CROSSING NORTH 25: THE FAMILY CLAUSE
Jonas Hassen Khemiri: For me, fiction has always been the place where I can be much more honest than anywhere else. That's why I write fiction. I would never write a biography because I couldn't be as truthful as I am about myself and my deepest regrets and the pain that I've had in my life in a biography. I can do that in fiction. You know that Scarface quote when he's kind of drunk and high and he's kind of rambling around the— I think, yeah, like— a luxury restaurant. And he's yelling and screaming, and they’re trying to get him out. Al Pacino is just, like, at the peak of his height as an actor. And the waiters are, “You have to go.” And he looks around, and all these kind of rich, bourgeois people, and he tells them, like, “You're all liars. You're all liars. [*pauses*] Me? I'm always honest. I'm always honest.” And then just before he leaves he turns around, “Even when I lie.”
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Colin Gioia Connors: Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.
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Jonas Hassen Khemiri is one of the most prominent voices in contemporary Swedish literature. He is the author of five novels, seven plays, and a collection of plays, essays, and short stories. His novels have been translated into more than 30 languages and have won him numerous accolades, including Sweden’s most prestigious literary award, the August Prize, and France’s most prestigious award for translated fiction, the Prix Médicis Étranger. His plays have been performed by more than one hundred theater companies around the world, and his play Invasion! won an OBIE Award for best script in 2011. In addition to his literary work, Jonas is also an influential public intellectual in Sweden and regularly contributes newspaper articles and editorials about culture and politics. His “Open Letter to Beatrice Ask,” in which he shared his experience of being racially profiled by the police, became the most shared and linked text in Swedish history when he published it in 2013. Jonas Khemiri has been writing about what it’s like to be a Swede of color for the past twenty years, and his novels, plays, and non-fiction humorously yet unsentimentally challenge associations of Swedishness with whiteness that continue to figure prominently in discourses of national identity in the Nordic and Baltic countries.
In 2021, Jonas moved to New York for a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, and he is currently teaching in the creative writing program at New York University. In the fall of 2022, Jonas visited the University of Washington, and we sat down in the studio to discuss his latest novel, The Family Clause.
Jonas: So my name is Jonas Hassen Khemiri. I'm a fiction writer. I am teaching in the creative writing department at NYU and I moved to the United States one year ago.
Amanda Doxtater: My name is Amanda Doxtater and I am the Barbara Osher Endowed Chair of Swedish Studies here at the University of Washington.
Karin Filipsson: My name is Karin Filipsson and I'm a PhD student and I teach Swedish at the Department of Scandinavian Studies.
Colin: Take it away, Karin.
Karin: Okay. We are so happy to have you here. And we wanted to talk a little bit about your writing process in general and in particular about the book, The Family Clause or Pappaklausulen as it's called in Swedish, and maybe we can start with the writing process: Can you describe your writing process from an idea and how it becomes a finished work?
Jonas: So with this particular project, I had a longer book in mind that I was working on. That has often been the case with my creative journey that I kind of, I need some kind of placeholder to keep my fingers moving on the keyboard. Because I know that if I stop moving them, things will turn out poorly. So I just invent a reason to come to work every morning, basically, and I was writing something that I knew wasn't really the thing I wanted to write, but I just… I was just cranking out those words. And then one day in kind of in in a frustrated state of feeling that it didn't have the life, this project didn't have the life in it that I wanted it to have, I, you know, to be very concrete, like, just did, like, open up a new document. And I wrote this sentence that became the first sentence of the book, which is: ”A father who is a grandfather returns to the country he's never left.” And I just thought that was weird. That the father was a father and a grandfather. And it's so hard to return to a country that you never left. So apparently that seemed to be important for this character. And then I just spent one page, two pages, three pages, ten pages, twenty pages with this character, and it just became obvious to me that I really wanted to understand him in all of his… idiosyncrasies? How do you say that?
Jonas: Idiosyncrasies, thank you. And all of his, kind of, the security he has about— he's one of those characters who is fascinating because he knows he is just the best person that has ever lived, but he's so lonely that he doesn't have someone to tell that to. So I became curious about him. I became curious about his family relations. I became curious as to why he was this isolated. And then through him, I got to know a number of characters surrounding him. So we have the father, the son, the sisters—the sisters. So these are the, kind of, three main characters in the novel. And it became obvious to me that when I spent time with this family constellation that there was just so much life in them that the project that I worked on earlier just had to… not die because it never really lived. But I had to, kind of, put it in this cemetery of projects that were pre-projects, that's how I think of them as. Like, when I was younger, earlier on in my career, I remember thinking of all those projects that never, kind of, that were never published, I just remember thinking of them as kind of like proof that I'm not as talented as I want to be. You know, that kind of thing, and that was not very helpful. So now I just think of them as scaffolding, kind of the thing I needed to get out in order to start this particular project, and then writing The Family Clause was such a joy. So the whole book takes place over 10 days where we basically spend time in this family, where the father, and the sister, and the son, they've all been that tied together due to their love for each other, but they have a hard time spending time with each other. So that was kind of how the book came to be.
Karin: Why did you choose the time frame of these 10 days?
