​Jonas Hassen Khemiri crosses borders through words and imagination​

Swedish novelist and playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri has received international acclaim for his innovative, politically charged work. His latest novel, Everything I Don't Remember, received Sweden's top literary prize.
Jonas Hassen Khemiri and Eleanor Wachtel pictured together at the 2018 Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal. (CBC)
Listen to the full episode52:54

Swedish novelist and playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri has received international acclaim for his innovative, politically charged work. His plays are performed on stages across Europe and North America, and his novels have been translated into more than 20 languages. Khemiri's latest novel, Everything I Don't Remember, deals with loss, memory and cultural diversity in contemporary Stockholm. It won Sweden's top literary honour, the August Prize, for best Swedish fiction book of the year.

Born in 1978 to a Tunisian father and Swedish mother, Khemiri brings a unique perspective to his writing, with an awareness of the power of language across cultures. Khemiri is also socially engaged: in 2013, he wrote an open letter to Sweden's justice minister that criticized a controversial carding policy and described his own experience of racial profiling. The letter was published in newspapers around the world, including in the New York Times. 

Jonas Hassen Khemiri talked to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal.

The power of language

"Both of my parents were intrigued by words. They were quite good at picking words and looking at them from different angles, one could say, because my mother and father spoke different languages. I think that the main thing I took away from that background was a curiosity about the power of words from an early age. I couldn't understand how my parents could become different people in different languages.

"My mother was a very funny, very efficient storyteller in Swedish. The moment she switched to a language that was not her mother tongue, she changed. Her humour was gone. She had this weird laughter that she didn't have otherwise. And the same with my father — I could see him being robbed of himself when he was forced to speak a language that was not his mother tongue. How is it that the language we use gives us power in certain situations and then, 10 seconds later, diminishes power?"

Growing up in a divided city

"I'm from an area that's part of the inner city in Stockholm. I had friends from different areas. Stockholm is a city that is really segregated. My impression of my hometown was influenced by the fact that I was treated so differently depending on whether I was walking through the inner-city with friends from rich areas or friends from poor areas. If I was with my rich friends, we would enter a store and we would be considered customers. We would be talked to politely. I bought a lot of CDs at the time, so we could listen to and try out the CDs infinitely. Then I went into the same store with friends from poor areas. We were immediately viewed as potential criminals. That showed me a side of my hometown that I wasn't too proud of."

Changing the gaze

"One thing that I keep writing a lot about is the power of the gaze. When someone looks at you and thinks that you're someone you're not, is it possible to reverse that gaze? Or can you use your words to get out of that? One thing that I remember doing as a teenager, if I was with friends from poorer areas, I remember thinking to myself, 'Walk normally.' The moment you start thinking about walking normally, you just start walking strangely. Those experiences trickled down into the writing. 

Racial profiling in Sweden

"A few years ago, the Swedish police decided that they wanted to make a push to find people who were in our country illegally. They started questioning people in the streets about their identification. Of course, they only asked people who in their mind didn't resemble the typical idea of who was part of that country. A number of people raised their voices and said, 'This is actually racial profiling. This is not OK.' I was on paternity leave — a very Swedish thing to do — and I was happy that there were other voices speaking about this. But then the minister of justice responded, 'Actually, this is not a question of racial profiling. These people are paranoid and they remind me of people who have been let out of prison, thinking that they are followed by police.' 

"A number of Swedish citizens said, 'We are feeling criminalized.' Our minister of justice at the time says, 'Well you're being paranoid. Plus you remind me of ex-cons.' I wrote an open letter in which I asked her to switch bodies with me. I enter her body and I understand feminism in a new way. She enters my body and she has my memories of growing up in Sweden — just being reminded time and time again that a number of people in power don't see you as part of this nation. When I started writing these very small memories, I realised that I had silenced myself for many years.

"​I remember growing up continuously defending my own country. I kept saying, maybe it was a little bit my fault. I was wearing a hoodie. I'm young and I was hanging out with the wrong people. But the last time that happened, I was 19. I was a student of economics and I was wearing a coat. A police officer put me in a police car for 20 minutes while he checked out if I was who I claimed to be. It's tricky to be inside of a police car and look innocent. No matter what, you tend to look like you've done something. I would love to say that it ended with me kicking down the door and giving an impromptu speech about the wrongs of racial profiling. But it's also scary to be in the back of a police car.

"I always thought my experiences were nothing compared to some others. But as I started writing them down they actually amounted to something. I realised that, actually, the biggest stories are contained in the small things. I think that also influenced the writing of my novel Everything I Don't Remember."

Jonas Hassen Khemiri's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: The Joy of D.H. Lawrence by Erik Enocksson.