The recent Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 saw the return of critically acclaimed and best-selling novelist and essayist Janne Teller to the Authors’ Lounge. The Danish writer of Austrian-German descent hosted a forum about the role of writers in global political and social issues. As a writer, Ms Teller has received numerous literary accolades and prizes, including the Michael L. Printz Award for Literary Excellence in 2011. Circling existential questions of life and civilization and often sparking debate and controversy, Ms Teller’s works are considered refreshing and thought-provoking by peers and readers. No less insightful in person, the author sat down with Elite+ to discuss her beginnings and some of the pressing issues of our times.
- How did you become a writer?
I always wanted to write, ever since I was a small child, and storytelling was my way of seeing the world. I published my first short story in a Danish newspaper when I was 14. I think I started my first novel when I was 11. I come from an immigrant family in Denmark. My mother came with the Red Cross to Denmark when she was a child after World War II from Austria. On my father’s side, his father had migrated to Denmark from Germany after World War I. For an immigrant family, being an artist is not very sought after. You’re supposed to have a good education and make a living. I was very interested in the world, and that’s why I ended up studying macroeconomics, which is of course very different from novel writing! I always knew I wanted to write fiction, but I also knew that I needed to have a job, make a living. I wrote fiction when I was doing the degree, and after that I got a job at the European Union and the UN in Africa – a few years in Tanzania and Mozambique. Eventually in 1995, when I was 30, I had saved up enough money to stop working and only write.
- You address the problems of people and the world a lot. What is your vision of Utopia?
In many ways I like the social democratic model that was a basic Danish model where you have a more egalitarian economic system. And you take care of those who can’t work. I also love multiculturality. My Utopia is a space where all cultures can live side by side. And that’s one reason why I love New York because you have all cultures there. What makes it function is that you respect each other’s right to choose, and there shall be room for everyone but no room for abuse. I live in Little Italy just next to Chinatown in New York, and in my street all the restaurants are Italian. Just the next street over, everything is Chinese – all street signs and shops. Also, there should be much more respect for nature. We allow many things to happen and if it gets too bad people put an end to it. We should go the other way round and nothing that is potentially polluting for our environment should be allowed in the first place.
- Tell us about this year’s forum that you host.
This year we’re discussing extremism in the context of cultural crossroads. Last year we discussed the movement of refugees even before this recent big wave – how do we make this multicultural society function? We are living in a world that is increasingly multicultural whether we like it or not, and we have to make it function. This is something writers can contribute to. We always work under human conditions, on the mechanisms and the relationships between individuals. How can writers contribute to this issue? Writers often don’t know much about politics or society, but we know about human beings. If we can help the world understand what makes human beings happy, feel they belong or become extremists, we can maybe help in the political system. We take the special insights that writers have and feed them into the political world. There’s no easy answer for the problems that we have today. Inputs from different perspectives can help us see the bigger picture.
This year we discuss what makes people extremists. Some are abused and traumatized into becoming extremists, but some choose to be. We discuss all aspects of extremism, including European right-wing nationalism that is on the rise again, and state extremism. We discuss the need to belong, identity and dignity. And if society doesn’t fulfil this that’s often where some demagogic populist politicians come in with extreme views and seduce the people. You can’t just ignore extremists, and when they are growing to become 10-15% of the population we obviously cannot estrange this many people. It is important to find a way to invite them back so they don’t run off with extreme ideas.
- Was there a particular eyeopening experience that inspired you to become a humanist writer?
I believe that if we have no hope, there is nothing to live for. When I was working for the UN in Mozambique there had just been a terrible war; the rebels cut off ears, noses and breasts of women, people were buried alive and there was destruction and violence everywhere. You would think these people would never get along again. Children were forced to shoot their own parents so that they could become good soldiers. What do you do with them later when they’re 15 and not like human beings in many ways? Yet the moment they stopped, there was something to believe in. The refugees started to come back to their villages even though there were still landmines. They just wanted to get on with life. There was a lot of humanity among this gruesomeness. It taught me that we have a choice. If you choose humanity then you make it easier for other people to also choose humanity. If you make a better road for yourself, it’s easier for others to follow and together we can influence the world.