Sami Said’s debut novel Very Seldom Nice (nothing wrong with my translation, the title doesn’t make grammatical sense in Swedish either) is about twenty year-old Noha who, like the author, is born in Eritrea. As he leaves his hometown, Gothenburg, for university, his family hands him a brochure entitled ‘To be a young Muslim in the West’.

Plenty of problems occur. Some of them are – as expected – the result of the clash between Noha’s traditional Muslim upbringing and the Sodom and Gomorrah-esque existence that constitutes Swedish university life. More problems, however, have to do with Noha’s peculiar way of dealing with other people. The second part of the book takes place in Eritrea, where Noha and his family go on a temporary visit after his grandfather dies.

The book is about identity, being a part of two cultures and not fitting in, but what really makes it unique is Said’s language and writing. Though easy to follow, Said’s language is personal and somewhat crooked. The books are loaded with the sort of humour that isn’t apparent at a first glance, as in this paragraph from the first book, about one of the characters in Noha’s student hall:

He describes women in gastronomical terms. They’re a smorgasbord and he takes as much as he can handle. A verdict about the woman that was yesterday, her physical features on a scale, she wasn’t perfect, but a bird is still a bird right? Give me five man. They woke me up last night as they bounced in-to walls. Laughed. Spilled liquor that stank the day after and that I had to sop up. I give him five.

He uses a literary trick called verfremdung, an alienating effect that he employs by describing everything as though he has encountered it for the first time. That way, everything he writes about becomes absurd, even – or perhaps especially – trivial, mundane stuff like doing the dishes or taking out the garbage.

Both Very Seldom Nice, and his second book Monomania – released only a couple of months after the debut – were massively praised in the Swedish media. During interviews Said has done nothing to hide the similarities between himself and the eccentric protagonists of his books. Frustrated reporters have described him whistling rather than answering their questions and giving most of the credit for the books to someone named Oscar. The only thing that seems certain about him is that he’ll continue to write. When asked about his next project he has mentioned a picture book, a Ramadan fairy tale, an adventure book and something he mysteriously refers to as his ‘samurai trilogy’.


Image from Viktor Gårdsäter

Eleanor Catton | Podcast
David Searcy | First Sentence