Jonas: Well, actually all of my creative projects have been very helped with a really clear time structure. And that's something that comes up often both in workshop and in craft when I teach at NYU. Like, when we're in a creative flow or creating a world, what kind of tools can we use to kind of get the necessary freedom we need to imagine things? And one thing that I've found helpful is to be very, very concrete about time. So for example, my first book took place— for a long time, I was a little bit, I was a little bit unsure about the timing, but then as soon as I sat down and said, “No, this is— everything that takes place in this character's life takes place over six months. This is a fall semester.” And then that established the necessary time frame that made it possible for me to imagine. Actually with every project there has been this moment of me sitting down and kind of establishing a firm grip on time. So the second novel, Montecore, all the time is a little bit more vast because it's— I'm writing, basically, my father's life through the perspective of an invented friend of his. But again, like, the time framing is a life, and that was enormously helpful. Everything I Don’t Remember, a novel where I write the story of a friend that passed away. I— one of the focuses was, “What happens if I tried to capture his last twenty-four hours alive?” So when writing The Family Clause I had this impulse, “Well, I have to write the past and the future, and I have to, you know, spend at least forty-five years with this family in order to get to know them.” And then it becomes impossible because everything is possible. But the moment I sat down and said, “No, the whole book takes place over the course of ten days when the father who has never left returns and he returns to Sweden.” He lives abroad and during those ten days he is in desperate need of help from his adult children who are now, have children of their own. And the big shift is in the novel is that these now adults all of a sudden refused to— They, they don't want to help him anymore, or especially the son has, kind of, he has kind of a mathematical mind. So he has kind of calculated the years that the father was a father to him. And now he says that he has been fathering his father for such a long time, so that now he needs to free himself of that. He wants to renegotiate the family clause, which is, I think possible but quite tricky. They want to change the power dynamics in the family, and then during these ten days they try to do that and they kind of, almost, I'm not sure they succeed, but towards the end at least they understand each other a little bit better. And just to have that time frame—ten days—made it possible for me to move around freely in time and space, and that became so much more enjoyable.
Amanda: Is there some aspect of sort of compulsion that you're exploring with the family? Maybe compulsion is the wrong word, but it's like plikt or obligation or like this— It's such an interesting term, It's almost like a legal contract. How did you come up with sort of that Idea to work with these relationships?
Jonas: Well, it sounds like a legal term in a way, like, the family— it's, it sounds like something strict and something that you can't negotiate. Like if I was buying, if I'm buying something from you and there's a clause. If I put my signature on it, it's hard for me to renegotiate that because you could just keep quoting that clause, and— And this is old theory, that good titles always have some kind of internal contradiction, you know, [*sarcastically whispers*] The Democratic Terrorist, or like that kind of thing. For me, this was one of those titles because we have the family, which is, in a way, that one thing where we shouldn't need clauses, right? We're always there for our family, no matter what happens. We will take care of our kids and we will take care of our parents. That's the deal, right? But what happens if someone has been kind of a mediocre parent? Is there any leaving? Can we forgive a child for trying to not be there for that parent? [*pauses*] I'm not sure of the answer, but I think that many of my books start with the question that I don't know the answer to, and then I spend twenty or fifty pages [*pauses*] not answering that question [*laughs*] and then coming out on the other side, understanding everyone a little bit better. And that's also, I think, that's also one one of the many reasons why I write because. Starting out writing this book, I remember thinking like, [*whispers fervently*] “Yeah, now it's time for the son's perspective to win!” [*laughs*] You know, like, I was fully invested in, like, this is the son's revenge. And— but when you spend time in the head of someone who's isolated and lonely and has a body that is decaying—and now I am speaking of the father's character—it's hard not to kind of, even though you don't want to, you start to understand that character. So I think that's also one of the beautiful things about writing. And of course, needless to say, reading, is that you, when you spend enough time in the presence of someone, at least if they are written with detail and tenderness, you start to change. Like, your perspective of them starts to change your— you start to care for them a little bit like you start caring for your— for people in your real family. I mean, it sounds like I hate my family. [*laughs*] I love my family! But there are a number of people in my family where, just like, I really care for them because we've been around for a long time. And there's also something to that, that you can, you know— that you're linked and the renegotiation of those relationships is just tricky.
Karin: I wanted to continue on that ideal transactions in relationships and ask you about the significance of economic transactions, money, love, if this is another area that you wanted to explore in addition to parenthood and fatherhood in this book?
Jonas: Yeah, so when I was young, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I studied both economics and literature. And when I studied literature my soul expanded; when I studied economics I [*slowly*] very slowly imploded [*laughs*] or died. I just felt like I couldn't do that and be myself, but I'm still extremely fascinated by economics. Like, the transactional nature of relationships and how we can write interestingly about money, to be concrete about money, and how contemporary capitalism kind of seeps into every relationship we have. In my teaching, I realized that oftentimes students are a little bit afraid of putting money into their stories. Just the other day, I did an exercise with my students where we tried to make sense of why a story matters, you know, and we kind of drew a triangle with, like, Death, Love and Money. And we tried to, I tried to tell them that if a story doesn't work, you could actually, almost like a surgeon—if a surgeon puts things into people's bodies? [*laughs*] I don't know if a surgeon does that, but…
Amanda: [*laughing* ]They do that, they do that.
