It’s Sunday morning and Tsitsi Dangarembga and Karl Ove Knausgård are hiking through the forest with almost four hundred other people: the Nordmarka – a popular area on the outskirts of Oslo. Most of those who walk through the Nordmarka with the world-famous author Dangarembga, who is currently on trial in her native Zimbabwe, and with the Norwegian star author, wear outdoor clothing. Shortly before the finish, volunteers offer them coffee and pastries. And then the destination can already be seen: the Future Library.
“A forest / of unread books / growing for a century”: At first, Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s idea of a forest of unread books growing for a century was just a mental exercise. But the nature-loving Norwegians believed in it, and so in 2014 a thousand seedlings were planted in this forest near Oslo. Every year since then, the artist, together with the Future Library Trust, has invited a writer to write a work that will remain unpublished until the year 2114.
World-Class Literature Meets Esotericism
Canadian Margaret Atwood was the first to present her manuscript, followed later by British-Turkish colleague Elif Şafak and South Korean writer Han Kang. Then came the pandemic. And now the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård is happy to finally be able to hand over his secret work after a three-year break. In the library of the future, world-class literature meets esotericism.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s journey to Oslo was still uncertain before departure in Harare: In her novels, the award-winning writer and filmmaker, who also received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2021, repeatedly tells of the everyday struggle in her homeland – against discrimination and persecution. And she is active beyond the books, protesting against the corrupt regime that suppresses freedom of expression. Zimbabwe has been stuck in a permanent crisis for decades. After a demonstration in July 2020, Dangarembga was arrested on flimsy grounds, later charged, and she is currently on trial. The verdict is to be passed on June 27th. Anything is possible, from acquittal to several years in prison. There is a method to this unpredictability, too; criticism should be decomposed by arbitrariness.
On this morning, however, the 63-year-old author is sitting in a peaceful idyll on a wooden bench between Knausgård and the artist Paterson. Dangarembga looks up the slope where visitors squat on the ground among the seedlings marked with red bows. A few spruce trees have grown into a meter high sapling and, as the forester explains at the handover ceremony, have taken root. In 2114, the paper on which the anthology of books will be printed is to be made from the wood of the mature trees.
“This project makes the future present for us and present for us in the future,” says Knausgård as he presents his secret work to Paterson. The only thing he is allowed to reveal is the title: “Blindeboka”, “The blind book”. A short time later, Dangarembga steps in front of the microphone, holding a mint-green box with the manuscript in her hands. The title is: “Narini and Her Donkey”. “Narini is a female name and it means infinity,” she says. The name fits well, but this is a coincidence.
Think Differently About The Present
At the end of the ceremony, the author stands in the forest for a while while the visitors disappear into the vastness of Nordmarka. Birds are chirping, the sun is shining. “I feel renewed and refreshed,” she says. For Dangarembga, the future library is one of the most important projects she has ever participated in. Also because it offers her another platform to draw attention to the situation in her home country. “What excites me is how the Future Library is making us think differently about our present today, and how that present is leading us into our future.”
She does that herself, in the afternoon in the Deichman Bjørvika library. The light-flooded house by the fjord opened two years ago and has become a second living room for many Oslo residents. On five floors, the public, multimedia library is intended to be a place of democracy and free exchange. Knausgård and Dangarembga sit together on the podium. The audience is invited to ask questions. An older man stands up and says it might sound strange, but he wants to know how you feel about excluding the people who are alive now as readers of your manuscripts, which will not be published for a hundred years.
“Exclusion is nothing new to me,” says Dangarembga. She always speaks slowly, carefully. “Exclusion is so normal for me.” Perhaps, she continues, this could be another positive aspect of the Future Library: that we become aware that we cannot consume everything.
The manuscripts are even within reach, just a few meters away in the “Silent Room”. The wood paneled room was created from the trees that Paterson’s team cut down years ago for the seedlings in Nordmarka. A hundred glass slits illuminate the interior and are also the new home of the manuscripts.
Silence That Can Depress
Two other authors also came to Oslo for the inauguration – the Icelandic poet Sjón and the British writer David Mitchell. For some, the room reminds of the inside of a tree. Mitchell likens it to a cello, and Sjón feels like he’s in the belly of a ship. The literary world has now had 92 years to find further comparisons.
“The Silent Room is a place for quiet reflection,” says Paterson. “It’s a ‘slow space’ that allows visitors to feel time – to be quiet and still.” Sometimes, however, silence can be depressing. For example, when Dangarembga reports on the current situation in Zimbabwe, on murdered social workers and a missing activist whose body was found the day before. brutally murdered. She can’t shake this. And doesn’t want it either.
Even the next noon, at a symposium on the future library in the library, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s words still reverberate. “It reminds us of the struggles that writers have to wage in other countries,” says Icelander Sjón, who is a member of the PEN authors’ association. “The only thing we can do around writers like Tsitsi is listen and make sure they have all the support they need.”
The author then has time for a short interview later. We talk about what the PEN, what civil society can do for Zimbabwe at all. “I think it’s very difficult to give general help,” says Dangarembga. “But everyone can do something in their area.” The PEN has a competence in writing. “For example, I can reach people who want to write about trauma.” She had already seen how helpful it can be for those affected in an earlier project in Zimbabwe.
As a storyteller, she wants to draw attention to the misery in her country, the everyday violence and oppression. These days in Norway, Dangarembga never mentions her trial. She will fly on from Oslo to Berlin and meet her husband and one of the daughters there. Will she travel back to Zimbabwe soon? “Well, I have a June 27 trial date that I’d like to keep. So yes.” When asked if she was concerned, she replied, “I tend to worry about things I can do something about. There is absolutely nothing I can do to change the outcome of this trial. There will be a result and I have to look at it when it is there.”
Silence. There it is again, the oppressive silence.