Janne Teller describes herself as an international nomad. She was born in Copenhagen to German-Austrian parents, grew up in a town called Virum, worked with the UN in Tanzania and Mozambique, and now lives in New York as a full-time writer. She tells me she always knew she wanted to be a writer. She published her first short story at 14 in a Danish daily. “But when you come from an immigrant family in a small country like Denmark,” she says, “I thought I couldn’t survive on writing alone, so I studied something which would take me into the world, and that was macroeconomics.”
Janne believes that an individual’s destiny is dependent on geopolitical decisions and events. Her personal history attests to that. Her mother was sent to Denmark by the Red Cross as a 12-year old to get food after WWII destroyed everything in Austria. Her father’s father, having been a German soldier in WWI, sold his boots and walked into Denmark with 20 DM to make a life there. Janne grew up an immigrant child in suburban Copenhagen (which, at the time was homogenously Danish), never speaking German at home, but still not feeling totally Danish. It’s no wonder she says she feels most at home with people from mixed cultures.
On her bookshelf you’ll find Albert Camus, Knut Hamsun and Herman Hesse, who are the masters of the kind of literature she’s drawn to— simple and poetical, yet philosophically deep. Her own work can be described as existential literary fiction. Janne has written four novels, which have been translated into 22 languages. She has also written a book for young adults—Nothing, which was banned in Denmark despite having no sexual content or foul language, and very little violence. “It came as a shock to me that taking up existential questions of life in a book could provoke so many people, with some teachers claiming that it could make young people depressed and even commit suicide.” It was only when teachers saw how engaged students became while reading Nothing, that the approach to the book changed. And even though it isn’t a book with a traditional happy ending, Janne says it has a lot of hope, and it is now on the curriculum in many countries.
I write this column on the cusp of a new year. Thinking back on 2012, one of my fondest memories is of sitting with Janne and a few other writer friends in a café in Xico, Mexico, talking about literature and the importance of books. “Right now literature is squeezed in comparison with faster technology based media,” Janne says. “But it’s not literature’s problem. It’s a problem for us human beings. Literature, I believe, at its deepest, reminds and teaches us of our own humanity, and there’s very little room to be a human being in today’s competitive society. There’s very little time for people to be reminded of their souls, and I believe it’s uncomfortable since most of us live at a pace our souls can’t keep up with. And literature, good literature, reminds us of that.” These seem as good words as any to enter 2013. Read more books. Slow down.
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.