Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Day 3: The Stavanger Festival of Literature and Free Speech

IMG_4013Day 3 starts at 11 o’clock, I’m still typing, in bed, in pyjamas, blurry eyed and tired… was up all night watching TV, something I only do in hotels, this time Poirot. While channel surfing the other night I saw the final 10 minutes of this very show, the big reveal when the sister who everyone thought was dead by her own hand walks into the room to regain her rightful inheritance. I stayed up watching Poirot anyway. I realized partway through that I knew the ending but kept watching. Such is the power of TV-on-the-wall-over-bed: it takes over your power of decision, even the decision to turn it off. In the back of my Poirot-numbed brain, I justified it this way: shouldn’t I finally know what Poirot is about? Is he the Pink Panther? I have no idea, just an inkling of his name, an image of his moustache. I kept watching. This was cultural research. At some point during the night the TV turned itself off. It needed a break, or had sensors telling it there was little likelihood of sentient life nearby.

Saturday 11:04. I’m sneaking into the closed breakfast room to grab a fried tomato, slabs of braunschweiger and creamy local camembert, a slice of bread and two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice. I am not reprimanded by the kitchen personnel, and in gratitude clean and reset the table for lunch when I’m done.

11:16. I’m unable to find my e-ticket on my iPhone wallet; page through myriad identical yellow tickets as the collector takes pity and ushers me into The Cellar where Kyrre Andreassen is being book-bathed under the title: Men, class and how to find a protagonist’s true voice.  The first I hear is that he doesn’t believe he writes about class, men, or working-class men, but about language and identity. Good, I think, taking out my notebook to jot down examples of Drammen dialect (Da havnet jeg mellom barket.) and how when he heard his character say nemlingen he knew who the guy was and could write the book. The interviewer, Åsmund Ådnøy, is fantastic, knows how to say little and elicit much from the author. I put Kyrre Andreassen on my list of writers to read. Not because I want to read about middle age men who excel at being electricians or short order cooks until they reach forty and have breakdowns… but because Andreassen gave language such a central role in writing. Asked if he could ever write a book that had a female protagonist, he answered as a true writer’s writer: “Yes, if I found her voice.” It doesn’t surprise me to learn that he teaches writing at a folkehøgskole.

12:00. Toril Brekke, a feisty woman of no uncertain age who refuses to let the publisher put her date of birth in her bio info; a self-proclaimed “red woman” i.e. a feminist-communist. I was left with the impression that Toril Brekke is probably an interesting writer, but book-bather Elisabeth Hovland needs to take lessons from Åsmund Ådnøy and get over being in love with the sound of her own voice. It was a bit of a spectator sport to watch Hovland formulate questions that went on for many sentences, extending into several minutes, and which allowed Torill Brekke only yes-no answers. Actually, they only allowed Toril Brekke to nod in agreement, as they were highly rhetorical statements, only the illusion of questions. My mind wandered to my college professor Constance Knop wielding her French-lesson-planning whip and snapping: Reduce teacher-talk! We had to plan out everything we would say, predict what each utterance would elicit from the students, and show that the balance was 90% student, 10% teacher. That must be a good rule for interviewers too. I think the master Åsmund Ådnøy had the ratio down to 95% author, 5% him.

Toril Brekke is clearly nobody’s fool, but she was too polite, or too baffled by Hovland to interrupt her. There were some winks and nods and giggles from the audience about carpenters and electricians that Brekke apparently slept with in real life and/or her novels. Brekke became a politician in order to get radon out of the water her grandchildren would drink. I will look into her biography of her father. The book du jour, Alle elsket moren din, another abused/neglected child story, is one I feel rather ambivalent about. It goes on the list “to looked into at the e-library.”