Jonas: [*laughs*] They do that. So if you're a literary surgeon and you put things into a body, like, if a story is— if you have a story that isn't moving the right way, or it is not reading at all, like, you can just like inject money into it and see what happens, like [*makes a slurping noise*] No, that's the sound of sucking something out? [*laughs*] I guess I just, like, it like, it introduces limited resources and especially if you do it, like, we use this famous and brilliant text by Lorrie Moore, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” and we explored how she writes about money, love, and, kind of, the how she makes all of these, how she makes us remember as readers that you can't isolate money from love. You can't isolate it from death. And I think since a lot of the stories I love do that, it tends to pop up in my writing. So for example, in The Family Clause we have a number of people who kind of, just, the economics seems to be kind of complicating things between them. And just to give you, like, a concrete example, we have the father who thinks that the son basically has been paying for the father's coffee since forever. Every time they go to a cafe, the son is always kind of responsible for paying. And the son is like, “No, that's not how we do it anymore. This time it will change.” But from the father's perspective, he thinks that he gives the son the opportunity to pay for him. What a beautiful way to show the son that he is now an adult. He would never want to pay for the son because he wants to show the son that he's an adult. And you know, it's ultimately— it's a conflict about what, like, how much is a coffee, like, three? —maybe not three dollars anymore—[*laughs*] But like eight dollars [*laughter*] in New York. [*shouts in sarcastic alarm*] Twelve dollars! [*laughs*] I mean, like, it's nothing but it's everything because when you write about a family, a family has a past. Those five dollars for coffee become something else when the son says, “Please pay this coffee for me.” He's not talking about the coffee. He's not talking about the five dollars. I mean, if you translate it into his emotional, what he's saying emotionally is— “Why can't you pay for coffee” means “Why did you leave.” Like, “Why didn't you take care of me? Why weren't you there for me?” So the question of coffee is of course not the question of coffee. It's a.question of love.
Amanda: I think you do that so, so beautifully in this book. Or, one of the things that is so beautiful about this book is the way that you can show both sides of a miscommunication. And we have sympathy, and I'm thinking of, like the, you know, these two parents about, like, “Look, I did all of these things and you should appreciate that.” And, “Look at I've done all of these things and you should appreciate that.” And there's like this misconnection, but you sort of have sympathy for either. And I feel like that does a lot to expand the possibility of understanding somebody else's experience. [*pauses*] So, thank you? [*laughs*]
Jonas: Yeah, no. I'm super fascinated by how you can kind of force a reader into understanding both sides of an argument, I guess. And there's a lot of conflict in my stories [*laughs*]. And in a way it's much easier for you as a reader if you have a villain. It's much easier if I can point to one bad guy who does— you know, who's responsible for everything that happens. But in this particular relationship, we have two contemporary parents who are trying the best to be around for the kids and both of them have experiences where their parents haven't been around always. So what happens in one of those relationships? Well, in my experience, if you had the experience of one parent not being present, it’s easy when you become a parent to think that the perfect parent has to be present 100% of the time. And if you link 100% of the presence to being a good parent, you kind of forbid yourself the honesty of [*quietly*] sometimes feeling that parenthood sucks? Sometimes you feel that. And that's OK. But these these two for them, it's like that idea, especially for the son who's, like, trying his best to be a perfect parent and also, kind of, is really good at documenting every time he's a good parent because he wants the applause of the world. [*laughter*] “Do you see what a good parent I am?” That is something that, you know, you think that you— I think he thinks that he is breaking a curse of the past. You know, he's kind of, “I am not the dad that I had.” But the interesting thing is when you live your whole life trying not to be something, you're still in the shadow of that. You know, he's still not free. You know, when he's like, desperately trying to take selfies every time he's in, like, a slide with his kids to show it to someone—his wife? himself? the future? his future self?—that he was around. He's not present. So in a way that's also [*pauses*] sad that he's not present and he's not free either. You know, you think that that's freedom to do the opposite of what you've been taught, but you're still living in the shadow of who you desperately try not to be. So I think that where the understanding comes in as well, that I think towards the end of the book, the son and the father— you know, of course I wanted them to, like, huddle up in one big group hug and be like, “I forgive you. I forgive you. Let's be friends. Let’s— [*shouts in jest*] I pay for your coffee!” [*laughter*] But ultimately that doesn't happen. But towards the end of the book, the son drives the father to the airport, waves him off, and I think both of them understand each other maybe 2% better. And that, you know, you can say that that's nothing. They— but that's also everything. If you start understanding someone 1 1/2% more, exponentially after a few years, that could actually change. So that was also interesting to kind of resist the impulse to put them, like, in a beautiful romantic sunset, but at the same time, be honest with the, actually you know, you be honest with the reader and myself that a small change is possible and a small change can change everything in the long run.
Karin: What's the significance of the names, or the lack of names—the absence of names—in the book, and what were you thinking behind the decision to not name the characters, only to describe them as “the son who is also a father?”
