Josefine Ottesen
  prize-winning Danish author
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Bookbird

Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature  is a refereed journal published quarterly by IBBY (The International Board on Books for Young People).
The following article is an adaptation of a speech Josefine gave at the IBBY conference in Copenhagen in 2008.  It will be published in the Spring 2009 edition of the journal.

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Being one of ”Them”

There was a low, pale winter sun that day. I was sitting in the rays of sunshine in front of the terrace door, playing with some plastic animals. I was around eight years old. At the other end of the room, my mother was sitting with a friend. Their voices were low but intense. Something important was being said. Stories not meant for my ears.
     Slowly and very discreetly, my animals moved closer and closer to the table where my mom and her friend were sitting, and I ended underneath it without anyone noticing. Here, I overheard the story of my mother’s life from her childhood in Budapest, Hungary in the beginning of last century. How her playmates tied her to the fence with her arms spread out saying : “The Jews crucified Jesus; now we’ll crucify you!” I also heard about the time when her uncle, shaking with fear, showed up at their flat in central Budapest shortly after World War I, telling how he’d just

 

been on a tram, when a group of Red or White revolutionaries, I don’t remember which, had pulled out everybody who looked Jewish and hanged them from the nearest lamp post. For some reason, they had overlooked him, although he looked very Jewish.
     She moved to Germany in the 1920’s and then had to flee from the Nazis in 1934. First she went to Denmark, and then had to continue to Sweden in 1943 with two small children.
     She was upset; very upset. I could not see her face from my position under the table, but I could hear her voice shaking. When she got to the part where she had to tell about the loss of almost her entire family in the concentration camps, I wished I’d stayed in the rays of sunshine by the door. It was horrible to hear of the death of her beloved relatives, and it was terrifying to cope with the knowledge of human brutality and cruelty and especially with the total lack of reason.
     When she’d finished, I remember the silence that followed and the sound of the clock ticking - and in those few seconds a great part of my identity was formed. I realized that I was one of THEM; someone who could be persecuted for no reason at all - even killed for having done nothing, except for being who I was.

To be or not to be ... who decides?

It was too big a revelation and for several years, I tried to ignore it, until one day, a teacher decided to show us, a group of 15-year old teenagers, “Nacht und Nebel” – a documentary about what the Allied and Russian troops saw when they reached the concentration camps in Germany at the end of the war. Then I clearly remembered my mother’s stories, and now I was too old to just push the thoughts aside. I was a Jew, I had to accept it, like it or not. It was not because I was brought up in Judaism, especially since my father was a Danish vicar and I was baptized, like the rest of my Danish family. And it was not because I was an integrated part of the relatively strong Danish-Jewish community – my mother herself, having been brought up in a very secular culture, had never had much to do with other Jewish people. The reason I was Jewish, was solely because someone else had decided so! I couldn’t do much about it, so I tried to pay as little attention to it as possible. Not until I gave birth to my own children and they grew older, did I realise, that even though I tried to keep that part of my story really low-key, it still had an enormous impact on how I brought them up. The fear of being persecuted, deprived of one’s dignity and even killed, kept me in a constant state of stress, and I passed that on, unwittingly, to my own children.
     This story of a history which was not even my own, but my mother’s, filled and controlled a great part of my life and my way of observing the world. I would always buy lots of dried food, such as beans and rice, so we would have supplies if we needed to escape. I would have nightmares of having to live on the road, and would always worry if we all had good boots to wear, just in case … I would be very concerned with how my family was regarded by others – they should do well in school, be polite and well-behaved. It was certainly time, I discovered, to confront myself, if I did not want my kids to inherit the story I had inherited from my mother! And so I did.

Other People's Stories

I started reading a lot of literature about concentration camps, which I had, up to this point, avoided. Immediately, essential questions started to pop up.

Why is it, that some people can go through horrible experiences and come out stronger on the other side, whereas others fall apart?

How is it possible to make one group of people hate another group, when they have lived peacefully side-by-side with each other before?