13:00. I have not pre-booked a ticket. How could I have overlooked a session about a book called, Trump’s counterrevolution? I get a ticket and settle in the front row with five minutes to spare… then remember why I had crossed this off my list: one of the presenters is whispering Danish as he shuffle papers to get ready. There are two men on stage, both wearing designer glasses. The black-haired man’s glasses are black, the redhaired man’s are red. I hope whichever one of them is Christian Johannes Idskov from Vagant in Bergen will carry enough of the conversation so I understand Copenhagen University’s pop culture professor Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen. The men are introduced and… no, no, no! They BOTH speak Danish! IMG_3993
In fact, Idskov’s language, despite living in Norway, is pretty much incomprehensible. Fortunately, he is from the Åndøy school of interviewing and lets the professor, whose Danish is pretty mild, do most of the talking. I understand oh, about 87% of what he says. Trump is a counterrevolutionary. Revolting against the revolters. Retelling an old story, the Lone Ranger. Fascist, but fascism does not mean what rose in Germany in 1939. It will not return as an ideology, but as a subtext in the crises that mark our times, starting with the financial crisis of 2007. Revolution is no longer tied to a historical line of ideological thinking. The distinction between ideology and image is blurred. Twitter. Twin Towers. Trump’s red cap. Rasmussen quotes someone, Trotsky I think, saying there are transition periods when the old is dying but the new has not yet been born. We are in such a transition period. It all makes sense. I find myself wondering if it is frightening to be young in a period of time like this. Think back to forces in my own formative years: Vietnam, Nixon, Kent State, Reagan, Outsourcing, Cocaine, Wall Street a la American Psycho, and wonder if it was more frightening to be young then. There are no answers. The young, always only aware of the world they are in, not what they once had, are not necessarily IMG_4003wise enough to be scared, and this is a good thing. The pendulum swings.

14:00. I love Janne Stigen Drangsholt’s lecture, Voice, Place, and Identity: a look at the geography of rock music. It could have gone on all day and not tired me. The program subtitled the session with the question: “Can music as counterculture liberate individual identity?” The implied answer was affirmative, and Drangsholt shows us how. As with Kyrre Andreassen this morning, I feel aligned with her message. Drangholt is the preacher, I am the choir. Her ideas are more profound than Andreassen’s –  about place and belonging, identity and voice – so I elevate her from preacher to prophet.


She uses the memoirs of rock stars like Patti Smith, Lauper, Morrissey… to show how post-WWII artists sought wide urban spaces, New York or London, in order to find their voice. While urbanity kills the imagination (this we know from the Romantics) music in that urban vastness made an expansive room where artists could find out who they are. More than either nature or upbringing, place informs artistic expression. I make a note to not abandon my poetry manuscript about geography and identity; put on my list of books to read Chrissie Hynde’s, My Life as a Pretender. Drangsholt named it a sociological observation of American culture, not just a rockers life story. I leave feeling edified and educated.

15:00. Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine. I stop by the shelf-benches for this most unusual arrangement, a “library of living books”. Back in Bodø I had misunderstood the project and thought you signed up to read one of the books aloud in a public place. What you do is sign up to have a book recited to you by a person who has committed the book to memory! FullSizeRenderTwo women sitting on the bench have their eye on me. I stop and ask if they are living books. Indeed they are. They ask me if I want to be read to. I say I’m on my way to a lecture, just need to finish eating my ice cream cone. The Norwegian woman has memorized The Piano Teacher in Norwegian and been doing this at various locations since 2012. The Belgian woman has learned Bartleby the Scrivener, in English. The idea of people learning books by heart comes from Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. I feel sort of sorry for the women, guilty for not wanting to be read to, but there’s no reason for that they tell me. They have had lots of visits. Loads of people interested. I enjoy the energy coming from them, it bears the intimacy of having absorbed literature, become living books. Makes me wonder why I haven’t memorized my poems. Or, as the Norwegian living book says, what I would gain from doing so.

15:30. Monika Isakstuen and Helga Flatland are book-bathed by brilliant-as-ever Åsmund Ådnøy. Helga Flatland impresses with her discussion of A modern family, her fifth novel at age 33. her 70-year-old protagonists who decide to divorce after four decades of marriage. Her project is to examine what this does to their grown children.