Jonas: Yeah. So all of the characters, they are named according to their relationship in the family. So the son is the son and the sister is the sister and the father is the father. But he's also a grandfather, and the son is also a father, and the sister is also a mother. In the beginning it was just the way, to be brutally honest, they— that's how they appeared. They resisted the names. I kind of tried to give them names and they were like, “Naw. I don't. No, I don't want that name.” And I, you know, one— the theoretical reason I guess is because we're all kind of defined by how we— who we are in a family and, kind of, how I know that I'm very much a dad to my kids until my father steps into the room and then very quickly I become the son of my father. So that was an interesting thing. Like, how do I capture that on the page? I think it’s also— maybe it gives the story some kind of saga quality as well. You know, there's something about just the son, the mother, the sister, and we keep seeing them change. So for example, one thing that happens is that the sister questions her— if she is a mother, because her son has, kind of, left her. You know, at some point, the son has decided that he wants to go and live with the father instead of with her. And that's something that happened to a person in my, [*pauses*] yeah, in my life. And I just saw how painful that was to have your own flesh and blood, kind of, deny you. As a parent, that was very painful. So I knew that would pop up sometime in my writing. So the sister walks around like she is a mother, but she questions her, I guess, right to call herself that. So, those were one of the emotional movements that I wanted to follow throughout the book to see— to see what would happen in the relationship. And when you're writing, it's like reading. I didn't know if the son would actually reappear— I didn't know if they would stay in contact. I didn't know what would happen when—spoiler alert [*laughter*]—when they started speaking again. I was really happy, yeah.
Colin: [*laughs*] I’m just so amused by your description of finding out who your characters are when you are the author.
Jonas: Yeah, but you know, if you know too well, they don't— they don't want to hang out with you. Yeah, that's my experience. Like, if I'm controlling them too well, or if I know what they're about— I don't know. They just won't respond. And one of the beautiful things of having done this now for almost twenty years is that I know when I'm trying to, kind of, force a character to move or to speak. And I know when they take over, and it's such a big difference. And the moment they take over, it's— the writing process moves from being, kind of, this image of a, kind of, squeezing water out of a stone. You know, a very [*groans*] meticulous and painful process to— [*laughs*] What is the opposite of squeezing water out of a stone, [*laughter*] like grabbing onto a wind?
Amanda: Like a surgeon putting a…[*laughs*].
Jonas: [*laughs*] Yeah, like a surgeon. Do I feel like a surgeon with a battery pack? [*laughter*] No, no. But like, it's a completely different emotion and it's much closer to reading than writing because all of this— all of a sudden, the “Excel sheet,” your plans, your plot lines, the characters look at you and go like, “I'm not going to do that now. Because you created me, but then you have to let me go. And I'll show you where we're going.” Like, “I'm not going to forgive this character. Now, I'm going to go here now. But you have to trust me enough to follow.” And early on in my career when that happened, I think I was a little bit afraid of the lack of control. So I was, you know, I would, kind of you know, kind of, pull them back into my symbolic Excel sheet and be like, “No, but I planned this on page 23. You have to change, [*laughs*] you know. On page 26, I have this new outfit for you.” Like, “You have to come back.” And I think if anything, if I learn anything of this process of, like, being a creative person for so many years, it's that I'm more OK now when they take over the reading—umm, Freudian slip—the writing of them has also become much more enjoyable. I'm a much happier writer now than when I published my first book.
Amanda: Can I pick up just very quickly on that Freudian slip about reading? Because in one of the things that I wanted to ask you about was, and I think it was your sommarprat in Swedish on Swedish radio, you talked— you tell this story about how you— how reading should be dangerous and about how you, when you were younger, going up to the library and, like, discovering a whole ‘nother floor of reading— of books that could destroy you. So what did you mean by “writing should [be dangerous]”— and do you still feel like that? that writing should— or reading— excuse me, my Freudian slip—that reading should be dangerous, or?
