S.11 E.7: Sweden, the Roma, and Katarina Taikon

Scandinavian Studies professor Ursula Lindqvist steps in to interview Swedish author Lawen Mohtadi on the Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast.
Posted on December 14th, 2021 by

Swedish journalist, author, and filmmaker Lawen Mohtadi, the 2021 Out of Scandinavia Artist-in-Residence at Gustavus, speaks with guest host and Associate Professor of Scandinavian Studies Ursula Lindqvist about her background, the history, presence, and treatment of Roma people in Sweden, and the life of Swedish Romany activist and children’s author Katarina Taikon, subject of a documentary film by Mohtadi.

Season 11, Episode 7: Sweden, the Roma, and Katarina Taikon

Greg Kaster:

Hello, and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College. And the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Hello, I’m Ursula Lindqvist of the Department of Scandinavian Studies sitting in for my colleague, Greg Kaster. My guest today is the Swedish author, editor and film director, Lawen Mohtadi, who is this year’s Out of Scandinavia Artist-in-Residence at Gustavus Adolphus College. This is an endowed program that has been in existence at Gustavus since 1989. Each year, the Department of Scandinavian Studies brings a well known artist, an author, filmmaker, actor, musician, et cetera, to campus from the Nordic region for an entire week to visit courses, interact with students and hold one major public event for the campus and the community. The Marguerite Olsen Pratt Out of Scandinavia Artist-in-Residence Endowment Fund was established by Gustavus alumni, Charlotte and Henrik Nordstrom of Minneapolis in honor of Charlotte’s late mother Marguerite Pratt, member of the Gustavus Class of 1953, a lifelong educator and an avid promoter of all things Nordic.

Past Artists-in-Residence have included the late great actor, Max von Sydow, Obie award-winning playwright and author, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Sami musician Sofia Jannok, and a crime fiction writer, Arnaldur Indriason, to name just a few. We always invite visiting artists whose work illuminates important questions about Nordic history, culture or society that we take up in our courses in Scandinavian Studies and who are eager to enter into fruitful dialogues with our students, our colleagues, and the greater St. Peter Mankato community during their stay with us. In these regards, Lawen Mohtadi has been an ideal Out of Scandinavia artist for us this year. Lawen began her career as a journalist writing for some of Sweden’s largest newspapers such as Dagens Nyhet, Goteborgs Posten and Expressen. She served as a social and cultural journalist for Sveriges Radio of the Swedish Public Broadcasting Corporation from 2001 to 2007.

She also served as the editor-in-chief of one of my favorite Swedish cultural magazines called Bang from 2008 to 2011. It was during her years as a journalist that she stumbled across a small book devoted to an activist in children’s author, Katarina Taikon, who became a cultural icon in Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s, then faded into oblivion following her death in the 90s. Mohtadi’s reporting on the lives of Katarina Taikon and her family who fought for the civil rights of Roma people living in Sweden, expanded into a full fledged book project, not just about the life of a civil rights legend in Sweden, but also about the little known history of discrimination and injustice against minorities in modern Sweden. Her book titled Den Dag Jag Blir Fri, a book on Katarina Taikon appeared in Sweden in 2012 and sparked much discussion about Sweden’s historical treatment of Roma people. Mohtadi then adapted her book into a documentary film, Taikon: The Untold Story of a Roma Freedom Fighter, that came out in 2015, incorporating many of the news reels she’d found of Katarina Taikon’s activism when she was researching the book.

In English translation, I will tell this biography of Katarina Taikon along with the translated selection of Taikon’s famous children’s stories featuring the Romani girl protagonist, Katitzi, was published in 2019 by a Sternberg Press distributed by MIT Press here in America, under the title The Day I Am Free/Katitzi. Copies of this book are available for purchase at our campus bookstore, The Book Mark and via online book sellers. Today Mohtadi works as a senior editor for the major Swedish publisher Natur&Kultur which has reissued in Swedish all 13 volumes of the original children’s books written by Katarina Taikon called the Katitzi books because they feature a Roma girl by that name as the main protagonist, bringing these beloved works to new generation of children and parents. Welcome to the podcast Lawen, it is great to have you on today.

Lawen Mohtadi:

Thank you so much.

Ursula Lindqvist:

So I have to ask you, you’ve been at Gustavus for a week now as our Artist-in-Residence. You’ve visited nine classes, you’ve talked to lots of students and lots of people. I’m just curious about some of the things that have surprised you about coming to an American liberal arts college and interacting with the students here.

