A fourth wave in this seemingly never-ending pandemic is preventing Danish writer Olga Ravn from conquering the Low Countries in person after having overrun the Anglo-Saxon part of the world. A great pity, but consolation comes in the form of her International Booker Prize shortlisted book, The Employees. A precious 130 pages that, from a spaceship orbiting a grim future, expand the horizons of the contemporary novel.
Born in Copenhagen in 1986
Graduated from the Danish Writer’s School in 2010
In 2012, she published her first collection of poetry, Jeg æder mig selv som lyng (“Eating Myself Like Heather”)
In 2015 she published her first novel, Celestine, which was awarded the Michael Strunge Prize
She works as a literary critic and columnist and together with Johanne Lykke Holm founded the feminist writing school/performance group Hekseskolen
The Employees, her first novel translated in English, was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize
A future. Earth has faded out of sight and into nostalgia. The Six-Thousand Ship, home to a diverse crew of humans and humanoids, is orbiting the planet New Discovery, where in a valley a number of strange objects were found. Objects that are shaped like a sexual organ, a thick liquid or a diamond egg and are called “the gift”, “the dog”, “the reverse strap-on”, “Rachel” or “Benny”. They are fleshy, growing, deeply indifferent, laying eggs, communicating, evil, inescapable. You can almost taste them. They smell of earth, of something old, of something rotten, of dreams and nightmares. They are deeply familiar, a recollection without language. Like a safe and friendly shell that holds the promise of catastrophe. They penetrate dreams, they sigh, they hum. Constantly.
That constant hum turns existential as the objects stretch the binary, hierarchical composition of the Six-Thousand Ship to the point of breaking. In this “new” society, where value is measured by whether you are a good worker, loyal to the company, the system and your role, a committee questions the crew about the effects that the presence of these objects has. To be able to determine how they influence workflows and “might give rise to permanent deviations in the individual employee”. How desires, aspirations, dreams and names might stand in the way of performance and the categorization that maintains productivity.
Over a mere 130 pages, Olga Ravn nests a similar, constantly itching hum in the soul of her reader. Constructed from the anonymous testimonies of the Six-Thousand Ship's crew – leaving it up to the reader to identify them as human or humanoid – The Employees manifests itself as a book that goes to the core of many questions. About who we want to be, what we want to do, what we are prepared to lose. About the role of work in our society, how we base an identity on it, about what life is like and what exactly life consists of. About hierarchy, categorisation, obedience, loyalty, norms and non-measurable values. About what makes us human and what it means to be alive. Like a splinter bomb whose shards continue to rip open your flesh long after reading.
NOT THE ONLY WEIRDO
“There is a spaceship with humans and robots, and they work.” That is how Olga Ravn laughingly summarises the so-called essence of her first novel translated into English and immediately shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. With a simplicity that hilariously clashes with the way she usually models what she calls her “weird books”. “You often hear people talk about the core of a novel, its essence or truth, but I usually work the other way around: I try to find out how much I can expand the work, how I can push its boundaries and limits, always existing in the outskirts. That was the fun part in writing The Employees: when I could see that the format of the interviews with the employees could be a container that holds a lot of different stuff. It was really about exploring and finding out how much this form could actually integrate.”
Sounds like you had as much fun writing it as I had reading it?
Olga Ravn: It was a wonderful book to write! I have wanted to write science fiction for a long time. There is just something totally free about the genre that I find inspiring. Things I have written before have come about in a more troublesome way, perhaps because I was a bit brainwashed into thinking that the realistic, bourgeois novel that we have been reading forever now was what I should aspire to write. I simply can't do that. (Laughs) Because it focuses on a certain way of living, a certain psychology and a certain idea of reality – as the backdrop for our human drama – that I can't identify with.
