In 2016, Danish author Yahya Hassan’s collection of poems, “Digte” was shortlisted for the Polish literary prize ‘Gdansk European Poet of Freedom Award’. DCI’s director in Poland, Bogusława Sochańska, had recommended him for the prize in her capacity as translator. Yahya Hassan did not win the award, but the nomination resulted in a Polish publication of “Digte” – in Polish “Yahya Hassan: Wiersze” translated by Bogusława Sochańska. This was a great achievement since not much poetry is published in Poland from foreign authors. In this interview with Bogusława Sochańska she tells about the language of Yahya Hassan’s poetry, the reasons for his popular debut and the many mixed reactions that have followed his descriptions of Muslim society and the Danish system.
The interview originates from the book Wolne słowa (Free Words) published by Instytut Kultury Miejskiej in Gdansk in connection with the festival European Poet of Freedom Award 2016.
How did you discover the poetry of Yahya Hassan?
It wasn’t difficult – when his book was published in Denmark, the media was immediately full of information about him. Very few people knew how to pronounce the author’s name, but everyone was able to read excerpts from his poems on the websites of most media outlets. This book shocked various social groups. The entire book is a cry – a cry of despair and rebellion, youthful in its refusal to compromise – but at the same time an astoundingly mature protest of an eighteen-year-old son of Palestinian immigrants who levels accusations at the world surrounding him. He accuses his parents – and their entire generation – of cruelty towards their own children, of lacking love, of not adapting to life in Denmark and of making their children’s integration more difficult, of hypocrisy in religious and moral matters, and, finally, of the cynical exploitation of Denmark and its social support system. In turn, he accuses Denmark of having an ineffective integration policy and lacking an efficient system for supporting young people on the margins of society. These latter issues have distinctly entered the debate that has been going on in Denmark for a long time concerning problems connected with the integration of immigrants, in particular Muslims – well, “entered” is an understatement. They’ve heated up the debate until it was red-hot. In turn, communities of Danish Muslims originating from the Middle East, both those who were integrated and those who were not, were shocked by the uncompromising way in which Hassan laid all problems bare. He began to receive death threats, and a representative of these communities attacked and injured him, which led to the young author being assigned police protection.
Is Hassan a blasphemer?
I’m not able to give a clear answer to that question since I don’t entirely understand the meaning of this word. Or perhaps I don’t understand the essence of what blasphemy is. If we take execrating God, that’s not blasphemy, but making a mockery of rituals cherished by people – then yes. Hassan himself says – and this is precisely what is the clearest in his poetry – that he’s not attacking God, only God’s adherents, who are full of hypocrisy and follow their religion’s rules only superficially, solely in their everyday customs, and not even to the extent that is necessary.
People say that when it comes to the issue of the Muslim minority, Denmark has been defeated, and that Hassan’s book of poetry clearly shows this.
Yes, that’s right. It’s controversial, and it’s precisely what constitutes the subject of the debate which has been going on in Denmark for a long time about the extent to which the solutions undertaken by the state have failed, and how much can be blamed on the immigrants themselves, those who do not want to integrate. The issue has been discussed for a long time and is far from simple – integration, and the ensuing assimilation, carries the threat of losing one’s original identity. Simple, uneducated people often view this threat as an issue that is essential to them and resist every kind of endeavour aimed at connecting them to the mainstream of the culture of the country in which they have decided to live. It’s precisely these people whom Hassan describes. But if this were the only topic of his poems, they wouldn’t be so worthy of attention. The thing is, Hassan problematizes this issue. The lyrical I of his poems, who, as he himself emphasizes, is identical to him, experiences a dramatic conflict between the culture he comes from and the culture of the country in which he lives. And there’s no remedy for this conflict.
Does political poetry fulfill a role in pointing out a country’s problems?
This is undoubtedly confirmed by the vast and intense socio-political debate which was not only triggered, but also inflamed by Yahya Hassan’s book.
What is this debate about?
What the state is capable of doing. The state offers people escaping from Asia Minor a three-year integration program which includes Danish language courses and vocational preparation. Theoretically, after these three years, immigrants should enter the job market, but only twelve percent of them do so. After another year this figure increases by barely two percent. For example, in the years 2009-2013, Denmark accepted 4,200 refugees from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Three years later, only 12-14 percent were working, while the rest were receiving benefits, which are very high in this country. But most Muslim immigrants in Denmark are Turks, who have been allowed to enter the country for many years with the right to bring family members. Some in this group follow religious rules and ensure that the young Danish-born women marry men from Turkey. And some of these men, in turn, do not allow their Danish-born and raised wives to speak Danish to their children, which means that some of the six-year-olds beginning school can’t speak Danish, and this significantly lowers the level of education in the first years of primary school. As a result, Danes have begun to move out of the neighborhoods, where many Muslims live, and ghettoes have appeared.
All of these issues keep returning to the social debate, obviously. Not only are native Danes voicing their opinions in this debate, but also the descendants of immigrants from Muslim countries, those who are well-educated and who function within the public life of Denmark. Their numbers are increasing, fortunately. But Hassan’s book has provoked yet another debate.
One that concerns an author’s responsibility and the role that a literary work plays in social life. It was triggered by a review published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet by Athena Farrokhzad, a Swedish poet and literary critic of Muslim descent. She accused Hassan of having given a present to the xenophobic and populist Danish People’s Party and the growing number of its supporters, directly providing them with arguments against immigrants formulated by a representative of their community. This debate, originally concerning the necessity or lack of necessity for writers to censor themselves, eventually also included the issue of the role and responsibility of critics.
