As a linguistic map of Europe reminds us — such as the one on the front cover of Kate Averis, Margaret Littler, and Godela Weiss-Sussex's new book Contested Communities: Small, Minority and Minor Literatures in Europe — the powerhouse languages spoken by tens of millions do not meet each other with clean-cut borders. Major languages more or less overlie historically spacious nations, especially those with empires ('a shprakh iz a dyalekt mit an armey un flot', as Max Weinreich arguably first said in 1945: a language is a dialect with an army and navy). Minor languages occupy bubbles of land sometimes inside those nation states and sometimes between them, and they complicate the picture with politics and postcolonial history. Novelists in a small language could usually write in a large one instead if they chose to: it's not as if the great Catalan satirist Quim Monzó doesn't know any Spanish, for example. Writing in Catalan is very much a statement.

Or consider Niviaq Korneliussen, whose debut novel HOMO Sapienne was written in Greenlandic in 2014, and is one of the case studies in Christinna Hazzard's fascinating chapter in our book. The 56,000 native speakers of Greenlandic, more or less the whole population, are technically Danes. But their increasingly independent Parliament, the Naalakkersuisut, gave the language official status in 2009. Korneliussen's novel, set in the capital city of Nuuk (population: 18,800), is about five young people trying to work out their lives, but is also about being in minorities: cultural, sexual, linguistic. What does it mean not to conform to expectations? Perhaps one thing it means is that when you grow out of the Danish educational system, you write your breakthrough novel in Greenlandic, not Danish. (As evidence that this was a choice on her part, consider that Korneliussen was herself the novel's Danish translator.) Written in a bit of a rush, and by a talented novice, HOMO Sapienne is nevertheless now considered a classic and has appeared in English, French, German, Swedish, Norwegian and Romanian too, under a variety of titles. (In English, it's Last Night in Nuuk.)

One yardstick for success as a novelist in a small language is when your novel has a page of its own on English Wikipedia. But another yardstick is to have followers. Not all of Korneliussen's fellow countrymen liked everything she had to say: 'You’re a Greenlander when you’re an alcoholic. You’re a Greenlander when you beat your partner.' But Greenlandic fiction is on the rise, and Korneliussen inspired, and inspires, others.

cover of Contested Communities

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