Tr. from Greenlandic to Danish by Niviaq Korneliussen; Tr. from the Danish by Anna Halager
“Lust. How do you say lust in Greenlandic?”
This is one of the conundrums haunting the pages of Niviaq Korneliussen’s novel, Crimson, a mouth-agape-watering literary debut set in Nuuk, Greenland, about queer desire, place, space, and the struggle to navigate one’s sexuality within it. Although Crimson is not a book written about Greenland, or even about Nuuk. Nor is it explicitly about being queer — in as much as it refuses to hetero-explain queerness or convince others of the right to live and love unapologetically as queer. Instead it is a book written from and through both subject positions. A queer woman and native Greenlander, Niviaq Korneliussen’s subjectivities spike the story, which at times reads like a diary, or a dramatized memoir. As if composed out of the pages of a rediscovered collection of old journals, or from scrolling through text and social media messages from a time past, it pastiches the personal archive.
Crimson is soft and completely unsure of itself. The writing is, at times, clumsy and clotted. Words trip over one another, stick, and slither. Sentences run, forming pages of wild and desperate thoughts. Dialogue is brazen and awkward. Prose is list-like and sparse, or tangled and dense. Each chapter chronicles a raw and tender story — told from the perspective of a single character, the book seems like a collection of short stories, separate yet entangled — of explosive highs and obliterating heartbreak, destructive desire and queer questioning, all under an umbrella of lust. As desire. As sex. And, importantly, as appetite. In Crimson “lust” extends, it is the need to fill: absences, the unknown, memories, trauma, holes, time, space/s, ghosts, what is left unsaid. And the five central characters — Fia, Inuk (Fia’s brother), Arnaq (Inuk’s best friend), Ivik (Sara’s partner then ex; Arnaq’s crush), Sara (Ivik’s partner then ex; Fia’s reciprocal crush) — crack and crumble trying to fill that absence, often times using people, alcohol, performed emotion, (un)controlled words, tricks and thrills, and pain. In the face of that which is hollow from want and questioning, they long for answers.
From the characters to the formatting and style of writing (e.g. epistolary, lists, diary writing, text message graphics, even hashtags), everything is always in flux, making Crimson as not only queer — in genre and method — but also a creation that is inextricably bound to, and emerged from, human emotion. To read Crimson is to read a sharp, brazenly honest and vulnerable depiction of what it may be like to grow up queer in a small town where the desire to escape is inebriating, all engulfing, and yet futile — especially if it’s from yourself.
First published in Greenlandic in 2014 as Homo Sapienne, the book was then translated by Korneliussen into Danish, a version which went on to receive Nordic acclaim, being nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. At the time of its initial publication, the book made quite a disturbance in Greenland’s small and closeted literary scene; its queer storyline and non-traditionalist writing exposed a crack in an outdated and localized industry, leading to a wave of praise and intrigue from inside Greenland, as well as further afield. In November 2018, Virago published the UK translation, Crimson, converted from Danish by Anna Halager. And two months later, in January 2019, the story took on its third life-form as Last Night in Nuuk, published in the US by Grove Atlantic. As with most stories that have undergone the process of translation, the question arises: what has been lost? For example, the usually dripping red-hotness of the word “lust,” now removed from its original and untranslatable Greenlandic context, becomes obvious and dull, stated and stark. It has lost its enigmatic power. How would “lust” be described in Greenlandic? How would it look, taste, smell, sound, feel? Where does it pulse — the gut, the heart, the genitals, the skin?
The book’s thrice transcription and thrice renaming distorts not only its linguistic intricacies, but its central substance and overall narrative take-away. As Homo Sapienne it’s about existential — tiptoeing religious — absolution. Like: we’re only human, we love who we love, we do what we do, for better or worse. As Crimson the book screams red: (queer) desire, (queer) love, sex, sensual, warning, danger, forbidden, rage, blood, i.e., to bleed, i.e., to expose and excrete pain. As Last Night in Nuuk, space envelops and Greenland takes center stage, albeit phantasmatically. For much of the book, Greenland and its vast hostile beauty, Nuuk and its claustrophobic quaintness, are present but merely through indication. It isn’t until the final chapter that the reader encounters Greenland in its daily grind: “The spring night comes alive. The blue sky is dawning. The sun’s rays hit the mountain top of Sermitsiaq and the north-eastern sky is bright red.”
Greenland: a large island above the Arctic circle, covered mostly in ice with pockets of soft habitability in the southwest, population of 56,627 people, a seasonal midnight sun, perpetual light, perpetual night.
