Siblings | Karolina Ramqvist | Granta


Karolina Ramqvist

Translated by Saskia Vogel

Nobody gets your family, Mum.’ We’re eating dinner in the kitchen, all five of us, and my son is responding to something I’ve just said about one of my best friends. He had asked if she was his aunt and I had said she was a friend, that she and I were not siblings. You know that, right? He shakes his head in pretend incomprehension, his little sister laughs and pulls the same face. No, Mum, nobody gets that. I look at my husband, who sits there quietly, his gaze drifting between the two of them. He looks at me. My eldest daughter puts down her cutlery. Her siblings are ten and eleven years old, she recently turned eighteen, darker hair, a different father. ‘Another one,’ as she would put it. She smiles. ‘Listen up, little nuclear family kids, what aren’t you getting?’ She’s expressing herself with my voice, a voice that could come from within me. She can hear what I hear when the younger children speak. Everyone who has grown up like them – with siblings, with a mother and a father – seems to want to note how far removed my family structure is to their own. Soon after people have asked me to explain, the message is always that they don’t understand a thing. I don’t know if I’m telling it badly or if it’s really that complicated.

Unchallenged in her authority as the firstborn, my daughter leads her younger siblings in a roll call of relatives and friends. They go through the names, determine the species of relationship and compare information. Then they grow bored and ask to leave the table, start talking about something else and get up before we have had a chance to respond. They crowd in front of the dishwasher, teasing and bickering over who should clear away what. Sometimes when they argue I hear myself hissing at them – How do you find the energy? – and every time it happens, they turn to me: We’re siblings, Mum. It’s just how it is.

Sometimes one of them will start a sentence with the words, ‘we’, and I’ve had to get accustomed to their we, a community that is so palpably ordinary and yet remains unreal to me. My own notion of a family was a single parent and an only child because that’s how I grew up, in a Stockholm suburb in the late 70s and early 80s, and although I could conjure other images of how a life could be, this was the format rooted in me, the direction in which I, more or less unconsciously, was drawn. Family was me and my mother, and I assumed I would be a single mother, too – not live like this, in a real family.

An old-fashioned serving pantry leads from our kitchen to the living room. In one of the cupboards are some file boxes that I was given after my father died. I never open that cupboard, but I know they’re there, three grey boxes with blank labels. You take care of them, the others had said. You, the writer. Maybe they understood that a writer could use whatever was in the boxes, or maybe they had seen how much I wanted them. It’s been twelve years now. I took a quick look inside one of the boxes before I put them away, and I have yet to go through them properly – my father’s life in paper form, left to my disposal. Over the years I have written four books, and I have written about my family in various ways, but I have never dared to venture into the story that I suspect is in those boxes. I pass the cupboard every day as I walk from the table where I write to the kitchen to make tea or fetch a glass of water, and sometimes I forget the boxes exist, but whenever I’m about to start writing a new book I think of them and wonder if perhaps the time has come.

Karolina Ramqvist

Karolina Ramqvist is a Swedish author living in Stockholm. Her books include the novels The Beginning, The White City, which was awarded the P.O. Enquist Literary Prize, and The Bear Woman, which is her most recent book to be translated into English.

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Translated by Saskia Vogel

Saskia Vogel is a writer and translator from Los Angeles, now living in Berlin. Her debut novel Permission was published in five languages. The Swedish edition was translated by Johanne Lykke Holm. Vogel has translated over twenty fiction, poetry, and non-fiction titles from Swedish into English, including works by Linnea Axelsson, Johanne Lykke Holm, Balsam Karam, Karolina Ramqvist, Steve Sem-Sandberg, Lina Wolff and Jessica Schiefauer, whose Girls Lost was a finalist for the PEN Translation Prize. Her translation of Johannes Anyuru’s They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears won the Firecracker Award for fiction. Vogel’s writing has been awarded the Berlin Senate Endowment for Non-German Literature and longlisted for the Believer Book Award and the Pushcart Prize. She was Princeton University’s Fall 2022 Translator in Residence. You can read her work in the New Yorker, LitHub, the New York Times, the White Review, the Offing, Elsewhere and elsewhere. Photograph © Fette Sans

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