Jonas: Well, when I spoke about that, I think that one of the— [*pauses*] So I discovered reading— [*pauses*] I don't want to say I discovered books on my own because that's not true and I had— So I grew up in a family where libraries and books were really appreciated, and kind of what we did during the summer— and we were, we had like a— my grandmother had a house down on the west coast, and we went to our local library with actual, like, IKEA bags. That's what we did, like, in the rental car, went to the library, and then we just, I just piled comics in there and I piled, like, Astrid Lindgren, and just went on a reading binge. So. But what I think I discovered on my own was, kind of like— my parents never instructed me what to read. They never controlled that. And when I entered, you know, when I left the comic section and, kind of, moved towards the adult section, I was free. And I was reading things that I— you know, I shouldn't be reading American Psycho at that age. That was not good for me [*laughs*] or for my mental stability, I guess. But like, there was also something about like, “Wow, I could really hurt myself here.” Like, this is not— this is not a place where like, if I read the wrong things, my mind will not be the same afterwards. So in terms of danger, I think that one of the— you know, a crappy book with one-dimensional characters is always a crappy book. That's— I don't think, like, to put yourself through the violence of bad books is necessary for your growth as a person. But I think that it's interesting to put yourself in the presence of ideas that you don't agree with and to see that you're still around afterwards. You know, I don't agree with a lot of things that are being told in certain books. But I'm still here. And I think that it could actually be helpful for your self-image to realize that you can be in the presence of views that you think are despicable and you can still, hopefully, come out breathing on the other side. I think it's also important to, kind of— I remember being at a literary festival and I heard a writer who— she talked, she said like this, that she was from a working class background and she said, “I'm always proud when I mispronounce the names of famous writers.” And I remember the moderator going like, “Uhh yeah, but please tell me more. [*laughs*] I need to understand.” And what she said was, “Well, I discovered these books and these famous writers on my own. So nobody, like, sat around the table in my home and talked about, like, Faulkner, Perec, or Duras, or like Calvino. That was not what people were talking about. So I discovered them on my own, so I didn't know how to pronounce, like, Calvino, or like— these were people who I found in the library. So every time I mispronounce their names, it just means that I found them on my own. Like, parts of them are actually— like, they're my discoveries.” And I thought that was beautiful. You could also turn that around, that you can kind of— that we don't have to be so afraid for, kind of, making mistakes or or taking these potentially dangerous books, and making them our own. I remember in school I read Dostoyevsky once, and my teachers said— [*pauses*] you know, I kind of, I've thought that— this is going to sound horrible, but I thought that the ending in Crime and Punishment was just kind of Hollywood. I was just like, that's not— this is, this is silly! [*laughter*] And the teacher was just like, “Yeah, why don't you write him a letter?” And I was just like, “Well, he's Russian. And dead.” And my teacher was like, “Yeah, you could still write him a letter. Like, he's— you can write him.”
Amanda: That's a great idea.
Jonas: Yeah, and it was such an interesting way to, kind of, to bring him down to, like you know, not look up on him, but like, bring him down to— you know, he's not my equal. But I could write him a letter and I could go— It was just interesting to formulate, like, how do I say hi to Dostoyevsky? [*laughs*] You know, like, “Dear— Dear Dosto, [*laughs*] what’s up?” [*laughter*]
Amanda: “Dear Fyodor…” [*laughs*]
Jonas: Yeah, “Dear Fyodor…” Yeah. And— and in writing him—like, I actually did it, I wrote it in my diary, but I wrote it to him— in writing it, I also realized that I could learn a lot from formulating why I didn't think the ending worked, but I also realized how much better the book was when I started thinking about it more deeply. So I think that was also an interesting process, that we can be exposed to things that we're not 100% convinced by, but they can still teach us things.
Karin: I want to ask something about genre if it’s okay. You are mainly a novelist, and you are a playwright, and in some of your books you played with the idea of autobiographical elements, like, you've used your own name before, and as characters, in Montecore. Have you thought about other genres like autobiography or fiction? —thinking about the Knausgård success, just to measure your thoughts about that a little bit, or how much you want to say about it.
Jonas: So I've always thought that the idea of autofiction is a little bit simplified. And if we're going to talk about, like, what autofiction is, you know, it's such an— it's a term that is being thrown around a lot. And if we have like three ingredients: we have the real names, we have the proximity to life, right— We kind of know that Knausgård has a life similar to what he's writing on. And then there's this third component of, like, uncertainty. Like, is it really true or is it kind of true? But a lot of amazing books from the past do exactly that. Like Calvino that I talked about earlier did that. I mean, Cervantes does that and— like Don Quixote. Like, there's a number of these elements where you would think that this character actually existed in real life, and I— that's true that I've been playing around with that a lot. I use a lot of my own life in my writing, and sometimes I use my own names. Sometimes I don't. But for me, fiction has always been the place where I can be much more honest than anywhere else. That's why I write fiction. I would never write a biography because I couldn't be as truthful as I am about myself and my deepest regrets and the pain that I've had in my life in a biography. I can do that in fiction. You know that Scarface quote when he's kind of drunk and high and he's kind of rambling around the— I think, yeah, like— a luxury restaurant. And he's yelling and screaming, and they’re trying to get him out. Al Pacino is just, like, at the peak of his height as an actor. And the waiters are, “You have to go.” And he looks around, and all these kind of rich, bourgeois people, and he tells them, like, “You're all liars. You're all liars. [*pauses*] Me? I'm always honest. I'm always honest.” And then just before he leaves he turns around, “Even when I lie.” [*laughter*] And I think that's kind of what fiction can do to us. Like, we could— It's a place where we can actually be much more honest than we can be, you know, with our colleagues or when we're— [*laughs*] when we're doing interviews, you know? [*laughter*] Like, there's something that we could just do in fiction that we can't do in real life. And that's what I tell my students all the time. Like, think about the things that you have a hard time speaking about. [*pauses*] And you write that, and see what happens. It doesn't mean— it doesn't have to be autobiographically true. You don't have to mention, you know— need to use the names of your siblings in there. You don't need to do that. But there are a number of things that we can't express in real life. And when you— when we write about them, they become almost magically charged with something. It doesn't mean, you know, going out on, like, a revenge spree and just like, writing— that's not what I'm talking about. But there are a number of things that are considered off limits and like, it could be helpful to write about them. Money is one of those. It's definitely one of those things that are a big part of our everyday life, our everyday struggles, our everyday worries. But for some reason, a lot of people are a bit hesitant to put money into their work.