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yeah. So this is my first time in Minnesota ever and also my first time at college campus. So there was just so much that was new to me. I think the main thing or the thing that I feel just very taken with, is the sense of community that you guys have on the campus and what a campus life looks like. This is pretty different from going to college or university in Sweden, because the universities are often in bigger cities, and you don’t necessarily have this close knit connection or community with other people. You’re more part of the town that you live in. So just seeing that for me has been really interesting and I can also see how that, when you come out of high school and you come to a place like this, you get new friends but you also almost get like a new family.

And I really like that whole concept. So I mean, that was the main thing that was, I think, new to me. And then also just engaging with the students and talking about what they do, and their hopes, and ambitions and their own backgrounds has also been just very meaningful to me.

Ursula Lindqvist:

That’s great. I know that it’s been terrific for our students to have you here and to be able to ask you lots of questions, because obviously this is a Swedish heritage college founded by Swedish immigrants. So there’s a lot of curiosity about Sweden and Swedish society. I’m curious what kinds of questions you’ve been getting about Sweden and Swedish society from people on campus this week?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yeah, I’ve gotten really a lot of questions. Students, first they’re curious about my impression of America and my impression of this place in particular. So we talked about that, but then they also ask me about the things that I’ve been doing. Somebody asked me, what made you want to be a journalist? Somebody asked me here did I go to school and how did that work? They’re interested in the different social and political topics that we discuss in contemporary Swedish debates. Today I got some questions about the role of social media in people’s life in Sweden and if that’s something that you could compare to the U.S. So yeah, I think it’s a really broad range of questions.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Yeah, for sure. So let’s tackle that question then about why you became a journalist. Can we talk a little bit about your back that led to this fascinating project that has gotten so much attention all over Sweden and really all over the world on Katarina Taikon’s life. Can you talk a little bit about your own background growing up in Sweden and what led you to choose the profession of becoming a journalist and specifically a journalist who would investigate social and cultural issues in Sweden?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Sure. So I grew up in this university town of Uppsala and it’s just a 40 minute train ride north of Stockholm and Stockholm is the capital of Sweden. And we came to Sweden with my family when I was four years old and my parents are Kurdish from the Iranian part of Kurdistan. And so I don’t have any memories of my own of our life there. So the way for me to connect with the Kurdish history and the Kurdish heritage has been so much through my parents’ stories. And I grew up in a home that cared a lot about what was going on in the world. My parents were very engaged in Kurdish issues. They also encouraged me to take part in culture, to read and to get engaged in different ways.

So I feel like that was maybe a foundation for me to then grow further on, because I felt like for me this step into journalism or just having that as an interest came natural to me. I remember when I finished high school, I mean finished ninth grade and we were going to choose a school to go to, there was the school that I then eventually chose that had a media and journalism program and we were invited there to go to their open house. And so I was listening to this teacher that was telling us about his trip. He had done a trip. I even remember that he had gone to India and he was telling us about what he wrote from that trip, and he took photos and showing us those photos.

And to me from that moment on, I was just like yes, of course. This is what I should be doing. It wasn’t a difficult choice for me. And then after high school, I went to journalism college. And so, yeah. I think the basic thing which is like, you’re somebody who goes out in the world and asks questions and interested in people’s stories. I felt like that was my thing.

Ursula Lindqvist:

So how did you then take this love of stories and learning about people and start to find stories about people like Katarina Taikon? What was it that drew you to these kinds of stories?

Lawen Mohtadi:

I think I have always been interested in the lives that are a little bit outside of the mainstream. That could be really anything but one thing that I thought of very early on as a journalism student and then also when I started working in the field was that, there were not so many writers out there with an immigrant background. And this was something that informed so many of my interests and just my basic outlook on the world. And so I, very early on, became aware of the fact that if you don’t have different people who work in say, in the media, in the newspapers, there will just be these huge topics areas of the world that simply will not be covered, or if they’re covered they might be covered through a very limited lens.

And so this was just like a basic insight to me. And so when I had my first encounter with Katarina Taikon, to me, I was so shocked that this was a person, a figure in Swedish history that I knew basically nothing of. And that led me to ask some questions about who is she and how can I know more about her?