Nuuk: the largest city and capital of Greenland, one of the smallest capital cities in the world, population of 16,000 people, a system of fjords, waterfalls and icebergs. A coast that is jagged and gritty, patched up with swathes of mossy green, industrial grey, and sometimes thick white snow. Full-size play-dough houses with razor-sharp roofs and crisp-cut edges; cubic components iced together like gingerbread. Nuuk appears quaint and welcoming. A place nostalgic for rural folklore with an unfounded gift of idealism. A place pocketed in-between infinite space. That is until you reach the edge.
The non-Greenland-acquainted reader is only able to grasp a sense of Greenland through the fragmentary depictions of its five featured inhabitants. And even then, what it is like to live in Greenland, or Nuuk specifically, is implied more than directly described. Spatial suffocation, claustrophobic frustration and internal restlessness — the key symptoms of small-town living — are often exhibited through irked sighs
(“Nuuk isn’t that big.” /
“Nuuk is big when there’s somebody you actually want to bump into.
People you don’t want to see pop up all the time,
but people you want to see are nowhere to be found”)
or declarative cries
(“Never again will I return to Greenland.
Never again will I be holed up in prison again.
Never again will I be walled up behind tall mountains.”)
In Crimson’s Greenland, space is personal, or, as Sara Ahmed theorizes in her 2006 book, Queer Phenomenology, space is sexualized. Greenland as home as body as embodied “claustrophobic homophob[ia].” “Home” is heavy and devoid of innocence. A person’s, more so a queer person’s, expectations, experiences and conceptualizations of home can follow them their whole lives as a shadow of suppression and trauma. Though, of course, to be home and to feel at home are not two of the same. As Ahmed writes, to feel at home requires an orientation of “aligning body and space” in order for one’s surroundings to become familiar. In terms of queerness, to feel at home, then, transcribes as a becoming through orientation — spatial and sexual. And in order for something to become familiar it has as much to do with the effect of the space, within which one exists and navigates, as it does its affective capacity.
For example, in Crimson, Fia flees a long-term heterosexual relationship, habits, and home: talking about dinner, buying food for dinner, cooking food for dinner, eating dinner, dreading the anticipation of sad sex, trying to avoid sad sex, resenting attempts of initiating sad sex, getting old, dying. Her “comfort zone” crumbles. She loses control. She loses her old self. And she begins to feel, expand within, and find her way in a totally new space: Arnaq’s home and then bed; Sara’s heart; queerness. Ivik, who left Nuuk to attend university, highlights the queer potentiality of disorientation and consequential re-orientation within a new and bigger space: “I found an answer when I was eighteen and moved to a bigger town to go to university . . . The answer was that I was into women.”
And then there’s Inuk who runs away from Greenland. Trapped in a turbulent gossip web, and fearing that he’ll lose his job over a rumor of a homosexual affair with a Greenlandic MP, he escapes what he conceptualizes as “prison” and his watchful dangerous “inmates,” only to be haunted by the immaterial impressions his homeland has left on his life: “my swellings have formed scars and they’re very noticeable . . . I will have [them] for the rest of my life.” He writes letters, some to Fia and some to Arnaq, others appear to be diary writings or indirect letters to Greenland. He signs them off:
“FUGITATIVE”/“SURVIVOR”/“Liar”/“Clautrophobic Homophobe”/“One who doesn’t want to be a Greenlander”/“Greenlander by force”/“Silent”/“Lost”/“Jobless”/“Not angry”/“Dead”/“Homo. Sapiens. Inuk.”
His chapter is ripe with rage. Words vibrate heat; sentences reach boiling point. Emotions run high and he struggles to contain them, while, paradoxically suppressing how he really feels. Throughout, Inuk conflates “home” and Greenland with “queers” and his own sexuality. For him, Greenland embodies all that he has come to believe is wrong or evil, which he in turn embodies, leading to the long-standing self-suppressing and self-sacrificing relationship he has with his identity. Inuk’s chapter morphs as a fable about the cyclical toxicity of oppression, prejudice, abuse, projection, and the heartbreaking consequences of its internalization.
While the characters all navigate and hold a different relationship to Greenland, the overlapping timestamp for them all is Friday night: a party, an after-party. In a small city where five people cannot escape one another, one night can change everything. They lose their bearings. Emotions warp and retreat inwards. Habitual thinking and behavior come under scrutiny. Bodies become unfamiliar. Bodies become familiar. Lives are pushed out of joint. Left unmoored, people get lost, they drift: away, toward, in search of . . .
An (the!) answer.
