There are lots of walks of life—some humdrum, others criminal, a few of the original and exhilarating variety, and every flavor in between. Like it or not, you’ve chosen a path, but don’t despair, you can change directions any time you want.
This week’s conversation takes place between two blazers of lives well lived: Kristine Morris, veteran writer and book reviewer with a fancy for Central and South America, and Bernd Brunner,
Berliner by birth, Istanbul resident by way of graduate studies in America’s Pacific Northwest, and author of several offbeat though fascinating books—in other words, two writers who wake up every morning excited to be alive.
Kristine reviewed Bernd’s latest book, Extreme North: A Cultural History, in Foreword‘s January/February issue. We suspected there would be plenty to be inspired by, should we get the two together, and we weren’t disappointed.
Please tell our readers about your background. Where did you grow up and study? What have you done other than writing? And why did you finally choose writing?
I grew up in the western part of Berlin and spent most of my university time there, but I was also a visiting graduate student at the University of Washington, Seattle. I graduated in American Studies and Cultural Studies and came across great writers of cultural history such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch and Alain Corbin. I worked as a television journalist and producer. When I found an old book about aquariums in a flea market, I asked myself where the idea of aquariums originated and how they became so popular, and the writing just happened. It was really born from my own curiosity in the matter, not to write a successful book. The book got really good reviews in major German papers, and since then I’ve moved from book to book. I usually write in German, and I feel very fortunate that almost all my books have been translated into English.
One of the most enjoyable aspects I would like to mention here is my work with the translators of my books. Over the years, I have developed friendships with some of them, including Lori Lantz, Jefferson Chase, and José Aníbal Campos.
You’ve written many books, some on unusual topics, with titles like The Art of Lying Down, and Taming Fruit. What is there about you that leads you to write about quirky topics that others ignore?
I think the common thread is that I want to show how things evolved to where they are today. The topics usually exert a fascination over me, and often also have a “dark” or problematic side. So, I explore them, navigating between these different facets as I’ve done in my books about humans and bears, or the moon (both published by Yale University Press). My impulse is not to write a quirky book, and to me my subjects don’t even seem “quirky.” Not sure what this says about me!
You’ve chosen to spend part of the year in Berlin, and part in Istanbul. What draws you to these places, and what does each contribute to your work and life satisfaction?
Actually, I spent most of the last decade in Istanbul, beginning in 2010 when Istanbul was named “European Capital of Culture.” Despite all the things that have happened in Turkey, Istanbul remains a most fascinating city with an incredibly rich history and inhabited by people from many different walks of life. And there’s a lot of cultural and religious diversity in Turkey—much more than many people would expect. I also learned Turkish, which is quite a challenge for various reasons, and continue to study the language. Living abroad in a culture quite different from your own allows you to question basic assumptions you may have held, and, to a certain extent, to reinvent yourself. It has definitely taught me to see things from a different perspective. When I go to Berlin, I visit my parents and friends, and take advantage of the city’s great libraries. But for me, there is no longer much to discover in Berlin.
Extreme North poses an intriguing question: Where does “the South” end, and “the North” begin, and how do we recognize the hypothetical dividing line between them? While simple on the surface, you demonstrate that the question is really quite complex … almost mind-bending if one really thinks about it. Your book suggests that answers will differ depending on one’s location on the globe, political affiliations, social and cultural milieu, and other considerations. How do you, personally, define “North”?
For me, it’s a point on the compass. Even though I spent time in Washington State, Upstate New York, and Canada, “North” for me starts in Hamburg, which was my home for some years, and extends to Scandinavia and beyond. In that sense, I’m a Central European.
What triggered your desire to write this book?
My book on all things winter had just been published by Greystone Books (the English edition is called Winterlust). Then the idea for a book about the imaginary North came up. I have a connection with Scandinavia, learned Swedish a long time ago, and have very vivid memories of all my travels there. I felt compelled to pull many threads together to offer a perspective on the North that’s not yet well known, but fresh and original.
You write that “The concept of ‘North’ represents a space both real and imaginary.” What is there in the human psyche that draws it to imagine far-off places as, on the one hand dangerous, mysterious, and filled with monsters, or, on the other, to think of them as places that are pure and unspoiled, offering both challenge and a kind of redemption?
Historically, humans have had a pattern of projecting ideas that reflect their own fears or aspirations onto “other” places and people. Ideally, we would come to appreciate other places and the people who live there, and recognize that differences can lead to better self-understanding. But as you know, there are many instances in history where our projections had horrendous consequences. The High North is interesting in that, both in Antiquity and later, it was known as the place from which harmful winds and peoples came. But things changed in the late 18th century, when the Norse Sagas, which originated there, became known and recognized as an important cultural heritage at a time when many European intellectuals were somewhat tired of Classical Antiquity.
