When you’re young there is an almost inevitable abyss between you and the adult world. To the young, the adult world appears boring, shallow, and hypocritical, and the adults of today worry about teenagers’ lifestyles, interests, and prospects for the future. Adults often think of teen culture as vapid and superficial; in reality, they’re deeply concerned with sincerity and authenticity.
In particular, authenticity is key. And maybe that’s why throughout the UK’s young people a new taste for Scandinavian popular culture is emerging. You can see it in the charts, with the pop phenomenon of Sigrid and her killer song “Don’t Kill My Vibe”, or Swedish pop goddess Zara Larsson. And though you may not have heard of the Norwegian TV teen drama Skam, there’s every chance that your son or daughter has: kids in the UK have been devouring it, finding ways to watch the as-yet unbroadcast programme themselves — translating subtitles on their own and sharing the show via clandestine Tumblrs.
What makes Skam mesmerizing — and more authentic than its UK counterparts like Skins — is that it tells the story of what it is actually like to be young in a rather big city in contemporary Scandinavia. Skam doesn’t feel fake: it doesn’t have the gaze of a parent, teacher, or any other authority. It isn’t informed by how adults think that young people should see themselves on TV. Skam’s camera lens shows regular everyday teenage life. It demands that its characters – their worries, desires, and inner lives – are taken seriously in their own right.
In YA fiction, too, Scandinavian writers have begun moving toward a frank, less coddling approach to younger readers. In Jessica Schiefauer’s När hundarna kommer (The Eyes of the Lake), a Swedish teenager is drawn toward neo-nazism, culminating in the brutal killing of a boy next to a cool, silent lake. It is a fantastic novel about violence, where it comes from, and what it does to us. Similarly, Lisa Bjärbo’s Djupa Ro (The Deep Calm) tells the story of a group of young friends, and what happens when one of them commits suicide. In detailing the process of loss and sorrow, Bjärbo doesn’t flinch for a second, but her novel has none of the sensationalism of Thirteen Reasons Why. David Wiberg’s Vi ses i mörkret (See You in the Dark) is a tale of the kind of love that makes you forget yourself – and not in the good way.
In the vein of Skam, these books capture teenage life as it is experienced. Like the music of Sigrid and Zara Larsson, they are obsessed with matters of love, friendship, sex, escape, alienation, self-realization, pain, and death – just like I was. Just like you were.
I wrote October is the Coldest Month, a book about sixteen-year old Vega who sets out to find her missing brother. He was involved in a serious crime, and Vega must find him before the police does. It is a story about being young in a small place, about love, belonging, and guilt. It shows violence and a sexual awakening. I didn’t think about that at the time, only pursuing the right emotional tone and imagery: Vega’s experiences of sex are pleasurable but strange, exciting but scary, she knows what she wants but she’s not really sure why, or even how. She wants to experience it again, but maybe not exactly in the way it just went down. She dislikes the term “losing your virginity”, but uses it because she doesn’t know any other word for it.
The depictions of violence and Vega’s sexuality became an issue when October is the Coldest Month was pitched to a number of foreign, European publishers. The violence we may be able to live with but could you, some inquired, make the sex a bit more, you know, “pink and fluffy”?
This, of course, connects back to the old debate about what is “suitable” for teens to read, and what is not. I’m not sure about the task of literature in contemporary society, but I do know one thing: it is not to teach or to preach. Nor is it to sugar-coat or lie.
So I told them no. Because, growing up, I needed popular culture to tell me something about who I was. I needed books that made me say Yes! That’s exactly how it feels! This writer gets it! I needed TV shows that made me laugh and cry, that excited me and scared me and thrilled me, music that made me want to dance and screw and feel a connection to somebody else. More than anything, I needed sincerity and authenticity. I demanded truth and honesty. I wanted to be understood and I wanted to be taken seriously.
These have always been the stakes of the best, most relevant books, songs, and movies, and they’re mirrored in the current attitude toward Scandinavian teens in popular culture. So, whatever world we as writers bring to life on those pages, we better make sure it rings emotionally true and sincere. That is our job: to take our reader seriously. To show the beauty, the horror, the mystery, the banality, the magnificence, and the truth of what it means to be young.