Welcome to America

Linda Boström Knausgård (trans. Martin Aitken)

September 9, 2019 
The following is excerpted from the novel by Linda Boström Knausgård, a Swedish author and poet who also produces documentaries. Her novel, The Helios Disaster, was awarded the Mare Kandre Prize while Welcome to America was nominated for the prestigious Swedish August Prize and the Svenska Dagbladet Literary Prize. Martin Aitken is an acclaimed translator working with Danish and Swedish novels. In 2019 he was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for his translation of Love by Hanne Ørstavik.

I tried to keep him away. Ignored his questions. But he was everywhere, the same as when he was alive. To the fatherland, he’d say, filling up his glass. To the old woman who has no teeth.

It was all so easy. My mum says it was denial. That I wanted life to pass by me, instead of standing there getting drenched in it like everyone else. She thought less of me now, but that was hardly surprising. I thought less of her, too. We were standing on each side of a trench, measuring out a distance between us. Or perhaps we were measuring each other. Measuring each other with our eyes. Who was the stronger? Who was weak? Who would come creeping in the night, sobbing and reaching out to be held?

Nevertheless, she’d been loath to make an issue of it. That’s what she told my teacher at school, who after a week was in tears. It’s a whim, she said. She’s full of them. Don’t make a thing about it. Leave her alone. She’ll grow out of it again. There’s nothing the matter with her.

Along with speech went the light. It no longer danced on the walls where we lived. We’re a family of light, my mum would say, though my dad lay in bed staring at the wall when he was alive. What light, my eyes would ask. What light are you talking about? Maybe we’d always measured each other up. Maybe the question of who was strong and who was weak had been there from the start.

I was afraid of my brother. Always had been. All the time, he was there, his hands and his rage. My grandma up north sent me a box of raisins. He snatched it from my hand. I lost my temper and picked up a knife. But what was I going to do with a knife? He stood there laughing at me as he filled his face.

I kept a stash in the bathroom, of books, sandwiches, fruit. All hidden away on the top shelf, behind the toilet paper we bought in bulk. As soon as my mum went out and shut the door behind her, my brother would turn on me and I would flee to the bathroom. And there I would sit for hours on end. I read books, or at least tried to make the words stick, but usually the fear meant my eyes just skated about on the page, and I could never remember what they saw. Of course, he would eventually tire of keeping me prisoner, and there was a tacit understanding that at some point he would stop and let me out.

And then we could play together. We played pirates, or pretended we were blind. He only let me play if he could pull my nails out. I closed my eyes and held out my hands. They lay like little windows in his palm when it was done.

Love between siblings. Was that what it was like? He was moody and I was mild. That was how we’d dealt the cards. You can always pass, no matter how good a hand you’ve got, my dad always said. If you’re good enough you can.

I don’t like to think about being afraid of my brother. But I think about it a lot.

I was good. I could be cagey, then lay down a hand of aces when the others were naive enough to fall for it. Card games, pucks flying through the air. The theatre was there always, like a great sky. Was that what I missed the most?

Maybe I just can’t get away from my mum the way I’d like. She’s too big, too buoyant, too omnipotent by half. But I try. I see her diamond rings all sticky with dough. I see the strength of her. How wonderful it was to clutch her tight when I was little. Am I grown up now?

I’ve only just turned eleven. It’s fair to say the day was a joke, the birthday song―Long may she live!―and the presents tossed at me like I was a dog.

Did I want to live? my mum asked me when the cake was eaten. Did I? Her eyes bored into mine.

I’m falling away, were the words that came to me. Words spoken only as thoughts. Repeated over and over again. I’m falling away, I’m falling away from all that is living.

And my sleep at nights. As if I were crossing the sea on stilts. Striding high above the waters, the curve of the earth in front of my eyes.

It could have been worse.

The room is quiet around me. The walls are bare after I pulled down the posters. I sit in the windowsill, looking down at the only tree in the courtyard. A chestnut tree. Music seeps through the wall. My brother’s room is next door. Mine is what used to be the maid’s room, though spacious like every other in this apartment. The staff here had plenty of room in the old days. There’s an entrance from the yard, a secret staircase, a narrow spiral of cast-iron leading to the kitchen. The door is never locked. My mum doesn’t care to lock doors. She feels so easily shut in. Sometimes I’m scared I’ll talk in my sleep. That someone will hear me and hold it against me at some future time. I see my mum’s triumphant face. It wouldn’t be right.

