privilege of being born into a family that marinated me in stories and encouraged my writing.
TR: Live action role-playing (or ‘LARP’) is also something you are actively involved in. Could you tell us a little bit more about why this practice interests you so much, how it may or may not impact on your writing, and whether its Swedish variant may perhaps be different from that of its Anglophone counterparts?
KT: I’ve been doing LARP since the mid-1990s and it’s part of what made me a writer – and has shaped the way I think about creativity. The kind of LARP I’m into is commonly known as Nordic LARP (although it’s spread outside of the Nordic countries, so it’s no longer a geographical concept).
Writing in a second language is a constant reminder that words mean things, that they have roots, that they affect perception
The genres span from social realism to science fiction, but at the heart of it is an emphasis on collaborative storytelling and a willingness to be vulnerable and receptive. It’s not a game you can win; it’s a story you tell together with others.
With collaborative storytelling and improvisation, the narrative is partly out of your control, and that does something to the mind. I’d like to think it has made me more mentally flexible. And playing different characters is a great way to try out different modes of thought and emotion.
TR: Apart from a liberal approach to genre categorisation, you also appear to be fascinated by the dynamics of – as notably expressed with uncanny consistency in your mind-bending novel Amatka. What is behind this preoccupation, do you think? And does being a multilingual writer (who writes in both Swedish and English) have something to do with it? How does your practice as a translator figure into it, at all?
KT: I’ve always been interested in language, speech and words. If I were to trace where that comes from, it’s part upbringing, part language studies (I took four foreign languages in school), part social anthropology and comparative religion studies, and part Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet.
Writing in a second language is a constant reminder that words mean things, that they have roots, that they affect perception. Amatka was me saying my piece on language, pretty much.
As for translation, I became a translator out of necessity. I don’t have the formal education. But it has taught me a lot about how perception shifts according to language. I’m not completely into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but it does tickle the imagination.
TR: Translation, in fact, is an integral aspect of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, where invited authors collaborate in translating each other’s work ahead of the main festival nights. As a practising translator and someone who writes in more than one language, are you looking forward to participating in the festival’s translation workshops?
KT: I’m very excited! Translation is a balancing act. As a translator, you don’t merely replace words – you’re also a co-creator of sorts. You need craft. I look forward to the challenge of bringing the other authors’ works into Swedish and discussing how to convey meaning and nuance, especially when it comes to cultural concepts and shorthand that doesn’t have an easy parallel in other languages. It’s going to be great.
Karin Tidbeck will be participating at this year’s edition of the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, held at Fort St Elmo, Valletta, between August 24 and 26, and organised by Inizjamed. For more information, visit: inizjamed.org/.