IMG_4010Monika Isakstuen has also written about divorce. Her novel Be nice to animals won the Brage Prize. I heard about it months ago when someone in my book group met up having read it by mistake instead of the chosen book, but that’s another story.  Monika has been told it makes social workers cry and entire offices full of social workers have received it as a gift. Her protagonist does everything she should after her divorce, but her inner monologue reveals impulses that break taboos, even though they’re not acted on. I like the idea of character description driving the reader more than plot. I expect it’s a fine book, but it’s Flatland’s that I immediately look for in the e-library. I’m not the only one who is impressed by put myself down as number twenty-five on the reservation list.

16:30. Tekst i flukt is a translation project that has been going on behind closed doors in the top floor of the library for the first two days of the festival. The goal is to translate writings by refugee writers from Persian, Bengali, Russian and Chechen to Norwegian. These are marginal languages that don’t get translated by big publishers, and writers who Icorn, the International Cities of Refuge Network, a program that was founded in Stavanger, has placed in Norway. Iranian poets Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi have been given refuge in Lillehammer.


He appears to be older, from the paper and pen generation. He reads his poems from sheets of paper, while she read hers off an iPhone, her patent leather Doc Martens contrasting nicely with her black skirt and top. She looks like a poet, while he with beard and belly and salt and pepper goatee, looks like a bard. The poetry is strong, visceral; the translation quality astounding. The woman in charge of Tekst i flukt told me later that working with authors in person with all previous publications in all possible languages close at hand, gives translating a new dimension.

I am most impressed by Mehdi’s poetry. He reads with such conviction that I am moved, tears come to my eyes and I actually understand phrases and images before I hear them in translation. How does he manage that? He’s serious and brilliant, providing erudite comments to explain the post-modernist ghazal form and why the authorities in Iran feel threatened by it, in contrast to Fatemeh saying more predictable things like the government doesn’t like women to speak freely. Mehdi explains how subtle changes in rhythm and form mirror the overthrow of societal norms. Fatemeh is a younger poet, with strong, feminist imagery. The translations into Norwegian were stunning and perfect and it’s impossible to try to replicate them here.



Despite trying to be very apolitical in their themes, both poets were arrested in Iran, sentenced to ten or twelve years behind bars and whippings of eighty or ninety lashes. My plan is to try to find more of their writing on social media, which is the only place they can publish.

18:30 Arundhati Roy. What can I say? If there were only one writer left in the world it should be her. There she was, small in her folding auditorium seat at the end of the front row when I passed looking for a seat. They have been letting people in only ten minutes before arrangements, but I should have known that would not be the case with this one. When I finally get in I go to the front row on the off chance there will be empty seat. As I approach, Arundhati Roy looks up, straight at me, smiles and mouths hello, and I do the same, automatically without thinking, as if we are old acquaintances. I get a seat four rows back and consider myself lucky. In contrast to the other authors at the festival, she wants to read from her book more than talk about it. I was transported back to Delhi, to the sound of my father’s vernacular, to the heat of India where pavement could burn my feet through hard-soled sandals. She was going to sign books, but they only were selling the Norwegian translation. The fact that I didn’t buy one just to get the honor of her signature in it shows how strong is the pull of her language and voice. Before leaving the auditorium I went over to her. One of the orange-shirted Kapittel guards stepped in front of me saying, She will sign books outside. I said, Yes, but I’m going to talk to her here. I did, sheepish, foolish, like a fawning fan, tell her about my dad and how much I admired her. She is on a tour of Europe. She has read for thousands of people. How many times has a person like me approached her? Hundreds? I recalled as I do once in a while what my friend Bill said about the time he met Leonard Cohen at an ashram in California: “What do you do when you come face to face with your idol? You fumble, blush, say something inane like Mr. Cohen I admire your work.”

