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Vitsvit Athena Farrokzhad, Vitsvit (White Suite)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2013.

Reviewed by Nichola Smalley in SBR 2014:1

Review Section: Fiction

Athena Farrokzhad’s prose poem Vitsvit – ‘White Suite’ is a partial translation  of an ambiguous title – is an intricate  analysis of a family from the inside. It is also a critique of nostalgia and blame, an  exploration of the rhythms and patterns  of the Swedish language, and a rallying  cry against racism and prejudice. It is a formally, linguistically and thematically  complex piece that perplexes and  beguiles the reader.

The poem is set out as a series  of statements, with white letters set  into black horizontal bars printed on  the page. These statements are mostly  paraphrases of comments made by  members of the narrator’s family: first  by the mother, then the father, brother,  uncle and maternal grandmother chime  in. The statements are sometimes  plain, sometimes heavy with oblique  references. Some refer to the family  members’ positions as outsiders/insiders  in Swedish society; others deal with  the family’s internal tensions. There is  no way of knowing how much they are  influenced by the daughter’s own retelling. 

The ambiguity is increased by phrases  and word particles that are frequently  repeated across lines: ‘återhämta–  återvända– återuppstå’ (recover –  return – be resurrected), creating a web  on which the personalities, opinions  and expectations of the different family  members are hung. The characters  crystallise out of this web of opinions  and the words they use to express them.  Each character has a different relation  to the daughter, the family, and the  world outside. The mother remembers  the sacrifices she has made and resents  her daughter. We hear how the mother  ‘lät blekmedlet rinna genom syntaxen’  (let bleach run through her syntax) in  order to remake herself for her new  life in Sweden. The father is full of rage  and sorrow at the injustices of his past,  but is also pragmatic in the face of new  challenges. The brother is idealistic  and angry about the injustices of the  present. The grandmother is a source  of memories and insights. The daughter  is not what any of them had expected  her to be. 

As an object, the book presents a  series of reflections and reversals – as I  pulled my review copy out of its envelope,  the shining silver cover reflected my own  face back at me – presumably designed  to make the readers contemplate their  own position vis-á-vis the race relations  dealt with in the book. Rather than a  cover enveloping and presenting the  book you are about to open, this cover  presents the world outside the book,  and the identity of the person opening  it. The reversed type temporarily makes  ‘whiteness’ stand out against a black  background. The constant presence  of the narrator by her very absence  is a thematic extension of this formal  reversal. 

Looking through the complexity and  the games, something beautiful and rich  emerges – a stunning piece of writing  in itself, with a powerful dose of social  and political analysis. It turns a mirror on  the life of a family, a society, and a human  being, and in doing so, makes the reader  see the world in a different way.

Other reviews by Nichola Smalley

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