Ursula Lindqvist:

What was it about Katarina Taikon that you found so moving and appealing that you really wanted to know more?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Well, considering the work that she did, that she in the early 60s, started challenging Sweden in these different ways demanding equal rights for Roma. I think just all of that which was just this totally unknown chapter in Swedish history, both like the fact that I didn’t know anything about this and I was sure that if didn’t know, I’m sure there’s lots of other people who didn’t know. So just the fact that this was not taught to us or like nobody… It was just not something that was part of the national collective memory or the national collective narrative of Sweden. But then of course also Katarina as a person, I thought like what kind of person would go into this work? Because at the time when she started doing the political things, it was true challenges. It was about housing situation for Roma was terrible.

They didn’t have access to education and how would you mobilize and address it politically in order to create reform around these issues? So I was also interested in her as a person. So I guess it was just all of these factors came together. And also, she was somebody that she created a base for herself. I mean, today we might have call it a platform. So she was somebody that was really vocal, she was in the newspapers, in media in general. And I also thought that I really wanted to paint a picture of the larger context that she worked in Sweden and the social and cultural landscape of that time. That drew me into this a lot.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Yes, for sure. Could we talk a little bit about that greater context, because I’m sure a lot of people listening to this podcast would be very surprised to hear that there are Roma people in Sweden and that there’s quite a history there, it’s quite a long history actually. And that in 2005, of course there was the language reform in Sweden where Romani was designated one of the official minority languages. But in spite of that, there still seems to be quite a bit of ignorance about Roma people in many parts of the world. Could you talk a little bit about the history of the Roma in Sweden and the family that Katarina comes from?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yes. So scholars today believe that Roma people arrived in Sweden for the first time, 500 years ago. And when we speak about Roma, we tend to speak about different groups according to when they immigrated to Sweden. So if we were to say like, the first absolute first groups came to Sweden in the 16th century, then you would say, okay, Katarina’s family, they came to Sweden from Russia in the end of the 19th century. So that was the family on her father’s side. And so he was a young man when he arrived in Sweden and he came with like his extended family. And I think, five or six other Roma families of that time arrived in Sweden in the end of 19th century. So Katarina and her siblings, they were born in Sweden.

And today when we speak about different Roma groups, we would say like, the travelers or the Roma from Eastern Europe or the Balkans, or we also have something like a group of Roma called the Swedish Roma. And so when we say the Swedish Roma, we refer to that group of people that arrived together with Katarina’s father around 100-120 years ago. So that’s what Roma immigration has looked like. And today the Roma in Sweden it’s a very diverse group. Many of them speak Romani and they have also big variety in the language to speak many different dialects. But there’s also this sense that, yes, we still all belong to the the larger Roma identity.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Right. Yeah. What’s interesting to me is that there seemed to be, you pointed out both in your book and in your documentary film that even in Sweden, like within Swedish society where there were Roma people actively living and interacting, that there was a lot of ignorance about this history and about who the Roma people are and were. And that ignorance resulted in a great deal of discrimination. I was astounded for example when I read in your book that Katarina’s father, Johan Taikon, that he was stateless his entire life. And that may have been the reason why he never officially married Katarina’s mother, because the citizenship follows the father, so that there were legal implications to the citizenship.

And that’s something that comes across in your film as well when you see the Roma people who are fleeing from the Second World War, in the aftermath of the Second World War from the persecution, and going from country to country in Europe and no one will keep them. It’s something that really takes up a lot of space in the documentary film. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how Swedish society and Swedish consciousness has developed as regards to stateless people specifically the Roma and even Kurds, since your family has Kurdish background coming from Iran, what understanding has developed over the past few decades concerning stateless people and the country countries like Sweden’s obligation to stateless people.

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yeah. So exactly you bring up this example when Katarina’s father, he tried to get Swedish citizenship and he just wasn’t able to, he was denied that and he died as a stateless person. That was his legal status. That doesn’t mean that he was what we today think of like somebody who’s undocumented, that’s not the same status. But he was still somebody that wasn’t just considered, “Yes, you lived here for like 40 years. And so of course you will get the Swedish citizenship.” And there is a very particular history about how Swedish society looked upon the Roma minority when it came to issues like citizenship. For example, so up until 1914, there were no immigration laws in Europe that required you to have a passport and show that when you cross the border from one country to another, you could travel freely.

