Different Silences

I am still far from the end of the shelf of contextual reading that I’ve been slowly assembling at ersfjordbotn.wordpress.com but some emerging themes are promising (perhaps that means they reinforce my own prejudices?!).

I’ve noticed several writers describing a condition of ‘silence,’ but a silence that is not resolved as a simple, stable shape nor easily parsed as a positive synonym for tranquillity.

Ann-Helén Laestadius (“Stolen”), Kenneth Steven (“In Search of the Sami”) and Eileen Myles (“Hell: A Libretto”) frame the quiet in high northern latitudes as characteristic and modulated by the weather:

“He heard dogs barking as he passed a few of the houses. Otherwise the quiet was deafening; it was that particular silence that descended when snow blanketed the villages.”

“There wasn’t a sound: it was that snow and ice silence which almost seems bigger than silence itself … A sky so brim-full of starts it was like the smoke of breath, and the stars crackling diamond sharp.”

“You think it is always terribly dark where we are / No it is female, it is young, it is rich / It is old. / We are not frozen, we are not murmuring / Silence, we are guy geyser, we are volcanic / We are old like planet itself; and yes you are right / we are cold, / cold, / cold.”

Silence can also be translated as audible absence. Marla Cone hears the quiet as a reflection of environmental damage “Where are the sea lions, fat and happy, napping on the rocks and barking at their pups? Where are the furry sea otters crunching on urchins?” And Eva Saulitis seems to ratchet their interpretation of quiet as ‘unnatural: “A dream of emptiness, silence … I knew nothing of silence in nature, nothing of the sea, nothing of wilderness, of predators besides raptors and owls.”

Silence can be ominous in its representation – the “it grew deathly quiet” of Vigdis Hiorth or the terrifying “silents” that punctuate the violence in the home depicted in Tanya Tagaq’s astonishing “Split Tooth”. And it can be ominous as a deliberate strategy, with Liisa-Rávná Finbog citing Sámi scholar Rauna Kuokkanen conceptualizing the continued “silencing” of indigenous perspectives as an “epistemic ignorance”.

Archival Work in Arctic Auditories

One aspect of our project involves exploring archives, and my colleagues will be looking at historical and meteorological sources to achieve this. Another aspect relates to the languages that address the Arctic and others will be adapting a glossary for this and creating an Online Writers League (OWL) and other collaborators will turn to this work in the near future. What I’ve been doing falls, in a sense, between those two dimensions: I’m listening to circumpolar northern literature – mainly, but not exclusively, European materials – to find how the acoustic atmospheres of the arctic regions are heard in different writings. I’ve been listening to novels, memoirs, artist catalogues, theoretical texts, trying to keep an ear open for recurring themes. I’ve also strayed a little and watched films, gone to exhibitions, and I have a number of soundworks that I’m looking forward to engaging with.

(The idea of hearing literature was something I attempted in an earlier project in Okinawa, where I listened to war diaries by civilians, Japanese and American soldiers to get a sense of the sounds of a conflict which, for all its utter brutality, did not leave many recordings).

As a work in progress, very much an accumulation of first impressions – so don’t @ me with typos – I’ve been keeping a blog of what I’m learning from my literary listening. Next week I’ll share more about what I’ve been reading and will invite you to suggest new works for me to discover but for now if you want to have a browse, my literary listening notebook is here.

A photograph of grey plywood shelves with untidily arranged books, a CD and a vinyl record. A crystal and some sheep wool are also on the shelf.