Science fiction and the gothic novel for instance, two genres that came into existence around the same time in literary history, are so much closer to my own experience of being alive. As a young person, reading Frankenstein or Dracula or even Kafka, all of these books and writers interested in non-human voices, really felt like finding like-minded souls. It made me realize: “Oh my God, I am not the only weirdo!” (Laughs) We have such a narrow idea of what a voice is, you know.
An invitation to write a text for a solo exhibition by Danish artist Lea Guldditte Hestelund sparked the novel. Were her works like those “other voices” you are looking for?
Ravn: Completely! In my view all writing is a kind of listening, and that experience was very present when writing the text for Lea's show, which she described as a sort of “spaceship boutique”. At first, I just wrote and tried to describe the sculptures, which have also inspired the objects in The Employees. I would look up and see a sculpture and I would think that it looked like a small dog. When I would look down to write and look up again, it would appear to be a wet newspaper or something entirely different. Even though they were set in granite and marble, they seemed to be organic forms, like shapeshifters. So I decided to make a book that had the same organic movement in it, that would have a different shape every time you would read it.
That's where it became almost like a writing through listening, letting the body of language – this material, that implies values and worlds and ideologies, that we use to declare war or to confess our love for each other – move as it wanted to, and me moving around language as if I was moving inside of a house or a body. Creating different testimonies, using different registers of language, like corporate newspeak and sentences that would come to me in the office where I worked at the time, and putting them in my book where they shifted shape. Everything came together in that book: a longstanding ambition to write a sci-fi novel, my fascination for the 1970s workplace novel, an interest in a diversity of voices and for work. With Lea sometimes pushing me: “Is it weird enough? Isn't it too obvious?” Which is something my editor would never say. (Laughs)
2021: A WORKPLACE ODYSSEY
“I quit my office job the day I turned in the book,” Olga Ravn confesses. How could you not after having mercilessly dissected the workplace into pieces? The experience of humans and humanoids on the Six-Thousand Ship is not the best indicator of our future, which is undeniably catching fire in our present. From the fragmented mosaic that is The Employees, an oppressive society emerges that is entirely dictated by work. The earth is nothing more than a nostalgic thought, children are replaced by holograms that serve to increase the stability of the employee and thus his/her productivity, unbridled desires, dreams and names form an obstacle in keeping the organisation afloat, and a rigid hierarchy between privileged humans and continually updated humanoids keeps everyone in line. “When we arrange the world, a hierarchy always emerges, and it is an important tool to understand the world. We need some sort of order, we can't live in complete fluidity or chaos. You know, it's nice to have a recipe when you bake a cake – at least sometimes. (Laughs) But I think categorization can also be a tool used by those in power to control a population. When you are told that being human is better than being humanoid, that is used as a tool for making people loyal.”
That classification between humans and humanoids is tested by the finding of the objects, forms that defy binary thinking and differences between born and made, flesh and technology, living and switched on. Which goes to the heart of what the novel aims to express.
Ravn: I definitely identified with the humanoids, yes. (Laughs) But not everyone did. I mean, the book seems to be sort of a Rorschach inkblot test, in that some reviewers thought that it was very scary that some of the AI voices were so human-like. I am actually convinced that they are living beings. Why shouldn't they be? We're all electricity.
Also, algorithms are flawed like humans are, as they learn from how we interact. It is no clean technology or pure tech, our fingerprint is all over it. AI is creation, it's not a dead thing. And I really have no problem with it taking over.
When thinking of my own experience in the office, that was precisely the kind of dehumanizing movement I observed. The Employees came about when I had just had my first child and went back to work after maternity leave. There was just something about coming from this very soft world, where there is no night and day, no eight-hour structure, and where everything is soft and deep and small. The clash going from caring for an infant to office-work really triggered me, and made me want to examine how to remain soft in a hard environment.
Due to the objects, the employees start to fade into each other. They recognise the same longing in the objects – even if, for humans, it is drenched in nostalgia and for humanoids, it smells of a future that leads to questions about what will make them human. What in this world would be such a thought-provoking object for you?
