The first Greenlandic novel—a Rip Van Winkle-like tale called “Singnagtugaq,” or “The Greenlander’s Dream,” by a priest named Mathias Storch—was published just over a century ago. In the time since, the island’s modest literary output has tended to hew closely to traditional themes—what one Greenlander describes as “we have magnificent nature and we all live in huts and all we do is go hunting.” Because the vast arctic island is home to only fifty-six thousand people, Greenland produces relatively few homegrown authors, and few books from abroad are translated for a tiny Greenlandic-language audience. In recent decades, the territory has gained increased autonomy from Denmark, its former colonial power, but it retains a strong Danish cultural influence. Greenland’s five full-time libraries and handful of bookstores are stocked largely with titles written in Danish: Nordic crime novels, Danish-language editions of American and British books. To be considered a “best-seller” today, a Greenlandic-language book must sell around a thousand copies.
All of this makes the burgeoning literary success of Niviaq Korneliussen, a twenty-seven-year-old Greenlandic author, a turning point in the island’s literary history. Korneliussen’s début novel, “Homo Sapienne,” which was published in 2014, is a work of a strikingly modern sensibility—a stream-of-consciousness story of five queer protagonists confronting their identities in twenty-first-century Greenlandic culture. The book’s characters get drunk and have one-night stands; the Greenlandic prose is flecked with Danish, English, and snippets of SMS messages and Facebook posts. The cover of the novel shows a despondent-looking woman, her naked torso covered only by her long black hair, eating a banana. To date, “Homo Sapienne” has sold almost two thousand Greenlandic-language copies, and thousands more Danish-language editions in Denmark, making Korneliussen perhaps the territory’s most widely read living novelist, and the first of a new generation of Greenlandic writers to find a true readership outside of her native land.
On a recent early afternoon, when the sun in Greenland had already set, Korneliussen spoke with me by Skype from the three-story home she shares in the capital of Nuuk with her girlfriend, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Greenland. The couple had just returned from a holiday in Cyprus, and Korneliussen apologized for the mess, which was apparent only to her, and for her dog, a boisterous year-old German shepherd named Scout. Many of Korneliussen’s most cherished cultural touchstones are those of American or British adolescence; Scout is named for the protagonist of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (“My favorite book is ‘Lord of the Flies,’ ” Korneliussen told me, but there “weren’t really great names.”) Korneliussen was wearing square-framed glasses and a gray hoodie, her dark straight hair pulled into a ponytail. She sat at a writing desk facing a snowy hill, capped with buildings, and beyond it the ocean. Next to her desk was a black-and-white photograph of a woman looking at graffiti that read “pussies beware!”
Korneliussen grew up on the isolated island town of Nanortalik, off Greenland’s southern coast. Her mother worked at the tax department; her father was the principal of her school. They were relaxed parents, but Korneliussen felt stifled in her town’s quiet surroundings. She recalls spray-painting the anarchist symbol and the phrase “Punk isn’t dead,” in English, on apartment blocks, and playing in abandoned cars and homes. She found solace writing stories in school, and listening to pop-punk artists whose songs channelled a familiar sense of unbelonging; Pink was a special obsession. “I also felt like the outcast because I was gay—I didn’t really know it, I was trying to hide it, and hide it from myself,” Korneliussen said. Around 2009, she came out to her parents, via text message. She recalls that her father responded, “It’s completely fine, and we don’t have anything against gay people at all, and we love you anyway, and our love is never going to change.”
Korneliussen’s coming out coincided with a broader awakening of gay life in Greenland. The Nuuk Pride festival began running in 2010; in 2015, Greenlandic politicians unanimously voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage. While Greenland’s main industry today is fishing, its population, which is concentrated in the thin strip of land between the coast and the ice cap straddling the interior, is mostly urbanized. “A lot of these youngsters, they’ve never seen a seal except in their grandfather’s house when it’s cooked,” Kirsten Thisted, an associate professor of cultural relations at the University of Copenhagen, told me.
Korneliussen had aspirations of being a writer, but Greenland has no equivalent of an M.F.A. program, and she had no idea how to go about getting a book published. She lucked out when, in 2012, several organizations, including Greenland’s central library and one of the territory’s only publishers, launched a short-story competition for young writers. Korneliussen, who had just enrolled in university, submitted a dreamlike piece called “San Francisco,” in which a woman named Fia hitchhikes across America and ends up in that city, where she encounters her idol (and the author’s) in a tattoo parlor. “She suddenly waves to me by wriggling her fingers and my heart explodes. I can sense that Pink is looking at me with compassion.” The story combined emotional sincerity with a propulsive poppy feel. Korneliussen was named one of the winners; not long afterward, the publisher behind the competition asked her for a novel.
