A sense of who you are

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

A sense of who you are

Few people will admit to enjoying writing. Facing the blank pages or the blinking cursor on the screen, you are forced to look into yourself, to reach deep into your thoughts and feelings. It is often a painful process: You may not like what you discover.

For Astrid Trotzig, 32, a Swedish novelist, writing is a process of discovering one's history, and a way to heal an identity crisis. When she began working on her first book in 1993, she was finally forced to confront the country of her birth. About 70 pages into the book, her editor literally pushed her to go to Korea, explaining that the autobiography would be incomplete without a journey "home."

She made the three-week trip in 1995, 25 years after she was put on a plane bound for Sweden, 5-months-old, to be adopted by a Swedish couple. The trip yielded no new information about her biological parents. Just as she had guessed, she felt foreign in Korea, much like how she seemed like a foreigner in Sweden.

The book, "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," became a bestseller in Sweden, selling more than 20,000 copies, and establishing Ms. Trotzig as a prominent young Swedish writer at the age of 26. Since then, she has published two others books and written a play. The first book was published here last year, translated into Korean.

In Seoul last week to speak at the 2002 Symposium on Literature and Translation organized by the Korea Literature Translation Institute, Ms. Trotzig speculated that she would have become a writer even if she had been born into different circumstances. "I don't believe that my authorship started with a trauma of being adopted, although my first book dealt with this subject," said Ms. Trotzig.

Writing because she had "matters to deal with and questions to answer," she tackled the question of "Who am I?" It's an existential question and, at the same time, being an adoptee, a relevant question.

On her first trip to Korea in 1995, she discovered no new information about herself other than what she already knew: She was found abandoned in Busan on Jan. 31, 1970, only a few weeks old, placed with a foster family in Seoul and arrived in Sweden on June 22, 1970, to be adopted by Eva and Gustaf Trotzig, a librarian and an archeologist, respectively.

"With the first book, I wanted to refute the very title of the book," said Ms. Trotzig. "The relationships in my family are as ineffaceable as blood. They are ties of love." Unable to have children and because Swedish law forbids adoption within the country, the Trotzigs had adopted a boy and a girl from Korea before the arrival of Astrid. "The blood relationship doesn't have any significance in a family like mine," she said. "When I was a child, I thought about my biological parents. But as I grew up, I began to think this history has become mine. It does not disturb me anymore."

Ms. Trotzig attributes the success of her first book to the fact that there is a large population of foreign adoptees in Sweden, about 40,000, including 7,000-8,000 Korean adoptees, and that the question of identity is understood by others as well.

With her second book, she was determined to move away from the theme of self-identity. "I did not want to be labeled as an adopted writer," she said. She was also tired of answering questions about herself.

Despite Ms. Trotzig's intentions, "Sometimes I Wonder if I Remember Things Correctly," her first novel, also deals with the issue of identity. It is a polyphonic novel with five storytellers: four persons close to a missing woman remembering her and the fifth narrator, a detective, providing the facts and the reality.

Only when she completed her third book, "Strangers in This Land," a novel that will be published next month in Sweden by Albert Bonniers Forlag, did she realize that the three books formed a whole, a trilogy. "I thought the second book was completely different from the first.

However, with the third book, I realized they were complete as three," she said. The book grapples with the issue of identity, the identity of a young man born to a Swedish father and a Latin-American mother. "It deals with estrangement and prejudices of all kinds, of xenophobic tendencies among people and society," she said.

Although "Strangers in This Land" is purely fictional, Ms. Trotzig has experienced the same prejudices that the protagonist suffers. Growing up in a country with a small immigrant population, Ms. Trotzig was constantly questioned about her foreignness. Although she is Swedish in her thoughts and manners, her Asian looks always made her stand out. "Strangers would come up to me and ask 'Where are you from?' in English. Sometimes, I would get tired of explaining about being adopted from Korea and pretend like I was really a foreigner," she said.

Xenophobia became prevalent in the early 1990s, according to Ms. Trotzig, and incidents of harassment became more numerous. Although she had previously chosen to be indifferent to racial discrimination, pretending not to hear racial slurs, being a mother has changed things.

"When my son was 5 months old, I was breastfeeding him in the shopping mall, which is quite common in Sweden. An old lady passing by pointed her finger at us and began screaming 'Go back to the forest where you belong,'" she recalled. It was the first time she felt her safety threatened and now she does not let such comments pass without reacting to them. "I am the one who has to teach my son to defend himself."

Having just completed a one-act play as part of a project for young Swedish writers at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, Ms. Trotzig plans to start working on another novel in January. "I have lots of ideas but have not decided on what I will write next," she said.

Her books so far have been monologues, written in the first-person, which she finds useful for exploring the inner thoughts of the characters.

"Now that I have these three books, the next book has to be written in another way -- long chapters, for instance. The subject may be similar, but the form will change," she said. "I will try to escape from the issue of self-identity, but I will probably come back to it."

Like her characters, she keeps a lot of things in her head while working on a novel. She will keep toying with several ideas, even while in bed, using sleep to filter out unimportant things. "If I remember this idea when I wake up in the morning, I will work on it," she said.

Films have been Ms. Trotzig's inspiration, particularly those by Swedish directors such as Lukas Moodysson, whose natural dialogues she admires, although her novels so far are notable for the absence of dialogues.

Had she not become a writer, she believes she would have become a film director and harbors a dream of making a film. "I hope to make at least one film before I die and it should be a masterpiece," she said.

by Kim Hoo-ran

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)