New novel turns a spotlight on Denmark’s overlooked colonial past

Interview with Mich Vraa (author to HOPE)

About the book:

1787, a violent rebellion breaks out on the slave ship Hope. In the middle of the chaos, the young newlywed wives of the captain and ship doctor are held captive in the cargo hold. One of them is brutally killed, before the rebellion can be put out.

Many years later, Marie, the young daughter of Captain Frederiksen, is allowed to join the crew of  her father’s glorious sailing ship, as they sail from Copenhagen to western Denmark. But the voyage drastically switches course, as her father is detained below deck, and the ship heads for the Danish West Indies. Before they can reach the coast, the truth and their lives, will have been forever changed.

Interview:

Haabet (Hope) is a grim portrait of an all too readily forgotten time, when Denmark created new wealth off the backs of slaves working the sugar planations in the West Indies. Yet under the weight of cynical exploitation and unthinkable evil, hope and the determination to survive, miraculously persevere. Mich Vraa’s historical novel, is an epistolary narrative, which subtly weaves together three events connected to the slave ship Hope, over a thirty year period. 

How was Denmark’s slave trade history different from that of the other European nations?

The difference with Denmark is that it’s a ‘Lilliput land’. One of the reasons that Denmark grew so wealthy from the slave and sugar trade is because it remained neutral throughout the great wars around 1800. The Danes made sure not to interfere with the wars, so that they could work at keeping their ports open and concentrate on making money. In 1807, the war between Denmark and England broke out, and for a period, Danish ships sailed the oceans only with great risk. Eventually the competition from other sugar-producing, tropical countries and the advent of the sugar beet in Europe ended the West Indian adventure. The Danes had little use for the islands, or slavery, and the islands were sold to the U.S. in 1917.

The title of your book and the slave ship, Hope, is both slightly ironic and inspiring. What are the different sides to this novel?

I wanted to do two things. I wanted to tell the Danes about the time leading up to abolition, where boasts of early prohibition by law in 1792, meant that planters had 10 years to accumulate a large number of slaves before the trade was outlawed, and they ended up transporting more slaves than ever before. Danish writer Thorkild Hansen wrote three non-fiction books about it in the 60s, with great sarcastic indignation, but few Danes have read them.

Secondly, I wanted to write an entertaining story. I love frigates, the sea, the nature in the Caribbean; the antithesis of Denmark. Settlers who wanted to start anew, felt that it might be possible in the Caribbean and America.  Their stories are fantastic and I would like to write more books about them.

Can you briefly describe the transformation of your two main characters?

Michael Eide, the naïve humanist, is thrown like a fish out of water into something he can’t really grasp. He’s an educated fool who travels to the other side of the world to write a book because he thinks it will help free the slaves, but he has no real know-how. He ends up being so bewildered by power and lust that he is coaxed into acting in a way that was previously unimaginable to him.

Maria, on the other hand, is a bit of a teenage-girl hero, who goes from being very naïve to becoming a very capable (and wealthy) young woman, who wants to better the lives of the slaves. By the end of the novel, it is obvious that she plans to leave Denmark. She feels more at home in the Caribbean, and wants to make a difference, which isn’t possible in her small Danish town. The story actually ends with a sort of beginning.

Extract from the book:

I see the young boy who weeps in the sugar field, because he is too young for the harsh work; I see his sister, twelve or thirteen years old, leaving the overseer’s cabin, holding her bundled-up dress, her face blank with humiliation. I see as many as I can, for the people they are, and in that way, my empathy and my feeling of responsibility grows. 

I think the other white people here see it differently. I think they turn their backs on the atrocities and close their eyes to the crime; and because they do, their empathy dies, their responsibility is repressed. 

Biography:

Mich Vraa, born in 1954, spent over fifteen years working as a newspaper reporter before becoming a full-time writer and literary translator in 1995, including translating titles by Jeffrey Eugenides, Annie Proulx, John Williams, Jonathan Franzen and Ernest Hemingway. In 2014 he won the Danish Translator Society’s Honorary award. He has written over 20 novels, including crime novels, children’s and young adult books.

MICH VRAA

Haabet

(The Hope)

Lindhardt og Ringhof 2016, 416 pages

FOREIGN RIGHTS: Copenhagen Literary Agency

Esthi Kunz, esthi@remove-this.cphla.dk

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