Thursday, April 6, 2017

Danish Teenagers

By Annabeth Leong

Lately, I’ve mostly been reading in Danish. We seem to take some of these posts as recommendation lists, but I’m guessing there aren’t many fellow Danish students checking this blog out.

I do think it might be interesting for you to hear about one of the most striking differences I’ve noticed between the YA I’m used to reading in English and the Danish language YA I’ve read so far.

I particularly enjoy the work of Anika Eibe. I read Er Du Okay, Marie? and immediately downloaded its sequel, Er Du Okay, Fie? (The titles mean Are You Okay, Marie? and Are You Okay, Fie?). I’m not sure if I’m good enough at Danish to judge how well written something is in that language, but I do know whether a story is compelling. Er Du Okay, Marie? kept me up at night with dictionary in hand, powering through the book despite difficulties of translation, all because I had to know what would happen next.

That’s full marks for the story. I learned a ton of Danish working my way through the book, and I loved every minute of it.

Anyway, Eibe’s series is about adolescents with various sorts of difficulties. Marie’s book is billed as being about bullying, but I’d say it’s better described as a book about the bewildering experiences a teenage girl has when she suddenly becomes hot and highly sexually desirable.

I think part of what grabbed me so much about this book is how unflinching it is, and at least some of that, I think, comes down to Danish culture. While English-language YA tends to be very squeamish about detailed sexual description, this book didn’t pull back from any of that. And it was a much stronger story for that. I’ve never before read a portrayal of the teenage sexual experience that I could identify with so much, largely because it feels like writing about that at all in detail in English is forbidden.

Also unlike many heroines I’ve encountered in English language books, Marie is forthrightly lustful. She feels a lot of conflict about whether she really wants to make out with particular boys at parties, but she often gets caught up in the thrill of exploration and physical lustful urges. I so rarely see that in female characters, especially when the lust kind of exists on its own rather than for a particular “special” boy.

She also has a sort of passivity, a sense of going with the flow that I really identify with, too. It’s always been difficult for me to figure out what I actually want, and my default is to say yes to things. That’s Marie, too.

And being this way gets her called a whore and a slut at school, which also happened to me when I was a teenager, and is, I suppose, where the bullying element comes in.

A final difference between what I’m used to when reading in English and what I found in this book was that the ending was much less neat, though it did tie up the main character arc. Throughout the story, there’s a boy that it seems is the “right one” for Marie, and he is a part of the ending. The story, however, is about her, not about a romance, so the note it ends on is a note of Marie figuring out more about how she wants to conduct herself, solidifying her friendships, and telling that boy that, while she’s interested in him, things are too confusing right now for her to jump into anything. That felt like such a realistic ending, and I loved it, but I am so conditioned to expect a romantic ending that I was a bit shocked.

Anyway, I’m only in the beginning of the sequel about Fie, and I’m impressed all over again. This book is an unflinching portrayal of self-harm that seems like it will be just as daring and profound as the first book.

So I’m excited to read this series (there’s a third book out soon, and perhaps more in the future), but I’m also left wondering why I feel like so much is missing from portrayals of teenage experience in my native language.

11 comments:

  1. What I find impressive is your penchant for the unusual, not only in your own writing and interests, but in choosing a book in a foreign language. Sure, people read French, Spanish and German, but I'd venture that not many pick Danish as an alternative language. You do amaze, Annabeth.

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    1. It wasn't on purpose. I fell in love with Danish in a way I didn't manage to with French, Spanish, or German. I've thought a lot about how that love came about, but how does love ever come about?

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  2. I'm vastly impressed, too. Pretty soon you'll be reading Hamlet in the original Danish.

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    1. Ha. :) If all goes according to plan, I will visit Kronborg Castle this summer, which is supposed to be the site of the original Hamlet.

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    2. If you do, I hope you share some pics with us here.

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    3. I never take pictures... I will definitely tell you stories, though

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  3. I'm curious as to how you found out about these books. Do you have a lot of Danish friends who can give you recommendations?

    And I have to echo Daddy's and Sacchi's comments... Danish is definitely not a top ten language! You are astonishing.

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    1. I don't have any Danish friends, actually, though I do talk to Danish people through language-learning services.

      But I found out about these books through relentless browsing and searching. In the case of Anika Eibe, the descriptions of the books appealed to me, and then when I read them, they engaged me in a way that other books I'd tried to read have not.

      Danish is a relatively small category on US Amazon, so it is possible to look through it pretty exhaustively if you're patient.

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  4. Actually, Denmark sounds like an amazing country, partly because of the way the Danes of WW2 refused to give in to the Nazi policy of rounding up all the Jews of Europe, and partly because all sorts of essential services are provided free, in exchange for income tax of 25% of one's income. (We have a modified version of that in Canada -- harsh climates seem to generate collective spirit.) I would love to visit, preferably in the summer. :)

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    1. It's actually more like 50% of one's income. But it seems worth it to me when I look at the strength of the social safety net.

      I love Denmark, and see much to admire in it. However, they are struggling with some nationalist/racist tendencies, like many other countries. I would definitely push back against the liberal tendency to idolize them. Denmark is an awesome country, but it isn't perfect, because it still involves humans. :)

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