I Want To Change The World, Dammit

INTERVIEW by Carsten Andersen, Politiken 2004

43-year-old Laila Ingrid Rasmussen has written a bubblingly optimistic novel about her childhood on Nansen Street in Copenhagen where she slept on the other side of the wall from the bar called The Star and where her father was a regular when he didn’t happen to be sailing the seven seas, drinking and being unfaithful to his wife.

Life is fantastic. Laila Ingrid Rasmussen isn’t in doubt for a moment. From a young age - when she sat at home under the coffee table listening to her father, the seaman and hero of the seven seas, tell tall tales from exotic, far-off places – she’s felt that life is a gift of possibilities.
    Yes, it’s possible that her father drank up the family’s money at Copenhagen bars and that he constantly had women other than her mother, who found a new man after her father’s death and left Laila alone in their apartment when she was fifteen. And it’s also possible that Laila was suddenly alone in the world and had to survive as a girl messenger because her brother had moved out long ago and her sister had gotten pregnant at the age of fourteen and was somewhere else altogether in her life.
    Nevertheless, she believes to this day that life is fantastic. What many others would have assembled as a black-and-white memory image of a neglected childhood with unpaid grocery bills and drunken parents, Laila Ingrid Rasmussen has chosen to present as a life-affirming wide screen, technicolor story.
    She tells this story in the novel The Star. Here the hero is cast in the image of Laila’s seaman father. She herself is an afterthought, arriving in life at the end of her father’s heyday as exotic fulcrum in a family where a ”chicken” wasn’t a fowl in the oven, but a little green bottle of liquor, kept behind Grandma’s chair.


”My book isn’t about loss, even though I’ve lost my mother and father, most of my old neighborhood has been torn down, and my older brother and sister have disappeared. In spite of this, it’s not about losing. The Star is about getting something. I, for one, am thankful, and I don’t whine about my childhood. There’s so much whining, and it’s always someone else’s fault when people have a bad childhood, but one has to take hold of life and get the best out of it, because life is cool, you know, and it contains lots of possibilities,” says Laila Ingrid Rasmussen.
    She’s convinced that in her case she’s had a good childhood with lots of security and love, and this is why she’s been able to create her own life since she was a teenager.
    ”When I was little I already knew I was different from people around me. Maybe it’s because I was an ’afterthought’ – seven and ten years younger than my brother and sister, and, in a way, grew up in their shadow. I was always a spectator on the sidelines. It’s not that I always knew I’d be an author, but since I was little, sitting on the front steps, I knew that one day I’d tell about what I saw. About the different people I saw - who they were, where they were going and what they were doing with their lives.
    Of course I haven’t written my book to tell about my own childhood or my mother or my father, but to write about what it means to be a human being in the world. The elements of the story are based on something I know about. It’s a simple story about two people who meet and have a child together; of course, having a child is a gift that contains an enormous potential,” she says.
    The Star is her third novel. Her novel Prerequisites For Life was published seven years ago and received brilliant reviews. In this newspaper Niels Barfoed wrote: ”... if you have some spare time, you’re not only in fine - but also wise - company with Laila Ingrid Rasmussen.”


In her latest novel she primarily introduces the reader to the colorful cast of characters on Nansen Street in the 1960’s where she herself was a child, with The Star Café on the other side of her bedroom wall, its jukebox playing the tunes of the day, sending Campetto’s ”Angelique” and Brandenburg’s ”Susanne, Birgitte and Hanne” straight into the little girl’s bloodstream.
    ”The Nansen Street neighborhood lay between The Lakes and H.C. Ørsted Park - practically in a time-warp that the 1960’s and 1970’s never really penetrated. We rarely left the street. At one end was Frederiksborg Street where the fine folks lived, and at the other end lay Gyldenløve Street with the tax office,” explains Laila Ingrid Rasmussen with a naturalness that suggests no further explanation is necessary.
    Today she lives in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn neighborhood, together with a husband and three children, and she hasn’t been back to Nansen Street for many years.
    ”No, I never went back because there’s nothing to go back to. All the back-yard apartment buildings are gone, as are most of the small shops from those days. I’ve moved away from my social roots, which has had its price. I still have emotional ties to my sister, but we have a hard time talking together because we’re often speaking about completely different things. I burned all my bridges when I left Nansen Street and I felt that the past was gone.
Most people can go home to their parents and everything’s still there from their childhood, but I have nothing left from my childhood. My mother left everything as it was when she moved out, and when I moved out as a nineteen year-old I did the same. I have nothing left from my childhood, and if you don’t feel you have a past, you’re forced to live in the present,” says Laila Ingrid Rasmussen.


