The memories of an Arctic child

In her latest novel Godhavn, Iben Mondrup explores life through the eyes of children. The Greenlandic setting is close to her heart, and years after leaving the country, she continues to process the struggle of belonging to a culture and a community that doesn't accept her as one of their own

The interview has barely begun, but Iben Mondrup is in full swing. Seated in her home office in Vesterbro and speaking with lucid passion, she hardly pauses between critiquing the Danish art academy, discussing Greenland’s racial hierarchy, and arguing for a need to accept the desires of children.

Blonde and Danish, Iben Mondrup is a Greenlander at heart. But resented by the people whose country she felt she belonged to, and unable to relate to the people she looked like, she suffered an identity crisis as a teenager.

“I completely broke down. I crashed. I quit university, divorced my husband, went to art school and said, ‘Fuck Greenland! Fuck the lot of you.’ I just threw it all away,” she says, two middle fingers extended in the air between us.

Rooted but homeless
Mondrup moved to Denmark aged 17 with her Greenlandic boyfriend – who would briefly become her husband – after ten years living in Greenland. She was immediately taken aback by the treatment that Greenlanders received on the mainland, and was infuriated when asked why she had moved home – moving to Denmark was moving away from home.

“They treated me like a Dane, and it made me furious. They were interested in my story and wanted to be friends with me, but my Greenlandic boyfriend was subjected to racism as soon as he arrived in Denmark. I was on constant alert, trying to protect him from my friends’ condescending attitudes about Greenland. I couldn’t ally myself with my Danish classmates because that would lead me away from him. I was caught between the two and it was incredibly stressful.”

Her latest novel is Godhavn, named after the west Greenland town her family moved to in the 1970s to participate in modernising the former colony. The young Mondrup soon developed anger towards ‘the white man’, and rebelled against her identity as a member of the coloniser’s class. But while she felt that her ability to criticise her white heritage earned her a place within Greenlandic society, she was never truly accepted.

“I couldn’t understand why Greenlanders didn’t want me just because I was a Dane. It didn’t matter that I grew up there – they will always see me as a Dane. It was incredibly hurtful.”

Her marriage crumbled under the pressure of being split between two worlds, and her former husband would later return to Greenland, where he now works as a doctor. She always thought she would return too, but 25 years on, she remains in Copenhagen. Despite settling in Denmark, she hasn’t forgotten her roots. On the contrary – the very identity conflict that undermined her studies and her marriage now defines her as a person and permeates her work.

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The lives of children
Godhavn revolves around three children who move to the town – now called Qeqertarsuaq – with their Danish family. The novel’s premise is based on her own experience, but Mondrup is adamant that it shouldn’t be treated as a biographical work. Instead, she hopes the novel will revive childhood memories in her readers and instil in them that sense of vulnerability that is characteristic of being a child.

“The book focuses on the first-hand experiences of children in social environments over which they have no control. Children don’t have free will. They can’t move. So I’m interested in the space that children are placed in and how they learn to understand themselves through it, without being able to change it.”

Reviews of Godhavn have mostly been glowing. Information called it “beautiful and intense,” while Berlingske writes that Mondrup’s novel is a snapshot of life that manages to “wonderfully recreate the imperfect, vulnerable and forlorn.”

Atlas Magasin was less charitable, writing that “the descriptions of the child’s mind are extremely boring […] Godhavn is boring.” But mention of the poor review doesn’t break Mondrup’s stride.

“If anyone wants to get anything out of this product, they have to spend time on it. I have spent enormous amounts of time on it. Years and years. Sure, Godhavn isn’t carried by its plot, but it’s completely OK for a work to be carried by other things, by senses, by the reflections of a child, where there isn’t a target and where we have to stay with the people we are reading about without knowing where they are going. That might be provocative for some people.”

Benefits of being an outsider
Mondrup went to school with local Greenlandic children after arriving in Godhavn aged seven, but was soon separated and placed in a class with just one other Danish child. She quickly lost touch with her Greenlandic friends, and only developed meaningful connections with people outside her Danish community when she moved to the capital, Nuuk, aged 12.

Danes belonged to an intellectual upper class in Greenland. They were the teachers and doctors who taught and treated the local Greenlandic community. Her parents remain in the town, but most Danes left after only a few years, and she remembers the sadness of their continual arrival and departure.

“A central theme in the novel is one of loss, both from being separated from Greenlanders, but also from being in a Danish community where people are constantly coming and going. As a child, having to constantly say goodbye is a really violent experience that makes them hesitant to forge connections. It’s worse than heartbreak.”

Being set apart from the local community, Mondrup became acutely aware of her differences, which resulted in a heightened self-awareness. This ability to reflect on her situation would later become an essential instrument in her artistic toolbox – it’s the font of her creative energy and her reference point when examining the world around her.

The 47-year-old artist and writer seems more at peace with her identity than the teenager she describes. She no longer resents Greenlanders for not seeing beyond her heritage as a member of the coloniser’s class. She has also stopped writing articles for Danish media about post-colonial Greenland – articles written from a need to persuade Danes that Greenland cannot be accurately encapsulated by the endless discussion of alcoholism, social problems, and its beautiful nature.

“Subconsciously, I felt like I owed something to Greenland, that I had a debt to pay off, and I am still indignant about the way Greenland is discussed,” she says.

Debate is not conversation
The media often calls upon her unique perspective, but she doesn’t care to be used to convey an opinion. She is more interested in the process of developing ideas through self-examination, which is only possible through honest dialogue. Modern debate lacks subtlety, Mondrup argues. The winner of a TV debate is decided by which talking head manages to repeat their piece the most number of times. Issues are reduced to opposing poles, eternally in conflict with each other. She is asked to participate in these panels, but refuses. She wants to talk and express doubt, but the format precludes it. Panellists must each have their version of the truth prepared for the audience. There is no space left for uncertainty.

“Conversations are painful. It’s a place where I don’t have my views ready. Like talking about when I imploded when I was 18…it was an extremely stressful experience. But if I can talk with doubt, then the conversation is productive. It’s not therapy; it just opens up the possibility of talking about issues.”

She recalls how her daughter came to her, wondering why her friends had difficulty understanding what she was saying. Her daughter spoke quickly and with poor enunciation. But if she didn’t say everything she had to say really quickly, her friends would lose interest.

“What does it mean that, at the age of 14, a child experiences that if they take time to expand their view, they lose the attention of their peers? Is it symptomatic of our society? Perhaps. It may be harder to maintain attention because of our telephones that split our attention. Are we shutting down on issues that are complicated and which require mental consideration? TV is becoming really reduced because people want easily digestible entertainment. It’s as though the public doesn’t want this type of deeper conversation or debate.”

She trails off and shrugs, the palms of her hands extended.

“I really don’t know.” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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