NOVEMBER 23, 2019
“I GREW UP as the child of a refugee from Uganda and a Swedish woman,” writer Johannes Anyuru says in an interview at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. He says that as a Muslim in Sweden and as a child of an immigrant, he stands precisely on the dividing line between being considered a Swede and not. When Anyuru was growing up in the city of Borås, his displaced Ugandan father always warned him that he needed to be ready to flee his country. Anyuru says, “I think it gave me a kind of rootlessness, and a sense that I might as well be born here as somewhere else. I might as well live here as in another place.” Anyuru says this rootlessness wasn’t just bad — that he also found it beautiful and meaningful to not have a complete and organized unification with a particular place.
Anyuru’s family lived in the “Million Program” in Sweden — public housing originally built between 1965 and 1974, when Sweden created over one million apartments for their rising middle class. These are repetitive, pre-fabricated, LEGO-like housing structures; you can see the joints from the outside. Some of the housing took the form of concentrated tower blocks, five to 15 stories tall, often with commerce on the bottom floor, athletic fields and playgrounds between the buildings, and a sightline toward shared prosperity and decency. There is both a utilitarian and utopic quality to the objective of this sort of housing: public living for a massive number of similarly well-off people. But the survival of any ecosystem depends on the health and resiliency of its constituent parts, an often-precarious balance. You might recall the austere residential facades and interiors in the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, the feeling of being vulnerably wedged in a small apartment in a large apartment building in the middle of frozen emptiness. Despite the initial democratic objective and social investment of the Million Program, some of these housing blocks today have the feeling that they might be on their own.
Anyuru’s They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears, translated by Saskia Vogel, steps ahead to a dystopic and fascist Sweden, where this mass-produced housing transforms into containment yards for enemies of the state. Frighteningly, Anyuru uses the world we’re pretty familiar with, where migrants escaping death are treated as though they’re enemies of the people living safely on the shores where they land. To be an enemy of a nation is a concept that is much more often based in fear, abstraction, and the shifting whims of those in control than reality. In Sweden today, migrants inhabit many housing blocks of the Million Program. In reality, some of these structures — like so many other residential projects across the world — have fallen into disrepair. Anyuru takes this real contemporary condition and injects it with concurrent nationalist fervor; then he dumps the reader into a housing system called the Rabbit Yard:
There’d been chaos in the Rabbit Yard, shootings and car fires […] and mold was found in lots of the buildings too, so eventually the politicians cleared the people out and the buildings stood empty, but then a company started putting refugees in them, and then after all the refugees were deported, it became one of the places where the enemies of Sweden were sent.
They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears is a terror-fueled rollercoaster of a book, and it wrestles with the rampant fear that often flourishes alongside nationalism. The novel conjures the abandonment of humanity at places such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq — the way torture breaks a person down to mindlessness, to their raw and searing bodies — and then it takes it a step further: Anyuru writes,
There were photographs showing people on a cement floor with wires operated into their bodies or stuck into suction cups all over their skin. In some pictures they seemed to be being subjected to brain surgery without anesthesia. […] Victims described their experiences in al-Mima in religious terms, saying their souls had been taken out of their bodies.
Our protagonist, Nour, known as Annika Isagel in a prior or parallel life, is one of the traumatized and altered victims who spill out of this neurological experimentation. The novel begins with Nour crashing into half-awareness in the midst of a terrorist attack in a bookstore — an attack that that she’s participating in — feeling like she has seen it all before. She and her compatriots Amin and Hamad wear bomb vests and hold machine guns. “She’s doing this out of revenge, because the Swedes killed her mother,” Anyuru writes. “She’s doing this because she saw Amin on the train one rainy afternoon and knew he would lead her to her destiny, and everything that has happened since has brought her here, to Hondo’s, where she’s going to do something important, something she can’t remember.”
At the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Anyuru also describes how his father used to warn him that he might have to flee because that’s what his father had experienced in Uganda. “He had his life, his dreams, his vision for the future, and suddenly, one day an officer called Idi Amin had taken over, and his ethnicity, which in the past had been unimportant,” Anyuru says, “suddenly this became a big issue.” His life in danger and his freedom in jeopardy, Anyuru’s father escaped to Sweden.