For Fia the answer is a revelation. For Inuk it is a betrayal. For Arnaq it is alcohol, another “Oh yeah, baby! Friday!” trapped in a cycle of reliving and burying abuse, chasing a love that is always out of reach. For Ivinnguaq it is sex with someone who isn’t Sara, a break-up, and a consequential re-birth as Ivik — male (a realization that occurs and is actualized by Sara as, problematically and unsettlingly, an outing). For Sara it is a newborn baby, her niece — the pure, hopeful and reborn, replacement, Ivinnguaq. This is a drab and disheartening comparison which strives to do the obvious and to do what queerness has historically and presently — in academic and cultural conversation — done/does to transness: reducing studies, theories, and lives to an “addendum or a hyphen or an asterisk”, (a point highlighted by trans historian, Emmett Harsin Drager, in conversation with Andrea Long Chu in Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol 6). As such, Sara’s conclusive bow-tying of Ivik’s identity as “he” holds as much consideration as a hand-wave. And in Ivik’s chapter, the dialogue between them feels uncomfortable and unkind, concluded in such a way that the whole experience becomes reductively romantic: an epiphany.
Sara’s gifted revelation to Ivik is a moment and this moment, in its unsatisfactory singularity, attempts to serve as a summation for the general-reaching questions of identity, belonging, sexuality, and gender that litter the book. Sara’s voice is too narcissistic and uneducated to unfurl all the branches of gender identity and sexuality — understandably. But instead of an acknowledgement of the complexities and continuities of gender dysphoria and trans identity she surmises: “When something is born, something dies . . . When something dies, something is born.” Woman/man. Female/male. Birth/death. Through the reinforcement of binary, life is foreclosed. Birth, death and rebirth are reoccurring themes in the book: a baby, a new day (“Tomorrow will be okay”), coming-out, (re)discovering home, a song, self-sacrifice, and then there’s transitioning gender. In Crimson, queerness is, admittedly, implemented as the umbrella term that it has become. However, through the nuanced experiences, emotions, and internal longings articulated through the various characters, “queerness,” or queer narrative(s), is fleshed out, allowed to breathe and reclaim some space. It is messy and makes mistakes because that is the point. The same however cannot be said for the trans narrative(s) and gender dysphoria, which deserved a more situated, considerate, and expansive narrative than that which Crimson offered.
Fia, Inuk, Arnaq, Ivik, and Sara, all seek resolution or absolution, hoping to attain either in a single day or night. In Crimson, time is burdened by expectation, it is perceived as a giver of answers and a potential savior, or alternatively as a cruel joker. It is loaded with power — perhaps too much. But, despite this hyperbolic portrayal of time through singularity, the ramifications of time upon queer life are, in reality, no joke. Queer existence is non-linear and the process of coming-out, coming-to-terms, becoming, is a complex labyrinth of time-foolery. As a queer person, I understand the weighted presence of time, its affective pressure, as well as the potential transformative uprooting of its singularity. One person, one moment, one word, one day, one night, one . . . may possess the potential to shake my internal world, turn it inside out. Tick, tick, tick, shadows of former selves drift by. Tick, tick, tick, confusion sweeps through my soul. Tick, tick, tick, we begin again.
Queer/ed time is disoriented time, it isn’t a straight line but a beautiful swirling pattern with crazy curling curves and spiky slashes. It resists control. It is layered and multiple. An amalgamation of individual and collective past, present, future. Queer/ed time is composed of moments of disorientation within which one experiences a loss of perspective, or space, or blurred vision. And as Ahmed suggests, within these moments, “the ‘loss’ itself is not empty or waiting [but] is thick with presence.” Slowly, clarity is restored, and one can re-orient.
Crimson is a collection of these moments, becoming an oozing mass of overlapping memories and perspectives taken from the restless depths of each character’s body. The book is full of paradoxical depictions of time: the absence of its presence, or presence through its absence. Reading it made my head spin and heart clench. From Korneliussen’s genre-crossing writing, to the beautiful, bare and, at times, all too breezy language, to the haunting absences formed through translation, Crimson is a piece of literature that aims to make sense of queer experience by constructing a literary world adequate to house its complexities. It is imperfect and disruptive and moving and becoming. Crimson is a novel of queer disorientation written from inside queer/ed time. Turning the page: tick, tick, tick.
Mollie Elizabeth Pyne is a freelance writer and Masters student at Goldsmiths, University of London, specializing in feminist and queer theory, body studies, and literature. They are currently based in Devon. Sporadically tweets @bittter0cean.