The room is dark. But I don’t switch on the light. We’re a family of light. A light to ourselves. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about.

My brother’s footsteps as he crosses the floor. The way he moves about in there. Tramping, yet timid at the same time. His voice inside me when he tells me to do something. Take his plate away. Fetch him a glass of water. I’m his servant. Or slave. I do as he says, afraid of his hand, the way it grips my throat. I don’t like to think about being afraid of my brother. But I think about it a lot.

We were a family of light. Mum’s light shone out to us all.

Before, there was always the park. I used to play in the tree with my friend. We sat for hours, talking about the world the way we saw it. We were together there in the tree, and we climbed higher and higher, until at last we sat at the very top, each in our own fork, with legs that dangled down. Now she plays with another girl. I don’t know if they climb the tree. But I saw them skipping across the school playground, the way we always did, where one abruptly bolts like a horse, pulling the other along with her. The panic that struck between her strides, converting into sudden acceleration. Their laughter, which sounded like crying.

The smell of my mum. Her perspiration in sleep. The warm bulk of her body to snuggle up to and sleep beside. Her heavy breathing, in and out. The bedroom, with its velvet curtains and the picture on the wall. The framed diploma from the academy of dramatic arts above the table and telephone. The black garter draped over the picture, a souvenir from some show or other. The ashtray of brown glass. My mum’s room, smelling always of stale smoke and naked body. Or exhaust fumes when she opened the window in the mornings to let in the air. The street separated the building and the park. The cars drove fast. They took chances, accelerating to catch the lights before they changed. We lived splendidly, overlooking the park. Six rooms and a kitchen. My mum needed a fair amount of income. She taught students in the living room. When I came home from school I would hear her smooth voice and the efforts of her students in there. The dramas of the world echoed around the apartment. We got used to it. Our friends did too, though we always had to explain the situation to begin with. The screams and the laughter. We were supposed to be quiet when mum had her students, or else play outside. When her classes were over, she would open the doors of the living room wide, as if to show us we were allowed to enter. The walls seemed still to tremble with the nerves of her students. But after a few laps on our roller skates, through the bathroom, into the great drawing room with the door that led out onto the balcony, into the serving corridor with its black-and-white checkered flooring, and back into the living room again, it was as if the room once more was ours. We practiced our starts in the hall. From zero to a hundred, the front door was our brake. My brother had his friends. I had mine. It was mostly his who practiced their ice-hockey shots against the door, leaving it peppered with black marks, but sometimes we joined in, me and my friends, dribbling forward and sending the puck skidding across the floor. Sometimes I went to my friends’ houses as well, but the smells there, and the sense of order I always found, confused me. I would long to go home. I would long for my mum. Her hands, her solicitude. I would long to be biking along the pavement with her, on our way home from the theatre in the dark light of evening. Always on the pavement, even if it was against the law. People would shame us as we came whooshing along, invariably at top speed, as if the speed were vital to us in some way, as if it kept us alive. My mum talked us out of trouble the time we got stopped by the police. It was easy for her.

The first time I went to see my dad at the hospital he showed me off to everyone.

But when she cried, the world fell apart and her crying was all there was. The guttural sounds she made, and all that came out of her. It was like setting a match to me, hearing her cry. Sometimes she could be on the phone at the same time. All this responsibility, she could wail, and it was as if my whole being zeroed in on her weeping so that I might understand and make it better. I took her distress in my hands as if it were a tangle of threads, and tried to unravel them, one at a time, to stop her tears by being there to help, but sometimes there was nothing I could do, the tears would be that much stronger.

I hear my brother on the other side of the wall. He’s built his own sound studio in there. Mixer board, speakers, cables. Sometimes he’ll bring some nice-looking girl home with him after school for her to sing his songs. He empties his bottles of piss in the night when no one can see, and hides them away if anyone comes to visit. Maybe he puts them under the bed. My brother can do what he wants. No one’s ever been bothered. Maybe I could too. The thing is my own will is too weak to surface. If I had to probe into my life and ask myself questions, I wouldn’t be able to answer.