So from 1914 they stopped with that and you could not longer travel freely. And so if you wanted to enter Sweden, you had to show certain papers or a passport or something. But when they started with this law, there was one group that was targeted specifically and written into the law text that you are not allowed to enter even if you would have the right papers, and that was the Roma. So from 1914 and 50 years on to 1954, this law was in effect. During that time, no person with Roma background, heritage, what we would call it, could enter Sweden. But it also meant that if you were Swedish Roma and you lived in Sweden, you wouldn’t travel to another country because that would be so risky. You might not be able to reenter into Sweden again.

And this also means that the Roma people were also victims during the Second World War and scholars today think that something between 250,000 to half a million Roma were killed during the Holocaust. And so during the Second World War, if you were a Roma person who had for example, survived one of these death camps where Roma were together with Jewish people, if you were a person like that and you had survived the Holocaust, then you were not allowed to seek refuge in Sweden. And so these are like some of the most racist and harshest law of immigrations that we’ve ever had. And so it impacted so many Roma communities, both in Sweden and also outside of Sweden.

And I think that for Swedish authorities or for Swedish society, it has been really hard to accept them into the Swedish national identity. Swedish national identity has so long been associated to both whiteness and Christianity. And so Roma people really didn’t fulfill the criteria, these made up criteria of what’s considered white. And so there were so many efforts from Swedish authorities to, in different ways, get rid of the Roma. There was for example, this law in the 20s that said like, okay, we have to just accept that there are Roma people who live in our country. We can’t just throw them out at this point. But we can make life so difficult for them that they choose to leave Sweden. This was in official documents and became the policy basically. So I think for Sweden, going back to your question of statelessness, I think that is so abstract and far away from sense of like, what does it mean to be Swedish and what is Swedish citizenship?

Ursula Lindqvist:

Yes. And is astonishing to think about this trajectory today, because of course, nowadays Sweden is known as the country that takes in so many refugees. It made news worldwide when it took in, what was it, 90,000 refugees from the Syrian war in 2015? So this period in history when the laws were so strict, I think it’s probably something that most people are utterly unaware of. And I wondered if you could go back even a little bit further and talk about this contrast that you mentioned in your introduction to the English translation of your book. It’s really interesting how you set up these parallel developments. On the one hand, the development of the Swedish welfare state and of course the social Democrats rose to power, to establish that social welfare state the same year that Katarina was born in 1932.

But then you also say you also discuss how while the social welfare state was being built up to take care of all of its citizens, throughout their lives and promote kindness and good human welfare, at the same time there was this doctrine of racial biology that was extremely authoritative, and state supported and had a lot of credibility in Sweden during this time. Could you talk about those parallel developments and what bearing they have for the situation of the Roma people in Sweden?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yeah. So the early ideas of eugenics that then transformed into ideas of racial biology is, I mean, basically theories of racial hierarchy, they had a, how would you say it, a strong hold in Swedish society and on a very in institutional level. So those ideas started developing in the end of the 19th century. And you could say that the first three, four decades of the 20th century, these ideas really took hold of many sciences. So for example, we were the first country in the world to establish something that was called the Racial Biological Institute that became a part of Uppsala University, which is the most prominent university in Sweden. And in these different sciences that looked into questions of race and created ideas of race and racial hierarchy, they took a lot of different kinds of forms.

So for example it was very important for these scientists to define something called the Swedish race. And so what they would contrast to that was for example, the Sami people, the indigenous people in Northern Sweden. They would also contrast the Swedish race to the Jewish population in Sweden and then of course also to the Roma. So this was a time where the production of these ideas were so alive and so strong. And so they were mainstream, this was something that was embraced by politicians from the right to the left. The social democratic party that came to power who was really this political force that transformed Sweden from a poor agricultural society to become really one of the most modern egalitarian countries in the world. They were also supporting these ideas. So when Katarina was born in 1932, the society that she was born into believed her to be lesser than other Swedish people and believed in the superiority of the white race.

So this of course then took a radical change after the Second World War when we saw what these ideas could lead to and how devastating they could be. And so maybe then after the war, you would say the second part of the 40s and beginning of the 60s, Sweden tried to distance themselves from these ideas. And one interesting thing to me while doing the research was I wanted to know, I wanted to speak with scholars, with historians about how this shift took place. Where we went from being one of the strongest supporters of the so-called racial biology, racial hierarchy ideas to then taking that step away from those ideas. And then launching ourselves as one of the most open societies, one of the most egalitarian societies.

