Beyond Blue Eyes

ZagarMonika_sm.jpgAsk the average American what Scandinavians look like, and you're bound to get an answer like this: "Tall, blond, blue eyes." But ask associate professor Monika Žagar that question, and she'll tell you a more complicated story. Continue Reading...

Monika Žagar

Ask the average American what Scandinavians look like, and you're bound to get an answer like this: "Tall, blond, blue eyes." But ask associate professor Monika Žagar that question, and she'll tell you a more complicated story.

Žagar's latest research focuses on an aspect of Scandinavian culture that doesn't fit our stereotypes: the growing population of Scandinavian adoptees from non-European countries. With few children available for domestic adoption in Scandinavia, couples looking to adopt are turning to Asia or Central and South America. Over time, this trend has created a new generation of Nordic citizens who don't look anything like their peers.

It's a phenomenon that would hardly be news in the United States, given our long history of, and struggles with, multiculturalism. But despite Scandinavian countries' long-standing reputation as model societies--with their brag-worthy comprehensive welfare system, universal health care, and women's rights--when it comes to multiculturalism, they're less adept. As a value, Scandinavian countries embrace equality, but in reality, they've had very little exposure to diversity.

It's for that reason that life as a foreign-born adoptee in a Scandinavian family can be tricky. For instance, explains Žagar, "because of their looks, many adoptees experience an extreme discrepancy between their feeling of being Danish or Norwegian and how their environment sees them, as being Guatemalan, Korean, Indian, or otherwise foreign." So, Žagar wonders, what does that mean for the adoptees' sense of Scandinavian identity? And what does it mean for Scandinavia's cultural identity?

While some scholars might look to historical documents or sociological surveys to answer those questions, Žagar is drawn to a different vessel for cultural interpretation: literature. In a class she taught in fall 2006 called Adoption Imagined and Experienced, as well as in her research, Žagar says she focuses "first on how adoption has been represented in literature historically, and second, what is being published right now by adoptive parents and adoptees." In fall 2007, she is teaching an honors course on the topic. The texts she chooses, as she explains in the class syllabus, "offer a portrait of a complex and ambiguous experience."

While Žagar's academic career has not always focused on adoption issues, it has always been driven by this question of ambiguity within the Scandinavian experience. So it's no wonder that her other research passion is a Scandinavian author whose work and personality have blurred the boldest of boundaries.

Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, the subject of Žagar's book Knut Hamsun: Imagining Race and Gender in Modernity, which is slated to be published in 2008, owes his fame to two primary aspects of his life and career. The first is his literary prowess, based on the remarkable success of novels such as Hunger, published in 1890, and The Growth of the Soil (1917); the latter won him the Nobel Prize. He was, not surprisingly, one of the most admired living novelists of his time-- until he became a well-documented supporter of the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II. Expressions of this support included writing a series of pro-Fascist articles, praising Hitler, and giving his Nobel Prize medal to notorious Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

This contradiction--between the Hamsun worthy of admiration and the Hamsun who would eventually be tried for treason--fascinates Žagar. Her work examines the variety of ways that modern readers choose to either excuse Hamsun's behavior or condemn his work because of it. Some of Hamsun's apologists claim that he was old and unaware of what he was doing; others say he was a literary genius whose politics were immaterial. Still others refuse to teach his literary works at all. As a researcher and a teacher, though, Žagar isn't out to canonize Hamsun's accomplishments or decry his political fouls. She wants, instead, to use his work to understand the complex array of ideas and forces circulating in early and mid 20th century Scandinavia.

"I don't believe that art can be isolated from our social, political, economic, and cultural values," she says. "The relationship between literature and social experiences is complex and intricate, and one can easily slide into simplifications. So when I teach I try to emphasize precisely the process of how an author translates an everyday experience into a unique artistic expression."

The thread linking foreign-born adoptees and Nazi novelists may seem tenuous to the untrained eye but for Žagar, they both present opportunities for appreciating the complexity and ambiguity in Scandinavian culture. "Let's not forget that one of the goals of the Third Reich was racial purity, to get rid of diversity," she says. As a scholar, Žagar is driven to go beyond the surface of a given topic to discover the nuances that make it both complicated and uniquely human.

In the case of Hamsun, that means she's not willing to generate a tidy answer about whether we should or should not let him off the hook. As for the literature of adoptees in Scandinavia, it means she strives to discover what the Scandinavian experience means for citizens whose sense of cultural belonging isn't a taken-for-granted part of the package.

Reflecting upon how the debate about Hamsun's work has played out over the years, Žagar comments, "It's a fact of life that history gets rewritten." It's up to scholars like her to turn a statement like that into questions.

About Monika Žagar

Hometown: Ljubljana, Slovenia (former Yugoslavia). She spends her summers on an old farm half an hour out of town.

Education: Ph.D., M.A., University of California, Berkeley (Scandinavian studies)

Recent project: Co-organized a conference titled "Norway, World War II and the Holocaust" in April 2007 with the U of M's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

What initially drew her to Scandinavia: The linguistic challenge and the region's distinct literary tradition. Also, it shares a lot of good qualities--such as "equal access to social, medical, and cultural institutions"--with Yugoslavia.

Where the field of Scandinavian studies is headed: More integration of multicultural perspectives--along with more focus on literature, she hopes!

What's on her nightstand: "Lots of books around me right now; which one I read depends on the time of day and my mood.

"In Slovenian, The Triumph of the Rats (my translation) by Dekleva, a novel about the Slovenian doctor and playwright Slavko Grum, who studied medicine in Vienna around the turn of the last century. I've also reread The Turks Are Already Here! (my approximate translation), a book about Turkish raids into the western part of the Balkans during the 15th and 16th centuries, by Simoniti. These are just for fun.

"Also for fun but more work-related: I am reading a collection of feminist and philosophical essays on adoption, Adoption Matters, a collection of short stories by adoptees and adoptive parents.

"And because I, at the moment, live in a truly green and ecologically clean and balanced region [in Slovenia], The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan also offers lots of food for thought."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 27, 2008 4:39 PM.

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