Albert Bonniers förlag, 2013.
Reviewed by Nichola Smalley in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction
Athena Farrokzhad’s prose poem Vitsvit – ‘White Suite’ is a partial translation of an ambiguous title – is an intricate analysis of a family from the inside. It is also a critique of nostalgia and blame, an exploration of the rhythms and patterns of the Swedish language, and a rallying cry against racism and prejudice. It is a formally, linguistically and thematically complex piece that perplexes and beguiles the reader.
The poem is set out as a series of statements, with white letters set into black horizontal bars printed on the page. These statements are mostly paraphrases of comments made by members of the narrator’s family: first by the mother, then the father, brother, uncle and maternal grandmother chime in. The statements are sometimes plain, sometimes heavy with oblique references. Some refer to the family members’ positions as outsiders/insiders in Swedish society; others deal with the family’s internal tensions. There is no way of knowing how much they are influenced by the daughter’s own retelling.
The ambiguity is increased by phrases and word particles that are frequently repeated across lines: ‘återhämta– återvända– återuppstå’ (recover – return – be resurrected), creating a web on which the personalities, opinions and expectations of the different family members are hung. The characters crystallise out of this web of opinions and the words they use to express them. Each character has a different relation to the daughter, the family, and the world outside. The mother remembers the sacrifices she has made and resents her daughter. We hear how the mother ‘lät blekmedlet rinna genom syntaxen’ (let bleach run through her syntax) in order to remake herself for her new life in Sweden. The father is full of rage and sorrow at the injustices of his past, but is also pragmatic in the face of new challenges. The brother is idealistic and angry about the injustices of the present. The grandmother is a source of memories and insights. The daughter is not what any of them had expected her to be.
As an object, the book presents a series of reflections and reversals – as I pulled my review copy out of its envelope, the shining silver cover reflected my own face back at me – presumably designed to make the readers contemplate their own position vis-á-vis the race relations dealt with in the book. Rather than a cover enveloping and presenting the book you are about to open, this cover presents the world outside the book, and the identity of the person opening it. The reversed type temporarily makes ‘whiteness’ stand out against a black background. The constant presence of the narrator by her very absence is a thematic extension of this formal reversal.
Looking through the complexity and the games, something beautiful and rich emerges – a stunning piece of writing in itself, with a powerful dose of social and political analysis. It turns a mirror on the life of a family, a society, and a human being, and in doing so, makes the reader see the world in a different way.