“Everything would be different,” Anyuru writes of Nour imagining a life in another place. “I thought wanting to go there was enough to mean I’d be welcome once I arrived, but I would’ve been wrong.”
Anyuru wonders what the actual meaning is of any nationality, a question he poses throughout the novel. One character watches his children on a beach and wonders to himself if they seem Swedish, if Swedes would call them Swedish. In the interview, Anyuru refers to the French nationalist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen: “Le Pen says that a person is French if he has a French mother and a French father. It sounds easy but it isn’t because it means that if Le Pen’s mother and father are French, then their parents are also French, and their parents are French ad infinitum. So some Cro-Magnon is French.” In some ways, it might seem reassuring that nationality becomes so hard to define. But the subjectivity, reactivity, and fear that nationality is associated with are often used as political tools. “I know you don’t want to believe this can happen in the country where you and your children are living,” Anyuru writes. “My parents didn’t want to either. But the Rabbit Yard was in Sweden.”
In one harrowing scene that takes place while Nour and her parents are in hiding from the nationalist group the Crusading Hearts, a crash wakes her family at night. Nour walks out to find her parents in a room full of shattered glass. “What’s on the floor?” Nour asks, spotting a dark object in the middle of the living room. Her father and her mother shout back and forth to each other about whether it’s a stone, frantically trying to reckon with the explosion that might be coming. Nour says, “I think each of us was going mad, each in our own way.” They turn on the light and find a pig’s head. This dystopic Sweden is one that doesn’t just lack the patience for Islamic law, but routinely disgraces it — puts greasy pork products in front of its starving Muslim prisoners. “I can tell you about the pork dished up every single day,” Nour says. “Every single slice of sausage and cold-cut.”
In a novel that’s propulsive and compulsively readable in a multitude of ways, one of the most luscious elements is the lyrical union between Anyuru and his translator, Saskia Vogel. Anyuru is a critically acclaimed poet and author of three poetry collections, including his 2003 debut, Only the Gods Are New; his novels A Storm Blew in from Paradise and If I Were to Die Under Other Skies have also won several major Swedish literary prizes, including the August Prize. Meanwhile, this is Vogel’s third book this year; she also published her electric translation of Swedish writer Lina Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers as well as her own debut novel Permission, a Joan Didion–esque mediation on loneliness and sadomasochism. In all three books, the prose is buoyant and exact, wistful and hard-hitting. “The pictures of rickety boats landing on slippery black rocks,” Anyuru writes in Vogel’s translation of immigrants fleeing their homelands. “A fiery field of empty life vests rocking in the swells.”
Anyuru has done something impressive and subversive with this novel: he has created a thriller for a new era of contemporary terror and radicalism, a book that reflects on what it means to live within the constructed abstraction of nationality and to suffer because of it, to have your life put in jeopardy based on popular fear and politics. In an essay for Words Without Borders, Anyuru writes, “Politically, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced peace. Only conflicts, speed, friction. My understanding of myself was forged in a postcolonial, capitalist environment of violence, in places where what body you had fully determined the conditions of your life.”
In the 1960s, the Social Democratic Party implementing the Million Program wanted to create neighborly communities, with schools, churches, open public spaces, art galleries, and hospitals. More recently, some of those housing blocks struggle with social issues associated with poverty and a lack of investment in their continued health and desirability. Some are characterized by crime, drug use, and disrepair. In being intentionally set apart from rest of the world, utopias are also vulnerable to terror. Think the isolated grandiose hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining or the remote pagan village in the Ari Aster movie Midsommar. Failed utopias are the places most ripe for terror.
They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears is a chilling book that wrestles with what might come after a person has been stripped of all hope and opportunity, already exhausted from the endless escape associated with exile, and stuck in an ambitiously constructed dream that has turned into a nightmare.
“People are scared,” Anyuru writes, “in the end they’ll do anything to not feel that way.”