Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is Dorthe Nors’ fourth novel but the first to be translated from her native Danish into English (by Misha Hoekstra), following the success of her short story collection Karate Chop and the novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Sonja, a woman over 40, translator of misogynistic Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson, decides to learn to drive. Her driving instructor won’t let her change the gears, her masseur treats her like a therapy client, her sister won’t speak to her and she spends a lot of time daydreaming about the farm that was her childhood home.
“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?”
With the job Sonja has, that’s something she knows quite well. Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.
I spoke to Dorthe Nors about the novel by telephone last week. Here’s what we discussed…
Sonja, a middle-aged woman, decides to learn to drive. The idea of someone deciding to do so at that age is quite unusual. Where did the idea come from?
It came from the idea that it’s not unusual in Copenhagen. Most people my age, I’m 46, will not have a driver’s licence because they’ve been living in big cities all their lives. Therefore, there’s no need to have a licence. Most of the friends I had when I lived in Copenhagen did not have a driver’s licence. But then I started craving one and started contemplating getting one because I needed the freedom. I didn’t want to live in Copenhagen anymore. I wanted to move out of the city, move into the landscape, move away, but the only way I could do that was if I had a driver’s licence. That whole idea about being stuck unless you liberate yourself by controlling a vehicle was interesting. But it’s not unusual, it’s quite usual. Most times when I’m out doing readings about this people will come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I don’t have a licence, I’m so scared that I won’t be able to take it’. Middle aged men and women who don’t drive.
It’s interesting that Sonja wants to move somewhere but her driving instructor doesn’t allow her to do the gears. She gets stuck and has to change instructors before she can move any further forward.
I always write about existential structures. This is rule number one about my writing. Everything that goes on in that car mirrors an existentialist idea. The one thing that happens when you put yourself in that predicament is that you deposit your free will with the driving instructor because you can’t drive that car and in order not to kill anyone while you’re driving around, the responsibility of the whole situation is put with the driving instructor. So you deposit your free will with this person, who might not be a very nice person but who has the responsibility of the car. And what happens when people deposit their free will is that they also deposit their right to say, ‘Shut up and let me drive’. It’s a psychological dilemma. It takes a while until Sonja builds herself up to take back that freedom and say to her boss that she wants a new driving instructor.
That’s really interesting and links nicely, I think, to the piece you wrote for Literary Hub last year about invisible women and the idea that, particularly if you’re childfree, you become invisible at a certain age. I’m interested in what draws you to that idea.
There are some myths about women in general and we’re completely stuck with them. For instance, you said to me, that’s very unusual that people don’t know how to drive when they’re 40 and no, it’s not. For instance, that’s very unusual that women don’t have children. I go, no it’s not. There are a lot of women out there who don’t have children but we’re not supposed to talk about that. We’re not supposed to talk about how they might have chosen that for themselves. Why they might actually have selected the option of not having children. We’re constantly telling these myths about femininity and about womanhood that keep biting us in the tush. I know a lot of women who don’t have children. I’m middle aged now and at one point I suddenly found out that there’s a lot of liberty from not having children but when you add to that that you’re no longer young and sexy, you sort of disappear. It’s like you become transparent. That was the idea I wrote on. If I had had kids, these structures still make me visible to the world but I don’t have children so the only thing I have that makes me visible is my being, as such. I love to investigate these things. I also do that in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and in two of my other books where I try to figure out what is a woman. If we take all these typecast roles that we’re supposed to play, if we take them away, what is a woman then?
Along these ideas of myths that we make about women, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years about unlikeable female characters. I find this really frustrating, particularly the idea that we should all be likeable and then we fit into a box and do as we’re told. I’m interested in what your stance in the debate is and how you feel about likeability in relation to your own characters, particularly as I think there’s something unlikeable about most of the women in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.
