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Ann-Helén Laestadius grew up among the Sámi, an indigenous people who live near the Arctic Circle in Europe. Her novel Stolen, a hit in her native Sweden, reflects that culture to a wide audience.
"Stolen" by Ann-Helén Laestadius is part coming-of-age story and part thriller. It also addresses issues faced by the Sámi, such as the killing of reindeer.Credit...Thomas Ekstrom para o New York Times
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VonLisa at night
Two days after Christmas, Ann-Helén Laestadius was gently beaten by reindeer.
Taking advantage of the bluish glow that passes for daylight at this time of year in Sweden's far north, she left her parents' cozy kitchen and drove to the corral where her cousin keeps his flock for the winter. She was there for a photo shoot, but first she had to help feed the animals by pulling chunks of half-frozen lichen from a net bag as the reindeer impatiently jostled each other around. Even after a brief tap with the pointed end of a horn, she looked at them indulgently.
“For the Sami,” said Laestadius, referring to the indigenous group to which she belongs, “reindeer are not just animals. You are life."
This lesson is at the heart of her novel, Stolen, out Jan. 31 in English from Scribner. He explains why the Sami characters in the book do not see the killing of their reindeer as a crime against their property, but against their own people as a whole. And, thanks to the book's success, it is also a lesson that Sweden, whose Sámi settlement was long and dark, has been able to learn slowly.
an indigenous people,that together, numbering about 80,000, inhabit a vast area stretching across the Arctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Their language and culture were violently repressed for centuries by national governments, which also stripped them of their land rights and developed industries that threatened the habitats on which their livelihoods and culture depend.
To this day, the Sámi fight legal and political battles to protect their lands from mineral and logging mining and their pastoral routes from energy projects. And while the Nordic countries are widely seen, both abroad and at home, as progressive and egalitarian, many of the Sámi who live within its borders say they continue to face discrimination, racism and – at the hands of their reindeer – violence.
Case in point: after the Swedish Supreme Court granted the Sámi the exclusive right to administer hunting and fishing rights in the Girjas Samby area near the Norwegian border in 2020, the killing of reindeer (which had long plagued the community) took off. . Many Sámi believe it was an expression of anger among native Swedes, who resented losing their hunting rights to a people they had long vilified. "They kill our reindeer," said Laestadius, "because they cannot kill us."
Laestadius, 51, is the son of a Sami mother and a Tornedalier father, another of Sweden's ethnic minorities, and grew up on the outskirts of Kiruna, a mining town 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Early in life, she began to internalize shame about her identity, she said. His mother spoke Sami with her parents and neighbors, but she switched to Swedish every time she went into town.
"I automatically thought something was wrong," Laestadius said of his mother's code change. "Ussomething is wrong."
That feeling grew stronger when she started going to school, she said, and was bullied and rejected by non-Sámi children. "I figured I should be quiet about who I am."
At the age of twenty, Laestadius moved to Stockholm, where he worked as a crime reporter for several Swedish newspapers. But little by little, as a journalist and writer of young adult books, she began to look back at the world she grew up in. Her first book, published in 2007, was about a 13-year-old girl who was secretly learning the Sami language.
Stolen, her first adult novel, also begins with a young Sami woman. Elsa is 9 years old when she witnesses her reindeer calf being maliciously killed. As she grows up, the trauma of that moment, along with other brutalities – being banned from school, a friend's suicide, the police unable or unwilling to investigate the ongoing reindeer murders – turns to rage.
Laestadius had the idea for a novel in mind for seven years, she said, but refrained from writing it out of fear that she would not be entitled to tell stories of reindeer herding, as she herself did not come from a herding family. But after two of her young cousins - brothers - killed themselves, she felt she could no longer avoid writing about the effects of imposed inferiority, she said.
"Suicide is something every Sami family has gone through," Laestadius said. “I wanted people to know; This is what happens when you treat people like that when they get so much hate.”
When she started talking to pastors for research, her sense of urgency increased.