Is there an equal curiosity about the South, Antarctica for example, a place which is also remote, mostly unexplored, and snowy? If there is, how is it manifesting? Are there also legends about it? And if there is not such curiosity, why not?
From a European perspective, “South” would most often mean the Mediterranean area or the Global South. As far as I know there are not many old legends about Antarctica, the most important reason being that it’s not been inhabited by a people like the Inuit, who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. Also, it is further away from civilization and only entered the common imagination relatively recently—as opposed to the Arctic.
Beyond its historical and cultural interest, what does your book reveal about the reasons there is so much division between peoples, cultures, religions, and races today?
Well, there certainly are cultural and religious differences, and also differences in the way people look, that give certain people or groups reasons to call them “other,” or “not like me.” I think that one problem is that many people see their own culture as an absolute, the standard against which all others should be measured. The whole concept of “race” is very unfortunate, and because of the role it played in Nazi ideology, it’s a term not used in Germany today.
Your book dives into the disturbing link between images of Nordic purity and beauty and the way these images shaped Europe’s self-perception, played out in Nazism and the eugenics movement, and even reached across the Atlantic to affect US immigration policy. Why is “whiteness” so valued? And, given that so much of what has shaped European/Western history has been based on the myths, legends, fables, fears, and even lies about the North and its peoples, what might be done to change the tendency to discriminate against people based on their skin color and to create a more equitable society?
The concept of “whiteness” has been a convenient tool to legitimize dominance and colonialism, and the suppression of entire peoples, countries, and continents. I think some things have already changed. Think of today’s fashion models—they come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and all of them are certainly beautiful or handsome.
Of course, many things still have to be done to give people the opportunities they deserve irrespective of their skin color. There has to be a common understanding that “race” is a social construct that has a long history, and is, unfortunately, still deeply rooted in the cultural imagination of our societies. Identity politics and the obsession with DNA ancestry testing complicate the matter.
What do you think lies beneath the almost ubiquitous fascination with Vikings?
There are many powerful stories of Vikings—strong men and women surviving in a harsh climate. They seem strange and familiar at the same time. They offer an ideal with which to identify, one that’s been expressed in very well-crafted novels and TV series. It’s surprising when you consider the fact that the Viking Age lasted only about three centuries. There is a lot of research being done on Vikings today, and it’s revealing some surprises, including that the majority of them were basically farmers and didn’t cross oceans to conquer other lands. And that there may have been women warriors, too. By the way, the Vikings’ hats didn’t have horns. Most likely, their hats were simple caps made from leather or metal.
The attitudes and beliefs our fascination with the North has engendered are with us still. What contributions have they made, for good or for ill, to the way we live today?
There are positive contributions, including the wealth of stories and sagas—especially the Inuit and Saami tales—that can teach us a lot about another kind of relationship between humans and nature. And Scandinavian societies, with their successful blend of capitalism and socialism—the Nordic model—have inspired generations of progressive sociologists and political scientists to design models that are more likely to generate equality in society. More recently, ideas originating in Scandinavia, such as “hygge,” “lagom,” or “friluftsliv,” have become very popular—I believe they can contribute to a more balanced, relaxed, and healthy lifestyle, including the call to spend far more time enjoying outdoor activities.
Your book begins with a tantalizing description of a “cabinet of wonders” filled with objects, artifacts, and curiosities collected in the European High North by Ole Worm (1588-1654), of Copenhagen, one of the founders of Scandinavian archaeology. If you had such a collection, what would be in it, and why?
I’m a collector, so this would be a real temptation! The collection would be much more contemporary than Worm’s. A fancy winter wool pullover from Norway would have to be in there, and one of those red, wooden, play horses called a “Dalecarnian” horse, from Sweden. And I’d have a bookshelf with Norwegian troll tales, comprehensive dictionaries, and a book on the history of runes. I love folklore items, so a colorful blue and red Saami outfit could also become a part of my collection. And cross-country skis!
What do you hope readers will find most memorable/meaningful about Extreme North?
They might be surprised to know that Romanticism set the stage for many of the disturbing ideas about the North that came later. While doing research for this book, I was surprised at how many of these ideas are connected, and the unexpected ways that one development led to the next. Also surprising is the degree to which a region can be appropriated to represent all kinds of ideologies.
Can we hope for another book? If so, what might it be about?
For two years, I have been working on a book about perceptions of the Middle East and the former Ottoman Empire at its height. In this book, I examine and compare how writers from France, Italy, Great Britain, the US, and Germany imagined the “Orient” and how their expectations were met in what they encountered—if they went there at all, which was not always the case. Many German romanticists of the 18th and early 19th century dreamt and wrote endlessly about it, without ever actually having set foot there!
Also, my essay-like travel guide though the many historical and contemporary dimensions of the night—peppered with lots of literary quotes—was just published in Germany. Hopefully The Book of the Night will find an American publisher, too.
(Bernd Brunner’s website—www.berndbrunner.com—has information on his books and review quotes.)