Cumulus in English: ”Who the hell do you think you are?” – Jonas Hassen Khemiri about prejudice, dream ache and feeling fake

An early autumn morning a bunch of tired students stood gathered outside of Åva’s cafeteria. Some thought that they had to get up way too early, while others pondered about what that ”tall man” would actually talk about. Little did they know then that they would soon be part of a lecture in world-class. 

Foto: Clara Risfelt
Foto: Clara Risfelt

””What the hell are you doing?” – A quite cheeky question to ask one of Sweden’s most popular writers right now. Khemiri received this aggressive question at another school during a previous lecture. He answered humbly and truthfully, ”I do not know what I’m doing, I just know that during my last nine years I have made a living of my words”.

During his lecture at Åva, Jonas Hassen Khemiri speaks about prejudices, stereotypes and language. He uses gestures, facial expression and various intonations to reinforce what he says. He’s funny, very funny – and his dedication is contagious. When he talks about racism and prejudice he makes us realize that there is a broader concept from what we had previously believed.

There is more to racism than being xenophobic. In his lecture, Khemiri stresses language’s impact on people and our way of treating each other. He means that language is an important contributing factor to how we create images of one another. We want to; consciously or unconsciously; place the world around us in trays. Perhaps this is due to the uncertainty we ourselves possess, or perhaps it is due to our brain’s reflex to create an as “complete” picture of a new person as possible out of a small piece of information. But Jonas Hassen Khemiri is not hostile towards the use of language. He carefully points out that it also connects us humans.

When asked why the writing profession attracted him, Khemiri says that he through language wanted to challenge prejudice and people and the relationship between them. Since he himself masters Swedish, French and Arabic he tries through his work to find out what happens when language doesn’t function as it should and which kinds of situations can arise as a consequence of this. Above all he wants to find out why this may contribute to the continually current topic of exclusion.

When asked about his own producing, Jonas Hassen Khemiri says that when he was young, he kept a journal where he wrote about his life in detail. He did this because he was afraid to forget things that happened and that the memories would disappear. These notes has given him inspiration for his writing. Khemiri explains that the old memories that he is ashamed of in fact can be one of the best sources of inspiration. He also says that what is important in order to succeed is partially to dare to invest in what you do, but also to do things that you feel at ease with. He explains that the writings he is the happiest with are the ones he has written for himself, without considering an audience or receiver.

During his lecture at Åva, the audience had the chance to ask questions to the interesting writer. One of the questions was “which is your favourite word” to which Khemiri, without any doubt, replied “dream ache” He further explains the meaning of the word: “It sounds like a made up word, which it is, but it is when you realize, or at least think, that your own fantasies will never come true.”

Maybe this was something Khemiri himself suffered from for awhile, because he had had secret wishes of becoming an author when he was younger, but instead picked the safe, secure road and started studying at Stockholm School of Economics before he one day in the fall of 1999 sent in his book manuscript to a publisher. And because he did not believe that what he wrote was any good, this was the first time anyone got to read his texts or even know that he did in fact, write. But his book Ett öga rött, which was the result of his book manuscript, became a huge success that has later been accompanied by several other novels and plays.

Although Jonas Hassen Khemiri has been both read and praised by many he is still everything but self-righteous. He rather feels self-doubtful and says: “Sometimes I feel fake, like I seem better than I actually am. I think that ‘the bluff will be revealed’. But on the other hand, self-doubt can lead to nice things and help me remain humble.”

Three quick tips from Khemiri – when you get a writer’s block:

1. Read out loud! The sound is smarter than you are.
2. Show others what you have written! It might seem terrifying, but it will give you important feedback and comments that can lead to new ideas.
3. Imitate! When you try to copy new ideas are born that looks nothing like the original.

Foto: Clara Risfelt
Foto: Clara Risfelt

Originally written by Sofia Fanberg and Louise Jacobsson. Translated into English by Astrid Boström, Carl-Johan Findahl, Sara Levin and Frida Habbe, IB12.


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