Danish writer Dorthe Nors talked to PEN Atlas about loneliness and the urban experience, the label 'women's fiction', and her latest novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, which is nominated for the Man Booker International Prize 2017.
Interview by Theodora Danek
A term that has often been mentioned in connection to your work is ‘women’s fiction’. What do you think of the term?
I don’t like it at all. At all! I mean, they’re writers, and writers are writers, it’s not gender-based. Sometimes when you’re a female writer you get the impression that you’re not considered to be a true writer. A real writer is, of course, a man who is a bit older than fifty. That’s a real writer. This is of course something that women struggle with and we should continue to fight against. Because I’m not a female writer, I’m not a women’s writer, I write about their existence and women have an existence on an equal basis to men. Therefore, we should not be labelled by gender.
Your protagonist is often described as ‘an older woman’, but she’s just over forty – not actually that old!
She’s not even halfway into her life, because maybe she will be 90 or 100. We get older and older, so she’s just in the first half of her life. She’s a middle-aged woman. But in a man’s world, she is of course past her prime.
How has your writing books about a middle-aged woman been received?
I mean, I’m nominated for the Man Booker, which is pretty good, but apart from that I try not to read too many reviews. Most of the ones I’ve seen are extremely positive and they get the voice, they get the theme. They understand that it is about being paralysed in an existential way, and also that the book is trying to investigate the relationship between urbanism and rural life, and between the landscape and urban, modern life.
It’s interesting that it’s been perceived through a women’s lens. I guess it’s another example of how women writers are always seen as women, and men are seen as writing about the human existence in general.
Exactly. And I do think that I write about existential structures that are completely equal to those of a woman, but I choose to write with a female protagonist. I once discussed this with another writer, who is also a woman, who said that there is a tendency for women to have male protagonists in order to escape that, being labelled. And that’s just too sad. We’re full blown existences. We’re real human beings. I kind of insist on writing with a woman in front.
This is very much a novel about town versus countryside. It seems to me that there’s a lot of guilt wrapped up in your character’s approach to this issue.
Sonja is one of a generation in Denmark, and probably all over Europe and the US, that has been very urbanised, almost self-deported from the rural areas that we grew up in. In order to have status we had to urbanise ourselves. When you do that, it means that you let go of some values and some rooting and some essence of yourself that you can’t return to. It’s the whole problem of loving a place, feeling connected to a place, and then being disconnected from and unable to return to that place. And that goes for the family members that you leave behind – for the friends, the landscape – you become an estranged human being, which leads to a certain kind of solitude and loneliness.
So that loneliness exists because we’re all uprooted?
We’re disconnected and uprooted. And Sonja lives in a city where she has no family; cousins, sister, parents, all those people who make us feel grounded and connected live somewhere else. This is pretty normal for urbanites – that they’ve left family behind.
After reading your novel, I read several articles about touch deprivation, because Sonja’s only way to have a human connection that includes touch is to get a massage. That is such a striking way to encapsulate what modern loneliness is all about: that you can’t even get anyone else to touch you apart from by paying for it.
This is also a very urban thing; you’re supposed to use the relationships you have for something. You’re not just in a relationship because you like somebody, you’re in a relationship because you need something from the other person. Another aspect of the urban relationship is that you know you can be ditched. You can be fired from any kind of relationship that you’re in, and then drift on to the next one. Which makes it very frail all the time; you always have to deliver something for the relationship. In comparison, if you look at the relationships people have in traditionalist societies, I mean in villages or small communities, they don’t necessarily have to deliver anything because people are stuck with each other anyway in that environment, and that makes it less lonely. You’re less on trial every day.
It sounds like the urban relationship is like a marketplace.
It is. It is cost benefit: what can I get from this? And if you don’t get what you want from this relationship, you can just choose another relationship. You can cast out that friendship. I remember having a conversation with a woman in Copenhagen once where I actually complained about that side of urban life, that relationships weren’t that deep and they would often end at a certain point. She said, that’s the beauty of it because nothing’s fixed. If you don’t like to be caught up in something and rooted down, that is the place you’re supposed to live.
But you left Copenhagen!
I did. I lived there for several years, but then I had this international breakthrough and spent a lot of time abroad. And I thought, I’m going to get the hell out of here. When I lived in Copenhagen, I missed the landscape so incredibly; I missed being somewhere open, so I took myself out of there.
I was very amused to read that Sonja, your protagonist, is a translator, and your book is, in a sense, a send-up of the literary establishment. Does it mirror experiences that you’ve had?
Definitely. Some publishers are so commercial that they treat books like bricks. Others are very thorough, very good. I’ve been very lucky, but if you go to very big commercial houses, they treat some books as if they were… milk.