'It's high time for us to rethink our romanticized view of Sweden'
Published: 21 Jan 2014 13:25 GMT+01:00
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Many Swedes grew up with Astrid Lindgren's layered and vivid tales about Emil, Ronja and Rasmus. Even today they are important and influential stories about people, relationships and adventure. Bullerbyn (The Noisy Village), Lönneberga, and the Västerhaga orphanage also tell a story about a Sweden from a time gone by; a Sweden that we learned to both love and marvel at through countless tales told by one of the country's most cherished writers. Our image of the Sweden that we asked our grandparents to tell us about when we were children is, more the part, told by Astrid Lindgren.
At the same time, many of her books sparked debate when they were first published. Pippi Longstocking, for example, was accused of contributing to the "wildness of young people". Yet, Astrid Lindgren's stories about the Sweden of iconic 'Gärdsgård' log fences, orphanages, red cottages, and Saltkråkan (Seacrow Island) played a more important role that lessons learned in school when it came to shaping the accepted view of the Swedish cultural heritage.
This romanticized image of contemporary Sweden is important to today's debate about Sweden. Not least because the political debate often revolves around the preservation of ideals and beliefs from a time long ago. When the Sweden Democrats disguise xenophobia and outdated values as dreams about a time gone by and preserving the past, it's is time to think about what sort of stories Astrid Lindgren would tell about our time. What questions will our grandchildren ask us? How was the Sweden that shaped us? Who is the "Emil" of our time? I know what I think about the sort of stories Astrid Lindgren would have told.
About a guy in Lönneberga whose name isn't Emil, but Samir and who, when he was a child, was a troublemaker; who played pranks, found mischief, and when his father scolded him fled to the nearest football pitch. That this rowdy boy, just as Lönneberga's Emil, would end up on the local council in Hultsfred was hardly anything the residents of Lönneberga would have believed.
About Ronja, the robber's daughter who finds her contested and sometimes forbidden love, not with Birk, the son of the head of a rival clan, but with the daughter Ylva. And I would hope that Ronja's and Ylva's love for one another would be as obvious to us as the one between Ronja and Birk described for us by Lindgren in the classic Ronia the Robber's Daughter (Ronja Rövardotter).
About Pippi, who wasn't chased by Prussiluskan from social services and who Tommy's and Annika's parents never shook their heads at. A Pippi who is instead praised, admired, and fascinates those around her for her outspokenness, her criticism of reigning norms, and going her own way. We might today know her instead as Lady Gaga or Beyoncé.
About an orphan boy who, just like Rasmus, left the orphanage and his homeland in search of a family and someone to love him. Our time's Rasmus, however, is named Sinan and is an unaccompanied refugee child from Afghanistan. In the same manner as that of Rasmus's world, where only blonde girls with curly hair were selected from the orphanage, no one at first welcomes Sinan with open arms. When this is told, I hope that it's as natural to get angry at those who want to send back Sinan to Afghanistan, as it once was to get angry when the police wanted to take Rasmus back to the orphanage.
About Bullerbyn, which is no longer inhabited by traditional nuclear families, but instead by "star" families (stjärnfamiljer), a recently minted Swedish term referring to families of different constellations. Where Britta and Anna living only with dad in Bullerbyn is as natural as Olle, who, though he lacks a father, gains a sibling when mom Lisa undergoes insemination treatment. It's a Bullerbyn where children play, find adventure, and where everyday life is an ideal worth longing for.
About Saltkråkan, which no longer plays out in the Stockholm archipelago, but thanks to free movement and economic growth, might take place somewhere in the Mediterranean archipelago; maybe on a small Greek island with whitewashed houses with blue shutters. Where Swedes travel every summer and where the occasional islander, like Saltkråkans Söderman, mutters something like, "Well, here come the summer residents. They are like the locusts of Egypt."
About the Lionheart Brothers, a story that, when told to us was just a fairy tale from a time that never existed. Even this time it's about two brothers who dream of a life of freedom and fight for good. The difference is that their escape is for real and is from today's Syria. Hopefully in the future, that reality will feel as strange as the tale of the Brothers Lionheart felt for us.
About an open, modern, and respectful Sweden is what I think Astrid would have told. Where people come from all over the world to work, study, love, and to escape from war and persecution. Where everyone's love was equally recognized and respected. Where being critical and outspoken defeated modern sexism and traditional gender roles. Where growth and mobility made the world bigger and more open. Far away from the romanticized wooden fences, xenophobia, and gender roles of the 1800s.
First vice-chairman of the Moderate Youth League (Moderata ungdomsförbundet)
This article was originally published in Swedish by the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper. English translation by The Local.