23 August 2023

How can novels be used to discover unexpected aspects of history? How can we prevent the falsification of history? These are some of the issues that are in focus for Ola Larsmo on his appointment to the Moa Martinson visiting professorship at Linköping University.

Portrait of Ola Larsmo against a blue sky and the Moa Martinson sculpture in the background. Ola Larsmo next to the sculpture of Moa Martinson, created by Peter Linde. THOR BALKHED

“This is wonderful! The fact that the university sees art and writing as a kind of research and wants to explore the boundaries. And of course, for my part, it’s great to have the opportunity to work with researchers at the university,” says Ola Larsmo.

He is an author and literary critic. He made his debut in 1983, with the novella Vindmakaren (“The wind maker”), and has since written novels, short stories and essays. His works often highlight Swedish history, and specifically the history of Swedish racism and anti-Semitism. His latest books, including Swede Hollow (2016) and Översten (The Colonel) (2020), are about Swedish migration to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The novels are historical with documentary elements.Ola Larsmo walking at Campus Norrköping.Ola Larsmo at Linköping University, Campus Norrköping. Photo credit THOR BALKHED

Research and portrayal

It is a form of literature that Ola Larsmo feels strongly about. It is based on solid research, but at the same time highlights human experiences and understandings that research may not be able to reflect.

“I try to stay very close to the historical reality. Fiction writing could be seen as research, if you keep in mind that it isn’t empirical research but rather other aspects of people’s experiences that you work with.”

This will be the focus of Ola Larsmo during his time as the Moa Martinson visiting professor. In a series of seminars, he will, with colleagues, explore questions such as: Where is the line between research and fiction? Can researchers use tools that a fiction writer uses, or does that mean stepping out of the researcher role?

He is interested in how knowledge is disseminated in society and will be involved in a project on research communication. He will also have the opportunity to continue work on his third book on Swedish migration to America.

“It’s very good to be in a research environment then. I’m looking forward to meeting a lot of people and acquiring their knowledge,” he says.

Prevent falsification of history

The question of how historical facts are used and disseminated today, especially on social media, will also be a key issue during his time as a visiting professor. And here, too, he will hold a series of seminars on falsification of history, misrepresentation and the role of the researcher.

“I hope to meet researchers – from historians to political scientists – to discuss just that and what role the university plays in an era of falsification of history.”

“One of the most important novelists in Sweden today”

Ola Larsmo will be the Moa Martinson visiting professor during 2023–2024. He will be located at the Division of Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO), at the Department of Culture and Society (IKOS).

“It’s fantastic. This is one of the most important novelists in Sweden today and a very sharp and engaged cultural writer and debater on migration and racism issues, the presence of history in our age, technology and the role of literature as a knowledge provider in modern society”, says Jesper Olsson, previous Deputy Head of Department for Research at IKOS.

Stefan Jonsson and Anders Neergaard, head of division and director of REMESO respectively, see that Ola Larsmo can contribute to research at Linköping University.

“Ola is among those who have penetrated most deeply into the history of racism, colonialism and anti-Semitism, and he is working on a novel about Swedish migration to America, which was a kind of settler colonialism. These are issues we are concerned with at REMESO. We have much to learn from Ola’s ability to portray them in novels and essays.”

Moa Martinson herself and her work as a writer sums it up very precisely, I would say, the strong democratic language.

Portrait of Ola Larsmo against a wall. Photo credit THOR BALKHED

The novel as a democratic force

The citation says that Ola Larsmo works in the spirit of Moa Martinson. Both authors draw from the life stories of individuals to paint pictures of society – both past and present. And they both use their writing as a tool to create an understanding of society and history.

What is your relationship to Moa Martinson’s work?

“Her books are at the centre of the tradition that I think is most important in Swedish 20th century literature. The tradition that has opened up for new voices and experiences in literature and so clearly demonstrates the democratic power of the novel. Moa Martinson herself and her work as a writer sums it up very precisely, I would say, the strong democratic language. And that is what I will have the opportunity to discuss during my time as a visiting professor, I hope!”

Translated by Simon Philips.

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