Eight months of snow and darkness. You go crazy!

Conversation with Greenlandic author Ole Korneliussen

Ole Korneliussen tells about the Dutch translation of his collection of short stories 'Qivittoq. Stories from Greenland', which was presented during the second Kaffemik on Sunday the 7th of February 2010.


ole korneliussen - Jans Possel

Greenlandic writer Ole Korneliussen smokes a cigarette before the start of the second Kaffemik at Mediamatic Bank on Sunday the 7th of February. While standing with his back turned to the Mediamatic building he looks at the cars, cyclists and pedestrians who are passing by. Is he looking for new inspiration? Today he will present the Dutch translation of his collection of short stories, ‘Qivittoq. Verhalen uit Groenland' ('Qivittoq. Stories from Greenland’). The stories in this book, originally written in Greenlandic and published in Danish in 1998, are translated into strong, powerful Dutch sentences by Tekke Terpstra, who interviews the author during the Kaffemik. After the Kaffemik Korneliussen and Terpstra have time to be interviewed for the Mediamatic website.

Korneliussen (1947) was born in Greenland and spend his childhood with his uncle and his aunt. He studied medicine but never graduated. In the meantime he wrote poems and entered a writing contest, for which he wrote the short, dark story ‘When it snows while the sun shines’ (1987). He won the contest and got a scholarship from the Danish government for three years. Today he is one of Greenland’s most important writers, although he has already lived in Copenhagen for 40 years.

Korneliussen looks and writes like the modern Western writer who is disillusioned with the ‘condition humane’, but when he talks he makes ironic jokes, which are often not understandable for somebody who doesn’t speak Danish.

Before you became a writer you studied medicine. How did you earn your money?
‘I was so lucky that my wife had a job with the government, so every month we had enough money. We made a deal: my wife paid the fixed costs and I did all the extra costs. And that’s how it still goes. But soon she is going to be retired, so then it’s going to be different.’ (laughs)

When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?
‘Never. I was always a good reader. I grew up with my uncle and my mother’s sister, and they had no children. They didn’t know how to deal with children, so it was sometimes really hard for me to live with them. At the same time I learned Danish at school, so I escaped from the world I lived in by reading Danish literature.’

Was that what literature meant for you: an escape from reality?
‘In the Greenlandic tradition it depends on the circumstances how a story is told. For example in the winter, when the people didn’t go outside because of the bad weather, fantastic stories about the summer were told. When people didn't catch any fish or seals, they told each other stories about everything they had caught in the past. So it was a flight from reality, a dreaming about better times. In the (recent) past or in the future.’

What is your place in the Greenlandic literary tradition?
‘The written literature in Greenland is very new, 300 years old. It is still fighting with the oral traditions. A traditional writer in Greenland writes down other people's stories. I want to go my own way and write only about the period in which I lived. Release stories from the tongue to the paper.’

Your stories are about everyday life and everyday worries. The personages discuss the extreme weather, think about their broken marriages and spend the day with their unknown children. How autobiographic are your stories?
‘I think 30 percent is about myself, the rest is fantasy. And I heard stories from others, snapshots from life. I like to sit in the pub and to listen to people talking. I remember one time in Norway, two days after the municipal elections, I was sitting in the cafeteria and two old guys talked about the private affaires between the candidates. I just came from Greenland, where I spend the whole summer, so my face was very dark. They thought I came from China or Japan and that I couldn’t understand them. But I made the mistake to pick up a local newspaper, and suddenly they stopped talking. In Denmark I use the same technique: sitting in the corner and listen, like a spy.’

Your first story, ‘When it snows while the sun shines’ (1987), is about suicide. Where did you get that idea from?
‘The sixties, seventies and eighties were a very frustrating period in Greenland’s history. People had the feeling that all the things were decided in Copenhagen. And there was also a lot of drinking. At this time the television came to Greenland and they saw the great world around them while they were sitting in the dark. Eight months of snow and darkness, you go crazy! They saw other worlds where it was better. The suicides in Greenland were a kind of epidemic. People felt isolated.’

In 2009 self governance was introduced in Greenland. Do you see a lot of changes already?
‘The last four years I haven’t been a lot in Greenland, but the next summer I will go back. After the introduction of self governance they seem to be more proud. Before self governance they blamed the Danes for all the bad things, but now they have more self responsibility. I think that’s a very good development.’