On weekdays I walk to school. To begin with I wore pleated skirts and a woolen Loden coat, pigtails flapping against my back. No one else dressed like that, but I didn’t realize. Now I wear jeans and a top like everyone else. The school smells of dust and chalk and damp clothing. Always the same smell, though the spring draws in more dust and the dampness can recede. I never write on the board or in my books. Not speaking and not writing are the same. I can’t do one thing and not the other. Our teacher’s name is Britta. She speaks to my mum on the phone once a week. They talk about me, and I’m not sure if I like that or not. The days pass quickly. I walk to school and then I’m walking home again. What happens in between is something I absorb. I feel the way the class seems to proceed through the days like a living organism; suddenly someone will break out and pull others with them, but their agitation diminishes, everything evens out and becomes stable again. I listen carefully to what the teacher has to say, and I put her words away inside me. In the dining hall I keep to myself, sit on my own and eat my lunch. No one speaks to me anymore, and the memory of myself at school, the games we played, the way I took charge, has begun to fade.

The walk home. Seeing the entranceway of our building always gives me a kind of shock. The marble columns and statues, a man and a woman holding up the balcony of the apartment above ours, the only one facing the street. The paintings on the stairway, the angels on the ceiling, the stone stairs with the fossils in them. We live on the first floor. The key slides into the lock, the door opening into the hall with the piano I sometimes played without being able. Home, home. Before, there was my dad to consider, the mood he might be in and what he could do. You never knew if it was going to be a quiet afternoon or if he’d be wanting company. But I didn’t need to worry about that anymore. Death stood between us now, like a river running by, and I could wade through that river, across to the other shore, and know I was safe.

My mum’s thick, blond hair, her wide mouth and full lips, her laughter, so vibrant and fluid. So much joy. In one seamless movement, upwards, ever upwards, she could lift me and I would rise with her, rise to the ceiling and out into space, we rose and rose together. We flew. Flew over the city, looking down at the rooftops below, laughing as we picked out our own, onwards, upwards, away into the world. The air grew thin and cold, darkness surrounded us, until we turned and fell through the layers, all the way back to the apartment, and were again standing in our living room with the view of the park. It was night and thundering. Lightning lit up the park, the trees showed themselves fleetingly to us as light, before darkness took over again. Mum laughed at my fear of thunder. I had come running to her, crying, and we stood there together in the middle of the floor, staring into the night as it was ripped apart by electricity, and she laughed. What more did she do? Did she go with me back to my room again? Did she sit with me, on the edge of the bed? I can’t remember.

Maybe this was where I should have resisted. Resisted the memories. I sat here in the darkness thinking about her, even though I didn’t want to. What did I want?

I wanted to sit in enduring silence, to feel it grow strong and take everything into its possession. Was that what I wanted? Yes, that too.

I surveyed the room. The bunk beds with the curtain mum had sewn, the night table with the books I no longer read, left there. The desk and the floral armchair where my clothes were dumped, the ones that weren’t in the wardrobe. The flowery wallpaper. Why were there so many flowers in my room?

I went to the kitchen, knowing no one was there. I filled a glass with water and scurried back, drank the water and put the glass down on the desk. The notebook lay there with its soft, black cover. I ran my hand across it. Something inside me liked it being there.

The first time I went to see my dad at the hospital he showed me off to everyone: patients, nurses, doctors. He was jaunty, glowing almost as he told them: This is my daughter. This is my daughter. He couldn’t sit still, he went off into the day room where the TV and the games were. I made sure not to look anyone in the eye. Mostly, I stared at the floor. A doctor sent him back to his room. Sit here and stay with your daughter, he said, and closed the door when he went out. It was as if suddenly dad came down to earth. He said: I’m no good. I’m no good. Several times in a row. He looked down at his hands, I at mine, until the visit was over and I could leave the ward and go back to mum who was waiting in the cafeteria.

That was the first time. There were some more visits after that. And then mum no longer wanted him to live with us, so he went and lived on his own in a flat. I never felt guilty about wishing he was dead. It was the best thing.

Sometimes, though, I felt guilty about him being on his own. At home he’d had us, even when all he could do was lie on the sofa, though occasionally, if he was up to it, he might make dinner after we’d played cards.

We were a family of light. Mum’s light shone out to us all. Her light poured on us. Before, I’d been proud of my mum. The most beautiful of all the mothers at the parents’ evening. Conversing with the teacher and the other parents. She made an impression. No one could resist her. Least of all me. And could I now? Resist her? Was my silence down to her? How could anyone allow someone else to take up so much space in their lives?

You’re only a child, she used to say, lifting my chin to make me look at her. You’re only a child, and now it’s enough. Do you hear me? Enough.

I saw my brother in the playground. I saw him, and he saw me.


Excerpted from Welcome to America by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken. Featured with the permission of the publisher, World Editions. Copyright © by Linda Boström Knausgård. Translation copyright  © by Martin Aitken.

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