Wednesday evening saw two debut novelists – Niviaq Korneliussen and Helen Mort – sit down with author and creative writing lecturer Elizabeth Reeder, to discuss the role that “place” and “landscape” play in their work.
There was ample material to discuss: Helen Mort’s debut Black Car Burning (Chatto & Windus) centres around climbing, specifically outdoor climbing in the Peak District. Mort spoke about women’s physicality, the gendered differences in how we take and perceive risk, and especially trust – in communities, in each other and ourselves, and the way in which disasters – like Hillsborough in 1989 – can enter the cultural consciousness and shake that trust. In Black Car Burning the characters are all firmly embedded in the land and environment of Sheffield – sometimes literally clinging to it by their fingertips! In addition, the land itself becomes a point-of-view character, with rivers and ruins narrating what Mort describes as “place interludes”, describing the people on their banks and clinging to their precipices, from the perspective of an unseen observer.
Korneliussen, on the other hand, took a deliberate step away from including nature – aside from the “nature” embedded already in the Greenlandic language – and landscape in Crimson, because nature and landscape are often the only aspect of Greenland and its culture that outsiders encounter, in media or even when visiting the country. In setting Crimson (Virago, originally published as Homo Sapienne, and in the US as Last Night in Nuuk) entirely within the confines of Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk (which in 2017 had less than 18,000 residents) Korneliussen forcibly points our attention at the Greenlandic people, especially the young, existing in a tight-knit community where everyone has a strong connection – social, romantic, sexual – to everyone else. Setting the story in a small community embedded in a big landscape, Korneliussen shows us young people struggling to understand each other and battling isolation.
While the speakers were all friendly and self-possessed, with engaging, often surprising answers, I occasionally got the sense that the commonalities between the books were a little more difficult to grasp than the event description would have us believe. While it’s clear that the books have lots of qualities in common, it sometimes felt as if we were dancing around a point rather than just getting right to it. For example, though the authors touched on the role politics and identity plays in their writing, both books engage overtly with queer themes in one way or another: the characters in Crimson are almost exclusively queer in some way, and one of the protagonists of Black Car Burning is in a polyamorous relationship at the start of the story. This is something I would have liked to have seen explored during the talk, and which (had I not already been going to the event) would have been a draw if highlighted.
My favourite part of the evening was – as it often is – the readings. It’s clear that Mort is a poet in her other life: she read two of the “place interludes” from Black Car, her delivery tightly controlled and subtly rhythmic. Korneliussen, too, read sections from Crimson that are highly poetic, first in the original Greenlandic and then in English. Despite being unable to understand the first part of the reading, I got a strong sense of a beautiful rhythm, and of Korneliussen’s control and long familiarity with the material. Both readings highlighted the poetic and multimedia influences in both authors’ work, and made for excellent listening. Most of all, they were sure to make anyone who’s not read the books want to do so.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme click here.