Karin: The last taboo, maybe.
Jonas: Yeah. I mean, it's one of those things that— it's just fascinating why we can't talk about that particular— And I sometimes, I tell my students like, if you think about— we did this exercise a few weeks ago where I told them to, kind of, explore with every person that they're close to, there's at least three things that they don't talk about. And that's the people that they love. Like, if I— every person I know, there are a number of things that I couldn't tell them. And that doesn't mean that I should call them up after this Interview and go like, “Hey. It's me. [*aggressively*] This is what I think about your wife!” [*laughter*] Like, that would be terrible! But I mean like there's— I think this is, it's a really— it's interesting to think about why I don't say those things and what would happen if I explore them in my writing. You know, to fill those silences with the words is one— I think that's also one of the reasons why we write. We can be people in our fiction that we can't be in real life.
Karin: Did you feel the responsibility incorporating— well, how should I phrase this? You said that this book, you incorporate some autobiographical elements, and, from your own life, and you became a father and you're writing about the family. Do you feel like it's maybe also a safe space when it's fiction because you can kind of explore in terms of your own life, but also use other characters, so it's like…
Jonas: Yeah, I guess one of the beautiful things about writing fiction— Also, you often think that something that you kept hidden for years when it comes out, it's going to be, you know— the world will collide or implode. But once it's out, you realize that that's the thing that people relate to. And kind of, one of those to be, like, concrete, one of those things was like— In my personal family we have a similar story as the family in The Family Clause there. My father had a daughter before I was born and so I had a half sister. Like she was part of our family, but she was not. She was living in another country, and so when she came to visit she was very much part of our family. When she left, it was a little bit surrounded with shame or guilt. Like, she wasn't really mentioned when she wasn't around. And when she turned up, then she was part of our family. I just remember that as being a bit weird when I was young. Kind of like, so she's my sister and she kind of she looked very similar to me. So we had— It felt like I had a visitor from the future. Because she looked like me, you know? And then she disappeared and she was gone. And I can't go into specifics, but her life didn’t really— Like, she had a complicated life. And I think that that was one of the things that I knew in the book that, “Oh, I think there is a sister.” And in the book, the sister is dead. And I knew that she would turn up at some point. And I was just, “Oh, this is going to be painful. [*sighs*] And I know she's going to turn up. And I know that she's going to be really, really angry about having been left by the dad.” I just knew that— I thought she would kind of enter the book and set the book on fire. And the weird thing is that she enters just in the middle of the book [*pauses*] and she's very kind and very forgiving. Like, she's dead, but she has a body, a see-through body, and she's a ghost-like figure. And the weird thing is that she's the only person who actually seems to be taking care of the dad, or actually cares for him and kind of helps him up from a train track when he needs help. And we're not really sure if she's only in the, you know, the imaginary version that the father sees. But there was something about her ability to forgive that I think helped me as well. If she can forgive, then I should be able to forgive. So I think that was just something that I— for many, many years, I just felt that, “Well, I know that I can write about certain things, but I— I can never mention that thing about the sister.” Now I'm here in Seattle talking about it. The world seems to be existing even though I wrote about it [*laughter*] and it's— I remember sometimes, I think was Bodil Malmsten, Swedish poet and writer. I think she said something about the fact that every time she wrote something where she thought she would reach people it just didn't work. And then every time she wrote something about, like, sitting alone in the woods naked on a stone, screaming, every reader was just like, “Yeah, I know the feeling.” [*laughter*] And yeah, there is something to that. Also that when we write about the things that we think no one will recognize, all of a sudden, everyone seems to be—
Karin: It's the connection, the humanity, human condition.
Jonas: Yeah, but again, also like, I think there's a certain energy in the things that we think we need to keep hidden. You know, for Bodil Malmsten that with sitting alone naked on a stone screaming, that was what she thought she needed to keep hidden. And when she wrote it, like, a lot of readers went, “Yeah, I do that too.” Or at least maybe I don't sit on the same stone. Maybe I don't get fully naked. Maybe I don't scream. I squeal. Maybe I don't dare to go out into the forest— But I can really relate to the feeling of, like, missing that stone, you know, metaphorical stone, of course.
Karin: And I wanted to ask about the role of humor as a tool, especially, actually as a tool for healing, I think, between some of the characters in the family. Especially at the end, you mentioned when the son drives the father to the airport and he said something like he's going to get his revenge and write about it. And then the father said, “Yeah, write about you throwing me out on the street.” [*laughter*] Like, they still have that kind of sense of humor. And how is that an important part of healing or a strategy in the book?
