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UMN News: Beyond blue eyes


U professor challenges typical notions about Scandinavia

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 Zagar that question, and she’ll tell you a more complicated story.

Zagar’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’ (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland) 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 Zagar, “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, Zagar 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While some scholars might look to historical documents or sociological surveys to answer those questions, Zagar is drawn to a different vessel for cultural interpretation: literature.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, Zagar 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 Zagar’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.

Going beyond the surface

Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, the subject of Zagar’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 Zagar. 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, Zagar 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 Zagar, 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, Zagar 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, Zagar 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.

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