Korneliussen wrote “Homo Sapienne,” in 2014, after receiving a three-month grant from the Greenlandic government; she procrastinated during the first two months, and wrote the novel during the third. Like “San Francisco,” the book conveys raw emotions in a loose and energetic style. In the first chapter (the only one available in English), a woman, also named Fia, is trapped in a stultifying relationship with her boyfriend, Peter. Her sense of claustrophobia spills out in internal monologue: “False smiles turning uglier. Dry kisses stiffening like dried fish. . . . My false orgasms turning more incredible as time goes by. But we’re still making plans.” On a night out, Fia meets a girl named Sara, and experiences an unfamiliar intensity of feeling. Korneliussen punctuates Sara’s appearances in the narrative with lyrical refrains from the ethereal pop song “Crimson and Clover,” a flourish that imbues the chapter with an unabashed adolescent sentimentality, and also a filmic quality, as if the story had a soundtrack:
Ah, now I don’t hardly know her
But I think I can love her
I confess. For the first time in my life I’m feeling something very powerful. I doubt that I can escape it. I’m about to reach my limit and I’m horrified. I’m about to cross a line but I can’t stop. What is it I feel? Lust. How do you say lust in Greenlandic? It’s dangerous. It’s verydangerous. Only I can’t stop until I get what I want, I don’t want to give up. It’s that dangerous. My body’s struggling to survive, and I’m fighting to breathe because I’m being smothered. I can feel my lungs fighting to keep up. I want her. I’ll go mad if I don’t have her. Lust. My pulse rises. My blood begins to flow again. After three years, arisen from the dead, ascended into heaven. Or down? I couldn’t give a shit. I’ve come alive! Jesus, welcome back to life!
Ah, when she comes walking over
I’ve been waiting to show her
In the novel’s subsequent chapters, each of which is named after a song (including one by Pink), Fia’s brother flees to Denmark after having an affair with a male member of the Greenlandic government, and a woman named Ivinnguaq decides to undergo a gender transition to become Ivik. These stories unfold in a recognizable world of blithe, savvy youth culture, but one laced with Greenlandic language and cultural references. Fia is irritated by her boyfriend’s cloying use of a Greenlandic term of endearment, iggu; Korneliussen plays with the word arnaq, which is the name of a character and also the Greenlandic word for “woman”; Fia compares her boyfriend’s penis to a local food, “sticky pig’s tails.” Nina Paninnguaq Skydsbjerg Jacobsen, a thirty-one-year-old film and television producer in Nuuk, told me that her preferred literary genre is Nordic thrillers, and that Greenlandic literature had seemed to her to traffic in traditional stereotypes. But with “Homo Sapienne,” she said, “Finally, I see something I can recognize.”
Readers in Denmark, who are more accustomed to exporting literature to Greenland than importing it, have connected in similar ways. Jes Stein Pedersen, the literary editor of Politiken, a major Danish newspaper, told me, “I started reading, and I suddenly said to myself, I have not read something like this written by such a young person in this way, ever.” Pedersen, like many Danes, has personal connections to Greenland—he lives in a home in Copenhagen that was built by a member of a famed, tragic Danish expedition to the island, and he has long been fascinated by the stoic, masculine stories about the polar voyages of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Suddenly, here was a new kind of voice telling the stories of Greenland. “I tend to maybe forget the way modernity also influenced Greenland,” Pedersen said, and how “also young people from Greenland, they drink and rave and fuck and kiss.” He acknowledged that the book has drawn criticism for its youthful tone (another Danish reviewer described it as “intense but clumsy”), but says that it spoke to him nonetheless. In his review, he wrote that the book “has created its own genre” of “unfiltered sexual realism.”
“Homo Sapienne” was nominated for a Politiken literary award and the Nordic Council Literature Prize, though it did not win either. In December, the novel was published in German. Korneliussen, meanwhile, is at work on her second book, which she says is about the concept of home. At the end of our conversation, she carried her computer outside so that I could take in the view. It was minus five degrees Celsius, and the landscape was mostly obscured by darkness; a car passed by along a lonely-looking road. Literary stardom in Greenland, Korneliussen told me, is ultimately a modest affair. “It’s not like being a celebrity in America,” she said. “Sometimes, I forget that they know me.”