When I lived in Qaanaaq I was, more or less, living at the top of the world. The sun disappeared in late October and came back late February. We were encouraged to carry a shotgun when going for a walk because polar bears denned in the area. And the temperatures dipped into the minus 40s (Celsius) during the time we lived there. There was one plane a week – often cancelled, and two supply ships a year – one in July and the other in September. These are the kinds of things I write about in my books and short stories.
But I made a promise to a colleague in Qaanaaq. She assumed when I left I would write a memoir or something similar, including anecdotes about people in Qaanaaq, or other parts of Greenland. We had both read such memoirs that focus on the negative side of Greenland. We talked about a Danish professional, psychologist – I think, who visited for a short period, ingratiated themselves into the community, and then wrote a damning report about the social aspects of life in a small Arctic community as soon as she got back to Denmark.
There’s a lot of that in Danish media, with much focus on the negative side of Greenland, leading to a lot of stereotypes and associations.
I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t write such things. I chose and still choose to focus on the positive and strong characters I met in Greenland, and work those traits into my stories. I also add a lot of fun stuff to lighten the tone – in a lot of my books. I don’t mind writing “bad guys” into my stories, because every society has a mix of light and dark, and good and evil. But when nearly everything you read about Greenland focuses on alcohol or suicide, it’s hard to find the other stories.
I met so many strong, competent, and professional Greenlanders whom I worked with, and I met just as many lousy Europeans – a lot of Danes – who got a job in Greenland because they were not suited to the same work in Denmark. Talk about social dumping! You don’t hear about that in the Danish news.
Anyway, those strong colleagues and other professionals I met, and their kids, were my focus and my starting point. As was and is the environment, and the challenges it poses to life in Greenland – see polar bears, temperatures, and darkness above. 😉
I saw the other side of life too, dealt with it every day. When it comes to suicide, I’ve lost count of the people I knew who took their own life, including colleagues and a pupil I will never forget. I just don’t write about them. Rather, I write around them through my fiction, especially in my Constable Maratse novellas. A lot of those stories are inspired by my life and experiences in Greenland. Some are pure fiction, of course, others have more than a few grains of truth in them.
However, if you want to know more about the other side of Greenland, the hard truths, then you should read them from a Greenlandic perspective. Not mine. I write fiction, often a rather romanticized Jack Londonesque story (as I call it) heavy on drama. I’m telling stories. Pure fiction, teased out of my experiences. Niviaq Korneliussen, however, writes about hard truths, and she just won the Nordic Council Literature Prize for her work.
In my mind, because there are relatively few English language books about Greenland, my books act as an introduction, with many readers commenting that Greenland wasn’t on their radar before they found my books. If my books encourage readers to discover more about Greenland, its people, culture, history, and stunningly harsh environment, then I’ve done my job. I will continue to write about strong characters because Greenland is full of them. And I will continue to body swerve most of the darker stuff, because it’s not my place.
And I made a promise, and those are the things I don’t write about.