This is how I did it: I waited until it was my time of the month. I took the tin can from the shelf under the sink. I filled it halfway with fresh water and put half a teaspoon of salt in it. Next I put in a small, gnarled carrot from last year’s garden. I had saved it because it had two prongs, like little legs, and arm-like stumps. Then I held the can between my legs and let some blood trickle into it. Finally, some of my spit. I put some clingfilm over the opening. The rest of the night, I sat with the can in my lap, and sang to you. That’s how you were made, in October, as the first snows fell.
—from “Cloudberry Jam” (Unstuck #1)
Karin Tidbeck is a writer and creative writing instructor based in Malmö, Sweden. She writes in Swedish and English. Her fiction has been featured recently in Weird Tales and on the Drabblecast. Her debut collection in English, Jagannath, is forthcoming this fall.
Ursula K. Le Guin says: “I have never read anything like Jagannath. Karin Tidbeck’s imagination is recognizably Nordic, but otherwise unclassifiable—quietly, intelligently, unutterably strange. And various. And ominous. And funny. And mysteriously tender. These are wonderful stories."
Interview by Janalyn Guo
UNSTUCK: I'm curious to hear about the sci fi/fantasy heritage and community in Sweden.
KARIN TIDBECK: Ah. The SF/F community in Sweden is very old. In fact the first science fiction magazine, Hugin, was Swedish. So there's a long tradition, and there’s also a fairly stable community. Science fiction and fantasy has had a bad reputation among mainstream readers and in media, although this has gotten much better lately. As for the writers, there are about sixty active writers of fantastic fiction in the country.
UNSTUCK: I’d love to know a little bit more about Hugin. Also, how has fantastic fiction’s reputation gotten better as of late?
KARIN TIDBECK: Hugin was published between 1916-1920 and there were also a few very early SF writers: Claës Lundin, whose novel Oxygen och Aromasia was published in 1878, and later writers like Otto Witt (who went on to publish Hugin) and Vladimir Semitjov. Historically, a lot of fantastic fiction has come from authors who only occasionally ventured into the field, like Harry Martinson, Karin Boye, Selma Lagerlöf and P. C. Jersild. “Pure” writers of fantastic fiction like Sam J. Lundwall and Bertil Mårtensson started showing up in the fifties and sixties. Female writers were rare except in the YA fantasy field until fairly recently, but those who were active, like Astrid Lindgren and Inger Edelfeldt, towered above everybody else. Historically, the two most common themes have been dystopias and folkloric fantasy.
For the longest time, fantastic fiction wasn’t really “proper literature,” except when respected authors wrote the odd dystopia. (I’m not sure why Swedish authors write so many dystopias, but there you are. I just wrote one myself. It must be something in the water.) Fantastic fiction has hit the mainstream again, and gained some respect, partly through a bunch of very dedicated SF/F-friendly pop culture journalists but also through horror. John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote Let the Right One In, kind of paved the way for a new wave of horror and fantastic fiction. There’s so much exciting stuff happening at the moment, and things are really looking up.
UNSTUCK: What’s your experience of writing both in Swedish and in English? Do your stories play out differently?
KARIN TIDBECK: Huge subject. The two languages lend themselves to different moods and ways of presenting a story. I began to figure this out while attending the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2010; that's where I started really realizing what the differences are and how this works. It's hard to say what part of translating between the two languages is me and what's my cultural heritage, but my Swedish stories (if written in Swedish originally) tend to be more terse, and my English stories longer and with a more, hmm, florid prose. This doesn't apply to "Cloudberry Jam," but it seems to be a general trend. You do take on slightly different personalities depending on what language you're using.
UNSTUCK: I really enjoyed “Cloudberry Jam” and recently read the story “Jagannath”—or rather heard it read to me, through the Drabblecast. Something that I really enjoy about your work is that the shapes of things are so mysterious. In “Jagannath”: Rak and Mother, and in “Cloudberry Jam”: the baby. There's something really lovely about not being able to pin down their physicality.
KARIN TIDBECK: Well, I try to give enough information so that the reader doesn't have to pause and try to figure out what they're seeing; at the same time I don't want to give the reader too much. The story needs to take place in the reader's mind more than on the page, and in order for that to happen, readers need to find images that they can inhabit. I do try to give characteristic details, like the cloudberry baby's skin and eyes, but not too much. With “Jagannath,” this led to some interesting discussions—apparently some readers were exploring the idea that it was really a drama about stomach bacteria. That was awesome. The text doesn't belong to me anymore, anyway; it belongs to the readers and it's theirs to find out what it means to them.
UNSTUCK: I’m just now thinking of the Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist. Someone once pointed out to me that depending on the camera angle, his face has that quality of looking very different (like he is actually several different people). Perhaps Michael Nyqvist is an appropriate metaphor for what you just mentioned.