And here my journey began into the universe, that would end up being my trilogy, “The Mira Chronicles”.
     My work has always been very inspired by folk-tales, myths and legends. For me the non-realistic universes offer the best metaphors for what I call “the inner landscape” – the emotional, subconscious world I imagine we all share, no matter where or who we are. The challenge is always how to find the right symbols and images that represent the essential elements of the story I am working with – symbols and images which hopefully will strike a chord with my readers.
     The first question “Why is it, that some people can go through horrible experiences and come out stronger on the other side, whereas others fall apart?” led me to books by Otto Frankl, Jean Amery, Primo Levy and others who had actually survived the concentration camps. The main message from the survivers seems to be: You have to keep looking out through the fence and hang on to the idea that your suffering, on some level, has a meaning.
     Imre Kertez’s story of how he, having survived the Holocaust, came back to Budapest, made a great impression on me. When he told his few remaining relatives, what had happened to him, they felt deeply sorry for him, but he insisted that his survival through the horrible years of concentration camp was meant to be. He had been chosen to be a witness and had been given a mission to tell others what had happened. In that way, he took on his history and made the cruelty and inhumanity part of his own story. So he transformed himself from being a pitiful victim to somebody with a mission: to tell the story of the cruelty he had seen and suffered.
     At the same time I was introduced to a book by French psychiatrist Boris Curulnik. In Danish, the title translates into “The Ugly Duckling”, using the Hans Christian Andersen tale as a hint of the story of becoming a beautiful swan although nobody helps you and you go through severe suffering in your life. Curulnik very clearly states that to survive traumatic events whilst retaining your humanity, you need to be able to re-tell the story of yourself, so that what has happened is transformed into something meaningful to you. Curulnik presents the case of a small African boy, who sees his whole family being massacred. For some reason the attackers overlook him. Paralysed with fear, he stays in the empty village. A few days later, the militia comes back, and this time he reacts by hiding himself under a blanket. Although they search the whole place, they don’t find him. When they are gone, he hurries to the next village to seek shelter. When he tells his story to two adults, they are, of course, terrified and clasp their hands in fear, while one of them says: “Imagine if you had sneezed!” Curulnik meets this boy in a refugee camp, where he keeps on tickling himself in the nose with a blade of grass, until he starts to bleed.
     When Curulnik reveals his story, it becomes evident that this boy is trying to recapture his own story. He wants to be able to control a sneeze at any time. You might say that this boy has been traumatized twice: first through the horrible experience and afterwards by being deprived of his story: he actually made it, he survived! Curulnik’s book became a turning point for me in my writing process. This was a story I would really like to tell: How do we re-tell the story of our lives so that it becomes meaningful and establishes us as powerful and active persons in our own lives, instead of being passive victims of someone else’s aggression and will?

Which stories do we pass on?

The next question was more difficult: What makes one group accept, all of a sudden, that their fellow citizens are no longer humans but less than animals, not worthy of living and so dangerous that they need to be annihilated?
     For one thing, Nazism, and all that it brought with it of horrible deeds, was due to a very specific historical situation. But genocides have happened both before Nazism and after, so I had to find a way of explaining how an idea like this could establish itself, more or less overnight, in a larger group of people.
     It was a difficult task – mainly because most of the writing on a subject like this is very political and closely related to specific historical periods and what I needed was more of an archetypical explanation. One could say that trying to bring in a kind of a meta-layer on political and sociological issues in a fantasy novel is a bit ambitious, but then on the other hand that was what I set out to do, and I was rather determined to fulfil it – just ask my editor!
     By coincidence, I had a conversation with a woman who works as a nurse with immigrants to Denmark. She told me about “Memes” – a way of describing cultural thought-patterns. I went on the internet and found out that “memes” had 35,800,000 hits! Wikipedia told me: A meme is any thought or behaviour that can be passed from one person to another by learning or imitation. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the cultural sociosphere in a manner similar to the contagious behaviour of a virus. Apparently, effective memes hook on to a more primitive part of the brain, outside the control of the conscious mind, and they seem to spread especially easily if they relate to sex, food or fear. This made sense for me. Memes as a term became a good way for me to understand how ideas and thought patterns can spread like a virus, and why it seems so difficult to fight against them. But how to use this pseudo-scientific term “memes” in a fantasy-novel? I really needed some strong metaphors to show how dangerous these “mental viruses” are – I needed a metaphor that would evoke the image of something swift and uncontrollable!
     For me, demons had the right qualities. Almost every culture in the world knows demons under one name or another. Their common quality is the fear of something powerful, that from one minute to the next, can change your friend into your enemy – into something inhuman and cruel, and that, by some strange magic, can possess someone’s mind and turn them into monsters without empathy. The most interesting thing for me at this point was the fact that the primary channel for new memes and how they spread like “mental viruses” was through story-telling. Stories told from one generation to the next, stories spread worldwide through the media and the internet. It happens SO fast! No doubt: Memes were “Demons’ Tools”! And if you need proof, just look at where totalitarian regimes strike first – controlling and spreading the stories!