And this, I think, is a part of Swedish history that hasn’t really been researched because I could really not find any historian to talk with about these ideas. But to me, it’s very clear that if you look at Katarina’s life from say, the 30s up until like the 60s, 70s, when she was super active, this was two completely different Swedens at least officially.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Yes. That contrast is also very clear in the way you choose to begin Katarina’s story in the film. When we hear her voice she is saying, “I was born in a tent in the summer time.” And obviously, it’s not the tent that we use for recreational purposes to go camping and we have a home to return to. I mean, that tent was her home. And she was born in 1932, which is the beginning of the social welfare state. And of course [Swedish 00:36:24] the housing, affordable housing for all as the foundation of a healthy home and the metaphor of the healthy functional home that was so central for the development of the welfare state. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, housing as an idea and housing stability and having a safe home. How that idea extends to Katarina’s story, both the way that she grew up and the issues that she championed then when she started seeing how her people were living.

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yeah. So I think in order to answer that question, I have to just say something about why Roma people in Sweden at that time when Katarina was born, why they traveled. So there was two reason why Roma people were traveling at that time. One of them was because it was necessary for their livelihood. So Roma people at that time, most of them had skills and professions that required them to go to a town to offer their services. Many of them were coppersmiths, they had businesses like smaller amusement parks. They were musicians that would perform. So they would come to a town, they would set up the amusement park and offer their services to make copper pots and things like that.

And then after some weeks or months, then they would move on and go to another town and do that. And so they mostly did that in the summer period. So maybe from April, May into the fall. The second reason why Roma people were traveling at that time was that it wasn’t involuntarily traveling. They were simply not allowed to settle in different towns and municipalities in Sweden. There was a rule for example, that they could only stay three weeks at a time in one place. And after that, they were expelled, kicked out of that area. And so this affected, of course, Katarina’s life a lot. This was something that she experienced. The first time when she had a permanent address was in 1945, she was 13 years old.

And this is a time mid towards end of the 40s where Roma people were starting to see that their old professions were no longer needed or asked for. And this really affected their community, their whole social organization. So many people realized that, okay, we can no longer live off of this. We can no longer travel around Sweden and work in this way. And so when they wanted to move into the big cities, they were denied housing. So this is how the whole housing problem came up. And in Sweden, it was so crucial to have an address, to have a home, because if you didn’t have an address you couldn’t apply for a job for example, or put your children in school. And so when Katarina started doing her work in the early 60s, a majority of the Roma people at that time lived in camps. And so this was one of the more urgent issues to tackle. And it was just so simple that if you didn’t have a house, you could almost not be a functional person in society.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Yeah, for sure. For those who have not read your book or seen the film, could you give us a sense of what some of Katarina’s big fights were and how she got involved in them in the first place? I mean, you do mention in both the book and the film that despite the fact that she had a really difficult upbringing running away at age 13, married early and ended up leaving that first husband and moving on and so on, there came a time in her life when she seemed pretty joyful, just embracing lots of different opportunities. But when she started to realize just how unjust the world was for her people, she became compelled to get engaged in a lot of these fights for justice. Can you talk a little bit about how she got involved and what it was that really motivated and compelled that involvement? What is she best known for as an activist, I guess?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yes. So for her, she went to school as an adult in the end of the 50s and she really loved the two years that she went to school. And so after that, she had met her long-time partner. Bjorn was his name, he was a photographer and they worked really closely with each other. They had three children together and Katarina had a pretty good life. But I think that for her to have achieved all of that and she lived in a nice apartment together with her family. I think that for her to achieve that and still see her relatives like her uncles and aunts and cousins still live in the camps, just didn’t make sense to her.

And also in her own books, she and also her older sister, Rosa, they’ve talked about the moment when they got to read the United Nations human rights declaration. That each human has the right to a home or house and things like that. Just these basic needs and rights that we tend to take for granted today. So that was a part of Katarina’s political awakening. I think also her own experiences shaped that political awakening. And so her step to go into this in a political way to really work for change was when she saw the camps and she was just like, “This doesn’t make any sense. I have to do something.” And so at that same time, she had started to write a little bit like an article here and there, and her friends encouraged her to write a book and she did that. And that book was her… It was called Gypsy Woman. And it was a book that became really huge as it was published in Sweden.

