Barbara Burns interviews Anja Tröger, whose new book Affective Spaces: Migration in Scandinavian and German Transnational Narratives is volume 24 in our Germanic Literatures series.

BB. What prompted you to come to the UK, and Edinburgh in particular?

Anja Tröger

AT. I became a student a bit later in life than most. Initially I worked as a bookseller in Germany, but I dreamt that one day I would like to live in the UK and study literature – preferably in a beautiful city with an old university, in a scenic part of the country. I chose Edinburgh because it has all these things and more, and I’ve been based here for twelve years now. I was in my mid-thirties when I started studying at Edinburgh, a joint honours degree in English Literature and Scandinavian Studies. This course let me do the two things I love – immerse myself in books (both Scandinavian and Anglophone), and learn a new language, Norwegian, from scratch. It was also great to spend time in Norway as part of my undergraduate degree. After that, I stayed in Edinburgh for a Masters and then a PhD in Scandinavian Studies, and now I’m working at the university, so this turned out to be a really good move for me.

BB. How did you get interested in the subject of migration, and what prompted you to focus on this particular combination of works from Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden?

Edinburgh is sometimes called the Athens of the North: but maybe it's also the Helsinki, or the Oslo, of the West

AT. After I moved to Scotland, I realised how incredibly privileged I was, because I simply had to pack my bags, and my German passport was all I needed at the time to be able to live and study in a different country. This made me wonder what it must feel like for people who try to migrate without these privileges, and how they perceive things after they arrive in their so-called host country.

  1. Finland
  2. Denmark
  3. Switzerland
  4. Iceland
  5. Norway
  6. The Netherlands
  7. Sweden
  8. New Zealand
  9. Luxembourg
  10. Austria
The top 10 according to the 2020 World Happiness Report metric;
the bottom 10 is dominated by countries with major refugee crises.

The Scandinavian countries regularly top the ranking lists in terms of standard of living, income per capita, gender equality and happiness, which makes them some of the most desirable destinations for immigration. I wanted to find out how Scandinavian novels negotiate these positive attributions: do they really apply to everyone? Or do the novels suggest that some people, in particular those who are new to a country, are excluded from this supposed happiness? Comparing these Scandinavian depictions of migrant and postmigrant experiences with German ones made it possible to scrutinise and challenge this notion of Scandinavian exceptionalism.

BB. The twelve texts you examine were all published between 2011 and 2017. Is there a particular reason for this? Were you interested in exploring recent political developments in the context of immigration to Europe, or are the broader issues of displacement and racism equally central?

AT. It’s true that the novels were all published in the relatively narrow timeframe between 2011 and 2017, but the migratory stories that the novels tell span a much wider period. With this, I acknowledge that migration is of course nothing new; and yet the novels reflect the topicality of recent political developments. I think that these works contribute to the ongoing debate about migration, because they engage with issues such as racism, othering and marginalisation which are ever more urgent today.

The experience of migration: waiting, hoping.
(Photo of a central American caravan, 9 November 2018, by Carmen Alcázar)

BB. How did you find the process of working on a topic that must in some respects have been quite troubling?

AT. One of my favourite parts of writing this book was close reading the primary texts. When I began reading, I wasn’t entirely sure how the novels would compare, but while I was working on two or three novels at a time, I began to see parallels and similarities; characters in different novels had very similar experiences and feelings, although their circumstances may have been completely different. It was almost as if the novels were speaking to each other. Of course, some of the topics that I encountered were harrowing, such as depictions of pain, violence and rape which, unfortunately, can be part of a migratory journey. I would say that reading these descriptions and researching these topics was one of the biggest challenges of the project.

BB. The issue of migration, especially as it relates to asylum-seekers and refugees, is an emotive topic to which people are frequently exposed via the media, without necessarily engaging with its complexity. In what ways do you think novels enrich our understanding of this subject?

AT. In my opinion, reading novels is fantastic because it allows us to enter into and grapple with precisely this complexity: we are presented with detailed descriptions, characters’ mind-sets and with their emotional states, and we can empathise with asylum seekers and refugees, although our own lives may be completely different. By bringing together twelve novels that cover every step of the migratory journey, I focus on the emotional and physical impact of migration on the individual and argue that the characters’ affective responses are not merely individual problems, but rather closely linked with political and social processes of exclusion, or unequal power relations. Novels can be seen as a counter movement to public debates that reinforce the marginalisation of immigrants and make them feel that they don’t belong.

BB. Finally, what do you do to relax?

AT. Funnily enough, I usually read to chill out, preferably with my cat curled up on my lap. Of course, I try to keep up to date with trends in Scandinavian literature, but I also love any kind of gothic literature. And my not-so-secret guilty pleasure is SciFi and exploring weird post-apocalyptic worlds.

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