I completely agree with you. I mean, what bullshit is that to say that women are supposed to be likeable? We’re supposed to be typecast into some patriarchal system that we’re supposed to sound like that, look like that, be like that? We’re full blown existences. We do all kinds of crappy things. We’re not always nice to each other. We have weird ideas, we manipulate, we drop ourselves on the floor. We’re full blown human beings. Of course, we will be incredibly annoying at times. But what I tried to add to that in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a sort of compassion for that so that even the annoying women in this book are sheltered by a kind of love and care for them; a way of understanding them and also understanding the structures that created them. In this book it’s some quite political structures that are sketched out in the background. For instance, Jytte, the driving instructor, she’s been forced to leave the rural area. Her destiny has been to better herself through urbanisation and that has not left her in a good place. The same with Molly. All these women have tried to better themselves, to gain more status in life from moving to the cities and they’ve not turned out well.
Linked with that, Sonja’s quite nostalgic for where she came from but it doesn’t exist anymore. I wondered whether you were linking that to current society or whether it’s the thing that’s within us all that it’s what we desire when things aren’t going particularly well?
I think it’s double. There’s this existential thing that you can never return to a place that you have left. You can’t, it’s not possible; you’re not the same anymore and the place that you left is also changed. It’s an existential rule, it’s a rule that we all have to abide. The other thing is, for instance, in Denmark, which is a small country and we have one big city, which is Copenhagen, throughout the last twenty-five to fifty years, everything has been centralised and people have moved to Copenhagen and left the rural areas and, therefore, there are no schools in the rural areas, there are no hospitals, there are no jobs for the women. People keep on drifting from these areas. That means there’s a big decay in some rural areas in Denmark. It’s also a literal thing; the place Sonja came from doesn’t exist anymore, not in the form that she knew it. There is no grocery store, no butcher, no school, nothing. If she wanted to move back, there would not be a job for her because they closed down all the stuff that women are going to work with in these areas. All the women can’t live out there because there are no jobs for them. She wouldn’t be able to go home.
I’m interested in the fact you write in English as well as Danish. When your fiction’s translated into English, do you work with your translator because you understand the language?
Yes, we work very closely together. His name is Misha Hoekstra. He’s American and he lives in Denmark. We send it back and forth. The only thing he translates primarily is my fiction because I still prefer to write that in my mother tongue but essays and articles and other stuff, for instance the Lit Hub piece, I wrote directly in English. I’m toying with trying to write fiction in English, that could be quite challenging, quite interesting to try. Perhaps one day, who knows.
It’s something Jhumpa Lahiri’s done recently; she learnt Italian and then wrote in it.
Yes, and Yiyun Li, the American-Chinese writer who completely denounced her mother tongue. There’s an essay in The New Yorker about that, ‘To Speak Is to Blunder’, it’s amazing. But I’m not quite there yet.
I’m interested in something you said in your essay ‘A Wolf in Jutland’. When you talk about a writer needing to be familiar with the literature of her own country. Do you feel your work’s in dialogue with other Danish work?
Yes, I do. I think you will always be part of the culture you’re trained in, schooled in. I would say I belong to a minimalist tradition which is very contemporary Danish. I studied literature at university but my primary focus was Swedish literature. There’s a lot of Swedish literature in there.
What’s the difference?
The difference is that the Danish minimalism is not too keen on staring too long into darkness. It’s more playful. It’s a stylistic playfulness. The Swedish tradition, I just have to say Ingmar Bergman. They’re not very funny but they’re really really good at looking into the existential abyss. They’re really good at looking at psychological structures and sticking to them and observing them and describing them. That has my interest more than anything else. I’m completely interested in human behaviour in existential structures and psychology and what happens when we’re under pressure. That’s not that normal in Danish literature. But the minimalism is very Danish.
My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite women writers?
Good question. It changes through life, I would say. There are some writers that really mean a lot to you in your twenties and then some in your thirties. In my twenties, my favourite writer was a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman. Right now it’s an American writer called Claudia Rankine; I love her. Flannery O’Connor is also one of my favourites.
Thanks to Dorthe Nors and Pushkin Press for the interview and review copy.