She was interviewed everywhere, it was reviewed. Some magazine wrote, “This is a sensation. This is a Roma girl who didn’t go to school and didn’t learn how to read and write, until she was an adult. And this is her literary debut.” So the book made a huge impact. And so with the tension that she got from the book, she could take that and move that into the organizing work that she started. I mean, it was as simple as that. She was just like, “Let’s just take this family. We will go up to the municipality, the office, the city hall and say this is a family who desperately needs a house and it’s your job to make sure that they have one.”

And so this is the way that she started working to empty these camps. For her, it was really important to have a dialogue with the people in power. So like for the politicians, she had meetings with them, she was talking to them, she was showing them that, “Look, this is not working. How come the Roma are being denied these basic rights?” So from the early 60s, this is how she started working and this became almost her full-time job. But also another part of her was that she was like a true educator. She traveled throughout Sweden, met people in community centers in libraries, she visited old people’s homes. And so she felt that she had a job to tell people about the Roma situation both in terms of the discrimination and how they were denied these rights. But also she wanted to enlightened people about who is the Roma. So that is how she started the activism work.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Yeah. That’s one of the things that really strikes me about Katarina story is that she engaged with so many people in so many different levels of society. She would work with refugees and children and just ordinary people, but she met and spoke with some really powerful people, Prime Ministers of Sweden, Tage Erlander and Olof Palme. She met Martin Luther king Jr. When he was in Sweden, right?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Exactly.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Do you know anything about that meeting?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yeah. I mean, that really surprised me because I had not heard this at all. And so I was interviewing Katarina Taikon’s daughter, her name is Angelica. And then at some point Angelica told me like, yes, and then it was that meeting with Martin Luther King and… She just mentioned it very casually. And I just thought to myself like, oh, maybe she said the name wrong or she’s thinking of somebody else and she’s mistaken, because I just couldn’t believe that. And then I asked her, “Do you mean Martin Luther king, the American?” And she said, “Yes.” And she said, “I think I have a photo of that.” And so when I visited her house, she showed me a photo of Katarina Taikon together with Martin Luther king when he was in Sweden to accept the Nobel peace prize and I was truly shocked.

And I interviewed the person who had set these two people up, he had made sure that they met, and back in the 60s, he was a young person who was engaged in the peace movement. His name was Paul. And he was part of the group that became the hosts for Martin Luther king. And so he thought, “Yeah, I want to invite Katarina Taikon because she’s doing similar work here.” And this was something that was like, I think if Paul hadn’t made that meeting possible, I’m not sure that anybody else in Sweden would have thought of that. Because it was simply not considered a problem really the discrimination against Roma Sweden. And so we would look towards the United States or South Africa and say, “Look how bad they treat their people.” But you wouldn’t have politicians who looked at Sweden and say, “Oh, why do we make the Roma live in tents, in camps? So this wasn’t something on a high level where politicians thought that this was like a great meeting to set up for them. I think it was Paul who made that possible.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Yeah. That’s a fantastic story. I also wonder, I’m curious about the two stages in Katarina’s activism, I guess you could call it that there was the actual activism where she was advocating for the role of refugees from other parts of Europe to be allowed to remain in Sweden. But then there was also a period when she decided the way that I can win over hearts is to go for the future generation and she started to write these children’s books. Can you talk a bit about these Katitzi books as they’re called, and what she was she based those books on, and why you think they resonated so much in Swedish society and just became this beloved series of children’s books that we still have in print today?

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yeah, I mean, so all of the 60s, Katarina was super-involved in mobilizing and addressing these issues politically, basically like being an activist. And by the end of the 60s, she had worked so incredibly hard and that was what she prioritized in her life. And by the end of the 60s, she was really, really tired. I think both physically, but also almost spiritually. She had talked about this so much and she felt like change was happening very slowly. And she felt that adult people didn’t want to listen. They didn’t want to hear this, they were very closed. So she had this idea of writing about her own childhood and that’s how the whole Katitzi project started. And Katitzi is book series based on her own upbringing, her own childhood. There are 13 parts.

