Interview with Hanne Ørstavik

hanne-orstavikThe Blue Room is Hanne Ørstavik’s first novel translated into English by Peirene Press in 2014. Ørstavik is a well-established Norwegian author with almost 15 novels published. Her work has been translated into 15 languages, and she received the Dobloug and Brague Prizes in 2002 and 2004 respectively. The Blue Room tells the story of a mother and daughter – Johanne – in her early twenties in an apartment in Oslo. Although the author did not wish to make any extensive comments and interpretations about her novel, The Blue Room invites the reader to reflect on family relationships, feelings of possession, control, sexual submission and religion.

Johanne is concerned about making her mother happy. This seems to lead Johanne into a depending relationship with her mother: she’s not totally free from her. What do you think of this attitude of Johanne?

Are we ever free from each other? Do we want to be? I think the crucial issue for Johanne is her inability to trust herself. She doesn’t have a sense of who she is, she doesn’t know what is real – the original title of the novel is “As true as I am real”: it is a triangle between identity/self, truth and reality. She has not divided herself from the mother, they are still mingled up inside her. Is what I think, the truth, or is what mother says? Those are her questions.

Does Johanne’s mother blackmail Johanne emotionally?

I think they are both unconscious of their relationship. Maybe, then, there is some kind of emotional immaturity in Johanne’s mother as she cannot really see the consequences of her feelings?

Can a mother be selfish?

I think that the interesting point is the deep and unconscious need which drives these actions. To see someone as selfish is to see them from far away. People do what they do to meet needs. So, in this novel, what are the needs of the mother?

So the mother is concerned about her own needs? And these needs would be to have her daughter with her?

Her needs are complex: she is unaware of them. They can be contradictory, like wanting to have her daughter at home and wanting her to go at the same time. She doesn’t know. And we don’t know when we read the novel. These questions are generated by the novel. I want to keep them open, not answer them. I want the reader to have these questions moving inside her when she reads.

Johanne defines her mother as her best friend. This is an expression that is out there nowadays, being your children’s best friend. But does this lead to an unhealthy relationship between parents and children? Shouldn’t parents be parents?

I think the relationship between parents and children is so deep and intertwined, and with multiple facets. We are always children ourselves, also as parents. We see this in dreams. And language is also blurry, in movement, it’s an action. I think that saying to a parent ‘you are my best friend’ can be one of many candid and impulsive ways of saying I love you, you are close to me.

But when Johanne says it in the novel it seems like a lie, or a futile hope, and it hurts to read, doesn’t it? – because as a reader we see that there is a distance between her words and what the novel tells us about her reality: her mother doesn’t help her by mirroring her back to herself so that she can see herself. And isn’t that what a real friend does?

It is interesting that you mention that Johanne does not mean her words when she tells her mother is her best friend. This is maybe because this ‘best friend’ kind of relationship with her mother is destructive for Johanne herself and she acts somehow defensively?

I can’t really comment more on this.

In which ways does the relationship of Johanne with her mother impacts on Johanne’s relationships with men?

There is not much space for Johanne to have relationships outside the mother-daughter dyad. She is caught inside it; her mother is in a way still always present, even when she is not there.

Maybe the mother handicaps Johanne’s development as woman: the incapacity to break out with her mother and build her own life?

Karin doesn’t want Johanne to leave for the US, like her mother. Are Karin and the mother other kind of blue rooms where Johanne is trapped in?

Good question. I think we are always trapped in each other. It can also be a good thing.

Johanne has very disturbing thoughts. She imagines sadomasochist scenes with imaginary people. What does this tell us about her? Is it fear, insecurity, or something else?

These were images that came when I was writing, and I knew they belonged in the novel. But I didn’t write them with a specific purpose or thought. They were pictures from Johanne’s domain, and they are open for the reader, as they are open for me. Well maybe Johanne is really trapped into some kind of abusive relationship, which originates in the mother.

How does this kind of imagination and Johanne’s strong religiosity live together?

That is one of the questions the novel raises. It’s up to the reader to decide.

 Johanne imagines sexual scenes in quite a tormenting way. What is it with sex?

I think this has to be seen in the context of the whole novel, also in the relationship with her mother. Sex is a mute language that says many things at the same time because it talks for the person through the body, and we often have conflicting, complex needs. It can depict both longing and shame simultaneously.

Johanne also fantasizes being sexually submissive with Ivar. She imagines him hitting her before sex. Why?

I want that to be open to the reader to define.

Maybe your novella explores the idea that after all women long for submission? Or is this submission a consequence of Johanne’s relationship with her mother?

That is one possible way to read the novel. But to me it is not a novel about a longing for submission.

Your novella describes a domestic space without a male figure. This is in line with other contemporary works, such as Véronique Olmi’s Au bord du mer (2001), where the mother decides to kill her two children because of the hardship they are going through. What do you think about the absence of the father at home?

The blue room is a very concentrated novel, it takes place in one morning, with backflashes to the last two weeks of Johannes life, when she met Ivar. The father in this novel is irrelevant. As I see it, The Blue Room is exploring the ambiguity of being locked in against one’s own will, and yet the lack of possibility to break out. This impossibility is at one level practical: she’s on the fourth floor, she can’t just jump out. But also here we see the ambiguity: she could have opened the window and called for help. She could have done something, but she doesn’t. A forthcoming image in the novel is Johanne feeling as if her back is about to break. She lacks force, strength. This is the other level of impossibility in the novel, this inner emptiness. There is no I to break out with.

But could you try to think more specifically about the absence of the father at home? Is this a contemporary issue? Is this unconsciously depicted as a bad thing after all? In the context of the novella, maybe a father figure would had helped Johanne to get some distance from the mother?

All these questions are good questions. I’m interested in questions. I have few answers. I know nothing about contemporary issues, nor do I have general thoughts about the father in the home. I write my novels. They are an open field where questions like these can be discussed. They are open. You make your own thoughts, your own questions, as you read.

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