Ravn: Art, definitely! I'm increasingly trying to understand why we as human beings make art. Which is really a mystery. Right now, for example, I'm very much into cave paintings, the oldest imagery of humans. This summer I saw some wonderful cave paintings in Spain, and it was one of the greatest artistic experiences I have ever had. I was deeply moved, and scared. We like to think that those paintings are about representation, but I think they are about the very act of making art.
You can see that in medieval art as well. An object like a holy book is not only representing something holy, it is in itself holy. That has been very inspiring to me, writing The Employees, which is taking the artistic object and saying: “This doesn't represent anything, it is not a symbol for anything, it is the thing.” That is really mind-blowing to us, but I think that we really need to re-enchant the objects around us. Also from the perspective of being a human being alive on the planet today, using resources in an ecological, sustainable way. That thought is perhaps at the centre of The Employees, and it's definitely the reason why they are not on earth. I wanted to show what would happen if you took people out of their ecology, if everything we know, love, desire, dream was something weird and wrong… That's what we are doing right now.
That's why the humanoids will inherit the future?
Ravn: The humans are doomed by being too loyal to the old system. With their nostalgia they have no way of really changing. The humanoid employees realize that the possibility for change is there. And their biggest rebellious act is when they choose mortality, the core human experience. And that's also a very central experience to living in your own ecology, understanding that matter will flow and change form and that we will change form with it. You know, when my mother read this book, she called me and said: “Ah Olga, it's such a good book”, being a nice mother. And then she said: “Just remember I want to be buried, not cremated.” That was the best review I got so far. Because it means that the book made her feel that she wanted to return to earth.
A return to earth. This is where the book leaves the workplace and expands into a dizzyingly broader vision of society. Where the organisation of work is only one manifestation of something much bigger: our tendency to classify and impose and exclude. The Employees is just as much about fluidity. About categories that become frayed, where the fringes matter most. Olga Ravn speaks about productivity and hierarchy, but also means identity and normality, whether it is with regards to gender, race, sex, body type, class, or even types of writing, or art in general. “You are totally right! I would so like to be normal. People will say: 'There is no normal. Nobody's normal.' But that's exactly what normal people would say. (Laughs) If you have experienced not being able to fit in or function in a way that has real consequence, and I would say that I have, that's very painful. And scary. So yes, there is a constant underlying thread of being excluded, and that is something that has always been a struggle for me. Because I am a very social person, I really like people, but at the same time I'm maybe a little weird in some regards.”
Has art helped you in any way?
Ravn: It has been a saviour. When I was younger, I thought that making art was a way to exist on the outskirts of the group. I could always find the mirror of my own experience there. At the same time, artistic milieus proved to be really determined by hierarchies and ideas about taste – and with those ideas come ideologies and views of the world. That has often made me feel artificial, like the humanoids. Having internalized this idea of what a good person ought to act like, has made me gaze upon myself with wonder a lot. But I don't only need to exist with other people, I need to feel myself existing with my ecology, with plants and minerals and technology. Those are also groups I want to be a part of. Maybe The Employees is a threshold, a suggestion to the reader that there is another way.
Like you showed by establishing the Hekseskolen?
Ravn: It's a school and a performative group I set up with Johanne Lykke Holm, a Swedish writer and translator. We both had the experience of being really interested in the same literature, but nobody was teaching it or reading it or were interested in it. It was literature by young women and queer people, who at that time didn't get the proper respect from art institutions in Scandinavia. We set it up as a kind of protest, I guess. At first, we read people's texts, did workshops and then it became a space where we could do different performances. Like curse the Danish government. (Smiles) But then we both had children and we had to end it. It was really nice to be more than one, to have alliances, so we could call each other and ask: “Am I crazy?” And then the other people in the group would say: “No!”
CANCELLED: OLGA RAVN: THE EMPLOYEES
18/11, 20.00, Passa Porta, www.passaporta.be