In the first book, Katitzi is six years old and in the last part, she’s 15 years. And so we follow Katitzi and her siblings and her family and their life in Sweden, really their challenges and struggles but also Katitzi adventures. She’s a very active child. She’s super curious. She’s a child that won’t just easily listen to the adults and do what they tell her. She questions authorities. She loves to play. She loves to create her own fantasies and she has a very creative imagination. And so then, Katarina wrote these books during the 70s and she then took a step back from the very public, political stuff. And then just decided she’s going to focus on Katitzi, she’s going to write them. When the books come out, she traveled to meet children in schools and in school libraries all over Sweden and they became hugely, hugely popular.

Parents bought them to their kids, but also the libraries lended them to so many people. I looked at their statistic of how many times a book is being lent out in Sweden in libraries. And by the time when the last book in the Katitzi series came out, they were borrowed from libraries half a million times and those are spectacular numbers. And so why did they become so popular? I mean, I asked myself that and I think that the readers could really identify with the characters of the book, both Katitzi which is the little Katarina, but also Katitzi’s siblings and especially her older sister Rosa, who had the role of the older sister. She looked out for the other siblings. She was the one who made sure that their lives were good and cooked and cleaned for them and stuff like that.

And today when I meet people my age or even older, they really want to just express how important Katitzi was for them as children. And I think there’s something, in the Katitzi character that has both this strength and rebellious spirit, but also Katitzi’s vulnerability. I think her as a character, really allows for many different feelings and yeah, I guess feelings and emotions that she one day could be super courageous and ask the police like, “Why can’t we stay here in this town? That’s really not fair.” And another day she will be sad because maybe there was a friend who didn’t want to play with her or she feels like she’s not getting the love and attention that she needs from her father. So I think the Katitzi character is key to these books and yeah, kids really love them.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Absolutely. I think you’re so right about them resonating with many different kinds of audiences. I mean, I think you know that we have taught the Katitzi stories in Swedish here on our campus at Gustavus [crosstalk 00:57:59] since we offer Swedish at all levels. We have some in our library and they’re wonderful. But what really struck me is when you actually gave your intergenerational story hour reading at the St. Peter Public Library last Saturday. And a mother of biracial children was very interested in reading these English translations of the Katitzi stories to her children. And it struck me because I’m thinking the Sweden in which Katarina was raised and her childhood depicted in the stories, that was in many ways a different Sweden than Sweden today.

I mean, as you’ve pointed out through your reporting and your research, there have always been ethnic minorities in Sweden and linguistic minorities in Sweden for very, very long time. But today we’ve got a country where what, 2 out of every 10 people in Sweden have a parent that was born out of the country. It’s incredibly diverse for many, many parts of the world. And that’s resulted in a lot more visual diversity as well and diversity of experience and all kinds of things. And I’m wondering if you could speak to how Katitzi resonates with today’s Sweden and the new generation of children.

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yeah. So the whole Katitzi series was re-issued and the past five years they’ve been published again in Sweden. And we modernized the language a little bit and gave them also a new look would new illustrations. So also as books, as objects, they’re super pretty and you just want to hold them and read them. And so we were worried, will kids today think that this is interesting somehow? Because these are books written in the 70s, about a child who grows up in the 40s. So we felt like maybe they just won’t be able to make it for kids today, but they have become so popular. Kids today, they really read them, some of them together with their parents, some of them on their own.

And I think what resonates with kids, it’s great that they can see a child with Roma background and having that be part of their knowledge of the world, number one. I think also number two is that, still I think it’s a lot about the protagonist of the book. I think that they can still relate so much to Katitzi. It just feels like this is a book that I want to read, I want to know the story. I don’t know, I can’t say, I’ve heard so many parents come up to me and say, “My kids read it, we love it.” And sometime they will even just point to me and say, “Yeah, she’s been involved in Katitzi,” and the kid’s eyes just lit up. Then I know, yeah this is something that resonates with children and young people today as well.

Ursula Lindqvist:

Well, Lawen, it’s been wonderful having you as a guest on our podcast today. And for our listeners, I just want to remind you the only place in the world where you can find these wonderful Katitzi stories in English is in the back of Lawen Mohtadi’s book published through Sternberg Press, The Day I Am Free/Katitzi. And if you have a chance to read those, they’re really wonderful stories. Thank you so much Lawen for being with us this week at Gustavus as our Out of Scandinavia Artists-in-Residence and for teaching us so much through sharing your story and sharing Katarina Taikon’s stories.

Lawen Mohtadi:

Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you for having me here. It’s been a true pleasure.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark Class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus college.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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