"Everyone told the same story," she said. "I could feel their sadness and despair."
When a young herder gave her copies of one hundred reports of reindeer killings that had been filed with the police without any arrests, Laestadius grew weary: "I wrote this book in a lot of anger."
She also wrote it with sensitivity and insight into the complexities of Sámi life. From Elsa's pride in her gákti - the traditional Sami dress trimmed with ribbon - to the embarrassing way tourists flock to her, "Stolen" sheds light on a culture that many in Sweden have long ignored or vilified. Sami words dot the text—a deliberate strategy to overcome the shame that prevented her own mother from teaching her the language. "I'm sorry I don't speak Sami," Laestadius said. "So it became even more important for me to have him in my books."
Although "Stolen" is fiction, some Sámi found it a welcome representation of their reality - including the reindeer killings, which many Sámi organizations are struggling to classify as a hate crime. "Ann-Helén shows nuances in the culture that I'm not sure non-Sámi people would notice," said Åsa Larsson Blind, vice president of the Sámi Council, an NGO that works to protect Sámi rights. "It's an extraordinary talent for her to be able to write a story about something that is very specific to a small culture, but is of interest to a wider audience."
"Stolen" won the Swedish Readers' Award for "Book of the Year" in 2021 and will be filmed for Netflix.
Laestadius is now part of a large community of Sami artists, musicians and writers whose works contain political messages. "Within Sami culture, artists have always been activists," says Larsson. "It's natural for them to express strong political statements through art, and it can also be more impactful because people tend to be more open to art."
In recent years, a number of Sami artists, musicians and writers have gained renewed attention and recognition for their work in the Nordic countries. Director Amanda Kernell's Sámi Blood won top prize at the 2017 Gothenburg Film Festival. Mats Jonsson's When We Were Sámi, which follows the author's attempt to reconcile his newly discovered Sami heritage with his Swedish identity, was released in 2021 was the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the August Prize, a renowned literary award. Pile O'Sápmi, a moving piece of protest artwork by artist Maret Anne Sara, crowns the entrance to the newly opened National Museum of Norway in Oslo. The Nordic Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale was dedicated exclusively to Sami artists.
In the eastern town of Umea, Krister Stoor, a linguistics professor who teaches 'Stolen' as part of her university curriculum, has seen a big change at the local literary festival. "There are so many Sami writers this year," he said. "Ten years ago you would have been hard pressed to find one."
Although theThe Church of Sweden apologizedfor its role in repression against the Sámi - including monitoring boarding schools that forcibly assimilated Sámi children - the Swedish government did not.
It is uncertain whether the recent burst of energy and cultural interest is affecting Swedish attitudes and politics, but there are signs of change. In December, the Swedish government agreed to return for burial the remains of 18 Sami whose bodies were used in what is now discredited racial research in the early 20th century, and promised to facilitate the repatriation of Sami artifacts currently in preserved Swedish museums.
In at least some sectors of Swedish society, there is a growing awareness of Sweden's responsibility in its treatment of the Sámi. In an enthusiastic review of 'Stolen' for the newspaper Expressen, Gunilla Brodrej, a culture editor, expressed her shame at having once dismissed as unrealistic a TV series that portrayed racism in the face of the Sami.
"At school, I and even my children learned that we Swedes organize everything very well for the Sámi," she said in an interview. "But when you read a book like this, you realize it's a much darker story than we ever learned."
Laestadius also had some repercussions. Local newspapers are reporting more reindeer deaths and there are signs that authorities may be paying more attention to the cases. "They usually never come," she said of the police with a wry smile. "But last summer, when a reindeer was killed in a small village, they sent a helicopter."
However, she is still angry and has more to reveal. Her last novel will be published in Sweden in February. It depicts the brutal conditions in the boarding schools to which Sami children were sent and is based on the experiences of their mothers.
As the midday sun began to set, Laestadius posed for a few more pictures in the snow covered village where you play Stolen.
"Now we have the opportunity and the power to tell our story," she said. "It's up to us to say."
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