“When you enter my linguistic world, you enter a kitchen garden rather than a ballroom,” she says, explaining how it feels to write in a second language. And thankfully so: it’s a space filled with rays of poetry coming in through widely opened windows that helped to shape a profound confession of a fight with an illness – something far more valuable than a cold room full of mirrors. Meet Lene Fogelberg – a poet, writer, and the author of Beautiful Affliction.
She grew up on a Swedish coast, nurturing her love for the written word and arts. Cherishing her curiosity, she travelled a lot, living in many places around the globe: in France, Germany, the USA, Indonesia and Malaysia. When she discovered that she was in the last stages of a fatal heart disease, her life was turned upside down – her arty world turned into a hospital stay. But, by any means, she didn’t give up. Instead, she put her struggle between the pages of a memoir, Beautiful Affliction.
Her confessions are infused with overpowering emotions, and it’s difficult not to buckle under the weight of her emotional confessions sometimes. As much as it is tormenting, it’s also inspiring – because she encourages us to value every single minute. And truly, it’s an account of the hunger for life. We see the time as a thief and a giver through her eyes – and no matter which face it shows to us, we can’t let it slip through our fingers and take for granted.
We asked Lene about the intricacies of her linguistic world, the gift of poetry and her writing – read her answers below!
When did you discover that you wanted to be a writer?
I have loved to read for almost as long as I can remember, and I started to write poetry when I was nine years old. A few poems were published in magazines, but it wasn’t until I won a poetry contest in my early twenties, which I entered because I needed the prize money, that I felt like people really might be interested in my words and what I had to say. At that time, I focused on my paintings and my art and I wanted to become an artist, but my undiagnosed heart disease made this increasingly difficult for me. When I became too weak to hold up the brush to the canvas for any extended length of time, I returned to my poems and to writing. Reading and writing stayed with me during my years of illness. At times, it seemed like these were the only activities that didn’t take too much of my limited energy. They also allowed me to enter other worlds, where I didn’t feel limited by my weak body, so it was a sort of escapism, I guess.
Why did you decide to write in English?
I first wrote Beautiful Affliction in my mother tongue, but I didn’t feel like I had managed to capture the story the way I wanted it, and it dawned on me that I needed to tell it in English. Most of the story takes place in Philadelphia in the US, so it made sense to tell it in English, but it took me a while to reach the point where I dared to write in my second language. At first, I tried to translate my Swedish manuscript line by line, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that I needed to do a re-write in English.
I think I have become more “practical” when using my language. When you enter my linguistic world, you enter a kitchen garden, rather than a ballroom.
It’s said that a writer in a second language often develops an “alternative persona”, and I often felt that when I started studying creative writing in English – I’m Polish. Do you feel that your writing would be much different in Swedish?
What an interesting question! Yes, I actually feel that I might write a little differently in Swedish. I think that writing in my second language “keeps me on my toes”, so to speak. I can’t afford to be content or lazy in my writing, I have to be precise with word choices and thoughts. Writing in my second language has also made me more aware of other readers and writers coming from diverse backgrounds. I have made friends with a lot of people who, like me, use English as their second, or even third language. This has partly helped me to develop a love for clear language, easily digested, full of meaning, but not embellished with difficult words. I think I have become more “practical” when using my language. When you enter my linguistic world, you enter a kitchen garden, rather than a ballroom. At the beginning, I was a little embarrassed by this I think, but I have come to realise that all writers inhabit different linguistic worlds, and it’s as it should be. I have learned to embrace my world, to use my own words, and to write in a way is natural to me.
You studied abroad, lived in the US for a while, then moved to Asia – what were the most difficult moments you had to deal with when you moved from one country to another?
When we moved to Indonesia we lived in hotel rooms and temporary housing for many weeks, two months if my memory serves me right, before we got access to the townhouse that we would rent. During this time, I did little else than writing parts of the first draft of Beautiful Affliction and trying to figure out something for my family to eat in the new country, which was a challenge in itself.
But the most challenging moments struck us a few years before, when we moved to the US and I was struggling with my, still undiscovered, heart disease. That was hard. I was so weak I could barely climb the stairs in our new home. We felt overwhelmed before the heart disease was discovered. When the diagnosis came, we stopped worrying about material things, and just focused on our family. The hardships of those days really tied us together, and we cherished every moment.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but poetry seemed to sneak its way into my writing in ways I was only told of later, discovered by the readers, like little surprises.