Jonas: I don't know if it's a strategy as much as a kind of truth— truth compass. Like, who would I be if I denied the fact that humor is a part of life? What kind of— like, I— To this day I've never been to a funeral where I haven't laughed at some point. I've always been crying and then all of a sudden someone makes a weird joke and the relief of just like, “Yeah, there's also that thing.” “We're going to miss her forever, but do you remember her teeth? Ha ha ha ha.” [*laughs*] Like, maybe not specifically her teeth. But like there's always that, you know, that moment when you cry so much, you have to just laugh about something, whatever it is. And it's not a strategy, it's more— Well, it's also part of life. And I think when I was younger, I had more of a thing where I introduced jokes as a way to keep the reader with me, or more strategically. Now I think I do that less and I'm more in— I'm much less interested in that way of making people laugh because I think there's also, of course, a risk that it becomes mechanical and then you kind of become just— [*pauses*] It interests me less. But when it's there as a tool to remind the reader that this comes from life. I think it works really well.
Karin: And the characters, definitely. I feel like it helps them sometimes in their relationships to heal.
Jonas: Yeah. Yeah, that's— I think that's a beautiful of putting it, like, healing through humor. I think that there is some— I mean when we laugh it's also something similar to almost like a bodily— it's kind of a weird bodily thing, like, [*pauses*] like it's almost like a sneeze. We can't kind of not do it. And it's such a relief when it happens. And then, especially when I write plays, I'm fascinated by like, to get the right kind of laughter. And that's often my prompt to— when I go to see a run through, I go to the director afterwards and I'm just like, “Yeah, you got the laughter, but they were too happy. Like, it was— you need to make that laughter a little bit more like [*in a strained voice*] ‘ha ha!’” [*laughs*] You know, I don't know how to say it. Like, is there a way that we can make them laugh and then like four or five seconds afterwards ask themselves “Why am I laughing? This is not funny.”
Amanda: Yeah, “Should I have laughed?”
Jonas: Yeah, “Should I have laughed.” Like, that laughter is really— Yeah, I get a kick out of that laughter.
Amanda: [*laughs*] That’s devious.
Jonas: Yeah, but I mean like that— I mean, just because I enjoy that as, again, like as a reader, as a spectator, I love when I'm kind of like, [*laughs and gasps*] “Wait, what?” That was— How could— like, how could I just have laughed at that? That's also, I guess, a complicated laughter, as well.
Karin: Some people might think that the father in the story— I mean, the characters don't have any names, we don't know much about their background or their ethnicity, or we just know that he comes and goes from a different country. So it's part of the story or part of what you wanted to tell, some part of it about the father's sense of belonging and not belonging to this country. And would you want to say something about how much that was part of your writing and your purpose of the book?”
Jonas: Yeah, like the fact that we, we know that he comes from a country that where there has been a revolution and that power seems to be concentrated to a few people with big [*pauses*] army-belonging generals and there are a number of those kind of references. But why aren't the names named—like, the country names? Well, one reason is if you write about certain political issues in certain countries, there are consequences. So that's one reason. Another reason is just to be blunt about it. I kind of like the idea that you could think that the father lived, kind of, anywhere in the world, I kind of like that. But I think the real reason is that it's complicated to mention certain things. You're free as long as you don't say a specific place name.
Karin: Do you feel like the children, the son and the daughter of the father, are still living with this kind of experience of having these fathers? Maybe not traumatic background, but he has been through some things and is that something that you wanted to also comment on with this book, how it is to be growing up as the children of…?
Jonas: Yeah, it's never really— Like, you could play around with this book and kind of say like, what kind of reading— what kind of book would it become if we said that the father was born and raised in Sweden and now he's just a Swede living in Thailand? Like, I think it would be— it would involve to put a lot of pressure on the book. I'm not sure that that reading would be 100%, like, accurate. I think one of the reasons why the son and the sister in the book— why they're so obsessed with behaving properly and kind of being the perfect parent— that is also linked to how they've been seen by society. And they know the consequences of being externalized and discriminated against. So I think that that's also an important part in understanding who they are.
Karin: I love the fact that they are anonymous because— and the simplicity of their characterizations as the rules in their family— instead of making them feel more distant, I feel like it draws you closer as you as a reader, because you can put yourself in their shoes more easily. So I think that's a wonderful part of the story that they're so anonymous and can speak to anybody.
Amanda: As long as we're just talking about things that we love, I love the baby perspective. Like, the perspective of this, like, child, and I love the moments when, you know, it's all about family and family relations. But like, I love the intergenerational moments with the father and the grandchild, especially this very tense moment in the book. Seeing the two of them together was really… beautiful.
Jonas: Thank you for saying that. That was the one thing, you know, when speaking of like, not knowing where the book will end. I just knew that at some point the son would disappear and the grandfather would step in and take care of the grandchild. I just knew that that would happen. I didn't know when or how. I just knew it and I think that one of the kind of things that interested me is this kind of, you know— is it possible to go back in time and change the past by taking care of a new generation? And I think that the grandfather when he's there for the grandchild— I mean, it's only a question of he's there a couple of hours and then he's just like, “I hate this. I have to go.” [*laughter*] But I mean, like, during those hours, he's trying to turn time inside out. He's trying to repair the knowledge that he has that he left someone who shouldn't be left alone a long time ago. And it's really, really hard to walk around in the body knowing that you've made one mistake and that that mistake had terrible consequences. So I think the grandfather— that I think that's why it's so painful to be him and to be around him and start caring for him is that we all have things that we've done that we're not super proud of. We all have things that we could— we would like to tweak if we could. And he can't tweak that because it's too late— like the consequences of his actions are— you can't erase them, and you can't revive someone who's passed away [*pauses*] unless she's in a book. And I think that that's the kind of— that's the one thing he can do. He can be there for the grandchild. He can give her sugary popcorns for breakfast. He can, like, spend a few hours with her, trying to calm her. [*pauses*] And then he, for some strange reason, has to leave again. But during those three hours— I'm happy to hear that you liked that section, because I think that's what— that's the scene that I wrote myself. Like, that's what I was writing for, that scene. Took a while to get there, but I knew when I got there that I— that seemed to be the fuel of the book for me.