Have there been any conclusions?
There aren’t any. There remain only differences of opinion. But the way this debate unfolded truly surprised me. It took place over the course of about half a year, from January to June 2014, after the publication of the Swedish translation of Hassan’s book appeared in the Swedish media. I didn’t follow this debate, but it was covered by a Danish newspaper which also published statements by two young Danish writers who are lesbians – Kristina Nya Glaffey and Maja Lee Langvad. They broadened the discussion to include work by writers belonging to sexual minorities and its acceptance in society. Maja Lee Langvad is of Korean descent – she lived in Korea as a child, and was adopted by a Danish couple, and thus belongs to two different minorities. Swedish and Danish writers – primarily young and belonging to various minorities – levelled accusations at the most progressive critics who, on principle, give credit to writers who go beyond the commonly recognizable spectrum of topics and forms, often also holding a weak position on the social ladder. The outstanding Lars Bukdahl got the most. In my opinion, he’s Denmark’s leading critic, with an extraordinarily sensitive ear to what’s new, different and non-standard, unafraid to challenge the older authorities. Paradoxically, this innocent critic, who dedicates himself full-heartedly to niche and high-quality literary phenomena, was accused of aestheticism, elitism and even chauvinism.
Because he thinks that a writer shouldn’t censor himself, that truth is an overriding value, that refusal to make compromises gives literature the power to purify, that it enriches society with knowledge of alternative, critical perspectives on reality, on its non-perceived or hidden aspects. Of course, Bukdahl received Hassan’s debut very enthusiastically.
Why was his debut so popular? Over one hundred thousand copies have been sold – an enormous number.
Especially in Denmark, which has five and a half million inhabitants. This was a result, of course, of the subject matter of Hassan’s poetry and all of the problems which I talked about at the beginning. But it’s also necessary to remember that Danes are a nation of people who read and buy books, and this isn’t only true for the elite. I’d bet that not as many copies would have been sold if Hassan’s poems hadn’t received excellent reviews.
I read that Hassan’s popularity is due to a cleverly managed promotional campaign.
Indeed, the promotional campaign began even before the book was published, but I don’t know if one can call it a clever move, since what good would the promotional campaign have done if the book hadn’t been a ticking bomb? If it hadn’t been shocking testimony to the life of a second generation of immigrant who exposed all of the problems and sins of his community, his own problems and sins, as well as those of Denmark and the Danish people? And, finally, if these poems hadn’t had any literary value? Moreover, the essence of the promotional campaign were interviews with the author, and they ended up having a very strong influence because the author is a person who is equally expressive as his poems: he’s uncompromising and doesn’t tolerate the accepted conventions of how a conversation is held. For example, when he thinks a question is stupid, he says so, and refuses to answer it. Hassan can be shocking and tells the stark truth. This also significantly helped to promote the book.
I also read that the reaction to his poetry is more interesting than the poetry itself.
If someone wrote that, it means that either he hasn’t read Hassan’s book or he has a wooden ear and heart, and a general lack of sensitivity to literature. Of course, the reception of this book is a very interesting phenomenon and will certainly become – or has already become – an object of research. But I’d bet that Hassan’s book won’t disappear in the way that hundreds of other books of poetry and prose fade away and disappear from collective memory and the history of literature, even those written by authors who were very highly appreciated in various time periods. In this poetry there is, on the one hand, a powerful load of rage, rebellion and protest, and a shocking depiction of life, the authenticity of which the author emphasizes many times. On the other hand, there is a new literary quality in it, a language as shocking as the content which it expresses.
What is Hassan’s language like?
Powerful, brutal, uncompromising – it’s an appropriate medium for the view of the world which he presents. I don’t know if Hassan will still be able to write in this language – perhaps he won’t be able to load his cannon twice with the same explosive material. In any case, perhaps he won’t be able to write in the same way in his next book. Maybe I’m wrong. This book seems to me like a volcanic eruption which happens only once over a period of many years. For me, what’s essential in it is the rhythm. Rhythm is generally essential in poetry, of course, but in Hassan’s poems it fulfils a very specific function: it very powerfully and effectively emphasizes and intensifies the expressed content. Hassan has mentioned in interviews that at a certain time in his life he was in contact with a club where he became acquainted with rap and even tried to write rap texts. The rhythm of his poems bears a distinct trace of this. Besides this, Hassan freely makes use of anaphora, repetitions – often in groups of three – which additionally increases the expressive power of these poems. Slang expressions fulfil the same function. Hassan also infuses the Danish language with Arabic words and expressions.
He wrote all of his poems in capital letters.
Yes. I interpret this as another way of intensifying expression, another way of emphasizing that these poems are like someone shouting.
Is he independent in his writing style, or does he somehow fit into contemporary Danish poetry?
He’s absolutely unique, he has no predecessors. I’ve come across statements by literary critics who emphasize, that finally a voice has emerged from the second generation of Danish immigrants, the new Danes, which has significantly enriched the Danish language.
Yahya Hassan’s debut collection of poems was published in Denmark in 2012 by the Danish publishing house Gyldendal. You can read more about the Danish poet here (in Danish).
Photos: Morten Holtum, Asbjørn Sand