You write non-fiction, but also poetry and fiction. Which genres do you find the most challenging?
They are all challenging in their own way. Writing non-fiction can take a tremendous toll on you emotionally. Poetry is just difficult with its demand for precision in imagery and economy of words, and fiction demands a great imagination and ability to deliver plausibility in events and emotion. I love them all, in different ways, and I find it very rewarding to work in these different fields. I often find that they can enrich each other in surprising ways. For example, my love of poetry couldn’t be held back, I guess, when I wrote Beautiful Affliction. I didn’t realise it at the time, but poetry seemed to sneak its way into my writing in ways I was only told of later, discovered by the readers, like little surprises.
Poetry has the same intimacy qualities as “writing the self”. How did your experience with poetry help you with writing your memoir?
I have turned to reading poetry in my life because it often seems to be able to explain the inexplicable. When I started writing Beautiful Affliction, I had no idea how I would be able to tell my story. I believe poetry helped to give me a sense of — and a hope — that there are ways of telling a story that might seem inexplicable at first. For so many years, I lived with a condition that I had no words for at the time, or at least a very limited vocabulary to describe. It was a real challenge to put this situation into words, in a way that the reader would be able to feel and understand my condition. I had to turn to imagery and sensory detail, which poetry had taught me. And I do believe it was poetry that showed me how to focus on details in general. If I had trouble finding a way into a scene or a memory, I just closed my eyes and tried to find the detail that stood out to me in that situation. Poetry has also taught me to look for beauty in the most surprising and unlikely places, and this helped me getting through some of the most difficult moments of my life, which later would become scenes in my book.
You’ve experienced the hardships of living with a heart condition that was neglected by the Swedish healthcare system. Have you ever experienced moments when writing a particular part of your story was too difficult emotionally?
Sometimes it was very difficult, even too difficult, but I told myself that I’d do it anyway. Some scenes that triggered too much emotion I had to leave, and later return to when I felt strong enough to face the memories.
What’s your typical writing routine?
On writing days, I love to start writing as soon as possible and I often have my breakfast in front of a laptop. I keep going, with small breaks to stretch my legs and to prepare lunch, which I also eat in front of my laptop not to lose time, and I write until around two or three in the afternoon when I try to sneak in some exercise before my girls come home from school. I prefer to spend the evenings with my family, but if I am struck with the sudden inspiration I might rush over to my laptop to get it down.
Do you keep a journal?
I started to keep a journal when I was six years old and continued keeping journals all through my teenage years. When I became an adult, I became too busy, I guess. But I believe that keeping journals growing up gave me a habit of, or at least an experience of expressing my emotions on paper, that I could later draw from when I wrote Beautiful Affliction.
The days when a writer had to sit all alone and write are over, there are lots of friends to be found all over the world!
You’re very active on social media. How does the community help you in developing your writing?
I enjoy interacting with people on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, and I also have a blog on my website that I occasionally update. The friends I have made through these platforms have been an amazing support team for me in so many ways; they are constantly cheering me on. Interacting with them also helps me develop my confidence in using my second language, since many of them are English-speaking. I find that technology has been extremely helpful to me. The days when a writer had to sit all alone and write are over, there are lots of friends to be found all over the world!
What are you reading at the moment?
When in French by Lauren Collins, an American who falls in love with a Frenchman, marries him and moves with him to Geneva, where she struggles to learn the language and find her footing in a new culture. It’s perfect for a language nerd like me, full of interesting language facts and anecdotes.
And what are you writing at the moment? Can you tell us a bit about your new project?
I am finishing up the last edits for my next novel, which is a hilarious and heart-breaking family drama taking place in Jakarta, where I mix East with West and urban life with ancient myths of Java. Even though this is a novel, I think that readers of Beautiful Affliction will recognise my literary world in this book.
Can you share any tips for those who feel that the second language resonates with their story more, and consider writing in the language other than their native?
It was certainly more difficult than I expected to write in my second language, but I am happy that I summoned the courage to do it, and I would never discourage anyone from it. I would advise finding a good editor who has your second language as mother tongue, and who you feel comfortable asking all your questions.