KARIN TIDBECK: Oh! That guy. Yeah, he has a rubber face. We use the term to describe someone whose face looks different all the time—from every angle, from photo to photo, etc. That's a very nice parallel, to thinking of a story that works on several levels.
UNSTUCK: Your subjects often are very alien in their characteristics. I'm curious about your thoughts on humanness. Can humans have mechanical forms, natural forms, etc?
KARIN TIDBECK: Ooooh. Good question. I suppose strictly speaking we're biological, self-replicating machines with hardware and software. But beyond that, it's a question of definition and interpretation. What someone sees as electrical impulses, the firing of neurons, is to someone else a soul. Personally, I don't know. Everything is a metaphor for everything else in the end. Depending on what story I'm telling, humanity takes on a different shape (as in, I'll believe different things about the human or creature depending on what I'm writing).
UNSTUCK: I want to ask about unusual births. They're prominent in both of the stories we’ve been discussing, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little about your ideas about (perhaps fascination with) conception in these extraordinary forms.
KARIN TIDBECK: Oddly those two stories are the only times I've written about birth. Maybe it's because going to Clarion is a bit like getting tossed into purgatory and emerging on the other side. Both were written at Clarion. To elaborate, though, I'm interested in the alien, and I'm interested in getting under the skin of the alien. So, birth would be part of it. There are a lot of aspects that come into it. But I’m also interested in birth as related to the body and identity. I've studied comparative religion and social anthropology, and I've been fascinated by various cultures' views of women and their bodies. At one point I studied what's known as "holy anorexia": nuns and other holy women starving themselves to attain purity and become closer to God. I also studied mother archetypes in ancient religions of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
What I discovered through those studies is pretty much that humanity hasn't changed a lot. I think that both "Cloudberry Jam" and "Jagannath" arose from an interest in exploring that mother archetype from an alien perspective, to take things a step further. Of course, these stories are not just about motherhood, they're also told from the other perspective: coming-of-age stories with female characters who aren't ascribed traditional human female stereotypes. I should probably add that I don't really think about why I'm writing a story when I'm writing it. These are all theories after the fact.
UNSTUCK: When you mention “getting under the skin of the alien”—how do you do that?
KARIN TIDBECK: "The alien" is a huge concept. It ranges from "the other," which is anything outside the norm (gender, sex, skin color, class, geographical location, physical appearance, etc.), to what is alien in the sense that we can't grasp what it is we're seeing. We have an impulse to put everything in neat little boxes because that's how our minds work. Things that fall in between or outside the boxes freak people out. It’s even more upsetting when something that should be familiar isn't, like the "uncanny valley" concept, what I think of as the “not quite.” I write about it frequently, because it's fascinating. But alien? Taken to the far end of the scale, not just other but alien, is to me what we can't even describe because we don't have words or senses to fathom it.
It's difficult to go all the way out there, for obvious reasons. I want to experience other mindsets, frames of reference, morals, ethics. I want to put myself in states of mind that don't come naturally. My way to experience those, then, is to write about them. But this is flawed because I can think about them, and that means they're not alien to me: just unusual, or seldom thought of. But as a human being, it’s as far as I can go.
UNSTUCK: I like that one cannot “grasp what one sees” if one looks at an alien. That seems like a difficult and exciting place for a writer to occupy. To both create a story for a human audience, perhaps whose innate response is to make sense of the work, but to preserve a sense of incomprehensibility. How did you channel this space when writing the piece for Unstuck?
KARIN TIDBECK: The way I think about it is that no matter how strange a being is, their own actions are perfectly natural and logical from their own perspective. In “Cloudberry Jam,” the main character is aware that she has created something very strange, but to her the action of doing so is natural. Her child, however, is incomprehensible to her and acts in a way she doesn’t understand until the very end. But if you see it from the child’s point of view, everything it does and wants stems directly from its origin. It’s just the starting point that might make it seem incomprehensible to an outsider.
UNSTUCK: Well, you’re doing some phenomenal channeling. I really admire the weird environments and logic systems in your stories; they’re rich with foreignness, in a way that I really respond to. Before you depart, may I ask what projects are you working on or have recently completed?
KARIN TIDBECK: I'll have two books out this fall: one novel in Swedish, Amatka, and a short story collection in English, Jagannath. I’ll be at the World Fantasy Con in Toronto with Jagannath, so anyone who’s there and curious about my work is very welcome to drop by and say hello.
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Janalyn Guo is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She received her MFA in fiction from Brown University and lives in Austin, where she is at work on a novel. Her fiction can be found at Tarpaulin Sky, the New Yinzer, and Digital Hamper.