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History needs a challenge

An interview with Linn Hansén by Giulia Parin.

Linn Hansén is remodelling poetry in Sweden. Her début, Ta i trä (“Knock on Wood”) explored alternative mental geographies of Göteborg, through recapitulating guidebook language and legalese, while her second collection, Gå till historien (“Turn to History”) was a humorous enquiry into the absurdity of narratives into which our personal “histories” disappear. Not just a singular author, activist, editor, organiser and filmpoet, Hansen taps the energies of the communal, as part of both the G=T=B=R=G and Sharks collectives. She is also as a curator at the Göteborg Poetry Festival and an editor of the Glänta magazine. This interview was conducted on the eve of the 6th Prague microfest, where her work has been translated in Czech and she will speak on poetry and activism.

3:AM: The officially recognised historical events of a country materialize within its culture as a set of coordinates from which a map of a collective, national identity is supposed to be formed. Through the record and the fixation of specific narratives, concepts, values and figures in time, the past is always maintaining a position of paternal authority over the present and the possibilities of actualizing a change or a reversal. Do you think that the practice of re-writing tends more towards invention and autonomy or rather towards disruption and revision of former forms? Is this movement simultaneous? Do you think that to re-write means to liberate and open up a fantasy or rather, to make visible and channel specific, as yet unexplored but existent, territories?

Linn Hansen: For me, it’s not so much about inventing, or imagining – I am not suggesting any other kind of historical writing. Rather I am interested in looking at the kind of language by which we tell stories about others and ourselves. When looking at history schoolbooks for example, they are written in a language that relates to the language of information; it’s a didactic text, dealing with facts. The voice of the history book is an authoritarian voice, speaking in sentences that seem to be valid (true), or at least appear to be functioning. I am interested in a kind of language – the kind that is to be found on signs, in instructions: “Eating kebabs and ice cream on the tram is prohibited” or when learning how to operate the video recorder – whose main task is to communicate something (everyone should understand: if not, language has failed) but doesn’t at all want to communicate in the sense that it’s impossible to respond to it, to question it or make suggestions towards it. The sentence itself seems to be coherent; this is a kind of language that doesn’t stumble or hesitate, a language that was seemingly never exposed to anything. What does it mean that everyone should understand? This kind of language seems to function better than anything else, and thereby it might also be false, or at least treacherous. I have tried to work with this authoritarian, didactic language, building sentences that look right but might hold absurdities or inconsistencies. If the rules appear to be arbitrary, you might also discover something that has to do with the rules themselves.

3:AM: So, if writing is the means to record and impress meaning par excellence, how must language be worked to disrupt its autocratic nature?

LH: Since history is our largest and single most important narrative, it probably also shows us something about how we tell stories about other things. History is a structure making it possible for us to understand everything else: an answering book to present times. But while our present time is complex, hard to grasp, impossible to summarize or give account of, history is always clarified. History also includes all sorts of specificities – the history of dance music, the history of the high heel shoe or the walking stick – but claims at the same time to comprise everything. What kind of story is that? How is it organized? How are we supposed to use history, can it be summarized? Where does it start?

To me, the history books and other kinds of didactic texts are relevant to look at since they tell a lot about how society and its institutions looks upon, and execute, matters of knowledge production, training and education, ideas on science, knowledge and understanding. Which means it tells a lot about how society looks upon, and execute, power.

3:AM: Your poem Turn To History expresses that the recognition of history is rarely given by socially marginal realities and minorities. In this light, the field of history gains the properties of castration, censorship and obscuration. Can history become a venue to reclaim femininity, redeem abuse and occupation or is it irreparably destined to fall into the ultimate unreliability of a formalized construction?

LH: Rather than correcting facts of history, I wanted to study the fact itself, with history as a framework. What is a fact made up of? How does facts and truth relate to each other? A fact qualifies itself as history at the expense of something else – of what? The single most important quality of history is legitimacy, which also means it hands out legitimacy to whatever it is including. What is recognized as history can be recognized in our contemporary times; by being comprehensible by history a subject or a group can gain legitimacy. If you do not “have a (written) history”, claiming space will be much more difficult.

History has a given relation to time, but also a, perhaps less obvious, relation to place. The past that took place in a place we know nothing about becomes incomprehensible as history, and as a result of that the subject itself is made incomprehensible. In Swedish history books, the word “war” belongs to the past. But a lot of people in Sweden have very recently experienced war.

Since history is constantly being “rewritten”, and since it’s a narrative, it could be edited. Which means it could be a place for reclaiming and reshaping. History could be re-told as a struggle, a fight between contradictory narratives rather than taking the shape of one. But parallel to that movement, I think history also needs to be challenged as the one and only place to gain legitimacy from.

3:AM: In The task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin considers translating a way of giving a sort of afterlife to the original text, an act which invests writing with the idea of movement and indeed, with an historical perspective. Your work has been translated into different languages and therefore channelled through and into different sets of linguistic and cultural models. Is there a language that has been particularly prone to reveal latent or unexpected aspects of your work? Is its transcultural role that of removing the local and cultural specificity or is it rather that of enlarging the possibilities to grasp and convey diverse modes of expression?

LH: I believe it’s doing both – removing localities and enlarging possibilities. My poetry seems to handle translation quite ok, for most parts it’s not crucial to keep the exact words but rather to find the tone and rhythm of it, since I’m more concerned with a type of language, the informative, authoritarian one, that is to be found in all languages, since all societies are organized.

3:AM: How does the title and the body of your poem connect with the various “turns” that not only history, but humanities in general have undergone especially throughout the 20th centuries, if so? Does the rise of various theories and interpretations coincide with new modes of conceptual periodization and so, with new cycles of narratives?

LH: The title in Swedish is Gå till historien, which is an expression used for someone or something that made it to the history books. I’m using it in the imperative form, in which it could also be read as a request to turn to history as in going back to the sources, reading the history books.

The interview was conducted as part of Linn Hansén’s participation at the Prague Microfestival 2014.

Giulia Parin is a MA student of Critical and Cultural Theory at the Department of Anglophones Literatures and Cultures of Charles University, Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 28th, 2014.