Which stories do we live in?

Little by little - the theme of my new book formed around two main topics: How do you re-tell your own story, so your life becomes meaningful in spite of horrible traumas?; and, which stories do you accept and pass on?
     Setting the universe in “fantasy-time” gave me the freedom I needed to create an “Inner Landscape” covered with rough mountains, wild rivers, maze-like swamps and fragile floating islands. Mira – my main character – is a girl from a wealthy family with a happy life in first class. She lives in a well-regulated city. But times change and, all of a sudden, she becomes a victim of the story of her tribe. She has to flee into the wilderness and, to save herself and her loved ones, she has to get in charge of her own story. To do that she has to learn to control the demons that spread the evil and keep them on a leash. And no – you can’t rid the world of evil and cruelty, but you can consider how you want to deal with it!
     In the course of telling the story, it becomes clear to Mira that it’s possible for her to change her story. If she chooses to stick to the old ideas about herself and the rest of her tribe as powerless victims of demonically possessed tormentors, she, and many of those she loves, will die. On the other hand, if she dares to create her own story, starting out from her actual experiences, the story about “the others” becomes, firstly, more diverse and positive, but also, she reinforces an active and human picture of herself which others can relate to.
     Working with this novel became a real eye-opener, not only about how much the story of my life – told by my mother – became the story of my life without me questioning it before very late in life, but also about how important my job as a storyteller is. For me, there is no doubt: the more stories people of all ages are exposed to, the more possibilities they get to create a nuanced story of themselves. And the better we become at editing the stories ourselves, the less we get locked into an inability to act and into repeating patterns. So I’m on a mission! I want to give to my readers a message: Be the author of your own lifestory! And to do that, children need stories. Lots of them! They can never have enough tools in their “story toolbox”. Life isn´t easy and, for a lot of children, it’s a struggle. We can’t take the burden off their shoulders, but we can give them hope by telling stories that can help them map their own “Inner Landscape”.

The Crystal Heart

In “The Mira Chronicles”, story-telling is used as a way of teaching youngsters about life. Mira, like all the other young children, has to have the tribal mark branded behind the ear. It hurts and to help her deal with the pain she is told this story:

Once upon a time, a king and a queen had a child. A little princess. They gave her everything she could possibly wish for to keep her happy, but then one day, when she was fifteen, she started crying. Nobody understood why, but finally she told them that she could not bear the thought that winter was coming and all the flowers would die. They tried to comfort her. The flowers would come back the following spring, they said, but she couldn’t stop crying. She wanted summer to last for ever. Her parents had to send for the Wizard. But even though he was very skilled, he couldn’t stop the changing of the seasons. Then the princess cried even harder. Her parents fell on their knees and begged him. 
       “Do something! Solve this problem! Our daughter has to be happy!” 
       “I can help you,” he said, “but you might regret it later.” 
       “Just do it. We can’t bear to see our daughter in such pain.”
So the wizard took the young girl’s bleeding heart and exchanged it for a new heart of shining crystal. 
       “Now she’ll feel no more sorrow and pain,” he said.
And so it was. The princess was again happy – smiling and giggling. After some years her parents thought it was time to find her a husband. Lots of princes passed through, but she never really cared for any of them. Finally the Wizard was brought back again. 
       “Please, make her love somebody,” they asked him. 
       “I’m sorry,” he said. “Once you’ve chosen the crystal heart to avoid the pain and sorrow of life, then you’ll never be able to love.”

And to all of you reading this: Bring stories to childen and young people that open their hearts and minds and tell them how to overcome struggles; give them the tools to take charge of their own lives instead of becoming the victims of others. A Danish author, Vagn Lundbye, once said: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” He’s right; you can’t change whatever terrible experiences you have been through, but you can keep your heart open and choose how you will incorporate what happens into your own story – will you give more anger and revenge to the world, or will you pass on stories of empathy and forgiveness?

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