It’s not entirely true when she denies having anything from her childhood, because the next moment she gets up from the little table with the oilcloth tablecloth, goes over to open a kitchen drawer and takes out a little silver spoon with a windmill at the end that can still rotate with the flick of a finger.
She never says whether she got the silver spoon from her father or her mother, but there’s no doubt that her manifesto about living in the present and partaking in creating one’s own life is taken straight from the wisdom of a Danish seaman.
    ”My father is the star of the novel. He’s the hero and he was also the one who spread life wherever he went. He was the sun - the precondition for all life – and everything revolved around him, whether he was there or not. He was indomitable, full of life, and an optimistic person,” says Laila.
    One never finds out whether she resembles her father in this respect because she answers ”yes,” ”no” and ”I don’t know” respectively, each of the three times she’s asked the question.
    ”I don’t know if I’m like him, because in reality I never knew my father. My knowledge of him is all the stories he and others have told about his heyday, which was already almost over when I arrived in the family as a little afterthought. I was told everything through stories, so, in that way, my childhood was literary,” she says with a big smile. But otherwise the seaman’s family was not literary by present-day standards. It was a home with practically no books, and when Laila Ingrid Rasmussen is asked what she thinks her father would have had to say about The Star, she replies:
    ”He’d never have been capable of reading such a long book and he wouldn’t have understood it, either. My writing a book would have been very remote from him.”
    It took her two years to write the book, and the biggest job was finding the proper intonation in order to give the reader the feeling that life is unique and that we’re all stars – not just for an evening, but in our own lives.
    ”When I begin writing, I never know how the story is going to end. The story begins in the top, left-hand corner and goes from there. When I write, it can take three or four hours to get back into the text, so the day may end with three quarters of a page of new writing,” she says.


Laila Ingrid Rasmussen has been a writer since March 9th, 1986. This was the day Michael Strunge died. (Translator’s note: M.S. was a young Danish poet who took his own life. He ... o.s.v., o.s.v. – what do we write here???) She became interested in him after seeing him on a TV program.
    ”The day he died, I didn’t go to work, I went to the library and borrowed all his collections of poetry. From that moment, I knew what I was supposed to do. Until then I’d drawn and painted and played music, but a whole new world opened from there. Since then, I’ve written, and I don’t write to have my books standing on people’s shelves. I write to get people to read them. Writing is like reaching out to touch another person, and that’s why I do it. I want to change the world, dammit. Maybe literature can’t move mountains, but it can probably move people. Books by Johannes V. Jensen, Tom Kristensen and Michael Strunge have moved me, in any case,” she says.
    Unlike many others, she’s absolutely optimistic when it comes to mankind, and she believes that - deep inside - human beings strive to be good.
    ”Conditions can lead us into war and all kinds of things because we’re often at the mercy of our feelings, but that’s also why it’s so important to have civilization, and that’s why it important to always be asking ourselves what we want out of this life. Sometimes you wonder whether it’s all only biology, or it’s all just the Big Bang that will extinguish itself in the end, or whether we’re merely a series of chemical processes. These thoughts do cross my mind sometimes, and I vacillate all the time. Whether there’s a meaning - or not. In reality, I don’t know shit, but I can’t help raising my hand once in a while to ask,” says Laila Ingrid Rasmussen.
    Her own priorities in life are: 1) To give her three children – 15, 6 and 5 years old – a good start in life, and 2) To write.
    ”Writing is my anchor in life and I think about it all the time. Also during periods where it has been impossible to write, and I function really poorly when I don’t write because then I start taking a position in regard to everything that’s happening in the whole world. When I’m finished with a book, I immediately begin thinking about how I can write a new one. Even though I’ve only published three books, writing has been my main occupation for years. There were periods where I didn’t write so much because I was raising the kids while they were little – they never went to nursery school. Today I’m left more to work in peace, and I don’t expect it’ll take seven years before I’ve written another book,” she says.
    And she’s not at all sure she’s finished with the material dealt with in The Star.
    ”I read Lars Saabye Christensen’s Half-Brother recently and when I was done, I thought: ’Jeez, in 260 pages I devoured all the material that he expands upon for 700 pages - so now I’m thinking there’s more to tell,” she concludes.

English translation by Steve Schein