Karin: The book is called Pappa Clausulen and it's about fatherhood, but it's also a little bit about motherhood, or parenthood in general. I wanted to briefly mention the favorite part for me was also when the mother appears—the ex-wife or the mother, the grandmother—is a very small part of the book, and I thought it was a very, very interesting part when they meet up. And I think also at some point, she said something about— they talk about the father and how they're going to help the father. And she said something like, “He was a wonderful man.” I just feel like this “But” and she doesn't really want to get involved anymore because it is in her past. Is this something that you wanted to explore a little bit also in the book? And there's also the sister and her motherhood. I just thought those moments— they really stuck with me.
Jonas: Yeah, I knew that the mother would enter the book at some point. And it was interesting to see— my own reaction was that I thought that, you know, a number of people have conflicts in the book. And I thought that the mother would come in and kind of help settle things the way that, you know, [*scoffs*] I’m tired of my own voice saying this, but like the way that women have done in the past, [*laughs*] you know, to kind of take emotional responsibility to make things smooth. And the mother comes in two-thirds into the book, and she's basically saying like, “No way. I'm gonna have—” In Sweden we have this thing called tjejkväll, which is kind of like you— [*laughs*] “girls’ night out.” Like, “I’ll have a girls’ night out. You settle this. I was there for you for seventeen years.” Like, “I put my life on pause for you guys. I'm out.” And I thought that was interesting for me as a writer. I was just like, “But, but, but what about us? You know, you can’t just—” And it’s just, “Yes, because I've already done this. I've— I have to live my own life now.” I guess in a way that's also an inspiring moment because she is the one person who kind of manages to break free from this family. You know, she gets into her car and she's just like, “Good luck with that. I'll see you on the other side.” [*laughter*] Yeah, she's done. She's done. And I think that that, you know, it gives us all of us some hope that it's also possible to get out with some kind of dignity. If we've, kind of, put time and effort into a relationship, maybe at some point we also need to say, “I'm done. I've done everything I can for this particular relationship. Now it's time for me to have a tjejkväll.” [*laughter*] But—
Karin: It’s a very moving description of her role, though, raising the children and everything she went through. And you can only see a glimpse of that past marriage. And I thought that was wonderful.
Jonas: Thank you so much. She was also very lonely. Like, that's— it's very hard to raise children on your own.
Amanda: Yeah. [*pauses*] It is just such a pleasure having you here, so you have to come back when the new book is out.
Jonas: Yeah. Thank you. I would love that. Thank you. Thanks for the questions.
Colin: Jonas could I ask you to read us the first page of the book before you go? Maybe once in Swedish, and then in English?
Jonas: Of course. [*book pages flipping*]
"En farfar som är en pappa är tillbaka i landet som han aldrig har lämnat. Han står i kön till passkontrollen. Om polisen bakom glasrutan ställer misstänksamma frågor ska pappan som är en farfar hålla sig lugn. Han ska inte kalla polisen för grisen. Han ska inte fråga om polisen har köpt sin polisuniform på postorder. Istället ska han le och visa upp sitt pass och påminna polisen om att han är medborgare i det här landet och at han aldrig har varit borta längre än sex månader. Varför? För att hans familj bor hår. Hans åskade barn. Hans fantiska barnbarn. Hans svikande exfru. Han skulle aldrig resa bort längre än sex månader. Sex månader är max. Oftast är han borta i fem månader och 30 dagar. Ibland fem månader och 27 dagar."
"A grandfather who is a father is back in the country he never left. He is standing in the queue for border control. If the officer behind the glass asks any suspicious questions, the father who is a grandfather will keep calm. He won't call the officer a pig. He won't ask whether the officer bought their uniform from a mail-order catalogue. Instead, he'll smile and hold up his passport and remind the officer that he is a citizen of this country and that he has never been away for longer than six months. Why? Because his family lives here. His beloved children. His fantastic grandchildren. His deceitful ex-wife. He would never go away for more than six months. Six months is the max. He generally goes away for five months and thirty days, sometimes five months and twenty-seven days."
Colin: That's a wrap.
Jonas: That's a wrap. Thank you so much. Thank you.
[*Outro music starts*]
Colin: Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors. Today’s music was used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson. Links to his music can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website. Visit scandinavian.washington.edu to learn more about the podcast and other exciting projects hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Department. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a course or declaring a major. You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at scandinavian.washington.edu. Once again, that’s scandinavian.washington.edu.
[*Outro music ends*]
Release Date: June 2, 2023
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors. Special thanks to Karin Filipsson.
Theme music used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson.
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