Sassa Buregren and Elin Lindell are authors and illustrators. They are also Swedish feminists. The word “feminists,” especially when preceded by “Swedish,” is likely to elicit an uncomfortable tension in Russia, an association with something “foreign to our traditions and mentality.” For us, the word “feminism” seems determined to become a pejorative for women behaving “improperly.” And this not just from the men’s perspective, but from the point of view of “society as a whole” (though, as feminists see it, this society exists according to rules established by men).
I would argue that approaching conflicted feelings with a bit of distance and a change in focus is a useful and interesting exercise. We should at the very least allow for the fact that we are dealing with a complex phenomenon with a history which is dramatic, if not outright tragic. Much of what we take for granted today, such as a woman’s right to a higher education and a wider range of opportunities since the early 1900s, are triumphs we owe to feminism. Yet even today, we can’t quite say that the problems feminism addresses have been resolved. Although I’m inclined to think that would be a man’s view on things—or, rather, that of a society that exists according to rules set out by men.
Papmambook wanted to speak with Sassa and Elin about feminism in the context of children’s literature. They’ve written What We Celebrate on March 8 Original edition: Sassa Buregren, Elin Lindell. Feminism pågår. Stockholm: Natur & Kultur, 2016. 75 s. ISBN 9789127144170. , a book for teenagers.
- You’ve written a book for teenagers about feminism—a physical book, on paper. Do you think a book will get these ideas through to today’s children? Could it get the message across more effectively than addressing this topic online, for instance?
Sassa: We both make books. I write all kinds of books, including fiction, while Elin is an artist and illustrator, though we did co-author this particular book. That is to say, a book is our preferred way of communicating, of expressing our ideas. If we were theatre directors, then, maybe, we would put on a play that addressed this topic. For us, writing and illustrating a book is the natural way to say what we have to say on the subject of feminism.
- How important was the use of visual elements for your book?
Elin: It was very important. I remember myself as a child quite well. My desire to pick up a book and look through it depended very much on whether I liked the pictures. I’m actually quite sure that in childhood the pictures had a greater impact on me than the text.
Sassa: There’s a lot of humor in Elin’s illustrations for our book. That’s something that I think really helps the book’s readers connect with us as authors.
- But here we’re dealing with very serious issues.
Elin: Yes. And humor helps us make that dialogue less dramatic and take off the general tension. That helps the readers engage with the content.
- Would it be fair to say it’s pretty typical for Swedish children’s books to broach difficult topics by using humor?
Sassa: I wouldn’t say it’s typical for the literature in general, but there is such a trend. The Death Book by Pernilla Stalfelt is an example.
- In Russia her book caused a storm of indignation among parents. It was considered completely scandalous. Was there a similar reaction in Sweden?
Elin: No, not at all. Many books on difficult topics come out regularly in Sweden. They deal with death, incest, traumatic events. I think many more books like this come out in Sweden than in any other country, except for Norway. It may well be that Norway has even more than Sweden.
Sassa: We think that the main distinguishing feature of modern Swedish literature is its ability to bring up difficult topics. We would very much like for as many children as possible—children of all different backgrounds, facing different problems—to see themselves in the characters in books.
- When did children’s literature in Sweden chose this path, of speaking openly about death, psychological trauma, feminism?
Sassa: Starting in the 1970s.
- Why in the 70s? What is that period associated with?
Sassa: In the 70s, social realism became the leading style in our literature…Social realism, for us, is literature that describes everyday life, including social issues.
- For me (and, I’m willing to bet, for many others as well), Swedish literature of the 70s is associated primarily with Astrid Lindgren.
Elin: Astrid Lindgren is a special case, even for that time. She never tried to teach kids anything. She wasn’t trying to bring them up in the “right” way. She was always, quite simply, on the side of the child…
Sassa: But today’s literature on difficult topics deviates quite strongly from literature in the 70s. Now authors don’t place themselves above children and burden them with adult experience. They try to write about children, with an awareness of the children’s own perspective.
- Is your book about feminism written that way?
Elin: We hope so.
Sassa: That was the effect we were going for. We consider the child equal to us. We don’t push through any conclusions. We offer him or her a choice.
- What is the choice for the teenager reading your book? To be or not to be a feminist? To agree or disagree with the authors?
Sassa: No, that’s not what I mean. It’s not about whether it’s right to acknowledge or deny the biological difference between people. And not about whether you should or shouldn’t breastfeed a child or take leave from work for a few months to take care of a newborn…
Elin: In Sweden, fathers can take paternity leave. And that is very significant within the relationship between the man and woman in the family. Currently, 25% of fathers in Sweden take paternity leave when they have a newborn.
Sassa: When I gave birth to my second child, my husband and I agreed that each of us would take parental leave to take care of him. I sat with the child half the time, and he took on the other half.
- What about breastfeeding…?
Elin: You can leave a bottle of pumped breastmilk for the child; you can feed the child in the morning or evening. But whether to do that or not is something the mother should decide for herself. If a woman wants to feed her child, the man can take care of the laundry.
Sassa: The point is that all members of society should have equal social opportunities. What it is we have to do to make those opportunities truly equal is the next step in the discussion. In our book we want to show the child that he has the freedom to form his own approach to the issue.
- If I understand correctly, this book is not only about feminism, but more precisely about the issue of a child’s freedom? It’s about the fact that a child, like anyone else, should have a social choice. It’s written in defense of a child’s freedom, right?
Sassa and Elin: Yes.
Sassa: It’s always better to give a child one hundred opportunities rather than two. But you have to tell him or her about those opportunities.
- What set of books would you say your book falls into? Are there other children’s books on feminism?
Sassa: In Sweden there’s a book project that is dedicated to putting out books on equality, freedom, and democracy. It includes picture books for the youngest readers and text-based books, including fiction, for older readers.
- At the moment, there’s no context for your book in Russia. This is the first children’s book about feminism. And all around it there’s a complete vacuum.
Sassa: The Russian publishers collaborated on our book. They included Sofia Kovalevskaya, the first Russian female mathematician, who made significant contributions to science. We very much hope that our book will pave the way for other such books, not just on the subject of feminism, but also about the right to choose and the freedom of choice…
Elin: You know who fills out the ranks of feminists? Fathers who have daughters. We call it “dad feminism.”
- Dad feminism?
Sassa: These fathers develop a completely new perspective on the world around them. They suddenly see injustice where they didn’t notice it before. Most of all, they want so badly for their daughters to have many opportunities!
In conversation with Marina Aromshtam
Russian-Swedish interpretation by Anna Ogneva
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Read the reactions of teenagers from the Papmambook team to the book.
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