Crimson, the debut novel by Niviaq Korneliussen, comes with an unusual preface: a letter welcoming readers to the “secluded and often unknown island” of her birth but also promising “to show another side of Greenland” to that of stereotype. Instead of a story about the Inuit or an example of Nordic noir, Korneliussen delivers a grungy romantic drama involving LGBTQIA+ Greenlandic youth. The novel is what she “wanted to read as a curious, queer, Greenlandic teenager”.
Crimson is divided into five parts, which explore the point of view of five characters. One of those characters is the university student Fia, who finds herself increasingly unsatisfied with heterosexuality: “I’ve tried all sorts of sausages. Cocktail sausages, frankfurters, red, brown, yellowish, big, small, sausages ... you name it. I’m sick of them.” Fia’s voice has a colloquial and comic energy, though there is also plenty of angst as she comes to terms with her lesbian identity in a country where homosexuality appears to remain scandalous.
The nation’s homophobia comes to the fore in the story of Fia’s brother, Inuk, who flees Greenland for Denmark after his affair with a male politician becomes known. In exile, Inuk is the only character to offer any commentary on contemporary Greenland. That commentary is fierce. Inuk figures Greenland as a “prison”, as an island that has “run out of oxygen” and is “rotten”. That rottenness is apparent in the nation’s homophobia but also in the story of Arnaq, who is sexually abused by her father. In an anti-patriotic rant called “What it really means to be a Greenlander”, Inuk suggests that Arnaq is not alone.
The characters’ stories are told via letters, diary entries, Facebook posts, newspaper headlines, text messages and even hashtags, showing Korneliussen’s interest in experimenting with narrative techniques. Social media gives the epistolary form a fresh energy. The novel also attempts to queer and consequently revitalise the Greenlandic words for gender. Though we read Crimson in translation, the glossary reveals how Inuk and Arnaq, the names given to a gay and bi character, are words that mean “man” and “woman”.
However, the characters’ journeys to self-realisation – through parties, break-ups, hook-ups and hangovers – are ultimately somewhat pat, at least for readers older than the teenage audience Korneliussen is targeting, and the novel’s overarching romantic plot is conventional. KN
Virago, 192pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Niviaq Korneliussen, Crimson". Subscribe here.