21:00. Words and violence. This arrangement is full of testosterone and I’m confused. There is Harald Eia making Skavlan jokes. There is a tall Norwegian looking very much like a Mormon with side-parted hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and white button-up shirt. Eia is introducing a curly haired woman, sixtyish, Swedish, telling her in his sarcastic joking way to pretend she has spent the last half hour explaining her theory of kulturman, ignorant, self-obsessed, sexist – and that Skavlan has cut that segment so no one in the audience knows what she said. Meanwhile the faux Mormon is clicking through slides and videos of half-naked bullet-headed men attacking each other like butter-slicked gladiators, enthusiastically rattling off with a slight lisp the history of violent fight sports in America. There were four: tae kwando-karate, sumo wresting, boxing, kick-boxing, all competing to be America’s best fight sport. To settle once and for all the question of which was the best, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was established in 1993. No rules, anything allowed. You conquered your opponent through either: knockout, tap out (the opponent cries “Uncle!”), the intervention of a doctor, or death. The sport that won was not one of the four biggies, but a form of jujutsu developed and practiced by the members of one extended family in Brazil. Thus began the sport called MMA, Mixed Martial Arts, that (here’s a quote from the slideshow) is “super exciting, as close to killing as you can get, the purest form of sport, real, pure… after watching fighting you’ll never be exciting watching a ball be hit over a fence…”

About this time I check the program to see what this session is about. “Why are men so fascinated by violence?” is the subtitle. I’m not sure this is being answered, but that they are attracted is being demonstrated. On the screen now is a book cover showing a skeleton on a dull black background under the title: The Professor in a Cage. Ah, it IS a book-bath. There’s the author now being called up Skavlan style, a little American man, an English adjunct professor (he explains to the over-filled room that adjunct means he’ll never get a real job, no tenure). A fight club arena opened in an abandoned building across the street from Jonathan Gottschall’s college office, which led to his fascination with MMA, which led to him writing a book about his fear of being fired if his fanatically feminist dean finds him going near the place. He does go, she doesn’t care, he trains for a couple years to get in shape for a fight in a cage – the MMA regulation chainlink ten feet high fence that is instead of boxing-ring ropes. IMG_4038
The fight lasts way less than a minute. Gottschall has brought along video clips of the two separate moments when he wasn’t on the ground. It ends with him tapping out – calling uncle, exhilarated to shake hands with the man to whom he can say, “I admit you are the better man; I admit you could have killed me.”

Ebba Witt-Brattström, the sociologist, questions Gottschall’s catchall definitions of masculinity: bravery, stoicism, toughness. She points out that defining men as strong automatically creates a dichotomy in which women must be weak. Gottschall is clearly not the brightest flashlight in the glove compartment, nor is he well read or analytical. He can hardly follow her, and it’s not because she’s Swedish. In an effort to explain what he means by living in “a post-masculine world” he brings up the film Force Majeure in which a poor modern man is devastated because he doesn’t act brave and help save his family from a disaster. Ebba points out that he is not agonizing over his cowardliness, but his dishonesty, because he refuses to admit that he did not help save his family, even though he knows that his wife knows that he didn’t. Oh, says Gottschall, scratching his neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard. Ebba points out that the man is neither stoic, tough, brave or strong. “Ah, but his wife expects him to be!” Gottschall says. “That was my point!” Ebba says No, the wife tries to get him to admit what happened and not be ashamed – something that would show real strength – but he doesn’t. In the final scene, the wife goes outside to stand in a snow drift, telling her children to tell their father to come out and rescue her. They do, he does, and – ta da! – he believes in himself again, his bravery restored. I’m reminded of a woman I knew once who always pretended she couldn’t open the pickle drawer so her husband would feel h fragile ego by asking him to open the pickle jar. “Oh,” says Gottschall with more scratching, “I had forgotten that scene.” He forgot the way the movie that encapsulates his philosophy ended? That pretty much explains why Gottschall deserves to remain an adjunct for life. Ebba tells him the world is not post-masculine. The world is full of men and women. Men need to start talking to women instead of saying, I am a man. I have my man’s world and then I married this woman and so my man’s world has to deal with her not being part of it.

The bizarre session ends with Gottschall and Eia MMA-wrestling on the floor as audience members, mainly women, jump up to capture the fun on their smartphones, and Gotschall announcing that his next book is about porn. Well, a guy’s gotta make a living.

22.00 I sit down to write this, listening to the North Norwegian artist Moddi singing from his collection of banned songs. My only objection to his project is that the title Unsongs doesn’t make sense. Unsung would have been a more apt title for prohibited songs he has collected from around the world. His scratchy, fragile voice breaks through the dark rooms of the library, long shadows cast by shelves full of sleeping books.



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