Events happen at breakneck speed for four young queer people living and loving in Greenland’s capital
One has to understand Greenland to understand the excitement that greeted Niviaq Korneliussen’s debut when it was published there in 2014 as Homo Sapienne.
Crimson, which came out of Korneliussen’s success in a short story competition, tells the tale of four queer characters living in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. Though their ages are not specified, it’s a safe bet to assume they are in their 20s. Nuuk’s population is nearly 18,000; Greenland’s, 56,000. The novel, a slim 200 pages, is told from different points of view: Fia, who has broken up with her long-term boyfriend; Inuk, Fia’s brother and best friend of Arnaq; Sara, whom Fia falls in love with; and Ivik, Sara’s girlfriend.
Korneliussen’s exploration of LGBT lifestyles has jolted Greenland’s small literary scene. In a recent profile of her for 1843 magazine, the interviewer visited a Greenlandic bookshop and found a single wall of native literature. Most books are Danish imports, with Nordic noir particularly popular. Korneliussen’s decision to write in Greenlandic, then, was met with intrigue and celebration. She has also translated the book into Danish – a version that has been acclaimed (and on which this English version is based). Would such praise have been the outcome were it not for her age (28), the scarcity of Greenlandic fiction, and Crimson’s fresh subject matter?
The novel starts promisingly. Korneliussen is very good at capturing the fracturing of a relationship: the internal rage – often unfair – one feels towards a partner when love has died. Peter, Fia’s boyfriend, can do nothing right: Fia now shrinks from his touch. She by Niviaq Korneliussen, translated by Anna Halager, Virago, £12.99 finds his penis disgusting (a “sticky pig’s tail”); wants to punch him when he calls her “iggu”, an affectionate term similar to sweetie. Fia breaks up with Peter, but by the end of her chapter has fallen in love with Sara, with all the understatement of an avalanche.
Within 30 seconds of meeting Sara, Fia describes her as the most beautiful woman she has ever seen – “From Greenland to Africa, from Africa to the moon, from the moon to Venus, from Venus to the sun, from the sun to infinity, and from infinity back to here.” This is with no previous intimation of Fia’s same-sex orientation, and all in the space of a fag break.
The rest of the book is similar in its clumsiness. Huge life changes happen in the course of a paragraph. Fia’s brother Inuk goes from writing: “Fucking Queers Are Sick! Fucking Queers Are Subhuman! Fucking Queers Must Die!”, to stating, a few pages later: “I am into men.” Internal homophobia is a very damaging thing: it’s not usually resolved within a couple of thousand words. (Inuk also seems to have ended up in a prison in Denmark, from which he somehow casually escapes.) If this wasn’t enough, it transpires that he has been having an unrealistic affair with a high-profile public figure. Big shifts in the characters’ outlooks or personalities are suspected all along by the others. Of course you are trans! I knew! Of course you are gay! There is a personal deus ex machina in each chapter, or a revelation that is dealt with in a single sentence and never mentioned again – even when that revelation is child sexual abuse.
There are nice turns of phrase. A character’s hair is “still partying” when she looks in the mirror the morning after a night out. And Korneliussen’s descriptive passages can be lyrical. “The warm sun,” she writes, “awakens the birds, who have slept through the cold night, and they begin to sing.”
The strongest chapter is that of Ivik, Sara’s girlfriend, who narrates her internal struggles with nuance and humour. Unfortunately, this chapter precedes the final excruciating one, in which Korneliussen ends each section with a hashtagged word. These make no sense. It’s as if Korneliussen, a millennial, has never used a hashtag. A taxi ride ends with “#thetaxidriverandi”, which even your mum wouldn’t write.
The book’s examination of Greenlandic identity is interesting: how a people cope with claustrophobia, and Greenland’s past as a Danish colony (it only became self-governing in 2009 after a referendum). Danish people, on the whole, look down on Greenlanders and one character in particular struggles with his country’s postcolonial transition and his place in it. (“I hate that Greenlanders are so angry! Anger is simmering on that island!”) Crimson would be better off targeted at young adults: teens need literature that reflects their rites of passage, especially those of minorities.
To buy Crimson for £11.17 go to guardianbookshop.com.